Sunday, October 16, 2016
Safety vs. hurt feelings
Listen up, guys.
I sat at a restaurant in town today, by myself. I do this a lot--go out to eat alone. I do a lot of writing and reading at restaurants by myself. But today's experience was marred by an overly attentive waiter. Normally, I wouldn't write about that, but the specific kind of attention I received from this waiter was not okay in my book. The problem is that it wasn't okay, but it also wasn't the kind of thing I can complain to the manager about.
It's the kind of thing I can blog about, though. Because I think it represents a larger problem in our society, the problem of respecting the personal boundaries of women, especially when they are alone.
(Disclaimer: I know nothing about this waiter. He could be on the Autism Spectrum and have a hard time picking up social cues. He could be an introvert who hates his job and compensates by being overly friendly. I don't know. But I wish society as a whole would have taught him how to respect my boundaries as a woman ALONE in a restaurant. He may not have been intentionally threatening. But the entire reason I'm writing this is to help the men around me understand when their actions ARE threatening and how to avoid that.)
So I sit down in a booth. Waiter comes by, probably in his early twenties, and takes my order. Comments on what I order, telling me I made a good choice, normal friendly waiter stuff. He walks away. I pull out my book and start reading. A few minutes later, the waiter comes by again.
"What are you reading?" he asks.
Okay. This is how you can tell a reader from a non-reader. Non-readers think they're making friendly conversation with this question. Readers understand that you're READING and would prefer not to be interrupted. So I'm already annoyed at being interrupted.
"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," I reply.
"So it's a book to help people develop OCD?" he jokes. Cool, a joke about mental illness to someone you don't know. I give a courtesy laugh and attempt to return to my book. "Women," he says. I look up to see him shaking his head and smiling. "All women have OCD. They always want to tidy everything. Women, women, women." I feel vaguely annoyed that he's used my gender as the butt of a joke that isn't really funny, or true. But hell, I don't know this kid, and I don't want to be mean, so I give another non-smiling courtesy laugh and wait for him to go away.
A different waitress brings me my food and I can eat and read in peace for a few minutes before the waiter comes by again. "Everything all right, ma'am?" "Yes, thank you," I say. I don't look up. I'm still reading. I'm polite in my voice, but I'm trying to signal that I'd just like to be left alone with my book please. He keeps talking. "Well, I'll want a read aloud when I come back, okay?" Like, you want me to read to you? In what context? Here in this booth? In your car? What does that even mean? He winks. I conceal a shudder, because I don't KNOW you, dude.
I finish my meal, order a dessert. Again, another waitress brings it out. I'm two bites in when I hear the waiter's voice again. "Hey, where's MY spoon?" he asks, eyeing my dessert. I keep my eyes on my book. "Yeah, sorry, this is all for me," I reply.
He sits in the booth next to me.
Did you read that? He sits in the booth next to me. I am literally physically trapped in a corner. I am alone in this restaurant, in a corner booth, with a strange man blocking me in. For the men reading this, here's what you need to understand about this moment: This waiter is "Schrodinger's Rapist." This is a man who may or may not try to sexually assault me. I have no way of knowing what his intentions are. If you suggest I should give him the benefit of the doubt, then you are valuing his potentially hurt feelings over my personal physical and emotional safety. His potentially hurt feelings = a rough day. Me being sexually assaulted = a trauma that is also illegal. As Margaret Atwood once said, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."
So I'm trapped in this booth, refusing to look up at this waiter who has invaded my personal space, and I don't have any way of knowing if he will next make a joke, or try to put his hand on my upper thigh. He doesn't do either; he places the check on the table and says he'll be back to pick it up again in a minute. He continues to sit next to me for a few more seconds. "So do you want this on a single check, or split...?" he asks. I don't think I even answer. "Yeah, I'm just kidding. Single check." Then he stands up and leaves, and I feel my shoulders relax a little bit.
I pay the bill and leave.
Here's the problem with all of this. All of these interactions are walking a fine line between friendly waiter banter and flirtation. In my professional opinion, you shouldn't flirt with your patrons at all if you're a waiter, but whatever. What you definitely SHOULDN'T do, however, is sit next to a strange woman who is sitting alone in a restaurant without an invitation. Especially if you're a waiter. Because you're in a position of slightly more power--I don't feel like I can call another waiter over and say, "Excuse me, this man is bothering me." I'd be saying, "Hey, your friend is a creep" and then everyone would be embarrassed.
But it's a moment that really sucked. Because in that moment, I did not feel flattered. I did not feel like I was getting positive romantic attention. I felt trapped. Because I WAS trapped. If he had attempted to touch me or assault me or harass me in any way, it would have been very very difficult for me to escape. So I'm left to assume one of two things: either he was aware of this, and decided that what he wanted was more important; OR he wasn't aware of this.
So I'm writing this blog entry for all those who aren't aware of this. Because you need to be aware of this. The article on "Schrodinger's Rapist" linked above is an excellent, more in depth version of this same lesson, and I highly recommend you read it, but here's the Reader's Digest version:
WHEN INTERACTING WITH STRANGE WOMEN, ASK YOURSELF, "IF I WERE DANGEROUS, WOULD THIS WOMAN BE SAFE IN THIS SITUATION WITH ME? Would she physically be able to escape? Does she have friends who can help her?" If the answer is NO, then change what you need to in order to create safety for this woman. Even if it means leaving her alone to read her book at a table in a restaurant. Because even though YOU know you're not dangerous, SHE doesn't know that. You can blame all the other skeazy men who have ruined things for the rest of you. But this is the world we live in. Many women spend time every single day calculating their risks. You men need to understand this, and do what you can to make it better for us. And you can do that not by approaching strange women and attempting to convince them that you're the good guy. You can do that by making sure that the women around you feel (and are) safe.
Women tend to respect the men who make them feel safe even more than they respect the men who make them feel admired.
"But Liz, come on! He was just trying to be nice! Give him the benefit of the doubt!" Have you not been reading? I'd really like to, but unfortunately, that's not a risk I can afford to take.