Edited 4/25 to add further email correspondence from the Letter Writer at the end of the post.
Two things I know:
1) If you have to keep explaining and justifying and expanding what you said, you said it wrong the first time.
2) If lots of people tell you you screwed something up, you did.
The way I responded to the last LW was condescending, snarky, and rude, and I am sorry. I definitely read his letter the way thecynicalromantic breaks it down here, and I definitely responded hastily and in anger and should have slept on it before posting, especially the last sentence, and I definitely responded to him as part of a pattern of dudes asking versions of the same question instead of as an individual in pain. LW, I definitely don’t have a right to tell you to avoid feminist spaces, plural, and the “get a fucking grip” was mean and pretty inexcusable.
Here’s what happened, LW: You unintentionally stumbled into my fatigue at explaining all of this again, after I’d had another week like this one and just a bunch of generally sexist “You are a lady, so you will sort out my shit and be nice while doing it” bullshit.
Here’s what I should have done: Deleted your question from my email. My fatigue is legit, so why not just go with it instead of punishing you by answering your question grudgingly? Until now, I’ve said that it is ok if this was a 101 space. Changing the rules on that without a discussion, in answer to a questioner who is writing in with that assumption, is not cool and I am sorry.
But I didn’t, so here we are.
The content of my advice remains basically the same, but I’d like to try again in a non-snarky way.
I still think you should keep treating his anxiety disorder with your therapist, who can help you sort out what messages the Jerkbrain is using to lie to you about the world and what things are legitimate “don’t do that” situations.
I still think that if you feel anxious about starting conversations (with women, specifically, as you asked in our post, as in the example you supplied, and based on the example of the kind of feminist reading that you said is freaking you out) because you are worried about impinging on someone’s happy solitude or upsetting them, when in doubt, hold off. Wait and see if the person talks to you first (a pretty foolproof way of being sure they want to be in the conversation). Observe their body language, the situation, and don’t assume they want to talk to you.
That is all that the Schrödinger’s Rapist post asks you to do. If you are a man who wants to talk to a strange woman in public:
1) Be aware of the surroundings and the vibe that you are sending out (this applies to approaching all humans, not just women. Men experience the most violence at the hands of other men and it is good to take care of their safety as well).
2) Be aware of the cues that the other person is giving off, and respect them, including the ones that say “I don’t want to be interrupted at all.” (Again, this applies to all humans, as not all men want to be talked to).
3) If you make a mistake and accidentally engage someone who didn’t want to be engaged, show you are a person who can be trusted to respect “back off” signals by immediately backing off. A safe person stops the behavior that triggered the “back off!” response and moves away. An unsafe person berates you for being paranoid or hangs around explaining that they are a good person and didn’t really mean it and you should give them another chance to prove that by interacting more (the thing you just indicated that you did not want to do).
4) Be aware of the history of how men have violated women’s safety & autonomy, and dominated public spaces. Be aware of the ways that women have been socialized to be polite and accommodating, even when violence is offered.
5) Be aware that there are reasons that someone might be very wary of you or simply not want to engage with you even if you in fact are nice and do everything correctly, and that it’s not personal.
A lot of men were really, really upset and angry by that post and expected either personal detailed explanations or to be given blanket, pre-emptive exceptions from having to worry about it. Because they are nice and don’t want to hurt people. Because after reading it they feel alienated in spaces where they used to feel comfortable and unquestioning. Or, because in some cases they have disorders that make it disproportionately and unfairly difficult for them to understand cues or even talk to women in the first place.
That history is all in the comments at Shapely Prose and shows up every time that post is mentioned, including here, and then nice feminists patiently explain “But sometimes you could just not talk to us, and look, there are signals that you could read” and patiently outline the signals again and men reply “But how can we possibly? Do you just not want us to talk to anyone, ever?” and we say “No, that’s not what we mean” and they say “BUT NOW I WILL FEEL SCARED AND WEIRD ABOUT APPROACHING STRANGE LADIES” and we say “YES, CORRECT, SOMETIMES WE ALSO FEEL SCARED AND WEIRD” and then someone says “But *I* am a woman/from a place where people are all super-friendly and *I* actually like when people chat, so y’all being so harsh (which means that they are probably giving off the ‘yes, chat with me’ signals, and not the ‘i brought headphones and a book’ signals, in other words, totally covered by the initial example and not in fact an exception that needs to be made.)” And then here we are, again. And again. And again.
Sadly, having an anxiety disorder doesn’t prevent you from being someone’s Schrödinger’s Rapist. I keep wanting to replace “rapist” with something like Schrödinger’s Anxious Guy Who Had To Psych Himself Up To Even Leave The House Tonight And Doesn’t Mean To Bother You And Who Will Politely Go Away And Feel Super Apologetic And Shitty Afterward, but the reality is, some people somewhere might be actually scared of you and it feels wrong to water it down and pretend that’s not so. As a person with anxiety, that is probably making it worse and not what you need to hear, but it also doesn’t make it untrue.
True story: Many years ago, some guy came up behind me on the street and tapped me on the shoulder. What followed was a mugging where he beat me black and blue and took my bag. Recently, I left a party and was walking to the bus, and a friend who left a few minutes after me (who doesn’t know that story) thought it would be funny to sneak up behind me and tap me on the shoulder. He thought it would be obvious that it was a joke, that I would assume that it was someone from the party, and that I knew he was right behind me. It was not obvious, I did not know, and it scared me a lot. It wasn’t his fault that I had that history, he didn’t have bad intentions, and after I stopped screaming and crying he apologized and I explained why it bothered me so much. But he hadn’t done the calculus of “dark street, alone, might be upsetting, do not touch,” and it went badly for both of us.
It feels like your worry is that every woman who meets you sees Schrödinger’s Rapist, and every woman that you meet is Schrödinger’s Trauma Victim, who will respond to your polite “Jolly good painting, right?” with screaming and running away. It fits so neatly with the lies that your anxiety is telling you, and you want some way to sort it out and guarantee that you won’t accidentally hurt someone. Your anxiety is telling you “That person probably doesn’t want to talk to me because I am horrible and will screw everything up.” Your recent feminist reading is telling you “Maybe the person doesn’t actually want to talk to you. Think about it.” I can see why it’s combining in “Don’t talk to anyone ever! You’ll do it wrong!” and a raging, paralyzing case of stereotype threat.
Maybe the woman at the art show would have been cool with talking to you. Or, maybe you picked up something in her demeanor correctly and processed it correctly. Probably, if you had spoken, she would not have screamed and run away or thought “Is this guy going to attack me?” Probably, the worst thing that would have happened was she gave you a polite brushoff and then moved away. Women are so socialized to be nice that usually the worst brush-off that actually intrusive people get is a mild “I’d prefer not to chat, thanks.”
I think you are looking at that anecdote as an example where your anxiety got in your way, and a “ridiculous” problem to be fixed. I looked at it as an example of you testing out some of the stuff you’d read about reading cues and and making a totally sound decision not to engage. Even with all the therapy in the world, even if your anxiety disorder were totally cured, that calculus should still be a part of social interactions with strangers. The way you used to use to manage your anxiety, where you could just not worry about what people thought and assume they’d tell you if there was a problem, was always a faulty assumption. While I can see why it was a helpful workaround for you, the immense anger from men after the Schrödinger’s Rapist post was about losing exactly that assumption from their repertoire. It’s something that every person struggles with as they become more aware of the world. “Oh shit, my good intentions are not enough to prevent other people from ever being harmed?“
So you need a new workaround that’s based in better assumptions. That doesn’t mean you’re horrible, it means that you leveled up. Talk to your therapist about that and see what you can come up with. Do what you can to re-evaluate the idea that approaching strange women in a carefree manner is an inherently desirable skill or one that you personally should cultivate as proof that you’ve conquered your anxiety. When it comes to the mechanics of how to approach strange women and be reasonably sure that you are not being a jerk, Schrödinger’s Rapist already covers it. There is no advice that is going to be better than that advice. If you’re looking for tips on meeting people in general, there’s a lot of stuff here that might help you (don’t be thrown off by the word ‘date’, there is a lot of general social skills advice, especially in the comments). If you can bear to look at Saturday’s thread ever again, pay attention to the comments where people say “maybe approaching strangers shouldn’t be your jam, but try Meetup or more structured social activities where you can be sure that people want to meet other people instead.”
Ok, a hopefully a mostly snark-free answer. Probably too late to do the actual LW any good, and I can understand if he ran far, far away from this blog.
On the subject of 101-spaces, I think this space is now closed to all flavors of the question “As a man, how do I get better at interacting with women, plural?” If other people want to keep doing that work, great, but I have reached my personal limit. I will adjust the FAQ appropriately when I get a moment.
So the Letter Writer reached out to me on Twitter, and then we traded a few emails. He seems like a very nice, thoughtful gent. And the anxiety-sufferers had the right of it, for sure. His emails are posted, unedited, but anonymized.
So I’m the XY who sent in that question. I’ve read both your replies and some of the resulting comments from users. I can see why you and them replied the way you did, although it wasn’t particularly fun reading hundreds of comments about what a horrible person I am. There’s a few things I’d like to make clear:
1. I had no prior knowledge of Captain Awesome before sending in that question. Someone suggested your site to me and I thought it was worth a shot. Based on the title I thought it was probably an advice column for people who were socially awkward. So I wasn’t consciously asking a feminist woman to “comfort me because injustice makes me feel icky”.
2. An anxiety disorder means you worry about things excessively. That is, more than is necessary or helpful. From your answer I felt like you’d almost ignored that part of my question and written the same answer that you would have given to anyone.
To give a rough description of how I experience social anxiety, it’s like an insistent internal monologue that assumes the worst is going to happen in any social situation. Any little clue, or sometimes no clue, is filtered to be a sign that people are reacting badly and hate me. I focus on any possible bad reaction that they could have, and then often get into a bind where I blame myself for these possible reactions but also for being too scared to act. It’s paranoid, it makes me feel awful, and severely affects my social life. A significant part of that anxiety is worrying about the unseen. What if, despite appearances, this person really hates me? (With the hidden assumption that they’re probably right, which is the really damaging part). Learning about how women experience sexism and sexual harassment from men feeds into that anxiety very strongly because it justifies the view that people are very upset with me but keeping it to themselves. Also, the behaviour caused by social anxiety can make women feel uncomfortable too – silence, mumbling, not making eye contact, so it’s not the case that simply allowing myself to be anxious is a good solution.
3. I realise that as a man this is my cross to bear. I don’t want to revert back to ignorance about how women feel, and I never said I did. I know there is a conflict between my desire not to worry so much about being sexist and the reality that sexism exists, and that I should be aware of it and not try and excuse myself. That is why I’m seeking outside help, because finding a balance between those two conflicting issues is difficult.
4. Being told “if approaching women in public gives you that much anxiety, don’t do it” and to “get a grip” is like super not helpful.
5. I should have given more context to the art gallery situation. Many of the problems people had with that part of my question were due to them not assuming good faith, but I realise one can’t always do that. This last Friday was the private view of my sister’s art exhibition, and the woman I was thinking about talking to was her teacher, although we hadn’t been properly introduced. I’m pretty certain that my behaviour of avoiding her was ridiculous.
So I did find some decent tips amongst the comments on your site. It was good to hear from people that it’s permissible to test how receptive women are to talking first and then back off if they respond negatively. That said I did feel attacked by your response and those of your users, and though I’m not sure how much discussion there is to have after this point, I wanted to contact you to speak in my defence, particularly to explain social anxiety further.
Thanks for getting in touch,
I am glad you reached out, and again, really sorry I answered as I did. This makes total sense and is consistent with what the other anxiety sufferers described. What would you like to happen now?
It’s good to hear that you understand and that’s all I really wanted. If you feel you’ve got any different advice now I’m still receptive.
Again, thank you for contacting me. Giving free advice to people is a nice thing to do and I appreciate that you take it seriously enough to care about the fallout from making a mistake.
As a suggestion, in the future if someone asks a question where they refer to a mental health problem then you could refresh your knowledge on it to help with your reply.
That would maybe avoid comments like this http://captainawkward.com/2013/04/20/476-i-have-anxiety-that-women-will-have-anxiety-about-me-approaching-them/#comment-52085 from your colleague alphakitty. Her response is totally reasonable for someone without an anxiety problem, but in my case what’s she’s saying is similar to telling a hypochondriac that their health anxiety is good because it’ll mean they’ll avoid all those nasty diseases out there.
As far as any public response goes, I guess you can post my emails, anonymously of course.
P.S. what does LW stand for?
I do not have the wherewithal to moderate another discussion of this intensity and duration at this time, so comments will remain off, but I wanted the community to be able to see that we were dealing with a kind and reasonable guy. The fact that he, and others among you, can be so kind when I was so unkind makes me feel the wrong that was done more keenly, but also gives me hope that we can knit this place back together with a little time and understanding.
Some steps I plan to put in place:
1. Changing the FAQ. Still mulling over exactly how, but obviously will announce when it changes.
2. Hosting a future open thread on anxiety, especially social anxiety, where only anxiety-sufferers are invited to post and others are invited to listen, like we did with the Asperger’s thread a while back, and keeping that as the format for anytime someone writes in with “I have x diagnosis and think it’s effing up my life in the following ways.”
3. Taking my time before posting replies to letters that initially rub me the wrong way. The “Post” button is instantaneous, the internet is forever.