I’m categorizing this as a story of the “good morning” campaign variety, though it doesn’t involve saying “good morning” to anyone. It does, however, involve talking to perfect strangers. As an additional sidenote, I need to confess that I am hesitant to write about this story, since my intentions during the interaction were not exactly pure. But I decided to go ahead with it because it’s an interesting twist on the “good morning” stories I’ve been telling.
A book I had received a few weeks ago through an inter-library loan was due back this week, and returning it in a timely fashion required me to drive to the Nearest Big City, where I go to school. Let’s just say that driving twenty minutes down, parking, walking to the library, and then driving twenty minutes back, all for the sake of a book I didn’t enjoy reading that much, did not put me in the best of moods. Then, I discovered upon arriving that my parking pass was no longer valid since the semester was technically over, and I had to pay for parking. This did not add to the beneficence of my mood.
After returning the book, I headed to my office, where I intended to clear out my desk in hopes of actually motivating myself to finish my graduate degree. En route to my office, I walked by four young men in polo-shirt uniforms, apparently on a smoke break of sorts, lounging outside one of the buildings. (I say “of sorts” because smoking is not allowed on this university’s campus.)
I don’t know how to be precise in describing the vibe that these young men gave off, but when I tried to tell J about it later, I used the word “trash-talking.” They were trash-talking each other, teasing each other, bragging, trying to be macho, muttering, grumbling, whatever. There were very few people walking by on the sidewalk, since as I said, campus was relatively empty, but I got the distinct impression that loud-enough-to-be-overheard muttered insults or cat-calling would be involved when either an unattractive or an attractive person of the female variety walked by.
Let me just back up a second to say that I have a very, very low tolerance for cat-calling. In addition to its being genuinely disrespectful, insulting, and offensive, it just plain annoys me.
But back to the present story. There I found myself, being observed as I approached. I weighed the possible options. Turn around, and walk the long way around the building. Grit my teeth and try to be as uninviting of comment as possible. Ignore them completely. Those seemed like the most reasonable possibilities.
Or I could look them in the eyes, address them directly, and say “Hi.”
For some reason, that’s what I did.
Now, I did it in my most friendly, professional voice I could muster, and it probably helped that I am six feet tall.
At the time, I had no well thought-out theoretical reason for doing it, but by addressing them, I was acknowledging that I knew they were there and, moreover, that I saw them as people. I could hear them, I could see them, and I didn’t mind calling them out on what I could see and what I could hear.
At least, I’m guessing that’s what they felt was happening, because they suddenly became incredibly self-conscious.
Stammering “hello” and “hey” and “ma’am,” they looked at their feet in embarrassment and kicked at the sidewalk, very uncomfortable.
There’s a lot going on here that could be analyzed relating to objectification and subjectivity. I realize that, and I can do that theorizing with the best of them. I also realize that this is an exceptional case.
But I like to think of it in simpler terms–I asked them see me as a human being and I let them know I saw them, too.
Most of the time, it does no one any good to pretend like we don’t.