Attention young women and others often approached in public: YOU DO NOT OWE ANYONE YOUR TIME, ENERGY, AND ATTENTION JUST BECAUSE THEY SEEK IT.
I learned early that being nice is practically synonymous with being a woman in our society. That's a topic for an entirely different essay. But suffice it to say, I used to think that being seen as “stuck-up” or a “bitch” was the worst thing I could possibly be. (The gendered, and historically racist, connotations of those words is also a topic for an entirely different essay.)
Those who know me know that I highly value kindness. For example, tonight I met with a student for an hour and a half, outside of my office hours, on the weekend, to support her in problem solving a situation. And I ALWAYS have time to at the very least respectfully smile and interact with panhandlers, students, former clients, people interested in sex education, and many others.
But in our society, we have a tendency to equate kindness with compulsory niceness. Ever since I became aware that these two things are actually quite distinct, I have begun intentionally distancing myself from compulsory niceness. This is especially true of those who demand attention, information, or energy SOLELY BECAUSE THEY WANT IT - and in particular, people who have the same or more privilege than I have.
For awhile, I would take the time and energy to patiently explain to folks WHY and HOW they were being inappropriate or making me uncomfortable. But this quickly also became:
disruptive to whatever I was doing (I’m pretty sure I am a textbook case for ADD, so interruptions are A BIG PROBLEM for me)
rude to whomever I was with at the time; and
often yielded little result - especially with strangers.
Instead, I have recently taken up the practice of blatantly ignoring strangers who approach me in disrespectful, inappropriate or demanding ways. I am not an endless fountain of emotional and intellectual labor, and neither, dear reader, are you. My finely curated patience, adept social skills, advanced knowledge, and educational chops did not just magically appear. They were learned and earned over decades of education, formal and informal. My time is precious. My knowledge is specialized. And if we must live in a capitalist society, then my effort is money.
BUT! You do not need to be a licensed clinical social worker, or a certified sex educator, or a college instructor to take up this practice of selective ignoring. Regardless of whether you're a 16 year old who doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up, or a 58 year old woman at the peak of her career, who's tired of being interrupted, know this: you do NOT need to react to the whim of every man (or other person) who happens to cross paths with you and seek your attention for any reason.
Instead, I invite you to engage thoughtfully with folks, on a case-by-case basis, after checking in with yourself and seeing if you want to, and it’s not just guilt and gender norms bullying you into it. But even then - truly, only engage with a person if you want to.
Because that's how consent works.
I don't know about you, but I have such little time and energy these days, and I'm much more selective about who I give it to. Reserving my energy for myself, my students, and the other populations I serve makes me much more effective and sustainable, both personally and professionally.
If you’re still worried about seeming impolite, I offer this thought: We might think about life, social work, and education as forms of art, no? Then let us remember that art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.
I trust you to use your best judgment about who falls into which category.
And if all of this makes me a stuck-up bitch, according to some - then so be it.
This post is the first in a loose series called “That’s How Consent Works.” I do not consent to committing to a certain number of articles, or a timeline. Just know that it’s a big theme in my mind, and there will probably be more content on this topic.
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