Pardon the bloggy narcissism, but when I saw Miss Self-Important's post on people who get overly outraged at those who make small talk with them, I thought of my own, on people who project hostile, judgmental thoughts onto strangers with whom they have the most minimal interactions. These are, it would seem, related phenomena. Her post also reminded me of the thing where people complain about a gift someone has gotten them, forgetting that the alternative to the unexciting gift was the person not getting them anything, with the symbolism that would entail. So I kind of see her point.
OK, I'll give one obvious, fairly generic example: Say you're studying something that doesn't sound very marketable, and someone asks you what you're going to do with that degree. This can be a genuine-curiosity question, but, tweak the tone a bit, and it's 'What are you going to do with that?' Yes, sometimes genuine curiosity reads as judgy-nasty because of the insecurities of the recipient. But sometimes bad attention really is bad attention.
As for appreciating catcalls... I suppose I differ from many other feminists on this, in that I think there's been something of an overemphasis on the too-many-men-are-looking-at-me plight and not enough on certain other issues. While I agree with the party line, as it were, about catcalling, and particularly object to the variants that cross the line into intimidation, I think we hear about it more than we might because it's a relatively easy conversation to have. The sisterhood of men-keep-calling-me-beautiful is quite simply an easier one to sign up for than the sisterhoods relating to abortion, rape, eating disorders, domestic abuse, not fitting into straight-sized clothes, etc. That doesn't mean it isn't annoying to be catcalled, or that it doesn't connect, in some broader way, to these larger issues. It's just... If I were the dictator of feminist priorities, I'd make it a lower priority.
Anyway! That digression was because MSI links to me as Exhibit A of the Feminist War On Catcalling. I just wanted to be clear that that I'm not the warrior she's looking for. (I'm also pro-stranger-chit-chat when there's no sexual component.) What she links to, though, is a post of mine where I call out a very specific kind of street attention, namely being asked to smile. I do hate this, and am pleased that being ancient means no one cares what sort of expression I've got.
But what's unpleasant about "smile" requests is precisely that they're not about someone being nice. They're the opposite of that! The man who tells the young woman to smile is not complimenting her! It's... I believe the popular expression for this sort of thing a while back was, it's a "neg." It is, in other words, an insult. The man is saying that the woman looks mopey, depressed. And let's say she is one of those things. She's supposed to get some joy out of having that pointed out? How does that interaction not end with the woman feeling worse?
So yes, stranger conversations can be convivial, and yes, I have them kind of all the time, considering I have one of those natural don't-talk-to-me expressions. I mean, I have a dog - there's no dog-walking without such interactions. But being ordered to smile, that I'd skip.