See a Woman Reading? Leave Her Alone.

by | May 5, 2013
filed under Feminism

484px-Reading_woman_2by Jessica Critcher

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)

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  • You make an excellent point. When I see someone cute reading on the T, I don’t approach them because I assume they are reading because they want to be reading, not because they want to be talking. So then why am I interrupted so often when I’m the one reading? What makes people think I want to be interrupted?

  • Straight Talker

    It very rarely happens to me, but if I am doing something and I want to be left to do it, I mostly just say that, as politely as I can, and get on with it. Has that ever worked for you? I’m sure some think I’m rude, but they’d think I was far worse if they actually got to know me. Women do not need to be passive or suffer in silence, it can help to be direct and, maybe, disliked. If we do not tell people what we want (I love talking to strangers) then we cannot expect them to know.

    • Telling a man you are not interested in his “friendly” overtures is a direct, polite, and reasonable piece of social interaction that sounds really sensible unless you are a man who feels entitled to a woman’s time and attention – and if you’re interrupting us while we’re clearly doing something else, the chances are already high that this is the case – and will react angrily to the implication of personal rejection or denial of that entitlement, or if you’re a woman who has been the target of an impromptu lecture on the social expectations of women, or shouted at, or spat on, or assaulted for saying it.

      It would be really nice to assume that people who roll up and start chatting mean well, and often this is the case. Someone who interrupts what you’re doing, whether it’s your job, walking, riding your bike, having a cup of coffee, finishing an assignment – in this case, reading a book – has already decided they’re more important than you, and their intentions are already selfish.

      Here’s a cool thing: since I had kids, I don’t get men “just being friendly” anymore. Isn’t that weird? I guess men don’t want to be Just Friends with women who have children. That’s not to say I don’t meet men and befriend them, it’s just that they’re actually dudes who are friendly and want to be friends, not people who approach me in the street or park and then yell at me for ignoring how nice they are.

  • LaSirena

    This is part of the general idea men have, worldwide, that a woman on her own must be feeling the lack of a man, and must be rescued from her manless state. It happens to me daily living here in South America. Men have even interrupted me while deep in conversation with a friend, walking down the street, and then shouted at us that we were rude for not responding to their “friendliness”. And these were men at least 30 years older than us, of a social class that would never be expected to have a chance with us. I have been harrassed like this by boys of 18 all the way to grandpas in their 80’s, and all feel entitled, and then angry when I refuse them. Being polite and telling them that I am busy/married/prefer to be left alone never works.

  • Kimberly

    My suggestion is to not continue to participate in this societal drama of women not asking for what they want and need ie “being nice” and let him know that you prefer to be left alone.

  • Thank you! This happens to me on a semi-regularly basis (being approached whilst just walking along minding my own business is another Achille’s Heel of mine), and whenever I complain about it to friends, I get similar responses to what you’ve listed. I’ll definitely be employing some of your retorts in future.

  • JYO

    Thank you so much for this post. This happened to me just the other night, most likely because I was reading an Allison Bechdel graphic novel, and that probably set the dude next to me off even more. It ruined my pizza/beer/graphic novel/end of work week moment, which had been making me so happy just minutes before. I was upset with myself for not having tools to handle the situation, but that’s what happens. In this case the guy was pretending to be friendly while actually being aggressive and snarky because of the content of the book, and I had a fear response. I eventually shot him down and embarrassed him in front of his friends, but the incident ruined my whole evening and summoning the courage to confront the behavior took a lot out of me, as asserting myself into a potential conflict causes a physical response in my body. You eloquently and succinctly expressed in this post what I was unable to when I was recalling the incident to my partner later that same evening. If you don’t mind, I would love to borrow some of your words for future incidents (of which I know there will be some, because I like to read in public/coffee shops/on the metro, etc.)
    Thank you again.

  • Magoonski

    Nice? You don’t have to be “nice.” Don’t be rude either, that just causes the situation to escalate. Don’t say anything either, that just gives the person an opening to waste your time. My advice…simply stare back. No smile, no frown, just blank like the person isn’t even there. Now that person may try to invade your personal space to get a reaction…give him one, scream. When he leaves return to reading.

  • Magoonski

    One more thing…why are default icons for “people” on the web always male?

    • Yodel

      Actually the largest commenting platform is gender neutral. It’s a start, I guess.

      I’m a guy who approaches women in public. Aware of the threat I represent, my number one concern is being mindful of both verbal and non-verbal communication. The hard part is that I expect everyone is going to have some discomfort (including me) and start off with closed off body language, but I think it’s more important to get out there and make friends than to be hopeful wishing others will magically bump into you. Sorry if this conflicts with your desire to be left alone reading, I’ll try to make my solicitation quick. If I happen to see a guy being aggressive, I’ll try to help you (and him) out. Advice welcome.

  • Shaun

    I was reading at a bus stop, “ceremonial violence” (about the psychology behind school rampage shootings) held in front of my face like a shield. Dude in my peripheral vision stooped to read the title, thought for a moment, said “Watcha readin’?”. I responded, without looking away from my book, “It’s a papery thing with words in, we call them books”. Dude comes back with “Is that fiction or non-fiction?”.

    Impolite doesn’t really work, either. There’s really no solution.

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  • Steve Bennett

    Agreed, but your points apply equally well to men, no? If I’m reading in a park, I don’t want to be bothered for chit chat by a stranger – of either gender. Especially not to be grilled about my love life!

    • Yes, this applies equally well to men, except for a few important differences:

      As men we’re much less likely to experience this on a regular basis. It’s also less likely to involve an intimidating sexual undertone.

      As men we’re much more likely to feel equipped to handle the situation, as we are usually taught to be more assertive, and subjected to less frequent harassment, than women.

      I, as a young man, have experienced sexually motivated fake friendly approaches from strangers, while reading in the park. And have had a hard time fending them off because I am too ‘nice’. But it’s not a daily kind of thing for me. (Incidentally, my harassers have never been women).

  • Anna

    Love this. When I was travelling through India I quickly discovered telling men I wanted to be left alone was not an option – men there got aggressive unless I was sweet to them regardless. It made me feel grateful that things are better in the UK. I don’t get approached much here in the UK but when it happens I feel fine about just telling men I’d like to be left alone – and it usually works. It’s not perfect by far, but it’s something.


  • Scott

    How about the title to this post being “Don’t be ‘That’ Guy”? Anyway, I don’t see anything wrong with simply telling a guy that you’d like to be left alone; I mean, if it comes to more than that then so be it, but screaming may be a much.

    Side note: I get approached by women all the time while reading. But you’re right, the power dynamic is very different.

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