Guy to guy: Hitting on women in public spaces is almost always a bad idea

Buzz off, bro.
Buzz off, bro.
Image: Fanqiao Wang
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When it comes to romance, Hollywood screws with America’s collective expectations in too many ways to count. The biggest offense, however, may be its perpetuation of the “meet cute.”

A trope common to movies and television shows with a romantic angle, the meet cute serves as the point-of-origin for a relationship arc. It’s where our star-crossed protagonists meet by way of chance encounter while, say, picking out produce at the grocery store or browsing the shelves at a local book shop.

“You like fiction books? I like fiction books!” Amy Poehler gasps to Paul Rudd in the 2014 rom-com parody They Came Together. Their two characters, destined for a series of predictable romantic hijinks, first feel that spark of attraction in—where else?—a neighborhood book shop.

Despite being completely unrealistic, popular culture’s obsession with the meet cute has nonetheless taught entire generations of American men that any situation, no matter how mundane or quotidian, holds romantic potential. It has taught us that the world is a veritable buffet of possible love interests, and that women go about their errands in a perpetual state of yearning, aching to be swept off their feet by a witty observation about Yukon Gold potatoes.

Guys: this is unacceptable. A woman should be free to wash a load of towels at her neighborhood laundromat or enjoy a book on the subway without having to swat away unwanted flirtation. She should be able to walk out her front door without needing to mentally prepare for men demanding her attention. She should, in essence, be allowed to live her life as if it were not an ongoing episode of The Bachelorette.

You know, like we do.

Writing for Jezebel earlier in October, Kara Brown relays a story in which two separate men, over a span of 48 hours, ingratiated themselves upon her while she read a book in public. Despite sending obvious signals of wanting to be left alone, the men in question didn’t get the hint. She adds:

“A lot of men like to argue that women should just be straightforward. ‘Just flat out tell men that you’re not interested in them!’ they say. Many women have tried this and were probably met with rude-to-frightening behavior—men that continue talking to them anyway, men that get angry or follow them down the street. Further, while interactions between men and women of a potentially romantic or sexual nature can be confusing, men are seemingly able to pick up on a range of other social cues in just about every other scenario in their lives. Call me optimistic, but I believe that grown men can get the hint without it being spelled out for them like kindergartners who are learning when to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

Of course, Brown is right—there are plenty of men who were sensibly raised and do not typically engage with strangers unless the situation specifically allows for it; at parties or a happy hour, for instance, or in the event a fellow straphanger fails to notice a stream of unidentifiable subway-juice inching toward her shoes. This essay is not for those men.

No, I write this essay for the man who is seemingly incapable of distinguishing between confidence and invasiveness, compliments and creepiness, a bar on a Friday night and a dentist’s waiting room on a Tuesday morning.

I write this essay for the man who finds it perfectly acceptable—nay, charming—to approach and engage women sending loud-and-clear “I’m busy” vibes. (By this I mean women who are involved in clearly solo activities, like reading a newspaper or listening to music with headphones.)

“I’m just being nice!” this man insists. “I’m just making conversation! What, is that a crime?”

In fact, no. But we are discussing ethics here, not legality. Keeping in mind that “niceness” is assessed subjectively, let’s reverse roles for a minute. Would a guy be especially enthused to humor a woman he had no intention of spending time with if she sidled up to him in the frozen-food section of the grocery story to chat about the merits of Hot Pocket flavors?

Probably not.

The difference here is that in this scenario, our Hot Pocket-loving hero would be under no pressure to politely extend the conversation. Nor is he likely to fear that such a rejection might lead to aggressive or even violent retaliation. Such is the wonderful world of gender disparity.

Again, I blame Hollywood—probably the most visible manifestation of patriarchal culture. Hundreds of films, television shows, and books have ingrained in men this notion of the efficacy of “persistence.” If a woman responds to his advances with disinterest, she can be “persuaded” to change her mind through a combination of charm, wit, and low-key psychological warfare. 

Culture has for a long time demanded female passivity in these situations, contributing in a big way to how women are treated in public spaces. It lies at the root of every expression of male entitlement—from ostensibly innocent book-shop encounters, to shameless catcalling, to rape. And men: we’ve got to cut it out. We’re expected to navigate social boundaries in every other aspect of our lives—why should dating, arguably among the most delicate, be any different?

Perhaps the most effective way to change this dynamic is to totally upend patriarchal culture—declare it nonsense that men are de facto pursuers, with women the pursued. But that’s going to take time. So, for now, deploying some good sense may have to suffice.

If you want to approach a woman but are unsure of the appropriateness of the setting, do a close read first. Is she in a perceptible hurry? Is she engaged in an activity that does not invite your participation? If you forge ahead with your mission and you’re received less than warmly, take the hint. And know that being more invasive is probably the least effective thing you can do to change her impression of you.

In this regard, I really appreciate the mainstreaming of online and app-facilitated dating. I know: unpopular opinion. But Tinder, OKCupid, and company do potentially make it easier to identify appropriate contexts for romantic overtures. You’re on Tinder, I’m on Tinder—we’re all here for the same thing. It’s not a panacea, and it’s certainly not immune to abuse or unsavory behavior, but at least it helps to render encounters of “a potentially romantic or sexual nature” a little less confusing to navigate.

If you prefer meeting potential dates face-to-face, post yourself up at a bar during happy hour (you dinosaur). Maybe try speed-dating or ask a friend set you up with someone. Make an effort to place yourself in a context where flirting makes social sense—where both parties have made themselves consciously available. Consent is sexy. And the return on investment is almost certainly going to be higher.

Ultimately, guys, having our space invaded or our time wasted is a deviation from the norm. It should be the same for the women in our life. And the women not in our life. The world is not our (aphrodisiacal) oyster. It’s a place where people are trying to get laundry done, or buy a grapefruit or two. Let a woman do it in peace.