Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"You're Afraid of Me"

I rode my bicycle home from work yesterday, waited at a stoplight on 22nd and 5th Avenue. I waited in the street, my foot on the curb, ready to spring forward as soon as the light changed.

A pedestrian, an older man, stopped in the crosswalk, asked me if I was a 'racer'.

I shook my head, "No."

"Well you have a really nice bike. I like it," he said, still standing in the middle of the street.

I thanked him.

Then he patted me repeatedly on the shoulder, the way you would an obedient dog.

"So, you're not racing? You just ride around. From work or something?"

I looked to the stoplight, eager for it to change. "I just commute this way," I told him.

"That's a good thing." Then he pat my shoulder. Again.

He must have seen my hesitation because he followed with, "People are not nice to one another anymore. So this must be shocking to you. You're afraid of me. That's fine."

"I'm not afraid of y--" I tried. Because I wasn't. But he had already walked off.

I thought about this conversation as I pedalled home. I don't like to leave a conversation feeling as if I have been scolded, feeling as if I am an example of what 'people' have become. I wondered what level of engagement I owed this stranger, if I owed him anything at all.

But I also wondered, is it true? Are we no longer accustomed to 'nice'?

(It still does not change the fact that I do not like to be pet by anyone.)


  1. Interesting. I agree that strangers don't engage in friendly conversations as often as they used to. It seems like he didn't know the etiquette.

    I often talk to people I don't know, but I wouldn't pat them -- it makes people uncomfortable to violate their personal space. And I also know how to drop a conversation and back off if I sense the other person doesn't want to talk. It seems like he had poor social skills, but instead looking at his own actions, he concluded that the problem was the way the world has changed.

  2. Making small-talk while waiting is one thing, but touching strangers crosses a line. It's not a matter of "being scared," it just seems inappropriate - we all have our comfort levels and personal bubbles. Don't feel bad - you were a lot nicer than I would have been if some random person started petting my shoulder :)

  3. I wouldn't want a stranger to touch me, either. But the message was right on. We aren't kind to each other any more.

  4. I agree it's a shame that strangers don't engage in friendly conversation anymore, but the fact that he touched you is creepy. Don't feel chastised. He was wrong.

    Go back 50 years if you like. Go back 100. In none of those "good old days of civility" was a man allowed to walk up and touch a woman he didn't know.

  5. Do you think it has anything to do with the city you live in? I'm no expert on NYC, but they have a (maybe unfair?) reputation for being standoffish. I'm not sure.

    In Utah people are VERY friendly: talking to complete strangers in line in the grocery store, stopping by the road to help people with flat tires--my neighbor came over and cut down all me weeds :) Must be the mountain air.

  6. It is good to speak with strangers, but I can see that the patting would put you off. I would have been a little wary and scared.

  7. Conversations with strangers greatly depend on my mood - sometimes I'll start talking and they look at me like I'm insane. Sometimes we have a back and forth and it makes me immensely happy, because I've just connected, in some way, with someone I never would have otherwise. Sometimes someone talks to me and I think "Really?! Just because we're both in line at the post office, we have to be friends?"

    But touching me? I don't deal with that.

  8. Great story. I find conversations with strangers sometimes a little disconcerting, especially if they pet you or are overly friendly. In saying that, I think a warm smile goes a long way. When I'm feeling a little awkward, I just think to myself, "Just smile and nod."

  9. It TOTALLY depends on the stranger for me.

    I had a nice convo with a lady next to the wall of chocolate at my local grocery store. I figure if someone likes chocolate enough to stand at the wall of the good stuff, then they're worth talking to ;D

  10. As soon as I'm approached by a stranger, I'll admit that my gut reaction is, "Um, why are they talking to me -- and what do they want?"

    I'm very used to people wanting something.

    I don't know what you owed him. I don't think you owed him anything at all. The physical touch would have thrown me off, no doubt about it -- but it is nice for people to speak to one another.

    I often think about how I'm wandering around a grocery store with a cart full of random things, speaking to no one. How I can be in a store with scores of other people, each of us weaving around one another with our giant carts, and we don't even make eye contact. As Eudora Welty would always write, Alone together. I feel that way often.

    Thought-provoking post as always, Melissa!