Friday, August 22, 2014

Some attention really is bad attention

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.

That said, I'm not sure I totally agree with MSI on this. There is, after all, such a thing as concern-trolling, which exists offline as well. While it's not my thing to take to the internet to express outrage at interpersonal relations, I can certainly think of instances of witnessing this phenomenon. Sometimes someone says something to you or a friend of yours and their intentions aren't friendly. Sometimes if they'd just ignored, that would have been the kinder way to go. This is especially so in cases - such as the one MSI brings up - that involve acquaintances questioning one's life choices. Such conversations very often manage to hit a nerve, and the just-being-friendly questioner may well be perceptive enough to know that. Not always! But, not never.

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.


Miss Self-Important said...

It's true; I probably should've linked to something more directly anti-public speech about beauty, like Harvard's new sexual harassment code, which does not permit any speech describing someone's body, even if flattering. The suggestion to smile is not quite catcalling that implies the catcalled is pretty, although it might imply that she'd look pretty if she weren't scowling or moping. However, I've never found it particularly offensive either, on the principle that one should try not to look angry and intimidating in public (or, conversely, to cry in public). It's less polite and more prying to tell a stranger to smile than to tell them their shoes are nice or to ask them how they are, but it still falls below the threshold of inducing anger. Physical touching of strangers is what I'd say crosses the line.

About the "And what are you gonna do with THAT?" wiseguys, I'm also unconcerned. I mean, yes, it's not the most polite response to someone telling you what they study, but it's rarely said with sincere disdain or condemnation, as though you are an immoral person for choosing the study the useless THAT at hand. It's more like an effort to be corny and lighten the mood with a familiar (and therefore not very funny) joke, like starting a comment with, "I bet you're always getting this question, but..." and then asking the question you know the person is sick of getting. Not really a social sin worth calling out, except maybe in an etiquette manual.

Britta said...

I think the issue with small talk can be not that any one instance is in itself offensive, but the sheer volume and repetition is annoying. I live in a small foreign city where I am an object of interest and after a stint on TV mildly famous, and every time I leave the house I get asked the same questions over and over again by people I encounter. The questions are totally fine and I'd probably ask them to myself too, but after the 10,000th time of answering them, I am pretty damn sick of them. Also, sometimes you're unshowered and have cramps and just want to buy beer at 9 pm without having to make small talk with everyone in the convenience store or have your presence announced by the cashier so that people can gather around you to scrutinize your purchases and take photos with you. I am very careful to be friendly and polite, since it's not person X's fault they're the 1 millionth person to ask me the same question during the day, or it's not their fault I have a headache, and I may be the only foreigner this person will ever speak to and want to leave a good impression on people, but it gets really tiring.

There's also a question of personality. I'm naturally introverted, and while I can perform being social quite well, I find it very draining. When I'm outside, I always have to be "on," and that has a psychic cost. My downtime involves sitting by myself in a room not interacting with people, and I need way more alone time than I do in the US.

I have the same attitude towards getting hit on. I don't begrudge people for hitting on me, but when I'm having a heart to heart with a friend going through a break up, or reading on the bus, I don't really appreciate having that interrupted. There are also more or less annoying ways to do that. It's fine to interrupt briefly to gauge interest and then move on if it's the wrong moment, it's another thing to pull up a chair uninvited, refuse to leave, and monopolize the conversation. I've had both happen, but the latter happens slightly more than the former.

On the issue of cat calls/homeless people etc, IME these can often involve threats of sexual violence. I've lost track of the rape threats I've gotten (I remember the first, I was 8 years old and had to ask my older brother what 'rape' meant), or threats of physical violence unless I engaged in small talk. Most of these incidents occur on and/or waiting for public transit, but I've also had them while walking on a busy shopping street, and my sister was sexually harassed (assaulted?) in the public library during the afternoon. I've also been grabbed by strangers while walking down the street. I've had homeless men grab my hand, and I have had men come up and put their arms around my shoulders. I've also experienced many times walking into a small bar and having every man in the bar swivel their heads to stare at my breasts in a really obvious way. I try to ignore it because ultimately what people look at doesn't affect me, but it takes effort to ignore the fact men are ogling you and smirking. My experiences are probably not the norm, and I do think looks are involved (according to my very hot brunette friend, blonde women really do get way more attention. When I'm out with her she says I get about 20x more attention from men than she does), but pretending to be unselfconscious when people are openly staring at you, for whatever reason, is difficult.

Phoebe said...


"It's less polite and more prying to tell a stranger to smile than to tell them their shoes are nice or to ask them how they are, but it still falls below the threshold of inducing anger."

Agreed that "anger" isn't what results - and of course it's not as bad as being grabbed! - but the resulting feeling is still almost certainly a negative one. And while social norms do dictate not totally breaking down in public if that can be avoided, the obligation to smile so as to be decorative is one that clearly just falls on young women and girls, and just according to a certain % of the male population.


"I do think looks are involved"

I'm going to hone in on this part of what you wrote, because this gets at why I think the catcalling conversation has a bigger place than it should within feminism. It is by no means a universal female experience to walk into a bar and turn all heads. Most women never experience this, and those who do only will for a relatively small part of their lives. (Barring unusual circumstances like being the only woman of one's ethnicity in an otherwise homogeneous area.)

Grabbing, intimidation, etc. happen - I can assure - to even we the ordinary-looking and not-blonde (lunatics on the subway are not model scouts), and sexual/domestic violence happen to women of all kinds. But when the conversation turns to how we-as-women are hit on every time we step outside, this only ends up alienating the many women who don't experience this, and ends up diverting conversations towards something that is... even if not meant as bragging, still relatively easy to discuss.