book of manners cover (crop)

Getting out of our own way: How much is too much?

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

One recent evening while taking the subway home, in the same week the reprehensible “slap her” video surfaced, I witnessed a minor but bothersome exchange between strangers. As two young women boarded, an older gentleman who had taken the only open seat at the previous stop, gestured to one, asking her to sit beside him in what was no more than scarcely a few inches of space. “Please,” he said. The young woman responded simply and matter-of-factly, “No.” The man was taken aback—as was I, briefly. He flapped his palms in the air and snapped, “You’re welcome.” To which the young woman, after some consideration, replied flatly, “Thank you.”

Over the course of the next several stops, I grappled with the exchange, mentally unpacking why I found it disturbing. On the surface, it seemed rude to me that the woman, not yet perhaps 20 years old, was curt in her initial response. “No,” to an offer for a seat without explanation or appreciation seemed…disrespectful. But was it? Why should she—in any situation—need to offer more? Quick answer: she shouldn’t. My own patriarchal conditioning was in action and I had to squelch it—fast. No is always a perfectly reasonable response to anyone. Boundaries are imperative to psychological health, to survival. I immediately shifted my allegiances.

Why did he suddenly decide mere inches of space constituted a full seat? Why did he offer that space to her? Why not offer it to another person? A man? Another woman? A child? Why not to her friend? For that matter, why did he feel that space was his to offer? What about the person on the other side of that narrow gap? And why would he, who had just rushed to take the only free seat, suddenly invite someone to cram beside him in a space that couldn’t even accommodate a cantaloupe?

The conclusions are obvious, and abysmal. She is a woman. A young woman. A thinyoungprettylipstick’dwhite woman. He (older, white) couldn’t be bothered with others on the train, but once he spotted her, she immediately became someone—something—he wanted near him. Not her Latina friend. Not any of the three young black women who boarded alongside him earlier. Not one of the men of varied races, both young and old alike, closer in proximity than this woman. He wanted her attention. He wanted to feel her body against his—even cloaked in winter gear. He wanted to watch her try to cram into the small space. He wanted to see if she would. He wanted. He wanted. He wanted. This is about what he wanted.

Then of course, there are the questions surrounding his dismount. So dismayed by her curt refusal, but ensconced enough in social niceties to avoid making a scene, he used passive-aggressiveness to communicate his displeasure. His internal, “Screw you, bitch, you need to at least thank me!” became an indignant, “You’re welcome.” Which she deftly shut out with an equally curt, “Thank you.” An acquiescence she clearly did not want to offer (a giving-in of-sorts) but had to weigh against possible other retorts in consideration of the length of her ride and the relative insignificance of the aggression.

This desperately brief and seemingly trivial interaction sticks with me primarily because it’s a perfect snapshot of daily (rather, minute-to-minute) male entitlement with which women are expected to comply—or at least appreciate. This creep, in his veneer of ‘just being nice,’ was actually making a bumbling attempt to cop a feel. And I’m tired of it. I’m tired of experiencing it and tired of witnessing it and tired of letting it go. It took me half the ride to figure out what was really going on and the other half of the ride to figure out if it was worth calling him out publicly for it.

It isn’t ever the one incident. It is all of them. It is 40 years of incidents. It is 40 years of asking yourself why you were polite to the guy who slinked up beside you, whispered at you, ogled you, grabbed your arm, tapped your shoulder, poked your ribs just to say “you’re cute” “I like your tattoos” “I like your hair” “what’s your name?” “do you have a boyfriend?” It is 20 – 40 – 75 – 200 – 2,000 years of acquiescing to “boys will be boys” and “he was just being nice” and “he’s of a different generation.” Years of dodging passive-aggressive chastising (and sometimes hostile or even violent chastising) when you set boundaries. In the end, women and girls are still objects through the male gaze. Objects who damn well better appreciate the attention.

And before menfolks send up the flares of feigned exasperation, asking how, then, men are supposed to ‘come on’ to women, or start barking about how feminism prevents them from just trying to be nice—think about what this man was really doing in this instance. Remember, there wasn’t even room for a piece of fruit. His motives were most certainly ulterior and in a deeply convoluted way, malicious.

When I attempted to watch the “slap her” video, I froze. My brain actually locked up. I couldn’t even begin to address the myriad ways the video troubled me. Thankfully, Dr. Rebecca Hains did much of the work for us in her detailed examination, illustrating how the video cleanly evidences this pervasive dehumanization of women and girls. How cute these boys. How cute these boys coaxed into touching the (nameless) girl. How cute they are, gleefully wanting to touch her or kiss her or make her their girlfriend. How cute. And noble! How noble to refuse to perform violence against her. I understand the base intent to illustrate that even young boys know better than to be violent but—just as this man on the subway was ‘just being kind’—when you examine the ideologies at work, it is not sweet, cute, progressive, or even remotely okay.

These are perpetuations of age-old lessons of (white) patriarchy. The standards of beauty that confound women. The complicated desire to be desired. The devaluing inherent in being objectified. The rage in being brutalized. All suppressed under the slick veneer of politeness—it is a dangerous psychological trick that damages women. Makes us feel guilty, unjustified, mean, confused, ridiculous, wrong. Worse, most of us are so mired in the socialization of patriarchy (consider my initial reaction to the young woman’s “no”) we often can’t even name the wrongs immediately. We have to peel the layers back to discover why a given thing hurts or frightens or just doesn’t sit right. We often can’t get out of our own way and in the short course of a fleeting subway exchange, the opportunity for exposing it is lost, which effectively reinforces the problematic ways we think, feel, interact, and react to these daily micro-abuses.

Header image: Romper Room Do Bees: A Book of Manners cover art

New York, NY

JEANANN VERLEE is author of two books: Said the Manic to the Muse and Racing Hummingbirds, winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal in poetry. She has also been awarded the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry. Her work appears in failbetter, Rattle, Adroit, and BuzzFeed, among others. Verlee wears polka dots and kisses Rottweilers. She believes in you. Find her at

JEANANN VERLEE is an author, performance poet, editor, and former punk rocker based in New York City.

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