It’s impossible to feel intimidated by someone who’s holding an iced coffee. Or so I told myself the other day when I lumbered into the path of a young mother pushing a stroller alone, momentarily startling her. It’s also, I’m guessing, hard to feel threatened by someone staring intently at their phone, oblivious to the world around them, or by a guy with his headphones in, chuckling to himself and smiling.
Perhaps it’s because I look something like a 200-pound skateboarding lumberjack who’s down on his luck, but all of this is part of the mental calculus I do whenever I find myself alone on the street with a woman. Or when I have to pass one on the sidewalk while jogging. Or when I get onto a bus or train and need to decide where to situate my oafish heft in relation to someone who, for all I know, is simultaneously instinctively sizing me up as a potential creep or worse.
There’s good reason for it, sadly. While the numbers regarding how frequently women are victims of rape and assault have, like everything else, been politicized as part of the endless cultural war we’re living through, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 19.3 percent of American women have been raped in their lifetime, and 15.2 percent have been stalked. Meanwhile, a 2014 Gallup poll found that 45 percent of women said they don’t feel safe walking alone at night, compared to only 27 percent of men. While it’s true that women are more likely to be raped or murdered by an intimate partner than a stranger, that’s small comfort in the heat of the moment.
So, short of announcing, “I’m a totally normal guy here — do not be alarmed, ma’am!” what can we do?
In the animal kingdom there are all manner of species who rely on the illusion of size to dissuade predators from attacking: A frilled lizard expands the flaps of skin around its head, horned owls and other birds fluff up their feathers and toads and pufferfish inflate. If you encounter a bear in the woods, one option to scare it away is to raise your hands high above your head to present a much larger threat.
Many men use a similar technique when we find ourselves in a potentially threatening situation around other men, or simply want to signal our toughness, jutting our chest forward, broadening our shoulders, scowling, Do not mess with me, pal. (Yes, it’s all very stupid, just to be clear.) Women often employ their own version of this — another behavior found in the animal world — by trying to blend in with their surroundings so as to not be noticed.
My behavior here is the exact opposite of the former combined with a piece of the latter. I try to make myself appear softer and smaller to put the woman in question at ease. You could call it “mansmalling,” or “manshedding” maybe, since we usually need a goofy portmanteau when it comes to these things.
Either way, think of it as a corrective for manspreading, which has made me overly self-conscious about the amount of room I take up. It’s become something of a joke, but manspreading is a good illustration of how often men don’t realize, or don’t care about, how much bigger, on average, their physical footprint is. Mansplaining, too, has come into the zeitgeist as a catchall for how we occupy emotional or intellectual space, planting a flag in the rhetorical ground of any given conversation that indicates the territory belongs to us first and foremost.
While mansmalling can happen anywhere, there are three main arenas where it usually transpires: On the street, on public transportation or in the gym. In the workplace there all manner of complicated and problematic social interactions that take place between men and women — as the infamous Google memo reminded us — but for the most part, mutual employment provides a modicum of respectability cover.
I’m not exactly sure when it started, but it’s something I’ve become more overtly aware of as discussions about male privilege and gender disparities have become more frequent on social media in recent years. There are two options when you’re exposed to an endless stream of women explaining exactly how they’re made to feel in the world by men: You either deny it and cry foul, like the seedier members of the alt-right, or you process it and try to do something, however incremental, to reduce your part in it. It’s hardly an act of heroism — in fact, talking about it out loud seems sort of ridiculous. It’s merely an attempt to understand your part in a loaded, fraught interaction, and trying to be slightly less of a shithead about it.
Also, I’m a beta SJW weakling. Though not so much so that you should Thick-Wife-Appreciator me online for this: Rest assured I’m an asshole pervert in many other ways.
Until recently, I thought I might be the only man performing these neurotic contortions, but after hearing from a few dozen other men and women, I’ve realized it’s a lot more common than I first believed. For instance, Ryan, 35, found himself performing this sort of conscientious space-occupying the other night in his hometown of Denver. It was late on a poorly lit street and a smaller woman was walking anxiously toward him. He pulled out his phone so the light of the screen would indicate he wasn’t paying attention to her.
“It’s sort of the opposite of manspreading or puffing up, which I’ll do at 3 a.m. on a dark street when I see erratic-looking or scary dudes around — light a smoke, jangle keys, push my chest out, whatever,” he says. “I know what that feels like for me so I can only imagine what it’s like for a 100-pound, 5-foot-nothing woman. Therefore, it comes from a place of compassion, I suppose.”
That said: “To be honest, I don’t know if I ever get to the point where I’m like ‘This stranger isn’t a threat,’” one woman wrote on Twitter. “There’s just ‘I’m scared’ and ‘I’m less scared.’” But there are certain cues that take some of the edge off, however. “I downgrade a DefCon level if he doesn’t look me over, but rather gives brief eye contact, a quick nod, then looks away and keeps walking,” another woman writes.“Keeping a respectable distance is reassuring, especially at night,” adds a third. “Men take up an incredible amount of space unwittingly.”
There are other signifiers of harmlessness, too. Some say having a dog helps, though that feels like an exposed secret that’s probably easy to game by this point. Having your own children with you, or being in the company of your partner or female friends is another salve. Reading as gay also doesn’t hurt.
Andrew, 37, says he thinks of his family when he’s out in public in Boston as a makeshift Guarantee of Non-Creepiness Assurance. It would be easier if there were a badge he could wear, he jokes, but that sort of thing always has the opposite of the intended effect. He adds, “If I’m walking near a woman I don’t know, I’m probably going to pretend like I don’t know she’s there. If I smile, make eye contact or say anything at all, she may think I’m a creep.”
David, a 26-year-old Canadian, said after years of hearing all of the gross and threatening stuff his female friends have to deal with, it’s become something he’s eager not to replicate himself. “I don’t think I consciously try to make myself look smaller, but I definitely try to smile slightly. Just the sort of friendly expression you might make at a coworker who you see in the hall, but don’t actually know that well.”
Like David, who is 6-foot-3 and feels like his size exacerbates things, Zach, 25, from Oklahoma City, is always aware of the impression his 6-foot-8 frame has on people. If he’s out running, he’ll cross the street so as to not surprise someone coming up behind them, or make a scuffling noise to announce his presence. “I’ve had the full visceral recoil-and-shriek combo from people realizing there’s an ogre stomping by them, both men and women.”
Race is another complicating factor, says Eric, a 36-year-old African American from Philly. There’s often a sense of tension he can’t shake whenever he finds himself alone with a woman — on an elevator and so on.
“Maybe I could attribute this to their behavior when they see me coming — purse-clutching, crossing the street, avoiding eye contact — but also maybe it’s just me? In a sense, like a lot of men I know, I don’t want to be perceived as threatening. I’m just a regular guy, you know? But how does that woman on the street know this? Do I whip out my pics of my wife and kids or something silly like that? These are the ridiculous thoughts that go through my head.”
Instead, he takes inspiration from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and whistles a pop song, particularly when around white women. Short of that, he stares at his phone intently, even if there’s nothing interesting to look at. “I’m trying to give off a ‘I’m way-too-focused on these memes to be a rapist,’” Eric says. “Ironically, I’d wager that many times these women I cross paths with probably barely notice me at all while I’m busy doing this nonthreatening Kabuki dance for them.”
Pretending you are transfixed by your phone seems to be a common mansmalling tactic; relatedly, per one woman I talked to, phones also can serve as a lifeline for women who keep them at the ready to call someone if they find themselves in a sketchy situation.
Not that phones don’t present their own challenges — mostly as the pervert’s tool of ignorance to surreptitiously take creepy photos. “I’ve got long ape arms and habitually check my phone on the subway,” says Jake, a 34-year-old New Yorker. “I’ve gotten used to holding my phone above my waist, so people don’t think I’m taking upskirt pics, but not in an orientation that’s too perpendicular to the ground, so people don’t think I’m taking any other pics either.”
“When I get on the bus to work in the morning, I scan everyone,” adds a 32-year-old tech guy from the Bay Area who wanted to remain anonymous. “If there’s an open seat next to a woman, I’ll take it, but I’ll make sure I sit as far to the edge as possible, not encroaching on her space at all. I’ll look at my phone and keep my head turned away from her so she doesn’t feel as though I’m about to start talking to her, or stare at her. If I have to stand on the bus and use my phone, I keep my finger over the outward facing camera lens so there’s no confusion that I may be taking a picture.”
It’s enough to drive you insane if you get too caught up in it.
But ultimately, it’s simply about trying to be respectful. “My dad always taught me being polite is about making people around you feel comfortable, or at least not making them uncomfortable,” Jake says. “I think the presence of a strange man in close proximity can raise a woman’s threat level to where it wouldn’t necessarily raise a man’s and being aware of that isn’t a weird thing so much as it is polite.”
A couple days after I started writing this, I went for a run along my usual path in a commercial area outside of Boston, where I live. There, I saw a woman who looked like she’d just finished a run herself, walking slowly on the sidewalk, so I swerved around her onto the road and said, “Excuse me,” in the least alarming voice I could muster. Just as I do, she lets loose the type of blood-curdling scream you’d expect from someone about to be attacked.
I stopped and apologized, and as she calmed down, she laughed it off. “I’ve seen too many horror movies,” she said. I wanted to explain: This is hilarious — I’m literally writing an article about this right now. But knowing how ridiculous that would sound, I did what I’m supposed to do: I got out of the way and left her alone.