Being a Good Guy

“I’m a good guy.”  I’ve been thinking about this oft-repeated claim.  It implies that good is a constant state, rather like one’s height (after reaching adulthood) – I’m a tall guy.  I’m a short guy.  What if we tweak this just a little, and instead imbed in the phrase a sense of action “I am being a good guy.”  I am actively engaged in the thoughts and actions necessary to be a “good guy.”  What would that look like, and how is it different from the passive “hey, I’m a good guy!” defense?

Recently I went for a walk while my mother watched my children.  About a mile from her home the heavens opened and I was soon soaked.  I was walking on a path through a grassy field in a park, and noticed that about fifteen to twenty feet behind me there was a young man.  Immediately I was nervous.  No one else was in sight.  I glanced back a few times but he maintained his exact distance and placement directly behind me.  I came to a road and darted under the shelter of a large tree, ostensibly to hide from the rain but also to have a protected back near possible witnesses in cars to allow him to pass me.  I was frightened and seeking protection, but also needed to somehow make it seem like that wasn’t what I was doing because acting fine when no one has openly threatened you is what you do in society.  He passed me.  Unbelievably slowly.  Inwardly I cursed when I saw he took the route I was hoping to take, a path that continued on the other side the road a bit further down.  I waited as he plodded and peered through the trees to try to assess which way he went and whether he was well and truly gone.  Of course I took note of his clothing, bearing, coloring, weight, age and distinguishing characteristics.  He had stopped along the new path and wasn’t continuing.  It was now out of the question that I finish my walk as planned.  So I took the street instead, forcing me to pass his path junction.  He was there, and he looked at me.  I walked briskly and kept looking over my shoulder to see if he was following me, and I saw that he had come out again to the street but was not actually following me, just standing there. At this point I sent a video to three friends describing my location and his appearance with as much detail as I could.  I changed the course of my walk so that I could pass my Dad’s apartment (my parents are divorced) so he could walk me back to my Mom’s house.  My father is in his seventies and severely asthmatic.  There is no way he could actually fight off any attacker.  But as any woman knows, merely appearing to belong to a man is often enough to deter men who would otherwise harass and pursue.  I made it back to my mom’s house, wet but safe.

This man did nothing “wrong.”  He broke no law.  He said nothing whatsoever to me and did not act in an overtly threatening way.  All of his actions have perfectly plausible explanations.  He was walking slowly because that is how he walks.  He stopped on the path ahead to shelter himself from the rain under the trees.  He waited by the road because he had called a friend for a ride.  All of these things are totally appropriate for the “I’m a good guy” guy.

But if you are being a good guy, then you are actively making effort to help people around you.  Every woman I know would have been as hyperaware as I was and likely would have made the same choices – acting to defuse possible antagonism, by pretending to be fine while also being as safe as possible.  It completely ruined my walk, my only child free time at all, but that’s what it means to be a woman in public.  So hey, good guys out there, maybe it is time for your brain to set aside some space to constantly guess what the women around you are thinking and feeling, the way we do about strange men.  Exist in as non-threatening a way as you possibly can.  Here are some ideas for how to do this:

  • Don’t walk or run directly behind someone, matching their pace.  Slow way down, or pass alerting them clearly to your presence and intent.  Do not lurk in that person’s blind spot so they constantly have to try to peek to see you.
  • Don’t yell out of cars or honk at people, even if they are your friend.  I walk or bike a lot of my errands, and honks scare me every single time.  Your friendly call out the window may go by so quickly she won’t recognize you and won’t know the thing you said was “see you on Sunday” and not “smile, darling, you’d be prettier”
  • Notice subtle cues.  A woman who glances twice at you over her shoulder is probably nervous, not attracted.  If she picks up her pace, she is not suggesting a fun flirty race.
  • Consider announcing your intent if the person seems concerned.  Take that fake phone call explaining what you’re doing “oh I’m just headed to Safeway, I’ll be home soon, wife!”  Sound stupid? Virtually every woman you know has feigned some kind of social connection to try to secure herself, whether that is faking a call to get away, acting overly enthused to see an acquaintance etc. etc.  Join the club.
  • In a dark parking lot, stay away from women, even if that means standing by the store until you see that the car next to you has pulled away safely.  Do not deliberately park right next to isolated cars.  I sure as hell never would, and possibly a woman parked there precisely because no one was parked right next to it. 
  • Don’t strike up conversations with isolated women.  Saying hi as you run by is one thing.  Protracted conversations can feel entrapping and scary.  It’s one thing to shoot the breeze in the checkout line.  If she cannot easily get away from you or be protected by another person, she does not want your conversation.

I’m sure commenters could come up with a long list of things they’d add.  Perhaps all this sounds like an exhausting amount of effort when all you’re doing is going for a walk.  It seems like it would take up a lot of space in your brain to remember all these rules.  It would distract you from the beauty of the nature, from this small instant of time you get to yourself.  You might forget items on your shopping list.  You might end up having to change your plans in such a way that you’re severely inconvenienced.

Yes.

But hey, a good guy wouldn’t be bothered by the actions that it would take to actually be good.

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12 Responses

  1. Bryan says:

    Thank you, Em. This is really helpful. I have been in situations on walks where I can tell that a woman is feeling uncomfortable by my presence as I pass by her, but haven’t known quite what to do to make myself seem less like a threat. I’m definitely going to use the fake phone call idea in the future.

  2. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing these, Em. I’m sorry that you and women as a whole have to take so many precautions because we men are so often threatening. I appreciate you taking the time to explain how we can do better to avoid adding to your all’s stress.

    I also love your framing of asking who’s really a good guy. I’ve known many academics, and I even tried (and failed) to be one myself, and this reminds me totally of students arguing about grades. “But I’m an A student!” they’ll complain, just like we men will complain “But I’m a good guy.” As you point out so well, these aren’t fixed characteristics. We demonstrate that they apply by doing the relevant behaviors, not by just asserting that they’re true.

  3. Mansfield says:

    Walking a mile home in the evening twilight along a quiet road, I became aware that two younger women were ahead of me on the sidewalk; I could barely see them, but I could hear them talking to one another. My pace was slightly faster than theirs, and at some point they would become aware of me behind them slowly closing the distance between us. My presence on the sidewalk and my pace had nothing to do with them, but rather than exercise my right to walk down the road however I choose, instead I crossed to the other side of the road and picked up my pace to quickly pass the women and leave them behind.

    Those inclined can see a parallel between that situation and women dressing modestly as a courtesy to the men around them. Others may bristle at the notion that women should guide themselves by consideration for others’ perceptions.

    • Anna says:

      Mansfield, I don’t think fearing for your life by having a man walking behind you quite compares to a man seeing a scantily clad woman. Just no comparison. And if you think there is any kind of comparison, you really do not understand the fear women feel because of the men around them. Men should not expect modest dress as a courtesy from women, but women should be able to not be terrorized by men as a courtesy from men. Men should be able to regulate their sexual reaction to women no matter how the woman is dressed. But a fear reaction is nothing like controlling ones sexual feelings.

      Now, I do understand that a lady dresses modestly, not as a courtesy to men, but out of respect for herself. And I understand how men are more comfortable around a lady than they are around a hooker. But being uncomfortable in the company of a hooker, is no where the same as being afraid of being attacked. Even I am uncomfortable around someone dressed in a sexually provocative way, but it just does not compare to being afraid of being attacked.

      • Em says:

        I do agree with Anna here. In the analogy men are afraid they’ll be “made” to think impure thoughts even though they completely control their own thoughts and the slightest physical movement will allow them to look in another direction. Women are afraid they’ll be raped and murdered, something that generally a woman cannot control, anticipate or avoid even with superhuman levels of resistance. Consideration of others is a virtue regardless of gender identity. But if an entire outing is ruined by encountering a pair of short shorts because you cannot stop thinking about it, then that is down to a choice to entertain and replay a fantasy. An outing that is ruined by feelings of panic, fear, flight/fight, memories of past incidents of harassment and tales of friends’ assaults – I posit that that is so completely different as to make the analogy offensive. Have you ever returned home from an outing where a woman jogged by in a bra and sat on the bed shaking and crying in terror?

      • Risa says:

        Anna and Em, I’d like to remind Mansfield about what Jesus said when men look upon a woman with lust in their eyes. He told them to pluck out their eyes. Start pluckin’, Mansfield.

    • Risa says:

      Congrats Mansfield, with your comment you’ve proved you’re not a good guy.

  4. Jenny says:

    I’ve noticed on many a dating profile that guys will claim to be a gentleman. Whatever that really means anymore. But if you have to say it, are you actually respectful and a gentleman?

  5. Mindy says:

    This is so heart-rending and true. Even though the tips are not directed at me as a woman, the post encouraged me to question if I am actively doing good and looking out for others.

  6. Bro. Jones says:

    Shucks, it goes both ways. As a male person of color, I would be quite happy to not make a woman nervous enough to record me or call for help. I cross the street and increase or decrease my pace as needed to keep a healthy distance.

    • Em says:

      I have become more mindful of the potential risks inherent in identifying a male person of color AS a risk, at least in the form of calling authorities. I’ve never actually called the police because I was under threat. (I’ve called when witnessing an assault and other instances). I do, however, remember telling a group about an encounter I had at a park with a Black man who was acting very weird on the playground, seemingly with no children under his care and just very very strange behavior. However he was not approaching any children so I just quietly moved us on. A friend asked why I didn’t call the cops. Welllll…. nothing he was doing was illegal or dangerous, just deeply odd. We live in a super white town. Best not to pose a threat by inviting a higher degree of confrontation. What a world. You’re right though — being a good person means thinking about how your actions might hurt or endanger another person regardless of your own intent.

  7. Dani says:

    I too feel a little nervous when I go on a walk by myself, so I try to stay in places that are public. I once saw a news article about a woman who was out running at the local nature park, and a man attacked her. Luckily she knew a bit of martial arts and got away.

    When my husband and I are on a walk somewhere, and there’s a woman in front of us, we always make sure it doesn’t look like we’re following her. Sometimes we slow down our pace or take a different route to make the woman feel comfortable.

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