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How to Talk to Women on Public Transit Without Enraging Them

Updated on August 19, 2013
This is the train system that I use all the time: Bay Area Rapid Transit.
This is the train system that I use all the time: Bay Area Rapid Transit. | Source

Gentlemen, I am begging you.

I don't hate riding public transportation, but I don't love it either. My general experience would be much less harrowing and much more pleasant if men paid attention to the following guidelines.

(Some people may think that it's unfair to direct this article solely at men. Here's what you gotta realize: If I had ever been harassed on the train by a woman, then I would be addressing them as well.)

If she's occupied, don't speak to her.

If a woman is engaged in any kind of activity, don't speak to her or try to get her attention. Just don't. She's busy.

Here are some examples of activities not to interrupt:

  • reading, either on paper or on an e-reader
  • texting, talking, or playing a game on her phone
  • listening to music, or wearing headphones in any capacity

There is an exception:

Please do tell me if I've dropped my keys, my ID, some change, my train ticket, or anything equivalent.

Even if I look busy, this is helpful. Thank you! Don't ruin it: If I seem like I want to get back to my book after you hand me my keys, let me disengage. Please don't ask what my name, is or introduce yourself, or inquire where I'm going.

If you make eye contact while walking by, and she's not actively busy. . .

Then feel free to smile and/or say hi! Friendliness is nice--go ahead and put that positive energy out there. But don't mess up your good karma by expecting her to reciprocate, and don't take it personally if she doesn't. You are not the center of the universe, and there are tons of reasons why she might not feel like smiling, either at you or at all. She doesn't owe you anything but noninterference (as well as vice versa, of course).

Do not, under any circumstances, order her to smile. If you ever feel resentful that a woman didn't respond to your smile or wave the way you wanted her to, make a list of ten reasons why someone might not be in a friendly mood. And reflect on the fact that you are not entitled to any kind of social performance from a stranger.

Here I am looking very grumpy on BART:

I was on my way home from a mediocre date.
I was on my way home from a mediocre date. | Source

So, no comments about smiling, and don't comment on the rest of her appearance either!

Yup, this includes her face, any expression on her face, her clothes, skin, weight, hair. . . Nope. Don't bring that stuff up.

Personally speaking, I am okay with (positive) comments on my clothes, because clothes are one of my primary public modes of self-expression. However, a lot of women feel uncomfortable receiving any compliment from a male stranger. Even something as innocuous as "Cool boots!" can feel threatening.

Of course, negative comments on someone's appearance are much worse, and are the height of discourtesy. But remember that positive comments are also frequently unwelcome. It's better to keep your thoughts to yourself than to risk making someone else feel scrutinized and unsafe.

Side note: Framing a negative comment as being "helpful" doesn't work, either. I once had a guy tell me very earnestly that I should try out Proactiv, because it would make my skin less gross. What a fun little interaction that was! Thanks, dude, for the totally unsolicited suggestion that targets one of my main physical insecurities. So glad I get to feel even more self-conscious about my acne now.

The worst part was that this guy had his young nephew with him, and that I was totally polite to the uncle despite his presumptuousness. That means that his nephew got to see this man insult a woman's appearance, and then hear the woman thank him for it. "Oh, it's so nice of you to give me that suggestion! You're too kind!" Of course, I didn't want to react with my true indignation and risk escalating the encounter. But I felt so ashamed afterward.

Don't be the creep who stares relentlessly.

Especially if the lady you're staring at appears to be substantially younger than you. Trust me, you can go terribly wrong without ever opening your mouth! Just. . . avoid this. It's so weird and horrible. Occasional glances are fine--we've all thought a stranger was cute and wanted to manage a quick ogle--but if you can't stop yourself from staring, fix your eyes on your knees or something. Mentally compose the Missed Connection that you're going to post later.

When in doubt. . .

Even with all these tips in mind, it can't always be clear whether you're encroaching on someone's space and comfort. Men are socialized to feel relentlessly okay about doing that. So if you're trying to figure out whether it's appropriate for you to engage with a someone, remember the maxim "better safe than sorry".

However, if you're lost and need to ask for directions:

Which station is it again?

Look for one of the ladies without headphones and a book. Or trying talking to someone who isn't a woman!
Look for one of the ladies without headphones and a book. Or trying talking to someone who isn't a woman!

Good guidelines/bad guidelines. . .

What did you think of the suggestions in this article?

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Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments, please!

And thanks for reading.

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