Not so long ago I read a distressed ‘rant’ about being catcalled in London, from a woman who seemed persistently to be subjected to it – and worse. Alice voiced her anger and her misery in detail and provoked a storm of comments – supportive, although also occasionally mystified – on her blog and through twitter. Many if not most women will have suffered name-calling and unwanted physical contact from strangers on the streets of the sort she identified. It can be hard to avoid when random individuals feel they have a right to comment on one’s appearance, dress or figure. (I will admit as a teenager in London myself, the typical comment I got was the more innocuous ‘don’t worry dear, it may never happen’ rather than something referring to my anatomy; it was rather depressing to think I walked around with a permanent frown or grimace on my face.) The verbal taunts are bad enough, but the groping and quasi-assualts are infinitely worse.
What Alice found interesting was that, having vented her spleen through the medium of the blog, the nastiness appears to have ceased. As she said in a follow-up post, she can’t prove what caused it, but 5 weeks of freedom from attack must demonstrate something and the most likely explanation she could come up with is that by offloading her distress and annoyance she subsequently walked taller, as if she had confronted the enemy face-to-face instead of in print. My guess is that she unwittingly found a means of freeing up her ‘inner assertiveness’ and by becoming stronger internally she no longer appeared an easy target. It was interesting to note in her original blog that she used the word ‘bully’ several times and of course standing up to a bully rather than allowing oneself to be the victim is always to be recommended – if one can. (For a wonderful book on acquiring assertiveness, I’d recommend Anne Dickson’s A Voice for Now, a book I discussed earlier in my interview in The Browser).
In a place of work one should be free from verbal and other sorts of assault. Should be, but of course it doesn’t always pan out that way. I’ve written about this in the past, although I have no easy answers. At my age, I don’t expect people to comment on my appearance or dress in a sexually inappropriate way, but just occasionally I find myself still subjected to behaviour that at the least could be called patronising, but more accurately demeaning. It always catches me out. It doesn’t happen often I’m pleased to say, presumably a combination of learning how to ooze apparent assertiveness (whatever my innermost thoughts might be) and the ‘status of seniority’ I have acquired en route to my current position deters most but the most hardened offender. However, as I wrote previously, I can still fall victim to the wandering arm and sexually offensive comments occasionally. And, as I discovered not so long ago, I can still be subjected to verbal put-downs in the most unlooked for places, reducing me to feeling that the culprit in this case had me down as a mere bimbo, and leaving a most unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Earlier this summer I was invited to a dinner at a location well away from my home town where several of us were guests from afar. The other guests in this category were all male and some had brought their partners, although I had not. It was (unusually for this summer) a lovely evening, drinks were served outside and everything was very informal. A crowd of us were there, but no proper introductions were done, simply first names – nothing to identify who was who, who was the housekeeper and who were the hosts, who were the visitors and who were the local crowd there to make up numbers. Given that no guest list was presented this was all rather confusing. I say all this in an attempt to create a scenario for which what followed might be considered excusable.
There was a seating plan and I duly took my place and did my duty talking to those on either side of me. So far so good. But halfway through the meal things started to slide. One of my neighbours started talking over me as if he’d had enough of dialogue and had reached the point (perhaps determined by the level of alcoholic lubrication) where he just wanted to hold forth to show what a splendid chap he was in his field – one far from mine, but one that certainly was of interest and I’d have been happy to discuss it with him. I was given no chance and felt somewhat irritated but no worse. Subsequently conversation got more general and the gentleman across the table – who was another of the visitors, as I discovered, but goodness knows who he thought I was – started to wax lyrical on a subject about which it became clear he was not at all well informed. Shall I just say, he was not a scientist but decided to air his personal views about genetics and evolution. If it had been his hobby maybe he’d have known what he was talking about, but it was clearly just his hobby horse.
Now, as is obvious, those are not subjects I’m a professional expert in, but nevertheless I certainly knew more about it than he did and tried gently to point out some of his more blatant errors so that we could have a more sensible conversation . That man had the hide of a rhinoceros; he just swept on as if I was some speck of dirt on his horizon. Clearly, he was used to holding court and could not conceive he was being contradicted. Rather than make a fuss, which would – I’m sure – have been a dreadful social faux pas and just embarrassed everyone, I’m afraid I chose instead to engage the wine waiter in a lengthy conversation so that I could gracefully opt out. Possibly the coward’s way of handling the situation, but on this occasion I was sufficiently angry that any response could have got out of hand and it would simply have been bad manners on my own part to the hosts.
Now, the question is, would he have done that to a man? Did he just assume I was an ignorant bimbo, come along as partner or arm candy for one of the other senior males (which of course makes the dangerous and unreasonable assumption that such people are themselves beneath contempt)? Or am I being too sensitive and he was the kind of boor who enjoyed pontificating whatever the nature of the audience he had to hand? I know who he is, and I’m sure he’s given lots of opportunities to hold forth in public with his audience hanging on his every word. This would be fair enough when talking about his own field of expertise – again he could probably have been very interesting if he’d stuck to that – but not when expressing idiotic opinions based on ill-informed ideas. He is, by every measure, a Grand Old Man, but I sincerely hope I never have to rub shoulders with him again.
In this case I clearly could have gone on to fight my corner and try to get him to pay heed to where he’d got things muddled up, but to be honest I couldn’t be bothered. It didn’t matter enough. Zinemin said in a recent post about unattractive displays in the bar at conferences that some individuals try to
prove their manliness to each other by trying to drink more, make the better jokes [but the right, manly kind of jokes], being louder and being ‘cooler’.
A conference is a much more trying situation than a simple dinner party, particularly for those aspiring to effective networking and serious conversation. Indeed, I found Zinemin’s post very depressing, because I thought the kind of conference bar atmosphere she described had rather faded away (as I’ve described before). But just occasionally it is worth remembering that those boorish tendencies can still escape and, for many, can be damaging as well as unattractive. I’m passed the point of it ‘mattering’; I am not past the point of caring at being subjected to such ill-mannered behaviour and wondering what I’d done to deserve it. And, if people can be loutish in this way, do I trust them not to be loutish in other ways that are even more offensive? But whether one should just confront every instance of it to try to stop the perpetrator doing the same thing again or worse, or simply turn the other cheek – that is always the conundrum.