Uncomfortable Encounters: A Woman Alone in Public – Part One

I stopped by the mall the other day to pick up some gifts for my bosses. I was just stopping by quick on my way to meet a friend for a hike. So naturally I was in a hurry. And weird things always seem to happen when you don’t have time for them.

I was walking briskly through the mall with my Starbucks in hand when I hear an “Excuse me” from just behind me. I stop and turn around to face a young guy. He says “You seem cool, so I’m just gonna give this a shot” and then he proceeds to introduce himself. He asks me for my name and I tell him. Then he asks me what I am up to and I explain to him my mission at hand, desperately trying to convey that I am in a hurry so he will leave me alone. To back track slightly, I should mention that this guy instantly made me feel uncomfortable. On one level, I know that in most situations I am way too nice and that no person in any situation, regardless of gender, should feel the need to continue to converse with someone who is making them uncomfortable out of politeness. However, on another level (potentially the too nice and overly sympathetic level), I felt like I should at least let the guy finish his first sentence because I could tell he was trying to put himself out there and I know that’s a hard thing to do.

Unfortunately, this was definitely one of those situations were I should not have felt the need to be nice. After I told the guy what my business was at the mall he continued to follow me to the store I was going to, even though I was doing my best to stay slightly ahead of him. I made my purchase at the store quickly while he looked around. I was hoping maybe at this point he would take the hint that I had no interest in talking to him and not follow me as I left the store. But no, he continued to follow me as I left. I was making virtually no eye contact with him and although I answered the questions he asked, I kept all of my answers short. At this point, I am both uncomfortable and running late. To make matters worse, I also have finished my iced tea and really need to use a restroom. But I need this guy to leave me alone, so I decide my best strategy is to tell him I have to go meet my friend and have no more time to talk, which is the truth.

I tell him this and his response is “But I’m not done following you.” I walk as fast as I can towards my car and hope that he is not following me. I feel creeped out and I have a full bladder – this is not ok. I get to my car without seeing him, lock my doors and get the hell out of there.

This is not the first time I have been in a situation like this. There are multiple times that I can remember, both inside and outside of the United States, where a man has made me feel uncomfortable when I am alone in public. And I know I am not the only woman who has been in this situation. If you ask any woman if a man has ever made her feel uncomfortable, more often than not I would be willing to bet her answer is yes. On the flip side, if you ask a man if a woman has ever made him feel uncomfortable when he is alone in public, I think you would get significantly fewer yes responses.

To me this imbalance is one of my least favorite parts of what it means to be a woman vs. a man in our society. It’s unfair that some men feel that is acceptable to make a woman uncomfortable. It’s unfair that a woman is more likely than a man to be a victim of sexual assault or harassment. It’s unfair that there are just different risks a woman faces when she travels alone than a man does.

And I know that there are several woman who are great at calling men out when they start to make things uncomfortable or unpleasant. I am not yet one of them, but I strive to be more like them.¬†For many women though, there is this notion instilled within us that we should be respectful and polite to everyone regardless of whether they make us uncomfortable. We don’t want to be rude, so we end up placing another person’s comfort (often a stranger’s) before our own. This doesn’t make sense. But I’ve done this in countless situations, more typically when the stranger I’m interacting with is a man. On the positive side, at least I am aware that I do this. I may not be able to change the way some men engage women when they are alone in public (at least not right away), but I can empower myself and other women to call men out when they make us uncomfortable. If we are uncomfortable, we should not feel guilty or rude telling someone that. It is everyone’s right to feel comfortable. We need to remember this.