The other day I was scrolling Twitter (now called X, a dumb thing I will never get used to), and read a thread by professor and Christian podcaster Heather Thompson Day that was both familiar and terrifying. She told the story of a man who followed her in his car while she was on a prayer walk. He then materialized on a different street, “rolls down his window and asks where I live. I just yell ‘NO SIR’ because I was terrified but also still felt the need to be polite,” Day wrote.
She added an emoji of a woman covering her face in her hand — the universal symbol of a “Yikes, I can’t believe I thought I had to do that” moment. Sadly, lots of us have given ourselves similar facepalms after having to quickly parse the gut instinct that compelled us to extricate ourselves from a situation yet still wrestle with the societal expectation to be nice and not hurt someone’s feelings. Many respondents to Day, mostly women, chimed in with their own stories of rebuffing a potentially dangerous person at risk of rudeness. My favorite response read simply: “Be rude. Stay alive.”
Hear, hear. I do not know one woman or femme-identifying person who has not been approached by a stranger, whether at a club or just walking down the street, and had to make a snap judgment whether they should be polite enough not to anger them, or risk not being nice and get the hell out of there. As the “Barbie” movie might say, it’s about the patriarchy.
But for me it boils down to: If I have to seem rude to get home safely, I’m gonna be rude.
“Women are definitely taught to be courteous, to be cordial,” said Jennifer Shepard Payne, a research scientist and clinician at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Child and Family Traumatic Stress. “You don’t have to feel bad about it. You have to make a quick decision.”
Michaela Frischherz, associate chair and associate professor in Towson University’s Department of Communications Studies, believes the situation that requires us to have to consider such a decision is rigged, and that “the whole concept of politeness is almost always gendered. That code exists to tell us what it takes to be ladylike, to be polite. People who are femme-socialized and women of color are subject to the code. The idea of impoliteness is survival. We have a fear of hurting other’s feelings. But what about our feelings?”
I believe had my instincts not overrode my own nice girl instinct, I would be dead. I was a Baltimore City College high school senior, walking behind the campus after a violin lesson on a Saturday, when the streets were more deserted and the bus service more erratic. A polite older white man in a weathered car slowed down. Wasn’t that violin heavy? he asked. Didn’t I want a ride? I’d been raised not to get in the car with strangers, so I thanked him for the offer but said I wanted to walk.
“Are you sure?”
Yes. I was sure. And then came the moment that’s been resonating in my head since 1988. “I’m just trying to be nice to you,” the man said, his voice rising, sounding wounded, with lips pursed as if he were very hurt and disappointed in me.
I know now that this is what predators do: elicit guilt or duty or whatever societal pressure gets us in the car. A truly nice man would have recognized that he was a white man seemingly trolling for isolated girls in a Black neighborhood, in a time before GPS and cellphones, and that he was being overbearing. But he took a chance I might value his feelings over my instincts to run.
Like Day, I felt bad about it. Also like her, I said no anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m here writing this story.
These choices aren’t just made in life-or-death situations, either, but also in relationships. Frischherz believes that’s why “some women fake orgasms. They just want to get out of there. It’s parents who say, ‘It’s polite to hug Aunt Jane,’ when you don’t want to hug Aunt Jane. It happens in health care all the time to fat women, as a fat woman, who aren’t trusted by doctors who think that in general they’re being too uppity. Like, we’re too much for asking questions.”
It reminded me of how Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes of all time, nearly died in childbirth because her insistence that the medical staff be aware of her blood-clotting disorder was ignored, as if she was asking too much, being too much.
“Black women have to deal with so many stereotypes like being the angry Black woman and not getting typecast into certain stereotypical roles,” Payne said. “Whether at work or anywhere else, being able to speak our minds is difficult for Black women.”
What it comes down to is the concept of boundaries, and the truth that women’s are often disregarded in favor of men’s, at risk of us seeming unsupportive or impolite. Payne mentioned a recent viral moment when semi-professional surfer Sarah Brady posted texts between her and ex-boyfriend actor Jonah Hill. Hill had insisted that Brady posting photos of herself in bathing suits, surfing with men or associating with certain friends violated his boundaries.
“That ends up being something like gaslighting,” Payne said. “You can only set up boundaries for yourself, not for the other person. That sounds like control.”
Oh, it is. A million tweets … er, Xs won’t change the so-far indelible responsibility that women assume, just by being born, to be protective of everyone’s feelings but ours. But it’s not impossible.
“Politeness is a social construction. It was made up in the first place,” Frischhertz said. “So we can then change it.”