Hello, little girl

‘Hello, mumble mumble…’

That’s what it sounded like. I turned around and saw a man grinning widely, walking behind me on the footpath.

‘Hello,’ I replied and kept walking.

‘Mumble, mumble…’

Huh? I took out my one of my earphones and looked at him, puzzled.

‘Are you going home?’ he repeated.

‘Yes.’

Oh not, he was a weirdo. I put the earphone back in and kept walking.

‘Mumble, mumble…’

Again, I took an earphone out.

‘Where do you live?’ he asked.

I considered my options.

‘I’d rather not say,’ was what I settled on.

I jammed my earphones back in and continued at the same steady pace. I didn’t turn around but could feel him drop away.

11 comments

  1. Rohan says:

    There’s a homeless man living on my street who I have regular awkward altercations with, like this one.

    I think most of these “weirdos” are just looking for a friend and they probably deserve some compassion. They’re just unable to interact with people in a normal way.

  2. joanium says:

    I take your general point, that odd people are often lonely and aren’t able to interact in a conventional (socially acceptable) way.

    I am happy talking to strangers but I don’t like it when they’re rude or scary. In a public space, I don’t feel obliged to deal with them.

    This man was well dressed. It was night time on a quiet street and he had no business asking me where I lived. It was creepy.

    A few weeks ago, I was at a train station and had a strange conversation with a man at a coffee shop. He started telling me about his Chinese girlfriend and how clever she was. I listened and smiled and told him a bit about myself before turning back to my client (we were waiting to go to a meeting).

    Then this man starts shouting at me: ‘Hey! You talk when I speak to you! I’m speaking to you!’

    Okay, weirdo. Rude weirdo. Maybe a damaged person who deserves sympathy? But I’m not going to give it when he’s trying to intimidate me!

  3. vera says:

    No, I totally agree, Joan. I’m the same. I’m happy to talk to strangers until they’re 1) rude or 2) asking questions which are too personal.

    I had a man getting angry in the car park of my local supermarket once. I was walking out, and he followed me, asking what country I was from originally. I told him, and I was friendly… until he asked for my phone number. I even said no nicely, but then he was all, “Why not? What do you think I’d do?” etc.

    Please. Exit gracefully. Ugh.

  4. joanium says:

    I was on the bus tonight and a man sat next to me, even though there was an empty seat behind me. This is a clear breach of public transport protocol.

    He struck up a conversation, asking the kind of questions that would be normal if I had met him for the first time at a party.

    This recent set of blog comments was still fresh in my mind and I made sure to follow through with my principle of ‘If they’re nice, I’ll talk to them.’

    Eventually, I sad, ‘I’m getting off at the next bus stop.’

    He said, ‘Maybe we can swap email addresses or something.’

    ‘Ah, I’d rather not. It’s been good talking, though. Bye!’

    It had been polite non-clicking conversation. I didn’t see the point of keeping in touch. I don’t have the time to email my good friends, let alone a stranger.

  5. vera says:

    I like it when I have a conversation with a stranger, and they understand that that’s all it is — a pleasant conversation with a stranger.

    One time I was on the tram from uni, and a guy asked, “Is that bag any good for carrying books?” (It wasn’t.) We started talking, and it turned out he was friends with some of the musos I knew from school, so we talked about music for a bit (he happened to be heading to a jazz gig).

    But when we both alighted at Flinders Street, it was simply, “Well, bye!” We didn’t even exchange names at any point.

    I think it’s an interesting situation, talking about yourself (as opposed to about the weather, or something else external like that) with someone who you’ve only just met, and never intend to see again. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it feels like you’re having a conversation for the inherent enjoyment of sharing information, not for some ulterior purpose, like building a relationship.

  6. joanium says:

    Yes, I want to have these ‘in the moment’ conversations as well. I often do so in lifts, actually. In a lift, it’s pretty clear that there’s not enough time for anything threatening.

    Unfortunately (fortunately?), it’s clear early on in a conversation when someone has ulterior motives.

  7. Rohan says:

    Is there some kind of threshold for one of these conversations to be long enough or interesting enough that you might consider taking actions so that you can talk to the person again? Or has that simply never happened for you outside of an explicitly social event?

    I’m reminded of an experience recently where I talked to someone next to me on a plane for a couple of hours and we were getting along pretty well, but when we got to the airport I didn’t make any attempt to exchange contact information before we went our separate ways. At the time I wondered afterwards if that was rude of me.

  8. joanium says:

    For me, I don’t think it’s ever happened outside of an organised event. Organised events feel safer than random encounters because it’s like that person has been been somewhat vouched for by your peers or hosts.

    I can imagine being on a plane and having a longer than average encounter with someone. I think in those circumstances, it would be acceptable to ask for contact details if you wanted them. That’s because you’re forced to sit next to each other, so there isn’t the same creepiness as someone who has no reason to talk to you coming over to strike up conversation.

    I don’t think you should ask for contact details if you don’t intend to keep in contact. It isn’t rude to not maintain contact.

    Last Christmas, I was at a party where I met a young man. His mum basically forced us to exchange email addresses because we were getting along. But what is the point of that? I already have friends, he already has friends. Our conversation wasn’t extraordinary, just nice.

    Finally, I think it comes down to reading signals. When you have a random non-compulsory encounter, you really should be able to get a sense of whether or not further contact is welcome. I feel like it’s easy to tell.

    I suppose it’s easier for some people than for others. But even if you blunder, as long as you’re not predatory, that’s fine! Unfortunately, people who sit next to you on the bus when there are dozens of empty seats behind, well, that feels predatory.

  9. Jess E says:

    You might be interested in this post:
    http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger%E2%80%99s-rapist-or-a-guy%E2%80%99s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/
    There’s a lot of discussion about whether or not it’s fair/healthy/whatever to treat all strange men as potential rapists. But it also makes the point that women are trained to be nice and talk to men whether we want to or not, and men are trained to expect female attention. Which promotes the idea to some men that any random woman who doesn’t respond in a friendly manner to conversation on PT etc is an uppity rude bitch, and by extension deserves to be brought down… and that’s (one reason) why feminists talk about a ‘rape culture’.

  10. joanium says:

    Hey! I really like that article. I would have liked to write that if I was articulate enough.

    I don’t consciously worry about being assaulted every time a strange man talks to me. I don’t know how much of that is in my subconscious. But I am suspicious — ‘What do you want?’

    I would feel the same way if a woman spoke to me out of the blue. But women are usually less threatening. I think they’re generally better at reading the signals.

    Thanks for the link, Jess.

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