Harassment vs. Compliments

“I'd rather take coffee than compliments just now.” ― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.png

There’s a bus driver on my route almost every week day. He greets me when I’m at my least human and can only manage to grumble at him like Grendel does through his novel and makes sure I arrive safely downtown. And as I skitter off the bus, he says to me:

“Have a good day, mija.”

Now many of you who stuck around for my series last year on sexual harassment, you may think I bristle at such attention. Not at all. I accept his comments every day and do my best to be gracious despite my at times hellish commute.

So that makes for an interesting question that I feel shouldn’t need to be asked: but hey if we all answered questions like that, we’d never find out that salted caramel is a delicious option and that red wine and cola is a sin. With today’s current…climate, let’s call it, let’s have a candid discussion about what constitutes harassment and what is just a person being nice.

Now, here’s where this topic gets messy. It is highly subjective and highly personal.

Let’s try two scenarios. Picture yourself in them. Or you can picture me in them. Either is fine.


Scenario 1: You are waiting for your stop while on the bus. A man stares at you. He smiles. It’s somewhat unnerving, but it is a smile. You do not return his advances and once you reach your stop, he follows you. It is not his stop. He gets off abruptly. He rushes to reach you. He finally catches up to you and says: “Hey, beautiful.” you do return his greeting but flatly. His next statement is more intense: “You wanna be my girl?” this time, you flat out reject him. He continues following you for a few more paces down the sidewalk and you duck into a local coffee shop to avoid being cornered by him.

Scenario 2: You are sitting at a local cafe. You are at a table alone. A man offers to join you. You turn him down at first but upon further inspection, you notice that he is reading one of your favorite authors. You invite him to join you. You talk. He is forward but not in a way that bothers you. He says more than one forward thing, in fact, but none of them are irksome. He asks for your number and you accept his offer.


These two scenarios are probably a little more clear but now let’s let the lines blur some.

And we’ll go back to our mostly friendly bus driver.

Scenario 1: A bus driver you routinely see greets you in a friendly way and calls you a non-offensive diminutive name as you leave the bus.

Scenario 2: A man on a local park bench regularly calls you a diminutive name as you pass by.


This one is tricky because realistically, what makes the bus driver situation passable is the fact that the bus driver is in an authority position. He means well wish I hop off the bus or nearly run into a stop sign. In that instance, I’m a young (not too young) woman in a big city that he sees regularly.  The man on the bench? That’s another story. Even though he may not mean any harm, I don’t exactly enjoy hearing “Hey, baby.” from a random park vagrant.


Let’s take the conversation down one more level. Here’s a phrase and I want you to imagine it in as possibilities as you can.

That’s a nice dress. You look good in it.

I know  the default voice in my head that read that was not as a kind compliment but as a catcall. But I’m also aware that it can mean many different things on different days. If I’m feeling that dress, even if it’s a forward statement: I may be more receptive. If you happen to catch me on the more likely occasion of me wishing to blend into the background of my bus seat: then I may not be as kind to such a statement, though I’ll almost never be outwardly cold to anyone who “means well” (My resting bitch face and deeper voice for a lady do that just fine for me.).


And that’s what makes this whole discussion so strained. It’s highly subjective. The difference between a harmless instance of flirting, someone trying to genuinely connect and a catcall are sometimes as simple as how I am feeling on that particular day. And I know that’s frustrating for men to hear. Rest assured, the same can be said about female to female interactions. I’m if anything more put off by a woman calling me by a diminutive at times while I’ve also been clocked more than once for casually calling a woman “doll” and “hun” almost out of reflex because despite my views I am Southern as hell.

And in this somewhat muddy environment, it’s difficult to know when someone is being too sensitive or when someone has gone too far.

But here’s where I take an issue and here’s the whole point of this.

It shouldn’t have to be like this at all.

If I’m at a bar and have no issue with a person laying it on thick, that’s acceptable. If I am put off by someone trying way too hard at Travis Park, that is also perfectly acceptable.

Now what can possibly help the conservation is a base level of acceptance that a human’s feelings are most of the time valid. I do not owe any person an explanation as to why I am okay with one instance versus another. And as long as I am mostly kind, not breaking any laws and mostly tactful: my annoyance at one act versus another is valid, fair and my own.

I get rightfully annoyed when any human tells me I should smile more. You should hear the story of me telling my Uncle exactly how I felt on the matter. (If you ask nicely, I may tell it in the comments.)

And there’s plenty to be said about it being a bit generational as well. Older folks do tend to think they are just being nice. Many of the times I’ve been called something diminutive or told something that I find questionable: it’s by someone older. Back in their day, when the dinosaurs roamed, it was perfectly fine to tell a woman that she should wear makeup; she’d be prettier if she did. Back in their day, it was fine to call any woman you see by a pet name. Back in their day, it was fine for an older woman to demand a younger lady wear heels or to cover up their shoulders.

That was back in their day.

I’m from a cusp generation here in the South. As I was younger, many of those behaviors were still perfectly acceptable in North Texas. My great-grandma regularly commented on how nice it was that I wasn’t too dark. That was a compliment to her. My mom’s old Air Force office lady friends would often make comments on my weight as a small one. That was perfectly sound advice. Another great-grandma was very concerned over the fact that by 17, I was not marriage. By her standards, I was at risk of dying alone.
As I grew older, I found myself annoyed with such comments from men and women but accepted it as part and parcel of existence on this planet. I started cosplaying which meant that I grew to accept sexual harassment as a natural part of being a biological female in costume. It wasn’t until much later and in empowering younger cosplayers and fans that I had to stand up for myself because it made no sense for me to preach a higher standard of self-confidence to my kouhai than I believed in for myself.

The generation after me likely will have very different views on what is a compliment, what harassment is and what it means for someone to be aggressive or a potential assailant.  And in this current political climate where it seems as every single person you have ever looked up to is likely a garbage human (I firmly believe most of the allegations that have come out against most reported garbage humans.).

Next time, we’ll discuss this new higher standard more in depth.