It was 9:45 pm. Hardly witching hour, but still dark out. I was walking up 8th Avenue to meet a friend, reading twitter on my phone. A man I didn't know fell into step beside me.
"I just thought you should know, you look very attractive in that outfit."
I spared a side glance at him, didn't break my stride, then replied while looking at my phone, "I just thought you should know, that makes me uncomfortable."
Now, as NYC catcalling goes, as pedestrian sexual harassment goes, this was fairly mild. Polite, even. So I replied politely but firmly that this wasn't great behavior on his part.
"You can just take the compliment." Again, not an aggressive tone, but he's pressing the issue when he should back away.
"Yes, but you don't know me and I don't know you and so it makes me uncomfortable."
He said something else but I peeled away into a u-turn to cross the street, and I didn't hear it.
Here's the thing - I believe he didn't mean anything cruel by it. He didn't cuss me out. He didn't corner me against a wall. He wasn't a potential rapist. He didn't even call me a bitch (that I'm aware). But he also didn't realize that even what he did was inappropriate, was a quiet form of harassment.
I know how to take a compliment (well, as well as any female with fluctuating weight in the arts knows how to take a compliment) from friends. And, hey, I did look good in that dress.
But I didn't know him. And he didn't know me. And I didn't know, when he approached me, if he would follow me if I gave him shit or if he would follow me if I gave him encouragement. I didn't know. His full knowledge of me was a harmless-looking woman on her own in a nice dress. My full knowledge of him was this was a man who will approach a solitary woman at night without introduction and expect to strike up a conversation based on her appearance and therefore self-worth. My full knowledge of him was I didn't know what he expected in return from me, nor how he would react to how I responded.
I felt uncomfortable, and I said as much, and that, mild as it was, was deemed an inappropriate response.
But in his mind, his approach was appropriate, and that's what we need to discuss.
I wasn't sitting in a bar or a club or a coffee shop, hoping to chat up a fella. I was walking along, reading my phone, and he joined my walk. So I announced I was uncomfortable, which is really the most civil way I can think to deal with that. I wasn't confrontational, I wasn't rude, I wasn't simpering. I was matter-of-fact.
What's the appropriate response when someone tells you you're making them uncomfortable? Me, I immediately apologize. I back away. I don't tell them that if they're uncomfortable, the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in our uptight frigid bitchititis. But if I was uncomfortable when he complimented me, that was my character failing, not his.
But look: A guy you don't know approaches you on the street and gives you a compliment - at best - or a smutty catcall at less-best (we're going to avoid the issue of actual physical confrontation for this discussion because I'm lucky enough to have not experienced that). It happens every day. Welcome to the city, get used to it, bitch. So he's opened a conversation with you. What are your options?
1. Blush, smile, and thank him - Why? Who is he? What's his opinion worth? Why does he deserve your thanks?
2. Duck your head, pretend you didn't hear, and walk away - I actually typically do this. But I also typically have headphones in when I walk so it's easier to pretend I can't hear. But why? Why should we play the helpless victim? Why does he deserve your fear?
3. Turn on your Bitch Mode and tell his ass off for thinking this is okay behavior - Sometimes this is an appropriate response, depending on the tone of his approach. And yeah it's SUPER fun to be cast as the bitch in the scenario because Hormones and Overreacting Emotional Females are a thing and it's again never a fault in the guy.
#3 can be cathartic, but I hate confrontations, so I'll rarely jump to them (though I'm super proud of my friend Amanda who's amazing at standing up to bad behavior, whether it be catcalling on the street or texting during a play). #3 also felt inappropriate in this scenario. He didn't yell "Nice tits" or anything suggestive. But he still thought it was okay to approach a woman on her own, walk with her for an indeterminate length, and impose his conversation on her because he liked the way her dress looked.
I don't think all men are evil. I don't think all men are inappropriate. I have a lot of guy friends and they're awesome and if they tell me I look nice, I'll take the compliment. And if they say nothing about my looks, that's cool too because we're friends with things in common besides liking my stupid dress. My guy friends are cool. My guy friends are also highly unlikely to engage in a conversation like the one I had yesterday evening. That's probably why we're friends.
Just ... remember context, guys. Look at where you are, look at where she is, look at what she's doing, and think before you speak. If she's the future love of your life, I bet you can think of a better opening gambit. If she doesn't welcome your unsolicited opinion, that doesn't make her a bitch. You don't know what her day has been any more than she knows that you're a nice guy with good intentions. And if she says she's uncomfortable, stop.