Part I can be found here.
My cubicle is situated near the main door of our office suite, so by default I’m constantly directing traffic, answering questions, looking up information. One day I heard it open, followed by a man’s voice bellowing, “Hello?” I waited for him to enter, to read one of the signs, to look at the map, to find someone to ask for help. I waited to hear the door close. I tried to keep working. Again I heard: “Hello?”
Irritated, I got up from my desk and walked into the man’s line of vision. My expression was less than friendly.
“I’m looking for a financial counselor,” he said. Not polite or apologetic, just matter-of-fact and expectant, as if I could magically discern what his needs were and solve all of his problems simply because he’d opened a random door and made his presence known.
I told him that our office suite housed a variety of academic departments, none of which were relevant to what he was looking for. I said I wouldn’t be able to help him, that he’d have to find the information another way.
“Well can’t you just call the operator?” he said.
I was becoming more visibly annoyed by the second. I explained that calling the university operator wouldn’t help him at all, because he’d just told me he was looking for something outside the university.
“Look, why don’t I just use your telephone and I’ll call the operator,” he demanded.
I hesitated. He saw my hesitation, and it made him angrier. “Just let me call the operator,” he said, his voice growing louder.
“You could call 411,” I said. “I don’t have a phone book.”
“I don’t want to call 411,” he said, even louder. “I need to talk to a financial counselor. Why can’t you just help me?”
By this point, I was starting to realize I’d misjudged this man. My initial reaction was that he was yet another demanding, intrusive person who happened to be more rude than the others. But I was starting to realize that he wasn’t making sense, couldn’t articulate what exactly he was looking for, was contradicting himself. I was starting to realize that he wasn’t a run-of-the-mill jerk, he was something else.
I adjusted my tone, forced myself to speak calmly and softly. “I need to talk to a financial counselor,” he repeated. “How hard is it for you to just help me?”
A coworker, drawn by raised voices, asked if everything was okay. She immediately read the situation, recognizing what I should have three minutes before: that this man needed to be placated. She spoke brightly, introduced herself, asked what she could help with. “I just need a financial counselor,” he told her. “I’m in crisis. I don’t know why she made it so hard.”
How dare I, as a female, not be eager and pleasant and helpful? How dare I not use my feminine mind-reading powers and figure out exactly what he wanted?
But however valid my anger was, I knew I could have handled the situation better. My experiences from earlier in the week had actually worked against me. I went into the situation already annoyed, already resistant to the idea of helping anyone behaving any other way than what I considered acceptable. I went into the interaction resentful of having to deal with every needy person who walks in the door, resentful at being expected to help. Normally, I would have seen much sooner that I could have gotten rid of him sooner by handling him with kid gloves, and my coworker did exactly that. She mirrored his language, she let him know I was looking up a number, and she reassured him that everything was going to be okay. Eventually he was calm, she handed him the phone number, and he left.
Nearly every reader has probably experienced something much more upsetting or frightening or genuinely dangerous than what I’ve described in these two parts. But the reason I’ve chosen to detail them, and in this manner, is the cumulative effect these experiences had on me in the course of one week. After each interaction, I experienced frustration, anger, annoyance, and more, but I pushed those aside (I thought) and moved on to whatever task was next on my list.
But after the last encounter I’ve described, I was forced to articulate to my coworkers exactly why the situation was so frustrating to me– why I hadn’t dealt with it with the same aplomb with which I have broken up bar fights of drunken strangers, ignored the heckling of anti-choice protestors each day as I walked into work, handled unruly restaurant patrons and unreasonable retail shoppers and various other aggressive men in all kinds of situations. When I attempted to vocalize that cumulative frustration, anger, and resentment everything collided and I found myself in tears. Simply because of one week in which I’d been approached by three strange men and felt some degree of fear as a result of each encounter—even if I hadn’t recognized or identified it as fear during the interaction or immediately afterward.
But what really got me, once I was able to recognize that fear was mixed up in all the other furious, indignant thoughts I had, was thinking about the specific experiences of women I know who’ve felt fear far beyond these brief little encounters. What about the woman who needs a police escort to and from work each day? What about the woman who finds that her belongings were ejaculated on while she was out of her hotel room? Or the woman whose ex-boyfriend exhibits stalking behaviors, or the woman who has to switch shelters because the “anonymous” location of the shelter turned out not to be so anonymous? What about any of the other terrible stories that every woman you and I know could tell?
Halfway through what I’ve dubbed my Week Of Dealing With Aggressive Male Strangers, I had a meeting after work. I’d come straight from another event, and arrived with time to spare. I stopped into a vintage shop that I knew was near closing time, and when the white-haired shop owner with glasses greeted me, I thanked her and made sure to acknowledge that I knew she’d be closing soon, that I wouldn’t linger. There was only one other customer in the store, an older man with a gray beard.
The shop owner wanted to chat. I responded in kind, despite wishing I could look around in peace. After a couple of minutes I heard the bell on the front door shake. She expressed relief and apologized for being so talkative, explaining that the man had made her nervous. “I called my daughter,” she said, “and when you walked in, she told me to talk to you—just to keep talking to you, so I did.”
We swapped stories. She told me how once when both she & her daughter were working, two men came into the shop, acting strangely. One man took the shop owner one direction in the store to ask a question, while the other man took her daughter another direction. “I could see what they were doing,” she said, “trying to separate us, and it made me nervous, but I didn’t know what to do.” She said they might have stolen some small items, but that thankfully it didn’t go any further than that. “I didn’t know how to stop it,” she repeated. “Even though I could see what they were doing, splitting us up like that.”
As it was now closing time, I bought a pair of earrings I didn’t need, and she followed me to the entrance to lock up. She waited to move away from her locked door until I was safely in my car, watching out for me though we’d known each other for less than ten minutes. She waved through the window and turned away.