Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lessons Learned From Super Market Dude

Every year when the weather turns summery and insecty, I fondly remember my one encounter with Super Market Dude. I'd call him something else, but I never learned his name. We exchanged some pleasantries a couple of years ago. That's it. But I'll always remember SMD fondly, because SMD got it right.

Summer is always a weird time for me. As the owner of several dozen sun dresses, it's always nice to get to wear them when I'm feeling femmy. As a young woman I always have to weigh my desire to go loose and breezy with my emotional capacity to deal with catcalling. (If the latter isn't high enough, I'll brave the summer heat in jeans and a loose shirt, sad as that is.) But that day I was alright with it. I just had to go to the store to pick up some party supplies for my theater group.

(Content note: approaching female-presenting strangers in public)

[Enter SMD]

SMD: Hi, um... Sorry to bother you, I can see you're busy...
Me: No problem, can I help you?
SMD: Oh, well, I couldn't help but overhear your phone conversation. Are you in the theater?
Me: Yes, actually. I'm just picking up some stuff for our end-of-the-season party.
SMD: Cool, I'm in the theater too. Look, I'm sorry if this is embarrassing, but I just think you're really cool. Would you like to go out sometime?
Me: Yeah, that sounds great, but if you mean a date type thing, I should tell you I'm engaged. So I'm not looking for that kind of thing right now.
SMD: Oh, no, I did mean a date type thing. Sorry to bother you, I'll let you get on with it. Have fun at the party though!

[Exeunt SMD]

For me, that couldn't have gone more perfect. SMD kept a distance of over three feet, didn't get in my way, had a very non-threatening posture, used very nice and respectful language, smiled and immediately backed off when I both said and showed that we were not reading from the same menu. To this day he's the perfect example of what I think the very best way to talk to a strange woman in public is. Having been backed into corners and whined, glared and stared a, it was a breath of fresh air.

I'm telling this story here because I find myself telling it a lot when the subject of approaching women in public comes up. Usually, this is the point where people (including me) start drawing conclusions and devising tactics.

So I should keep three feet of distance? What exact words did he use? I should smile? Apologize a lot? Do women like it when you use words like that? Did he keep his hands on his back? Yes? Should I do that too?

And here's the thing: it depends. SMD did the perfect thing for me.

There are so many guides on- and off-line about this subject, about how to be a non-threatening or even helpful person in a female-presenting stranger's life, how to ask for a phone number or a date. Some of them are awful and scary, some of them are wonderfully feminist and respectful. But very few of them center around what I personally feel to be the core of the situation:

Every individual woman gets to set her own comfort level.

If SMD had done the exact same thing with any other woman, the results would have been different. Too often these guides and tips on approaching women in public focus on "women" and how "they" respond to different approaches. It always baffles me. Most neuro-typical individuals I know can tell with unnerving precision whether an individual dog or cat wants to be approached and petted but claim bewildered ignorance and frustration when told that in the context of approaching women, the right and wrong things to do it really depend on the individual woman.

I understand the desire for a codified experience, a script to follow, because social interaction is a mess of unwritten rules and vague intuition. And there is good advice out there. You'll rarely go wrong by keeping a respectful distance to any stranger you approach in public, you probably won't do any harm by smiling and using polite language. By all means do those things. But those little hints and tips and things to do are not what I personally wish people would keep in mind when soliciting phone numbers and dates from people out in public, if that's the sort of thing you need to do at all.

What I really want people (cis het male and otherwise) to remember is what I feel is the core of the feminist ideal: all women are unique human beings. Every individual woman has the right to set her own comfort level. Every single one of us has the right to be scared, or not be scared, draw from our own experiences and respond in a way that merits an appropriate reaction.

I can certainly imagine women who aren't me being annoyed at SMD. Listening in on phone conversations, immediately asking for a date, initiating a conversation at all while they're clearly busy, any number of things may have upset and frustrated them on any given day, any given situation. I'm not them and they're not me. So don't copy SMD. It's pointless. Instead, be the sort of person who understands that you have absolutely no control over another individual's emotions. None, zero, and a big fat nada. If the emotion your friendly chat elicits is discomfort, so be it, and back off.

It's nothing to do with you, your "technique" or how objectively "nice" you were about it. It's about her comfort level. Which, as we've established, she is a big enough girl to set all on her own.

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