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How to Talk to Women Without Harassing Them

Updated: Jan 26, 2024 13:59
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How to Talk to Women Without Harassing Them:

Guidelines for Well-Intentioned Men

Guest post by Genie Carter

Recently, I was at Powell station looking up the Muni and Bart times on my phone and trying to quickly figure out which one to take home, and a man came up to me. He approached me from the side, and without any pre-emptive comment, said “Hey do you have change for a dollar?” It startled me, and my immediate reaction was to firmly, without even looking up, say “NO.” “Wow, ok,” he said, clearly offended by my tone, and walked away. Immediately afterwards, I felt bad that I had assumed he was going to harass me, when he really just wanted to see if I had some change because the Bart machines kept rejecting his dollar bill. That’s a totally reasonable thing to ask a stranger. But then, as I got to thinking about it, I realized that I shouldn’t have to feel bad about that reaction for a lot of reasons. Because as a woman living in the City, I get harassed every single day and the way he approached me gave me zero indication that he was any different than any other guy that might come up to me for less legitimate reasons.

It occurred to me that this probably happens a lot. There are plenty of totally legitimate reasons to approach a woman in public. Maybe you forgot your phone and need to know what time it is. Maybe you just want to let her know that she dropped her sunglasses. Maybe you look at her, reading your favorite book or wearing a shirt with your favorite band on it, and legitimately think that she could be the love of your life. As a person who these days primarily writes romantic fiction, I would love to live in a world where a meet cute can actually happen. I don’t think that men should hide behind the internet or text messages when pursuing a meaningful relationship with a woman. People should feel free to start conversations with strangers in public—that’s how communities and friendships are often formed.

The problem with this, as the recent #metoo movement has so clearly demonstrated, is that men are out of touch with what women deal with on a regular basis. When all of the allegations started coming out and women started to routinely divulge all the creepy, scary and violent things that happened to them, men were shocked at how frequently women experience harassment. Even my husband was surprised when I told him that I get cat-called on the street at least every day, if not yelled at, followed or casually threatened with violence. While I would occasionally tell him stories of particularly scary or notable encounters, I hadn’t thought to tell him about how frequent these occurrences actually were, because it was so mundane. For women who live in the city, street harassment is part of the landscape. If you are a woman who lives in a suburb, you also probably experience daily sexism and harassment, but in other, less overt ways.

As men, it is your responsibility to know that. It is your responsibility to chose not to contribute to it, and not to emulate it in a way that triggers a woman’s defenses. And knowing how to approach a woman for a legitimate reason is part of that. Especially now.

The influx of allegations and stories has opened wounds for us—this is a time when women are thinking about and reevaluating all the inappropriate things that have happened to us, that we filed away because they were too painful to deal with, or that we wrote off because it simply takes too much time and energy to respond every single time some guy on the street passive aggressively tells you to smile. You might be saying, but I’m one of the good ones who doesn’t do that. I would never hit on a woman while she’s standing alone at a bus stop and then angrily call her a lesbian when she says she’s not interested. I would never come up behind a woman and grind up on her. I would never take the opportunity of a crowded bus to rub my crotch on a woman. (All of these things have happened to me, and more.)

The problem is, that if you mimic behaviors of men who do those things, we have no way of knowing that you’re any different. But I wasn’t told any of these things, you might be saying. No, you probably weren’t, because we live in the type of society that tells women not to get raped instead of teaching men not to rape them.

But now you have no excuse, because here is a list of simple things to keep in mind when approaching a woman in public for a legitimate reason. This is not an exhaustive list. This is not a list of techniques to manipulate women into paying attention to you. This is not a promise that if you do all of these things, women will completely let their guard down and hail you as a god just for having the decency to treat them like people. Like men, women are complex humans who have a wide range of past experiences that influence their present behavior. Like men, women sometimes have things they are reading, looking at or thinking about and just want to continue doing that undisturbed. Like men, sometimes women have past trauma that has wounded them so deeply they can’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt. That’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility to respect it.

These are just a few things to keep in mind so that, as a man, you can potentially have an exchange with a woman you don’t know in public without immediately making her spidey senses tingle. Side effects may include friendship, creation of a community, and maybe even having a meet cute with the love of your life, but don’t expect these things to happen just because you followed all the rules and then get upset when they don’t (see guideline #7).

1. Never approach from behind or from the side. Not because women are horses, but because women are people. It’s a normal human instinct to feel uncomfortable when someone does this. Instead, approach head on slowly, and maybe give a little wave or head nod accompanied by a smile. Say hi, don’t just start talking at her. Make sure she acknowledges you before you start talking. Also, do not grab women from behind at dance clubs!! I cannot stress enough how creepy this is, and yet it happens literally every time I go out dancing, usually multiple times per night.

2. Read her body language and her regular language. If she continuously turns away, she doesn’t want to keep talking to you. If she only gives you only one-word answers, she doesn’t want to keep talking to you. If she has headphones on and is looking out the window, she’s not looking to have a conversation. Just because she sits next to you on the bus doesn’t mean she wants to talk to you. Just because she doesn’t talk to you doesn’t mean she’s not interested in men in general (men have implied this SO many times to me when I brushed them off and it’s insulting to both me and the LGBTQ community). I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Read the room dude, is what I’m saying here.

3. Be aware of her surroundings and don’t approach her when she is alone or otherwise vulnerable. For example, alone at a bus stop at night. Know that if you talk to a woman in that situation, she will immediately assume you are going to harass her even if you’re just asking for the time.

4. If you are gay or in a committed relationship of any kind and therefore not in any way interested in her romantically, personally I think it doesn’t hurt to subtly acknowledge that. This is not necessary in a lot of situations, but in the context of a longer conversation it can help women feel a little more at ease to know that the interaction isn’t going to end with an awkward attempt to get her number. There’s no reason to overtly do this, and in fact that can be very insulting. (ie, Implying that she’s an egomaniac for thinking you might be hitting on her. That happens way too often, and is incredibly ignorant considering how often women get catcalled and propositioned.) But if you sense that she’s uncomfortable, mentioning your partner/preference in a subtle way can sometimes ease the situation and maybe even lead to a beautiful friendship down the road. (Side note: LGBTQ people definitely have their own set of things to worry about when it comes to harassment, which many people who are more qualified than me to address these issues have written illuminating articles about. You should look it up.)

5. Don’t ask for her number, offer yours. Again, every situation is different and this isn’t always necessary. But if you have followed all the above rules, are now engaged in a nice conversation with a woman you like, but sense that she may still be uneasy about you because you’re still technically a stranger, don’t ask her for her number if she doesn’t offer it. You may not realize how frequently women actually get harassed over various forms of social media, dating apps and text messages. It’s a lot.

6. Do not touch her or come too close to her without consent. This is perhaps the most obvious and the most important, but also somehow a concept that a lot of men don’t grasp. Nothing triggers my spidey sense more than when a guy stands just a little too close to me. If you want to make it clear you don’t mean any harm, stand even a little further than you think is necessary. Let her be the one to move towards you first if she feels comfortable.

7. If she has made it clear she doesn’t want to talk to you for any reason (including but not limited to the ones stated above), don’t get visibly flustered or offended. In most cases, it’s not personal. Or sometimes it is and she’s just not that into you. Either way, if you get visibly frustrated it immediately triggers a woman’s very valid fear that a man will lash out at her verbally or physically for not responding to him. Just apologize and leave her alone. Even if it seems unnecessary. Even if all you wanted to do was ask her for change for a dollar and she said no without even looking at you. Even if you thought you had a connection with her and she rejected you. You are entitled to your feelings, but you are not entitled to instill fear in women because you didn’t get the exact response you wanted, and even a small indication of anger can make the spidey senses tingle.

So there you go. It’s a jumping off point. I’m sure there’s stuff I forgot. I’m sure there will be much more discussion about sexual harassment in the coming days, and that’s wonderful. I’m glad I live in a time where those conversations can happen. Clearly, there are a lot of systemic changes that need to happen, and I hope that men learning appropriate ways to speak to women in public is one of them. I hope my kids grow up in a world where these types of guidelines are taught to men at a young age. Maybe even in school. Or maybe the world my theoretical children grow up in will be so woke that it won’t even be necessary. Men will alter their behavior, more women will be in leadership roles, and strangers all over the city will meet cute in public without any creepy undertones. Those things will not only make the world a better place for women, but for men too.

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Genie Cartier is a San Francisco native. She graduated from UCLA with a BA in English/ Creative Writing and earned an MFA in Creative Writing/ Poetry from SFSU. Check out her novella Fog City Summer on this website. When not writing, she is also a professional circus performer of 24 years and will be directing Dark Side of the Circus, a circus choreographed to Pink Floyd, in April 2020. Find out more at