I cringe at just how pompous that title is — at how self-involved or delusional it appears at first glance — but there really is no better way to say it. As much as it might come across the battle cry of a hair-flipping Narcissus who leaves men falling, left and right, in her wake, that really couldn’t be any further from the truth. In fact, I don’t think that physical appearance even has all that much to do with the response a woman receives to what most would consider to be run-of-the-mill politeness. Feeling the discomfort of even mild politeness being received as an open invitation to follow you down the street or insist on continuing a clearly-unwanted conversation is something you don’t have to be particularly gorgeous to experience.
As someone who has always been talkative, outgoing, and eager to make conversation, it is possible that I have encountered this phenomenon more than some. I have just always been the kind of person who strikes up light conversation with strangers during otherwise-mundane moments, like checking out at a cash register. It’s never anything big, but it usually makes the whole experience more pleasant. These little exchanges pepper my life, sometimes manifested in something as simple as a smile and a comment about the heavy rains as I hold the door open for someone adjusting their umbrella. I suppose it was just how I was raised, but I am most comfortable when I am engaging the people around me in at least a friendly “Hello.”
I have found, though, as I’ve grown and learned the way the world works — especially in big cities filled with strangers who are really just that, not neighbors you might one day see again — that universal, outgoing politeness is not always the safest choice. Many times, I’ve simply greeted a man with a smile or a “Good morning” that he perceived as just a millisecond too long, only to find myself with my heart racing as I try to shut the conversation down that is clearly, openly making me uncomfortable. The fact that a simple “Thank you very much!” can result in being followed down the street is something almost all women know and accept as a fact of life is nothing short of appalling.
Let me say here that I do not think that all flirtation is inappropriate or threatening. Clearly, people meet and flirt and get to know each other every day, all of them starting as strangers. I have had many moments where a stranger — a barista, a waiter, just a random guy in a bar — struck up a conversation with me that I responded to and found charming. There was a clear respect of body language, of physical distance, of the kinds of social graces and reservations that make everyone in the equation feel comfortable. There was a back-and-forth of conversation, of smiles, of body language that signified “I am okay with this.” We can all picture what that looks like, and there is nothing wrong with it.
But that is leagues away from a situation in which one party is prolonging the exchange to a point at which the other party is clearly uncomfortable. When one person is looking at the ground, walking away, not actually responding, and using every word to try and politely but succinctly end the conversation right then — that is different. And we can all picture what that looks like, too. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t found herself in one of those situations, having to squirm away from a clearly upsetting encounter (that she doesn’t abruptly end for fear that the situation might escalate), all of which stemmed from a greeting or moment of eye contact that was perceived as an open invitation.
I will give the men who have engaged in these kinds of uncomfortable, inappropriate acts the benefit of the doubt in assuming that most do not intend to hurt the woman they’re pursuing. But what is clear is that a boundary that has been set in body language, in tone, in clipped responses, is not being respected. A woman being polite and outgoing is perceived, at least on some level, as a wide-open door into which you are free to walk and behave yourself however you choose. If she clams up when you begin following her or insisting on continuing the exchange, you are somehow free to ignore that because of the initial friendliness she showed you. This is not okay.
It should go without saying, but it always bears repeating: Women, like men, are capable of being polite and friendly and outgoing with everyone because it is the nice thing to do, without wanting to communicate sexual desire. Just as every woman that a man holds a door for coming out of a building does not incite within him an immediate desire for sex, so can a woman smile and give a warm “thank you” to a man who just served her a drink at a bar without wanting to pull him into the coatroom. The implication that any time a woman goes out of her way to be nice to anything with a penis on it is clearly some stifled mating call is, beyond being absurd, dangerous for society in general.
Because no one should make another human being feel uncomfortable or scared to be polite. No one should have to think twice before smiling and saying “hello” to a neighbor or passerby. And when you decide for a woman that, no matter what her body language says now, her initial friendliness is an overriding “yes,” you are telling her that being nice and outgoing is a liability. The last thing this world needs is more impolite, closed-off people ignoring each other in huge cities — so let’s all do the right thing and stop making them that way.