This isn’t exactly a writing-related topic, but it’s important, especially for people like me. That is, people who have difficulty saying “no”.
First, a bit of backstory: I am a pretty timid person. I try to avoid confrontation, and I only recently (as in, in the past year) really learned how to say “no” to certain family members whenever they want me to do something I don’t want to do. Before that, they’d ask me to come with them to some get-together, or to dinner at a friend’s house.
Fine. It’s just friends and family, right? Then I ask “ok, how many people are coming?”
Them: “Oh, just twenty! :)”
Me: (Are you kidding me?)
I don’t like big groups in person. I can handle family, close friends, and a few strangers or almost-strangers at a time. But 15+ strangers at once? NOPE!
But I had no idea how to say “Sorry, I’m not comfortable with crowds that big. I’d be happy to come over next week, just for a private get-together.” Or, well, I knew how to say it, but I just didn’t have the guts to. I’d been bred and raised to be nice and polite. And niceness and politeness both say that you shouldn’t turn down people’s invitations without a good reason. And apparently “sorry, I’m not comfortable with crowds” isn’t a good reason for a lot of people.
I have nothing against social people. I don’t get it, but I don’t mind them or their lifestyle. Unfortunately, I also ended up agreeing to social gatherings with social people because I wasn’t comfortable with saying “no”. Then I’d spend the next few days/weeks/months/however long dreading the upcoming event, and I’d try to bow out a few days before the event by claiming spontaneous psychological meltdown.
Ok, not quite so dramatic. But you get the point.
I only ever managed to weasel out of a gathering this way once, I think. All other times I spent the entire night following my parents/friend/family member around the labyrinth of strangers like a creepy duckling who imprinted on them. It wasn’t excruciating, but it wasn’t exactly fun either. My idea of fun usually involves a book, a video game, or a drive around town.
So, what does all this backstory and baggage have to do with today’s message? Other than I got roped into social events I didn’t enjoy as a kid because I didn’t know how to say no? That sucks, but it’s not exactly dangerous.
Well, the inability to say “no” can be dangerous. And that brings me to today’s relative excitement.
I live pretty close to a local café, about a 20 minute walk away. I’ll sometimes decide to walk there during the day for lunch and to write, if only just to get out of the house for a few hours. And today had such lovely weather (read: overcast with a chance of rain. If I wanted sunshine, I’d move to California) that I decided to pack up my laptop and head out.
I was almost at the café, walking by a little apartment complex maybe a block away, when a creepy-looking guy showed up. Kinda tall, scruffy, wearing shabby clothes and a hoodie. Ok, fine. There’s no law that says people must always look stylish and elegant in public, and he might just be walking home or something, so I just walked past him.
Then, he turns to me and says “excuse me.”
Great. But, maybe he just wants directions? Or doesn’t know where he is? Keep in mind that we don’t live in a super rural area or anything where you have to walk a mile and a half to reach a street. He could’ve looked around anywhere to see where we were. But I don’t like to be rude and just ignore people, so I turned to him and said “Yes?”
He started mumbling. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. And also, really? Who talks quietly right next to a busy, major street? It’s loud enough that even walking with my friends, literally right next to me, I have to shout. And I was keeping a good couple feet of distance between us because I don’t want strangers (especially creepy-looking strangers) close enough to touch me or my stuff.
And I remembered reading about this tactic, where you stay where you are and whisper or mumble quiet enough that the person you’re talking to has to come closer to hear you. I didn’t fall for it, and I stayed right where I was and said “Sorry, I can’t hear you.” Maybe he’s deaf or something and doesn’t know he’s talking quiet? It’s possible.
He only talks a little bit louder, but I heard something like “Do you have a phone?” Which, yes I do, but I’m not giving it to a stranger. I bit my tongue and suppressed my natural instinct to be nice and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” And I went on my way.
I felt guilty. Of course I did. I like being nice to people. I try to be nice to people as much as possible. But I didn’t want to risk being a face on a milk carton or the name of a documentary. “Searching for Sarah Newcastle” would be a horrible program.
Maybe he had completely innocent intentions, I don’t know. I do know that attacking a teenage girl wearing a bright yellow Pikachu hoodie on the side of a busy road in the middle of the day would be an extremely stupid thing to do, but I didn’t want to bet my safety or my life on that.
Because that’s exactly what it is: betting your life on the fact that this person isn’t an axe murderer or a rapist or a psycho kidnapper wanting to sell you to some satanic sex cult somewhere. Now, I’m sure the loonies are a minority. But what happens when you’re dealing with the 1% who turn out to be nutcases?
That’s why I never pick up hitchhikers. Putting aside that I’m a 19-year-old girl with absolutely no self-defense training and no weapons of any kind, how can I trust that person? How do I know they won’t pull a gun on me and steal my car? How do I know they won’t rape me or kill me and drop my body in a ditch?
It’s the same when you’re dealing with a person on the side of the road. I had no way of knowing whether or not that creepy guy was a threat. And again, it’s not like we’re in a super rural area where I’m the only other human being for miles. We were standing right outside of an apartment complex. If he really needed help or a phone or something, he could’ve popped into the office. Or if not that, there was a gas station literally next door. He had plenty of other options, and I don’t have to feel guilty for looking after myself, and neither does anyone else.
And this isn’t just advice for girls or women. All the time, I see advice like “girls, protect yourselves!” or “girls, don’t go home with strange men!” And yeah, that is all absolutely true. Take care, don’t go out with people you don’t know, and always take steps to protect yourself. But boys, let me tell you something: you’re never obligated to stop to talk to or help someone just because “you’re a man”. Your safety comes first, always.
No matter what race, gender, class, or orientation you are, it’s not worth your life. It’s never worth your life.