I play chicken with men on the street
Lately you’ve seen a string of articles about how women say sorry too much. We’ve got yesterday’s New York Times opinion piece entitled Why Women Apologize and Should Stop, we’ve got Amy Schumer’s amazing-as-always skit on accomplished women apologizing for everything including existing, and even academics are weighing in.
This is not my problem. I don’t apologize as an automatic response. I learned that early on, when I got my first teaching evaluation; I had apologized exactly once to my (all female) class about not being prepared, in a summer semester where I met with them daily for 10 weeks, and at the end of the summer they all mentioned that I came to class unprepared. I had never come unprepared a second time, nor had I ever mentioned being unprepared a second time. That experience cured me of apologies more generally.
But I remain curious about how men and women perceive things differently, in terms of politeness. That’s why I play chicken with men on the street. I’ve been doing it for years, and I’ve collected a LOT of data.
It’s actually not fair to say that I do it “with men,” since I do the same thing with women. But it ends up being something that only actually comes to something with men. Let me explain.
I live in New York City, and I don’t own a car, so I’m always walking on the sidewalks. I’ve been here for 10 years, and after a couple of them, I thought I noticed a pattern. Namely, that I found myself moving out of the way for men far more often than I found myself moving out of the way for women. Now, it needs to be said that there is a certain amount of ballet-level choreography that one learns when one lives in a busy place, and it mostly happens at an unconscious level. Which is to say, most of the time you make a kind of tacit agreement with someone who is walking towards you, that you’ll move slightly to the right, and so will they, and there will be no bumping. That’s something we do so often and so thoughtlessly. We hardly notice such things.
In fact, it’s only when that unspoken agreement doesn’t happen that we notice. And it’s often unclear why the agreement failed. Did I come out of nowhere? Was the other person checking their phone? Were they lost in thoughts?
Anyhoo, after some thought, I decided to start an experiment. I would choose a moment when I am walking in broad daylight (no visibility problems) and when someone else is walking directly towards me, by all accounts looking around themselves (no distractions by cell phones or the like), and moreover where there was plenty of room to do the “silent tacit agreement” thing which we all learn to do as New Yorkers.
Once that scene was set, which actually happens multiple times every day as a New Yorker, here’s what I’d do next: I’d mimic the person coming at me. If they moved to the right, I would too, as soon as I could react to their movement. It was nearly simultaneous. I’ve become very good at reading body language and knowing when they would swerve, and swerving myself. It’s almost always like that, and those are valuable data points. Let’s call those successful games of chicken, where nobody gets bumped.
But sometimes there are unsuccessful games of chicken. This is when I am fully prepared to move out of the person’s way, but it never happens. I never see their body acknowledging mine, and getting prepared to move out of the way. And, as part of my data-collecting experiment, whereby I mimic that person, I also never move. What ends up happening is a bump. I’ve never gotten hurt, and neither have I ever hurt anyone, because that’s not the point. The point is to see who is ignoring common courtesy.
And, as you might have anticipated, it’s predominantly men. White men. Women, all women, and black and Hispanic men all get out of my way, especially Hispanic men, as do most white men for that matter. But there is a certain subcategory of white men that just don’t seem to know the rule about mutual accommodation, and the result is I’ve bumped into hundreds of white men on the streets of New York over the years. Some of them even turn around and say things like, why didn’t you get out of my way?
Just to be clear, this is similar but not the same as a phenomenon known as manslamming, whereby one refuses to move out of the way for anyone. That’s much more rude, and I don’t do it. To be clear, I move out of the way in almost all interactions.
I’ve told people about my experiment, and they are sometimes offended by it (other times they find it hilarious, or want to try it themselves). They often suggest that certain people are simply lost in their own thoughts, and shouldn’t be bumped because of that. But I think the question is, who gets to get lost in their thoughts on a busy street? Getting lost in one’s thoughts is a form of carefree behavior that only certain people have regular access to.
Also, mitigating factors: I’m a white woman. I have no idea how this experiment would play out for other people. Also, I’m a large person. I’m also not sure if small people would have the same experience. I’d love to hear from other people.