Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When is a compliment not a compliment?

By rubyetc on Tumblr. Click for the full comic (it's worth it!)
As part of my marathon training program, I have long runs I'm supposed to do on the weekends. The main part of the trail that I'm usually on is 6 miles long, and since most of the time (whether I'm training or not) I don't usually have to run more than 12 miles, I rarely have to venture past the 6-mile marker. But this weekend I did - I had a 14-miler on Sunday (and it will only go up from here).

This other part of the trail covers an additional two miles and has a different feel from the first 6 miles (to me, anyway) - it runs not through a pretty park but under the freeway overpasses, and while it does get its fair share of athlete traffic (runners and cyclists), it's also kind of scary to me. Maybe because I'm rarely there and am less familiar? And maybe also because it's fairly common to encounter... um... unsavory types on that part of the trail.

This weekend, while desperately in search of the 7-mile marker (alone, I might add), I walked by a man who was lounging in the shade on the grass on the opposite side of the trail, intently watching people pass by. I was instantly wary, because I don't like being stared at and also because (showing my prejudice here, and I admit it) he looked homeless. But he just seemed to be people-watching, so I thought nothing of it.

Until he hollered out to me, "Hey, how are you doing today?"

I tensed up. It is here that I should point out that I already kind of have anti-social tendencies in general - I'm wary of strangers talking to me for no reason, like, "Why are you being nice to me? Why are you talking to me?", and I freeze up rather awkwardly - and especially when I'm out for a run (or a walk), I'm not a talker. Maybe I end up coming across as a jerk, but I don't say "Hello!" or "Good morning!" to other runners and walkers when I'm out and about, even if they say hi first. I'm usually trying to focus my energy on getting myself from Point A to Point B, and most of the time, I don't even have the breath to say something. Even with my own best friend, after a certain point, I just get too tired to talk.

So take all that ^ plus the fact that I was extra tired on Sunday (I really had no business trying to cover 14 miles, but I made myself do it anyway), and it was really hot, and this was some stranger hollering at me as I walked by... I really wasn't in the mood to socialize. Also, why was he talking to ME? I hadn't heard him say a single word to anyone else ahead of me, so why ME?

I gave a perfunctory nod, without making eye contact, to acknowledge that I'd heard him, hoping that would be enough (I mean, what kind of response was he expecting I would give?). But apparently it wasn't.

"You're a cutie!" he yelled.

Oh, god. Why did my legs have to be so tired? I would've liked to run away RIGHT NOW.

"Have a good rest of your day!" he yelled again, as I passed out of range.

I didn't hear him say anything else to anyone else behind me. I guess I'm just the lucky one who caught his eye.

Reader, I didn't feel so great about this. I wasn't shaken up, but I was really tense, especially knowing that I had to pass him again on my way back. (He didn't say anything to me that time, but also, I was sprinting.)

It could've been worse, right? He didn't say anything lewd or obscene, and he didn't call me a b***h when I didn't respond to him. Was I overreacting? Am I a jerk for feeling profoundly uncomfortable that some random stranger had singled me out for a compliment? He was just trying to be nice, after all. Maybe I looked so exhausted and demoralized that he thought he was cheering me up.

But here's the thing, right: I did not feel that it was a compliment. I was not in the right frame of mind to receive compliments at that precise moment. I was already physically uncomfortable from the heat and exhaustion, and emotionally uncomfortable from being all alone on a path that I'm not super familiar with. The man's appearance was not such that would reassure me that he didn't have ill intentions towards me. I was not, at that moment, receptive to receiving compliments. And I thought I had made that clear with my response to his initial greeting.

In the right situation - the right place, the right time, with the right people around me - being called a cutie would make me smile and blush. In the right situation, I would have no doubt that the person who says that to me is trying to be nice.

It's not being nice if you insist on talking to me even if I don't want to talk to you. It's not being nice if you are prioritizing your supposed gesture of niceness over my personal comfort and security. It's as if you're saying, "To hell with how YOU feel. I am GOING to talk to you, no matter what YOU want." It's not nice at all. In most cases it is annoying, and in certain circumstances, it is downright threatening. It doesn't matter whether I am being called cute or whether I am being catcalled and whistled at like a dog (which has also happened to me while out running) - IT IS NOT A COMPLIMENT.

To truly be nice involves an understanding of what the other person needs from you in that moment. And sometimes, what they need is to be left alone.