“There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.” This hopeful sentiment, often attributed to the Irish poet WB Yeats, came to mind this week as I tried to get up to speed on the rules for human interactions in 2016.
For those who missed the flurry of sarcastic tweets and parody pieces, someone recently dredged up a men’s magazine article from 2013 titled “How to talk to a woman wearing headphones” and decided it deserved a bigger audience. Not because it contained sage advice about navigating the social situation of its title, but because it was terrible, and downright sinister, and a perfect encapsulation of the worst kind of male entitlement.
The piece itself won’t seem particularly remarkable to anyone familiar with the awful collection of “dating” advice that’s come to be known as pick-up artistry, broadly defined as the use of rude, provocative and manipulative tactics to attract and retain the attention of women. It goes without saying that such tips are not geared towards gentlemen who have been blessed in the looks or charisma departments.
Let’s talk about boundaries and respect and empathy. Let’s talk about the meaning of ‘romance’
The piece was ripe for critique, and a useful starting point for a discussion about where chatting up ends and harassment begins. Great, I thought – let’s do it. Let’s talk about boundaries and respect and empathy. Let’s talk about the meaning of “romance” and the problems with Hollywood movies that show men winning women’s affections with persistence, presents and public declarations.
But that’s not quite how the discussion went. That sort of nuanced discussion doesn’t make for an instantly re-tweetable 140 characters, or an angry feminist op-ed aimed squarely at others who are already on the same angry feminist page. The internet’s collective response to the question of how to approach a woman wearing headphones was quite simply: “Don’t”.
Has it come to this? It is truly the case that if a man tries to chat up a woman when she’s in the middle of listening to music, or a podcast, or actually nothing at all, he’s an entitled monster breaching all known rules of etiquette? Martha Mills, writing in The Guardian, presumed to speak on behalf of all headphone-wearing women when she wrote: “we wear them because we don’t want to be talked to … we fill our ear holes to stop you from getting in.” But she does not speak for me. My earphones are not intended as a social barrier, except for in the very rare instances where I’m pretending to be asleep in order to commandeer a double seat on the overnight Megabus.
The entire dating process can be comfortably stage-managed, removing any danger of spontaneity or chance connections
Mills has some advice of her own for men seeking dates: she suggest they take up a hobby, ask their friends to set them up on dates, or go online. This way, ordinary women in the street will be safeguarded from their clumsy advances. The entire dating process can be comfortably stage-managed, removing any danger of spontaneity or chance connections. For maximum efficiency, one could simply restrict one’s dating pool to a few dozen friends and acquaintances, and draw up contracts stating who will get custody of whom in the event of a messy break-up. Oh, and never mind about the women who just genuinely enjoy their hobbies and aren’t keen to have their clubs and classes infiltrated by men feigning interest and prowling for phone numbers. They can just deal it. People with hobbies are suspect anyway.
Yes, some men cross the line and make women uncomfortable, irritated, upset or fearful. Yes, some respond to rejection by muttering insults, or even shouting them. Of course all of this is completely unacceptable and should be tackled as a matter of urgency – I’d start with mandatory relationships education in schools – but it’s a sad day when pretty much any attempt by a man to speak to a woman he doesn’t know is viewed as an outrageous invasion of her personal space.
Far more troubling to me is the behaviour of boys and men in confined settings towards girls and women they know
Far more troubling to me is the behaviour of boys and men in confined settings towards girls and women they know: at schools, universities and workplaces. Since these are the contexts in which most relationships are formed, in the real world at least, very little attention is given to the negative impact of unwanted male attention on those just trying to study, or work, in peace. The man in the street is a weirdo, breaching social norms with his catcalls or chat-up lines, whereas the schoolboy with a crush is the romantic lead in an indie movie, and the colleague with a full head of hair is regarded by his married peers as a great catch whose attentions should flatter and delight any woman who receives them.
A woman can walk away from a sleazy guy in the street, or turn down a drink she’s offered in a bar, but she can’t very easily avoid a classmate who stares at her during lessons, or a colleague who badgers her for a date via her work email account. Here, too, men often take rejection badly, decrying the objection of their affection as shallow, uncaring or insensitive to the courage it took them to make their move.
The headphones debate is a distraction from these more pervasive demonstrations of entitlement, which force the role of male ego protector onto girls and women who never asked for it. What’s important is not the setting in which a date is requested, but the ability of any man who receives a knock-back to accept that no means no.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.