On Politeness and Harassment

I saw a meme the other day that said, “women do not need to be polite to someone who is making them uncomfortable.”

Perhaps I found that particularly memorable since hours after reading it I found myself sitting at a train station at night, politely but firmly telling a man over and over again that I wasn’t interested.

“…Yeah, but do you like me?” He’d ask in response.


I would never claim that (all) women need to do anything, much less be polite, but perhaps it was that remark which got me to notice my own persistent politeness, especially in the face of such an undeterred interlocutor.

And then this morning I found myself feeling badly for being particularly brusk with a gentleman who seemed somewhat desperate to make my acquaintance. And by brusk, I mean I still returned his hello.

To be clear, I don’t think I felt badly because of any outdated ideas as to how a woman ought to behave in society – but rather…it seemed a shame for civil society.

I am a big proponent of talking to strangers. Of course, most of the strangers who talk to me are creepy random guys on the street, but in general – I think there’s a lot we can learn from interacting with others outside our set social circle. I think society can benefit a lot from those unexpected civic encounters.

But its hard to maintain the energy for them. Most of the women I know actively avoid these encounters which, if I had to venture a guess have a 95% creep to 5% civic ratio. Any reasonable person would plug in their headphones and tune out with those numbers.

But it seems a shame. I’d like our communities to be better than that.

Perhaps the interesting thing here is that there’s still a certain politeness to headphones. Oh sorry, I couldn’t hear you.

And there’s a certain safety in politeness – you never know when a stranger will fly off the handle if they think you’re being rude.

But none of those are convincing arguments for politeness. It should be more than a defense mechanism.

In Japan, they taught us to yell if someone groped us on the train – the publicity was usually enough to make someone stop. In the States, we’re bombarded by the idea that we can yell if we want to, but no one will care.

So, no, women don’t have to be polite. They don’t have to be anything.

But how a woman reacts to a person who’s harassing her – well, that’s hardly the problem, is it?



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