Monthly Archives: November 2014

On Talking to Strangers and Street Harassment

This started as a comment on a friend-of-a-friend’s Facebook, and I figured it deserved a broader sphere for discussion. The friend-of-friend posted about the #DudesGreetingDudes thing (which is great and I love). My friend hopped in to say “well okay, but also there is this thing where folks in small towns *do* say hi to each other on the street- to people of all genders- and it’s weird that this conversation doesn’t include that. There are places where saying hi to someone isn’t harassment, and we need to talk about that, too.”

So then I jumped in, ’cause I live in a big city but I feel this tension. Because the culture of talking to strangers outside *does* exist in cities- it’s just not a white culture. I’m a white girl and I live in a mostly black but gentrifying part of West Philadelphia. My black neighbors (primarily folks who have lived here for generations) have a “small town” culture- one that includes saying hello to people on the street. One of the complaints I hear about white gentrifiers is that they mess up the friendly culture of the neighborhood- always walking too fast, acting too busy to acknowledge anyone else, etc.

So I find myself in a tough place. I didn’t grow up in a place where people walked anywhere; I have no lifelong training about how to interact with humans as I go from point A to point B. Like everyone else who reads as female, I get harassed on the street on the regular. Moreover, I’m an introvert- even if everyone who wanted to interact with me outdoors was 100% innocent and friendly in their motives, it takes energy for me to notice, acknowledge and come up with a pleasantry for each person I pass. *And* it’s a big city and there are a lot of people out there.

I happen to be a feminist, so I don’t believe that I owe other humans anything. Women are socialized to be nice and to be available to the needs of others- i.e. to always be willing to provide a nice, polite social interaction to any other human who requests one, regardless of said woman’s own needs and abilities. My feminist values tell me that’s Not Okay- I have the right to protect my own energy and take care of myself first.

But I also want to respect the culture of my neighbors who were here long before I was. I don’t want to make the people whose home I have moved into feel uncomfortable. So I find myself in a bind. The fact that men of all races are douchebags who sexualize that basic interaction gives me an out to be more introverted on the street. But is it okay that I don’t always have it in me to nod and smile at some old lady ’cause it’s 8 am and I’m on my way to work and under-caffeinated? Does that old lady’s dream of a street where everyone knows and likes each other trump my interest in just going about my business and not being “on” every time I happen to leave the house?