The subtle difference between ‘hitting on’ and ‘harassment.’
I went to my local coffee shop this morning, as I usually do, to get some work done. As any freelancer knows, when it comes to being productive, the neighborhood coffee shop is sacrosanct.
I ordered a cup of tea and a bagel and broke out my laptop and headphones to start work. Part of my coffee shop regimen—and that of countless other entrepreneurs and self-employed types?—?is cutting out noise and distraction by playing some good tunes.
I was just getting into my groove when some guy waltzed into the cafe and started to chat me up.
In order to not be rude I nodded and smiled at him, and then returned my attention to my laptop. Thankfully, this particular fellow turned out to be one of the better ones?—?he got the message and left me alone.
I wouldn’t mind it if this kind of thing happened once in a while, but the truth is that it happens all the time. And many of the swaggering menfolk who waylay me in public places are not so easily dismissed. At first I thought it was harmless enough, but when men?—?never women, never?—?approached me again and again, day after day, I began to realize why these encounters are so problematic. (NB: Usually the guys who approach me are at least 10 or 20 years my senior.)
Because here’s the thing: I always look like I did this morning, typing on my laptop, wearing my headphones. In other words, clearly doing work. So why is it that so many dudes choose to ignore these most obvious signals? A woman wearing headphones is sending the strongest possible message about her desire to not engage. There is no way for a bystander to mistake her intention?—?and yet men do that consistently, all the time.
Simply put, it’s sexism. This exact phenomenon whipped the internet into a frenzy over the summer when Australian “relationship expert” Dan Bacon published a treatise instructing men on the best practices for hitting on women who are wearing headphones. Dose’s own Ilana Gordon wrote a rebuttal of Bacon’s smug blogpost, saying, “If a woman is listening to her headphones and also ON FIRE, maybe tell her…But on the whole, if a woman looks busy or unapproachable, that’s probably because she has taken great pains to BE busy and unapproachable?—?mainly so you (the strange man) would not approach her.”
I’m not saying that these talkative blokes aren’t nice guys. I’m sure many of them are thoroughly decent people when all is said and done. A lot of them probably have women in their lives who they respect and maybe even admire. But when I’m getting accosted at my local Starbucks every single day by someone with a Y chromosome, it’s impossible to deny that there’s an element of chauvinism at play.
This isn’t just me being an overly-alert feminist. I understand that some people are naturally chatty, and that others perhaps don’t pick up on social cues as quickly as you or I may. But that’s not what this is about. This is about 30 years of experience saying: If a strange man approaches you, he wants something. He may not be intending to sexually harass you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not offensive. Because if a man approaches a woman who is obviously busy, he’s saying that he thinks his desire to talk to her is more important than what she’s doing.
And that’s the thing: Men do what they want because they’re men and because I’m a woman and because somehow that combination leads them to think they have power over me. Why am I never approached by women? Because women are familiar with the signals I’m giving off?—?they rely on them to get by in this deeply misogynistic world, too.
So, guys, here’s an idea for you: If you’re so eager to make small talk in the coffee shop, why don’t you talk to each other? And let us working women labor in peace.