I can’t see. My eyes are too busy praying to my feet hoping you don’t mistake eye contact for wanting physical contact. Half my life I have been zipping up my smile hoping you don’t think I wanna unzip your jeans.
– Nina Donovan, Nasty Woman
Tell me if this is familiar:
It’s a sunny day, I’m lying on the grass in a park. I’m listening to a podcast, I have dark shades on and a hat. I’m not exactly inviting conversation.
Nevertheless, young dude comes over.
He says excuse me, hi, asks where I’m from, all quite politely.
I was actually about to get up and leave just before he turned up. Not wanting to be rude, I stay and answer his questions.
He sits himself down and we make small talk for about 5-10 minutes. He then tells me he’d like to see me again. I don’t answer right away because I’m racking my brain for an excuse. It feels like he’s flirting with me, but is he? I’m not interested.
I know my boyfriend would say that guys don’t just come up and talk to women in parks because they want to be friends. I’m slightly more optimistic, maybe naive, than that.
Maybe he was just an anxious guy, setting himself the task of talking to a stranger that day. Maybe he did have the intention to ask me out. He could be pure evil, he could be a delight.
That’s the trouble, I just don’t know. And I want to know if other women have similar experiences with these kind of encounters. I don’t want any unsolicited advances, but I also don’t want to deter people who are just after a polite conversation on a nice day.
The thing is, I have absolutely no trouble seeing off someone who comes at me aggressively, or someone who outright asks me to go on a date. It’s these more subtle conversations I really struggle to navigate in a way that makes me feel like I’m in control.
Hours afterwards and I’m thinking of all the things I should’ve said, all the excuses I could’ve used to get out of there. I’m thinking about why I couldn’t just say “thanks but no thanks”.
As women, our whole socialisation has been about shrinking, staying quiet. It’s so hard to verbalise but, really, we’ve been taught to go along with whatever the guy says, even if we’re uncomfortable.
Because the whole purpose of our existence is to make sure men are happy, right? And, in fact, why are you even uncomfortable in these situations, you should be flattered, right?
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I like to think I’m a nice, approachable person. So many people have told me I’m too nice and it’s these kinds of situations they’re referring to. I was so concerned with not making this guy feel awkward or embarrassed, second guessing his motives, hoping to assume he was just being nice, that I completely stifled my own discomfort in the situation. I ignored my own alarm bells.
Alarm bells that are really only there in the first place because of the culture we’re living in. I’m not the first to admit that being a woman, alone, with a strange man is not often conducive to feeling safe and comfortable.
Logically, I know all of this. If any woman were to describe this scenario to me, I would advise her to walk away the moment she feels uncomfortable. I’d tell her that she shouldn’t shrink herself to please someone else. I would encourage her to be firm in her boundaries and to hell with anyone who can’t respect them.
In real life, though, I just get this mind fog. I know I’m uncomfortable, I know I don’t want to see this guy again but when he asks, politely, I just don’t know what to say.
If I go down the whole “thanks, but I have a boyfriend” route, there’s the danger of “OMG did you think I was asking you out? Don’t flatter yourself.” I mean, who cares, right? But, still. I just cannot deal with awkwardness!
There’s also a slight fear factor at play, too. Most white guys aren’t used to being told ‘no’, so I don’t know how this guy would react.
Similar thing happened after I taught a yoga class a few weeks’ ago. A guy hovered around me afterwards and completely offloaded emotionally onto me. I was physically drained afterwards, never experienced anything like it. He then somehow found my email address and followed my entire class schedule after that. I was so bloody uncomfortable with it and I knew it was a real boundary issue but, still, could I verbalise that to him? Could I hell.
I’m sure some reading this might suggest that these guys probably didn’t mean to make me uncomfortable and maybe that’s more my issue. My outlook tends to be that, in all social situations, our intention doesn’t always translate to impact. I could have the best intentions but someone could be really upset by what I say. As the message sender, I believe it’s my responsibility to help manage that.
I expect there’ll also be a few thinking “well, yeah, but why can’t you just say no?” My answer to that would be that, yes, my boundaries are my responsibility but also that I’ve been socialised to believe that’s not really an option and it takes a lot of work to undo that.
I’m not quite at the stage of blaming myself and questioning what I did to invite this kind of interaction, because I know that’s bullshit. It’s nothing to do with what I was wearing or what I was doing, I know that.
I guess I’m hard on myself because I consider myself quite engaged in feminist discourse. I know this shit is wrong. I’m incredibly aware of the influence of growing up in a patriarchal culture. I know I’ve internalised lots of damaging messages. It would just appear that my ability to help myself in-the-moment is kinda lacking. I need to do more work to get over the anxiety around awkwardness and making men feel embarrassed.
So, for anyone who is a little timid, uncomfortable or anxious when it comes to communicating your boundaries to others, I don’t really have an answer for you. I still don’t really know what to say when this happens (not a hugely regular occurrence btw!)
As with anything, I guess awareness is the first hurdle, and I’ll just try and work on it. If this resonates with you, feel free to get in touch and we can have a supportive chat 🙂