When men are sexist, sometimes I play along…

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

When men are sexist, the least I can do is tell them not to be. I should say ‘nope’ or ‘fuck off’ or ‘are you shitting me?’ – sexist men deserve challenging responses. The last thing they deserve is for me to play along. Smile and nod and say ‘haha yes’, before sidling away and then kicking myself later. That’s the last thing they deserve, but it’s sometimes what I do.

It’s a Tuesday, about two weeks ago. I walk into a newsagent to buy some cigarettes and chewing gum. It’s hot, I’m late, and I’m sweaty. Nevertheless, I’m quite proud of myself: I’m wearing a sleeveless shirt for the first time in… god, maybe four or five years? I hate my arms, and I rarely get them out in public. At least not like this: not cut off at the shoulder. But I’ve recently bought a couple of sleeveless tops that I really like, and we’re in the middle of a heatwave, so I wear one out of the house.

I’m pleased and proud and happy, and on my way to hang out with brilliant friends. There’s almost nothing that could dampen my mood right now. So when I go into the shop and the guy behind the counter smiles at me, I grin back.

“Hello!” he exclaims brightly, and I reply with an equally cheery “Hi!”

I ask for cigarettes, put chewing gum on the counter, and rummage in my pocket for a battered credit card to tap.

“Nice day!” he tells me, and I agree.

“Nice arms!” he adds, and I start in surprise.

“Sorry?”

“Nice arms! You have muscles. You look strong.”

I stare in confusion: I don’t have noticeable muscles. I probably used to have them, years ago, but they’re now impossible to discern beneath the subcutaneous layers of macaroni cheese and cider.

“Umm… thanks.” I say, and I hold up my card to indicate I’m ready to pay.

“Did you have a good weekend?” he asks. Then he waves the cigarettes in his hand, as if keeping a treat back from a child until it’s said a polite ‘please.’

I would like to have the cigarettes, and I’m late to meet my friend, so I’ll say whatever he wants if he’ll just let me grab them and go.

“Yes, thanks. It was lovely and sunny.”

“Did you have fun?” a short pause “…with your boyfriend?”

I spot an escape route.

“Yes. Yes. I had fun with my boyfriend. And I’m in a bit of a rush…”

“He’s a lucky man. Does he know that?”

He still hasn’t rung up my stuff on the till, although I’m hovering with my card near the reader. He grips the cigarettes in his hand, waiting to hear the right reply before he’ll hand them over.

“Yes, he does.”

“Good,” the man exclaims brightly. “Because if he doesn’t, you’ll come see me, yeah?”

He reaches forward to scan them and hit the ‘total’ button. I can see the light at the end of this conversational tunnel, and I know what I have to do.

I have to play along.

“Yes,” I tell him. And then I smile. “Yes, I’ll be sure to come to you.”

I have completed the task.

I said ‘please.’

I played along.

So he gives me my cigarettes, takes my payment, and I am released back into the wild. A little sweatier, more frustrated, and somehow smaller than I was, but at least now I am free.

I’m kicking myself for playing along, but it’s not the first time.

There have been countless times when I’ve played along with this shit. Said yes to a sexist guy because I was in a hurry, or smiled at a flirting stranger because I was too tired to scowl and deal with the fallout. Each time I do it I hate myself a little more.

I hate the guy, too, for doing this to me. But my anger and frustration is mostly directed inwards. He’s bad, but I’m worse: I should know better. I should fight this. And if I don’t teach him, he’ll never learn.

It’s not a one-off incident, this withholding-until-I’m-a-good-girl. I think the record for delaying me to flirt is held by a Wetherspoons bartender, who managed a good fifteen minutes. He was a beautiful, friendly man, who I’d have been happy to chat to in a different situation. But I was ordering drinks with someone I loved, who I hadn’t seen in a while, and we were looking forward to a chat before we had to run and catch separate trains.

We ordered gin and tonics, and the bartender asked us how we were.

Then he asked us if we were sisters.

Then he leaned on the bar asking intrusive questions about whether we were single, what we’d been doing that night, what we were planning on doing, and why. And all the while his hand hovered over the till as if to say: “soon. You’ll get your drinks soon. Just answer these twenty-five riddles first, and flash us a smile to say thank you.”

I was thirsty, and I was tired, and so I played along.

How do you end a blog post like this? If I were talking to a younger version of myself, what would my positive and empowering message be?

“Sometimes you just have to play along”? Fuck that.

You don’t have to play along, you know. And I don’t have to play along. Any one of us is justified in refusing to answer intrusive questions, or refusing to smile, or just asking that whoever is flirting with us shut up and give us our goddamn drinks.

But I don’t always have the energy to either bollock someone or teach them. Saying ‘just tell them to fuck off’ makes me hate myself, because I don’t always have the time and energy to challenge this shit when it’s right in front of me. Sometimes it’s hard to say ‘fuck off’ or ‘stop it’ or ‘please Sir could I just pay for my stuff and get on with my life now pretty please with a cherry on top?’

Weirdly, it wasn’t until I started writing this blog post that I realised what the answer is: it’s not a message to people on the receiving end of this shit, but a message to the people who do it. The guys in corner shops who withhold cigarettes until you’ve flashed them a perfect smile. The bar staff who wave drinks in front of you and insist on a chat before they hand them over. Or security staff at airports who engage you in flirty banter while they rifle through your hand luggage, knowing you can’t show a hint of frustration because they have all the power.

If I could command these people to just fucking STOP IT then I would. But seeing as I don’t have that power, I’d rather just ask them a question:

How does it feel to know I’m just playing along? To know that the smile you’re so keen to tease out of me is fake? How does it feel to know that the flirty banter you’ll boast to your mates about later is done through gritted teeth? Because there’ll be two types of people who do this: the ones who do it because they like the power, and who actively get off on the knowledge that I hate it, and then there are ones who don’t realise they’re ruining my day.

The majority of people would, I think, put themselves in the second category. They know that it’s not OK to exercise power over people to try and force them to flirt. But given the overt body language – mine of discomfort, theirs of power and control (no drinks for you, naughty girl!) – I think plenty of people do actually know when they’re doing this.

You don’t have to admit it to me, but at least ask the question of yourself: how do you feel when you learn that I’m playing along?

26 Comments

  • Ay None says:

    It’s not always just about having the time and the energy to confront it, of course. It’s about having the courage, when you know that some men will react to rejection with anger and violence. There’s no way of knowing in advance whether that guy will just shrug and ring through your cigarettes, or if he’ll call you a fucking bitch and throw them at you. It’s never your fault if you don’t feel able to confront it.

  • Jamie says:

    Yeah, this resonates. Casual homophobia is similar.

    My brain: “Look buddy, if I’d wanted your patronising opinions on what you think I do in bed, I’d’ve fucking asked for them.”

    My mouth: “Mmmm, I see your point, excuse me, my [imaginary] friend’s over at the bar.”

    Of course, I can hide being gay. Not so easy to hide being female.

  • Thrasy says:

    I’m so glad I read this. I don’t flirt with any women, certainly not strangers at any rate and was wondering if this was purely paranoia on my part.

    The first reason is because I’ve been with female friends who have done the same as you, and assumed they were flirting back with the strange bloke asking strange questions, at least until the end when I realise they are just trying to get them to go (or after they have gone and they comment on them being a bit slimey etc.).

    The second reason is the amount of times I’ve tried to ask someone for directions, tell them they’ve dropped some money, been left alone with a friend of a friend at a bar and genuinely just thinking “Shit, I should at least try to make friendly conversation lest they think I’m rude or weird” and (randomly) got the response “Sorry, I’ve got a boyfriend”.

    It’s nice to make people smile, but always hated the idea that i could actually be making someone’s day worse without even trying.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah yeah is tricky to know. I think I’d probably err on the same side tbh – always better to avoid ruining someone’s day if possible. In the latter scenario I think it’s totally cool to say ‘oh no I’m just being friendly/making chit chat to pass the time. We can play on our phones if you prefer though.’ As someone who struggles with making convos with strangers, I have been in similar situations – the hot pain of awkward silence just sitting there, combined with the fear that if I chat they’ll think it’s a come-on. It’s a tricky one. I think in those situations there isn’t so much of a power imbalance so it is slightly easier (though not easy overall) to navigate it, because there isn’t one person who is beholden to the other if that makes sense.

  • Neil says:

    Well said.

    I suspect that male privilege means I don’t need to worry about someone delaying me through flirting. But the dissonance between a bored member of staff wanting a chat or someone being friendly in a well-meaning manner, and me generally want to move through most domestic situations such as shopping in as quick a manner as possible — a chore, not a social exercise — means I tend to use self-checkout tills where I can, and earbuds most of the time even if I’m not listening for anything.

    I used to feel bad ignoring a chugger in the street rather than respond to their carefully-scripted approach, but I’ve managed to persuade myself that I don’t have to accept everyone’s demands on my time, and that a polite “no, thanks” as I keep on walking is entirely reasonable. Although I’d still reserve a special place in hell for those whose tactic is to step directly in front of you and block your path…

    • Girl on the net says:

      Argh yes – the block-you-in-street chuggers are the most frustrating. I once had one do it to me when I was carrying a huge backpack on my way back from holiday. So I told him he could have my time if he held on to my backpack for the entire duration of our conversation. He backed away =) But chuggers are a really interesting example, as judging by their behaviour I would suspect that flirting is actually one of their commonly-used tactics. Which in itself makes me super uncomfortable.

      • Neil says:

        Walking through town the other day, there a whole row of them down the street, one after another, all wearing green tabards and brandishing clipboards.

        It reminded me of the “Gauntlet” challenge on Gladiators. But without lycra and steroids.

  • SweetTheSting says:

    I feel your AAARGH. Great piece

  • The Quiet One says:

    I hate it when this happens.. flirting is a two way thing.. This is just slimy..

  • AC says:

    Agree with The Quiet One. It should be a two way street. The idea of someone doing it as if holding-off-a-candy-till-you-play-along is disgusting and annoying. I wonder how men will react to it if women did the same?!

  • Oh there are definitely the ones who are doing it because they know they have a petty little bit of power over you and yes they are going to use it. It also happens in reverse – female service industry people (eg shop staff, bar staff etc) getting ‘Give us a smile’ and ‘have you got a boyfriend’ shit when they just want you to pay for your drink or place your order and let them get on and deal with the next 50 customers.

  • Jesus Christ. I’m lucky I’ve never had to put up with that kind of nonsense at the shops.

    > He’s bad, but I’m worse: I should know better. I should fight this. And if I don’t teach him, he’ll never learn.

    I know this is illustrating your feelings and experience, so I’m not trying to argue against it — but just for the record, I don’t think it should be your job to turn this unwanted advance into a teachable moment to improve this guy’s social skills.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thanks Paul. I get what you mean, and yeah – it’s one of those feelings where I understand it’s irrational but it’s hard to tell my brain that in the moment =)

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    The tempting response is ‘name and shame the assholes who do this’. But I guess that’s much more trouble than it’s worth, could get you into legal trouble, and risks compromising your privacy. Bah…

    I know some guys complain about having to wait while women get served first at bars by male bartenders. But they don’t mention this flipside to it. If this is the price you pay for interacting with staff while female, I’m happy to be a dude.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Oh god yes – is definitely not worth naming and shaming especially on a blog like this. If someone is superbad I might make a complaint about them directly to the shop/manager etc.

  • P says:

    Some people are simple creatures, you can train them like dogs.
    The more they get rewarded for there bad behaviour the more they will carry on being bad.

    I can see why playing along can sometimes be the best option and it’s a shame that people feel like they have to do that to avoid altication.

    What about the people who play along and flirt to get their own way, or to make something happen?? Actively encourage the bad behaviour as (for example) they know it will get them served quicker at a bar? Or maybe get them a free drink? Or maybe not quite have the right change in the shop,,, ‘that’s ok don’t worry about the odd 20 pence love’.

    • Girl on the net says:

      So… this is kind of an interesting switch you’ve made here. I said ‘I get really frustrated when ppl use their power to withhold goods/services from me in order to flirt’ and you have said ‘but what about people who flirt in the hope that they might get something in return?’

      I don’t understand what the connection is between these two things. Could you elaborate a little?

      • P says:

        Ok, well I will try, and please forgive the bad English, it’s really not my strong point.

        Take your example of the man who is withholding the cigarette’s,,,,, I would be the same as you, thinking for f’s sake,,,, just give me the damn cigarettes ,,,, I read your story like this, you were saying in your head – I will do your stupid little dance and stroke your ego by playing along if you just give me what I need and stop being a dick about it. – then you beat yourself up about it later as in your mind you took the easy road to get what you wanted,,,,, And didn’t fight.

        My thought is how did that guy get like that in the first place,,,,,, by the sound of it he was well practiced before you turned up at his counter,,,, he probably wasn’t born that way, or even had a teacher of some sort instructing him. He has learnt that in his position of power, behind that counter, he is lord over all he can see in that shop. That slight elevation of power. That small edge of I have something you want,,,,, now what can I get from you before I hand it over.

        So how has he learnt to get his reward,,,,,, who has given him that power, my guess it happened way before you walked into that shop and had to put up with his ego trip.

        Now on the flip side,,,,, what about the women who flirt with the male bar tender to get served first,,,,, bar tender gets that a few times,,,, now he comes to expect it,,,,, now he starts to realise he has power,,,,, behind that bar he is the decider.

        Don’t beat yourself up about not confronting them,,,,,, instead walk away feeling sorry for them,,,, because as soon as they leave their shop counter or bar,,,,, they have no power and nothing to show for it.
        You, on the other hand,,,,,, have a packet of cigarettes, a drink and the the real power over thier ego.

        Not sure if I have explained it in the right way, but I hope you get the idea :-)

        • Girl on the net says:

          I think you’re telling me that it is women’s fault that men do this, because in the past they have flirted with men, and this trains men to force non-consenting women to flirt with them. That sounds like what you’re saying, so maybe I am getting it wrong because that sounds absolutely ludicrous. By that logic women would be best advised to never have consensual, friendly interactions with men in case those men end up thinking they can have that same interaction with any other woman.

          Or in other words: give a man a fish, and if you’re a woman you’ll be responsible when that man goes on an inevitable fish-stealing spree, taking fish from all the women in your village.

  • P says:

    No, sorry you have me all wrong. I’m trying to ask a question more than give an overall opinion.

    Ok the first thing to streess is I never said this was any woman’s fault,,,and sorry if that was how it came across. If you go back to my first post I was trying to be carful not to be gender specific.

    Would it surprise you to know that as a man I have been in your situation,,,,, in a well know hardware store,,, man behind the counter,,,, insisted on taking my credit card from me,,,, and putting it in the machine himself. Then started asking questions. Not making polite conversation, but awkward put me on the spot questions about my day. Why ? Because he had the power,,,,, why did he have the power? Because I gave it to him. I just wanted the paint and my debit card back. I had stuff to do and he was slowing me down. I wanted to make a complaint,,, should have done really,,,, why didn’t I? I didn’t have the balls to do it, and who would take me seriously and how would I ever have explained it. I’m certainly not homophobic,,, I have some very close gay and lesbian friends but this particular man made me feel very uncomfortable and after leaving pathetic for not saying anything while I was in the store.

    This is not a gender specific situation,,,, I’m certainly not saying women before you should be blamed for anything you went though.
    I’m interested to know where the problem comes from,,,,, do people act like this because we give them the power? How do they learn they can get away with it?
    Do they just naturally get the wrong impression from the people who have been nice to them before hand, that small seed that grows into a corruption of power. Or is it because people before them have flirted so now they think they can do it back and get away with it with anyone?

    Like I said, I’m asking more of a question and food for thought than an opinion.

    If I was to give an overall opinion it would be that it’s an abuse of power on their part, and very wrong.

    I will also say that I do believe some people are easily trained and shaped by the small world around them. I guess we all are to some degree, and some act like a dogs, coming back to any one who will give them another treat.

    • Girl on the net says:

      OK, sorry that my comment took yours the wrong way – I appreciate that you’re not trying to be gendered about it. However I do think that in situations like this, gender *does* play a role in socialising people to believe that they are entitled to someone’s time/attention. It’s far less common, for instance, for women to wield this kind of power, because generally it isn’t women who are socialised to believe they’re entitled to people’s time and attention.

      I think in your first comment, what threw me was that the situations you mentioned (i.e. flirting for drinks etc) tend to be things women are socialised to do. i.e. women are often led to believe that we are in some kind of goods/services exchange with men – we offer sexual services and in exchange men buy us things. This is, obviously, not how I think the world should be, and I think it’s based on some of our core misconceptions (that men like sex and women like having things bought for them). And I think my answer to a lot of your questions around power would be that this power (or this assumption of power) stems from a similar place. So for instance…

      do people act like this because we give them the power?
      – I think that there are certain people who grow up so used to having power over others that they wouldn’t even notice they had it or were wielding it. These people are usually men, who are also taught that one of the things you ‘must’ do in order to be a ‘real man’ is hold power, use it, show how macho you are etc etc. On top of that, men are repeatedly told that women like to be chased and that persistence is vital if they want to achieve a relationship/shag. So I think in the situations I described above, I’d guess that it’s a combination of all these things, plus other things too (boredom, just being an arsehole) that lead to someone doing this.

      How do they learn they can get away with it?
      – That one’s easy – I think because they usually do. It can be very hard to stand up to people who do this, and often those who do stand up to it get told it either isn’t important or that they’re imagining things.

      Do they just naturally get the wrong impression from the people who have been nice to them before hand, that small seed that grows into a corruption of power. Or is it because people before them have flirted so now they think they can do it back and get away with it with anyone?
      – I think this last one is where I got the wrong end of the stick with your previous comment: I cannot imagine (and maybe this is my own lack of imagination/empathy) any woman leaping from ‘this one man has flirted with me’ to ‘therefore all men will flirt with me.’ It just sounds entirely ridiculous and wrong. And yet I have frequently heard the argument from, for instance, men’s rights activists, that because one woman has behaved like this therefore women will/should all behave like this, as a homogenous whole.

      I think in a very general sense, the people who do this are doing it either because they like showing other people that they have power over them (if they are doing it knowingly) or because they don’t realise that what they’re doing is exercising power – they just feel entitled to that other person’s time because they have been socialised to believe that they are.

      • P says:

        Interesting,,,, I think you (as always) you have summed it up perfectly.
        Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post, I do appreciate it. Have been an avid follower of your’s for what has got to be five years now and you never disappoint. I truly mean it when I say I do feel privileged that you took the time to write so much in response (even if it was partly because I had wound up the subject, although that really wasn’t my intention :-/ ) .
        thanks again :-)

  • Skunk says:

    “He’s bad, but I’m worse: I should know better. I should fight this. And if I don’t teach him, he’ll never learn.”

    I think that’s what I find most aggravating about these interactions, that I walk away thinking “I should have shown him the error of his ways!” I do not have the luxury of making every shit encounter a teaching moment. And I don’t see men taking the time to teach fucknuts how they’ve made poor choices. Women are socialised from infancy to fix breaches in social etiquette by (a) smoothing things over and not making a big deal, and (b) internalising blame for the awkwardness. I try very hard to remind myself that in situations like the ones you’ve described, it’s not me that’s shat on the social contract, and it’s therefore not me that has to clean up the mess. And it’s doubly not me that should carry the guilt of “Oh fuck that’s awkward”, nor should I take responsibility for pointing out to people “Hey, that was a dick move.” It helps to remind myself that people are not necessarily unaware that they’re in the midst of a dick move, and it may be a deliberate ploy to fulfill whatever passes for social/sexualised interaction in their sad bastard heads. My ‘teaching moment’ only prolongs the social awkwardness they’re using for their own ends.

    So, basically, I’ll play along if I have to, but I try not to beat myself up for it, because Arseholes Gonna Arse.

    • SweetTheSting says:

      “I do not have the luxury of making every shit encounter a teaching moment”

      I want this on a t-shirt! Well said.

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