Tuesday, December 16, 2008

standing your ground

Breda had a post that generated a lot of discussion. I started to comment, but my remarks got so long, and so self-centered, that I decided it was better posted here.

I don't spend a lot of time in bars, but recently me and the Sparring Partner were having dinner at one, and it was starting to get crowded. About halfway through our meal, two women moved into the stools beside me, and their male companion wedged himself in between me and the woman nearest me. He was facing her, so we're talking full-body contact between his back and my right side, albeit through a couple of sweaters and jackets. It blew my mind--do people routinely snuggle up against strangers in crowded bars, or did he just choose me because I was smallish and female?

But I tolerated it for a minute, because I figured he was just picking up a drink or a napkin and would move on. When he stayed, and got louder, I stopped giving him space. I braced my feet against the bar and relaxed against him. It was pretty comfortable, actually. I felt his weight shift. I picked up a knife and sawed at my steak, letting my right elbow flail where it would.

After a minute or two he moved away. Neither of us exchanged a word, I never even saw his face, but the point was made. He may not have consciously realized what I was doing, because I was subtle, but I made him uncomfortable. He wasn't out to attack me or start anything, he was just playing a game of Red Rover and mistakenly took me for a weak spot. He found he was wrong and he moved on.

I work--and often, shop--in Johnson County, Kansas, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, and I swear people are ruder there than anywhere else I've been. There's an interesting public dance that takes place in stores, an elaborate avoiding of eye contact, presumably so folks can cut in front of someone else and then claim, "Oh, I didn't see you."

I've had fellow shoppers move directly between me and the shelf I was looking at and stand there--not just picking up one thing and moving on: standing. Rich blonde women out shopping with a friend are particularly good at this, without missing a beat of chatter.

"Don't mind me," I said once in a low, dry voice. "I was just looking at that shelf."

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you," the blonde said, in a line straight out of Heathers or maybe Mean Girls. Do people really talk/think/behave like that?

You bet they do. Once a guy wedged himself into the 16 inches between me and the coffee bin at Whole Foods (which I was facing, and obviously looking at), leisurely shook out a bag and started shovelling beans into it. My instinct was to move away, but of course that was what he'd been counting on. So I stood where I was, nearly touching his left elbow. When I didn't move away he got nervous, glanced over his shoulder at me and said, "Oh, am I in your way?"

I smiled at him sweetly, standing dead still and making full eye contact with the cold edge Breda described. "Yes," I said. "But you go ahead." I put a saccharine sneer in the last sentence, a mockery of what he expected a polite woman to say in that situation.

"Sorry," he said, and hustled out of there. Sorry! Maybe that one will say "Excuse me," next time.

I've hung up on customers who got verbally abusive with me--after, of course, calmly pointing out that their nastiness doesn't accomplish anything and I can help them if they work with me. Two out of three times, they will modify their behavior. Often they even apologize. The other 33% aren't worth my time--if they call back I pass them off to a superior, which is usually what they wanted in the first place.

I once ran a man out of the apartment rental office where I worked, because he was sexually harrassing my co-worker. The guy was an ex-Marine, physically capable of beating the crap out of me, but my actions were not hot-headed or lacking in calculation: he was a weak-minded bully, a part-time employee of the office, the kind who wanted everybody to like him and couldn't understand why they didn't. He was not intoxicated, he was just a loud obnoxious boor who was used to getting his way.

I was certainly not trusting in my kung-fu during that incident; I was a baby martial artist and I knew it. I was not armed with anything other than some office supplies and a willingness to fight dirty. What I was counting upon (albeit unconsciously) was the social constraints on the guy--that he couldn't afford legal trouble, couldn't afford to look bad in the eyes of the women who were his landlords and employers (he knew it would get back to the manager), and I daresay that, looking at me, he wasn't all too sure of what I was capable of. One of the old tai chi masters used to say, "Never accept a challenge from a monk or a woman." This is because, one, if a smaller person or a pacifist challenges you they must have some serious confidence in their gong. Two, even if you win, you don't win, you're a brute. And if you lose, you'll never live it down.

Men know this: it's one of the fundamental assumptions of American society and our court system. Even a man who is an abuser in private is hestitant to unleash on a woman he doesn't have total control over. If he'd been the kind of man with utter disregard for the rules, he wouldn't have been in there trying to schmooze my co-worker: he'd have been manhandling her, and my attack on him would've been a lot more blunt and heavy-handed. Probably with the brass desk lamp.

I knew, also, that people act like that because they think you are in customer service and you have to take it. They are counting on you not making a scene. And they are oh-so-surprised, when you call them on their behavior, to find that the world does not, in fact, move over for their pleasure. It bears mentioning, I think, that I have never been fired from a job. In fact, in every customer service job I have had, I quickly get a reputation for being the Doberman on a chain; the one that difficult customers get handed off to.

I don't insult them. I don't fight back. I am utterly unaffected by everything they do, and this makes them back down, somewhat bewildered, because I am not following the pattern they set up that allows them to get what they want.

Prideful? Yes, sometimes. But for each incident I mention here, there were 10 or 20 lessor offenses that I let slide. Some violations of common courtesy are simply too flagrant to go unchallenged. Usually I only engage when my sense of fair play has been offended, and I only respond proportionately. Sit would call it "acting in harmony with an opponent."

So I support Breda in her assertiveness. She's got a troll over there trying to tear her down, and other people saying she went too far. But, bottom line, nothing came of the incident except she gained a little more confidence in herself. She'll assimilate the incident, learn from it, and have better judgment next time. In my opinion, that is worth a few million words of rhetoric about preparedness, and probably a few thousand rounds at the shooting range.


Lisa said...

Great post, and you've pointed out so many truths about human nature.

Doberman, huh? Nice. I've gotten Pitbull and "half-Klingon."

I really do think most people expect all smallish women to be doormats and when we buck that idea just about everyone backs down. I think you hit on why with your point about "...even if you win, you don't win, you're a brute. And if you lose, you'll never live it down."

As a smallish woman, I'll take whatever advantage I can get.

Holly said...

Thank you. I started to write "pit bull" but they tend to have a reputation for being brutish and slavering, and I prefer to think of myself as sleek and menacing....

Vanity, even in blogging. :-P