A few months ago, I went to meet with a colleague at his apartment. Since I wasn’t familiar with the neighborhood and I’m paranoid about being late, I budgeted extra time to find the address. It turned out to be easy to find, so I ended up with an hour to myself. Thankfully, a person who likes to read is never bored. I pulled out a book (This book, actually) and prepared to indulge in an hour of reading in a quiet, sunny public park. I barely got through one page before a man started talking to me.
He told me I was cute and asked me if I had a boyfriend. And even after I told him I was married, he just kept talking at me. For the record, I understand that this man was just trying to be friendly, and he probably didn’t mean to annoy me or make me feel weird. But since I felt weird and annoyed, his intentions were irrelevant.
Eventually I pulled out my phone, told him I was running late, and headed on my way. By then I was too upset to properly concentrate on my book. But it wasn’t even about the book in the first place. It was about my personal space, which he ignored. This kind of thing happens all the time.
Whenever I express my frustration about this, someone invariably tells me, “But he was just trying to be friendly/strike up a conversation/learn more about the subject.” Stop. What you are telling me is that the fact that a man wants to talk to is more important (and should therefore be given more consideration) than the fact that I want to be left alone. I should dig deeper and find the good intentions behind why this man interrupted me. I should give this man the benefit of a doubt and take the fact that he bothered me as a compliment. The desires of a stranger are more important than mine.
I had a friend counter my point, saying that she personally likes it when people stop to chat her up while she’s reading. If you like that, good for you! Opportunities for that to happen are plentiful. I happen to detest it and would like it to stop. People usually follow this up by asking how potential partners are supposed to meet each other, as if it’s supposed to check-mate my argument. But that’s not my problem. If you really want to know, check out this piece called “Schrödinger’s Rapist,” which offers some advice on how to approach women without being creepy:
To begin with, you must accept that I set my own risk tolerance. When you approach me, I will begin to evaluate the possibility you will do me harm. That possibility is never 0%. For some women, particularly women who have been victims of violent assaults, any level of risk is unacceptable. Those women do not want to be approached, no matter how nice you are or how much you’d like to date them. Okay? That’s their right. Don’t get pissy about it. Women are under no obligation to hear the sales pitch before deciding they are not in the market to buy.
I like that some people find reading to be an attractive trait. But I don’t read for anyone’s enjoyment but my own. Men of the world, if you see a woman reading a book, eyes darting from line to line, wrapped up in her own universe, leave her alone. She is probably having a moment, and she deserves to have it.
She might be about to learn the true identity of the killer. She might be studying for an important exam. She might be about to read a sentence that changes her life. Don’t interrupt her to tell her she’s cute or has good taste; she knows it. Don’t interrupt her to tell her she has bad taste; that’s debatable, and she doesn’t care. Don’t interrupt her to ask what her book is about; note the title and check it out for yourself if you actually care about the book and not about taking up some woman’s time. Better yet, pull out a book yourself and do some reading of your own. Unless she is on fire, nothing you have to say to her is more important than what she is reading– because she decided for herself that she wants to read. If her eyes are on the page instead of on you, she is telling you that she is all set for company at the moment.
Do women interrupt each other when they’re reading? Maybe. But it has never happened to me. Do women interrupt men? I have never done it, and I doubt it happens as often. But even if it happened occasionally, it wouldn’t be part of a larger framework of street harassment as a result of rape culture. There is a power differential in play when a man interrupts me.
For other women, it might not be reading. Some might experience this while running on the treadmill at the gym, or meditating or painting, or listening to music or any number of ways we mind our own business. For me, it’s reading. Men of various races and ages feel the need to talk to me while I’m reading. Men of different social classes, in all kinds of different locations have been certain that whatever they were about to ask or tell me was more important than anything I could possibly be reading. A high school student on the bus, a beggar on the subway, a Coast Guard Auxiliarist in a stairwell, they may come from different places and follow different creeds, but they are all united in feeling entitled to my time.
People tell me I should be nicer about this. But here’s the thing. I am nice. You, reader, are exposed to my hostility because I am safe in my comfort zone, not being interrupted while I write this. But when it happens, and some strange man decides it’s a good time to ask me if I have a boyfriend, I smile. I’m polite, I let him talk until he gets bored. I’m not nice because I want to be nice, but because I’m anxious about a negative reaction to hostility. I get flustered and my courage fails, so on the spot, when men feel entitled to my attention, I am always nice. He doesn’t learn that he is bothering me, and I am pulled away from my book. Everyone loses.
I resist solutions to social problems that require women to be nice(r). We have been bullied into sweetness for hundreds of years. So the next time this happens, I am going to do my best to be assertive, rude even, and explain that I would like to be left alone. If you don’t want that to happen to you, the next time you see a woman reading a book (or otherwise minding her own business), for the love of Dickens let her read in peace.
(portrait of woman reading in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)