I like to think of myself as a generally friendly person. I smile at people, say hello, how are you, thank you, etc. I feel like the saying you catch more flies with honey than vinegar is true. Plus, why should you be mean or appear generally unhappy with the world? I just don’t see a point in being rude to people when you have the option to be nice.
This is where I’ve gotten in trouble lately. Sometimes my general friendliness leads to unwanted attention, usually from the opposite sex. I’m not saying that this attention is always unflattering, but it is usually just unwanted.
I feel like the central issue of this friendliness is that it is how girls and women are often raised to be, smile and be polite even when people are offending you. We have this obedience and desire to be liked reinforced throughout our lives. Girls are supposed to be sweet, loving, and open to everyone. “Yes, of course I’d love to sit and chat with you”, is what we’re supposed to say to the sleazy older man who is leering at us.
Now I understand that sometimes signals get crossed and “yes I did just smile at you, but it was an accident and no I do not want your company”. And here comes the other problem, I have the complete inability to say no without also being polite, because I’ve been trained not to hurt people’s feelings. I’m supposed to consider other people’s emotions and feelings before my own.
One specific instance when I noticed that I acted this way was when I went to pick up an to go order at a Mexican restaurant. I was waiting at the takeout counter for someone to come take my name and get my order. A man walked out of the kitchen and I thought that he was going to come and help me so I smiled at him (back to the old honey metaphor). It turns out he was just a waiter and he was heading to his table. But the mere fact that I had, somewhat accidentally smiled at him, meant that he felt compelled to come back and talk to me. He offered me a drink, which I said “no thank you” to, and then he asked if I wanted to sit down which I replied “no thanks, I’m good”. The main problem, as I see it, with the way I acted is that I continued to smile because God forbid I be impolite, even to reject this middle aged man’s creepy advances.
Now, I can see how this whole exchange would seem rather normal and benign, perhaps he was just being a friendly waiter and wanted to make sure that I was a return customer. It was the signals I got from him and the way that it made me feel that made this exchange feel uncomfortable and unwanted to me.
So why couldn’t I have just firmly said no thank you and turned away? I could have, and I don’t know why I didn’t, other than I just wasn’t thinking fast enough. I just wanted my dang food! But if I had, I can only imagine that his thoughts would have been “Bitch!”. This seems to be the standard line if a woman does something that others, namely men, perceive as unfriendly. It seems that we are either friendly or a bitch. Why is there no in between? Simply because I don’t want to be picked up or flirted with doesn’t make me a horrible human being.
These feelings are compounded by the fact that I am young, and look much younger than I am, and this makes me feel more vulnerable. Perhaps this isn’t true and that women who are older, or look older, have just as much problem with unwanted attention as young women do, but it does make me feel like there’s a greater possibility I could be taken advantage of.
I know that this is a problem that all women face, but I don’t think that means that we should excuse it. We shouldn’t have to stand passively by and accept it, we should be allowed to firmly say no and not be labeled a bitch. This brings me back to the fact that it’s ingrained in our very beings to be friendly and nice and helpful to everyone no matter whether we like them or not. It’s unfair to women that we must act this way and that we are still teaching young girls to behave this way. How are we doing it and what can we do to change how we teach girls?
We have to find a way to strike a difference between girls learning to have good manners and being able to stand up for themselves. If a girl were to find herself the subject of unwanted attention she should have the means to say no and extricate herself from that situation easily. I’m not sure that I was ever taught that, as evidenced by the fact that I’m in my 20’s and I couldn’t come up with a way to say what I felt and wanted in that situation.
I realize that this is probably considered a minor issue when compared to the many other grievances women suffer like domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, rape, etc. But what if this simple ability to say what we mean and want could help women in other situations. Would women be more likely to say no to an abusive partner? How are we ever going to know what can happen if we never try to change things?