Where's Your Line Between Flirting and Harassment?

Lots of dudes seem to think that there's no higher compliment to pay a lady than to tell her they like the novel she's reading. Are they being friendly, or are they being freaking obnoxious?
Publish date:
September 12, 2012
strangers, flirting, sexual harassment, street harassment, stranger flirting, geek love, M

I don’t know how to flirt with people.

Like, at all. It’s probably because I’m really bad at the lines between friendship and attraction, but most of my seduction skills involve a lot of yelling about St. Vincent, telling girls that I like their hair and attempting to eat salad in a way that doesn’t end with me wearing an impromptu ascot fashioned from arugula.

However, I do now have some idea of how not to flirt with people. In my year and a half of living here, the men of San Francisco have magnanimously taught me dozens of helpful lessons on easy ways to make those I find attractive feel trapped, nauseated and all-around harassed.

I now know that should I see a pretty woman on the bus, it’s not a great move to sit next to her and stare, getting closer and closer and finally asking, “Where are you heading?” when she glances up at me and reflexively smiles without showing any teeth.

I know that if a lady jogging happens to pause next to me while waiting for the light to change, reassuring her that she’s “an eight now, but she’ll be a ten by Christmas!” is sure to make her slap her headphones back in and edge sideways before taking off down the street.

And if I have the good fortune of being seated beside someone who doesn’t smell like warm Kleenex on a plane, I should probably not wait until she is firmly engrossed in her writing before suddenly and repeatedly shouting, “When are you gonna get married?” at her from approximately two inches away.

Those are just the obvious ones from the last month. There were countless more moments when people -- okay, sorry, but men, overwhelmingly men -- took advantage of my physical proximity to make me feel like I had no choice but to give them personal information or, at the least, my attention. Public transit was the worst offender, but I also got approached in coffee shops, while sitting on stoops, and, most recently, by a very drunk looming Southern man, by the keg at a friend’s wedding in Tennessee.

This kind of insistent approach is markedly different from catcalling. Realistically, it’s unlikely that a group of guys screaming, “Show us your tits!” from a slow-rolling Volvo is really looking for anything more than my confused face. But many of the people who shove themselves in between my face and my phone like one of the dumbass cats I had in college were probably genuinely trying to be friendly and flirty.

Apparently, lots of guys, like the one on this recent Reddit thread, find the whole process confusing. “Today I found a blog post by a woman who is constantly asked by men what she is reading, and considers that to be harassment,” he pleads to his fellow Redditors. “I always thought that asking what book someone is reading is the least threatening way of initiating conversation that a man is capable of.”

Now that Britain is contemplating making wolf whistles illegal, he says, he’s concerned that his friendly remarks might “accidentally” be labeled sexist.

On some level, I get it. When you see people reading a book you love or carrying a poster from the show you thought you’d bought all the DVDs of, it’s sometimes markedly difficult not to explode your excitement-juice all over them. I’m definitely guilty of interrupting people’s work to tell them I liked their Firefly shirts or whatever.

This ambivalence is also made slightly more difficult by everyone’s different tolerances for being approached by strangers. I’m a chatty fuck even on my worst of days, so if I’m not actively writing genderqueer porn on a plane from Atlanta to San Francisco (I’m looking at you, Mike from Sacramento), I’ll usually respond to shallow questions about the book I’m reading without too much untoward surliness. I’ve seen some women on Tumblr, however, who feel that just sitting at a computer automatically makes them unapproachable by etiquette. This is also a completely legitimate position.

In my personal ideal world, it'd be perfectly reasonable to be civil-ish for the first 15 seconds of a conversation or so: long enough to communicate “Back the hell off” without causing a ruckus, but short enough not to delude someone into planning which Yeah Yeah Yeahs song they’ll play at our engagement party. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

As far as that Redditor's thread is concerned, I really don’t think it’s that hard to discern where flirting ends and legal harassment begins. “Hey there, sweet vagina,” is unlikely to be misinterpreted as anything benign, and despite that Redditor’s worries, I can’t imagine anyone being arrested for asking a girl about her book (and then leaving the premises, which is the important bit).

The grayer area for most people, I think, is exactly when that panicked, trapped feeling starts to bubble up, and when you feel like being stuck with a strangely facial-haired creeper for the next 20 minutes on the bus is going to be a fate worse than food poisoning. Then it's harassment, sure, but I'm pretty sure lots of these cases wouldn't hold up in court.

Maybe I’m just okay at reading strangers, but I can generally tell when someone would just rather not talk to me. For some reason, lots of people I've met do not share that same talent. As far as I'm concerned, though, the official line between flirting and harassment is when I’ve clearly turned my attention back to my book, my music player, or my phone, and the approaching person continues to try to engage my attention. At that point, I usually think they're being willfully ignorant, and I start frantically looking for the exits.

The very worst of all is when I get a compliment beyond the “I get your nerdy T-shirt reference!” variety. I like being told I’m pretty and all, but a distressing number of people immediately follow compliments with a wide-eyed, expectant look. “I told you you were cute!” this look says. “So are you gonna open a MOMA exhibit to my dick this afternoon, or what?”

I’ve often wished that I were just a hair gutsier, because being able to politely say, “That’s lovely, and thank you, but I’m reading Teen Wolf fan fiction on my phone and would really rather not be disturbed,” and have people back off is a skill that I covet.

At the same time, though, I feel like I shouldn’t have to blatantly spell out my disinterest in a gentle cotton-candy letdown cloud. But being called a bitch for rejecting someone hurts a surprising amount, and I tend to try to avoid it as much as possible. Still, I am consistently amazed at how poorly would-be suitors can misinterpret monosyllabic grunts as, “Yes, put it in me.”

I mean, come on. I like speculative fiction as much as the next person, but dudes will stand there like baby birds expecting me to stuff my nerd-dampened panties down their throats every time they tell me they luuurve Philip Roth. And even worse, I basically just let them do it out of a bizarre sense of obligation to no one. It's a cycle of suck.

What about you guys? Where’s your line between flirting and harassment? And do you have any tips on how to politely shut it down? Let me know in the comments!