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The Dark Power of ‘Is This Guy Bothering You?’

These days, ‘Is this guy bothering you?’ is a meme roasting toxic masculinity — but I literally wouldn’t exist without it

Let’s say you’re attracted to women. Let’s also posit that you also have a bare minimum of empathy and situational awareness. And now let’s imagine that you’re in a public, social space (let’s go with “a bar,” because I’m too much of a drunk to think of anywhere else), and you see an attractive woman talking to a man. Only it doesn’t look like she really knows him, or is all that comfortable with the conversation, or is doing much of the talking. In fact, it appears as if she is running through every available scenario in which she extracts herself from this conversation without this doofus making a scene.

Well, in that case, you might want to… intervene. After all, women can feel enormous pressure to humor men, or at least tolerate their monologuing, for fear of what they sometimes do when rejected. So, being the chivalrous person you are — and perhaps interested in this woman yourself? — you appoint yourself her protector. You polish off that beer, screw up your courage, stride directly over to them, uttering these words:

“Is this guy bothering you?”

“Is this guy bothering you?” may well be the most storied move in pickup culture, far predating whatever some dude in a fedora taught you about “negging.” When it works, you’ve become an instant hero. When it doesn’t, oh boy is it ever a mess. By the MEL staff’s reckoning, it gives you, at best, a 50/50 shot with the woman in question, though the odds are heavily dependent on you, her, your suaveness and just how much the guy is bothering her. If you come off a little too strident over a minor inconvenience, that’s not the best look. If you’re George McFly in Back to the Future, and you’re taking on the school bully to cut short a sexual assault in progress, yeah, that’ll pay off.

I’ve personally never tried this maneuver, as I prefer to develop private, long-term crushes that I’d rather die than reveal. I also lack the constitution to hit on strangers, and at this point, “Is this guy bothering you?” is more of a meme than a justifiable course of action. We’ve read about outcomes embarrassing for everyone involved:

We’ve learned how the approach may lead to a human centipede of obnoxiousness:

And we’ve seen dudes translate this behavior for the social media landscape:

Yes, because platforms including Twitter and Instagram are swarming with thirsty Reply Guys seeking any opportunity to clog women’s feeds with their banalities, it’s now possible to call out these bothersome dweebs from the comfort of your own home, or even on your phone! This is almost always a joke, mind you — one I couldn’t resist as I read the hundreds of desperate tweets from dudes trying to woo MacKenzie Bezos, now officially divorced from Jeff Bezos and the third- or fourth-richest woman alive.

As silly as it is, however, I cannot entirely discount “Is this guy bothering you?” Why, you ask? Because that’s how my own parents met. Family lore has it that in the late 1970s, in New York, my mom and her friend were walking home from a Broadway show; it was February, and bitingly cold, so they stopped into a bar for a drink. There, they were accosted by some creep who did not leave them alone until my dad — who I believe was shooting pool with his buddy nearby — told him to get lost. The four of them enjoyed the rest of the evening together, and a few years later, my folks were hitched. I was born some years after that… all because of “Is this guy bothering you?”

In October, they’ll celebrate their 38th wedding anniversary. Unreal!

But maybe the past is where that kind of story belongs. Gender politics are not what they were all those decades ago, or even earlier this decade. The pivotal question — the sequence of words designed to position you as a savior and your rival as an intruder, as if you are clearly entitled to the woman’s trust in a way he is not — can escalate her anxiety or discomfort. Luckily, there is a helpful (non-horny) alternative:

For the sake of progress, we have to admit that the ulterior motive encoded in “Is this guy bothering you?” is often inappropriate at such moments. Still, we can hang onto it as a joke — one that pokes fun at men’s overeager competitive spirit and false suavity.

Is there any current context in which this query could function as intended, with no problematic overtones and a minimization of negative consequences? Actually… yes. I almost can’t fathom it myself, and I hesitate to reveal this, as it could radically shift our dating culture in ways we’re not ready for. Nevertheless, it must be said: The “bothering you” gambit, however tired, can work, and even lead to a hookup, under a single condition:

If the person asking is also a woman.

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