Friday, February 19, 2016

Tuning In

In my Google+ stream today was a link to an article entitled "To Men I Love, About Men Who Scare Me." The point was a fairly straightforward one, and one that I've seen a thousand times before: "If a woman is frosty or standoffish or doesn’t laugh at your joke, consider the notion that maybe she is not an uptight, humorless bitch, but rather has had experiences that are outside your realm of understanding, and have adversely colored her perception of the world."

The original posting had a short discussion going in which people complained about how men "shouldn't act like dicks" or should be "gentlemen" around women. Standard fare; the sort of comments that people make to express sympathy and solidarity with someone who has had a difficult experience imposed on them by another person. I thought about those comments for a while, and then something occurred to me. When we tell someone "not to act like a dick," implicit in that is that person we're addressing isn't actually a dick. They're just engaging in behaviors that are outwardly similar.

Then there was the eureka moment. It's not about "being a dick," or "not being a gentleman." It's about, quite literally, impersonating a predator. Which is part of the problem. If you ask most guys to draw you a picture, literally or figuratively, of the sort of predatory man that women would and should be on the alert for, the result is unlikely to look like themselves, and possibly any of their friends. And to the degree that it looks like the sort of man that women are generally wary of, it's likely to be because a crocodile would be cautious under the same circumstances. The common understanding of "the ones you need to worry about" as being openly creepy, outwardly strange or otherwise clearly visible from low Earth orbit is at odds with the facts - namely, that like serial murderers, sexual predators often look just like everyone else. And so, at least as I understand the world to work, women don't walk around simply being on the lookout for obvious monsters. Instead, they looking for the subtle signs that a man might be predatory. And yes, that results in a lot of false positives. Welcome to evolution.

When people talk about the fear response in people, especially as regards loss aversion, a common example is an early human living out on a savanna. There's a rustling in the grass. Given this ambiguous signal, the human guesses that it could just be the wind, or it could be a hungry lion. In this case, a person who jumps to the false positive conclusion - that the rustle is a lion when it's actually the wind - makes a break for it, and lives to wander the grasslands another day. But if they guess the false negative, they're lunch. And we understand this. It makes sense to us that in an ambiguous situation, it's better to err on the side of caution. It's how we understand that we can scare people by impersonating dangerous animals.

Well, the same goes for people. If sexual predators or other abusive people are non-obvious, yet not completely hidden, people who understand themselves to be at risk are going to sensitive to cues about who they are dealing with. And in such a case it's better to take an ambiguous signal as a positive indicator that they're dealing with someone potentially dangerous. Demanding an unwilling woman's time and attention, hinting at violence as a show of dominance and commenting about her body isn't just "being a creep" or "acting thoughtlessly." It's signaling predatory intent, either honestly or dishonestly.

And that's what men really ought to be more aware of - the signals they are sending to the person that they're dealing with. Because what really sends a lot of interactions south. It's said that people who enter into interactions with people expecting to make a connection (or have sex) are actually "luckier" because they are more opportunistic, optimistic and willing to listen to their feelings. Which is all fine and good, but if it comes at the expense of noticing that the other person is actively sending signals of disinterest or even distress, maybe it's time to dial it back. Our inclination to conflate predatory with monstrous also does not serve us well in this venue. The sincere desire to just be friendly or strike up a conversation doesn't prevent one from sending much darker signals - and the failure to understand that is what leads to men bitterly calling women out as bitter or humorless, oblivious to the fact that they've dishonestly signaled themselves as dangerous.

I've rambled on about experiences that are not my own long enough, and so I'm going to end with one last point. Every person has their own understanding of what signals a predator. Behavior that strikes one person as eccentric and another as engaging may put a third person in fear for their life. And so the fact is, that outside of a few blatant examples, it can be hard to judge what signals one is sending. And this is where the real problem lies. Out of hopefulness, obliviousness or willful disbelief, men often ignore the signals that the women they are interacting with are sending, until those signals are so clear and unambiguous that they can't be overlooked. It shouldn't need to go that far. Being receptive to the negative signals someone is sending should be an expectation that we have of men, rather than being itself viewed as a signal of over-sensitivity or timidity.

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