In the beginning of 2015, I heard of an experiment a woman named Beth Breslaw had done. It was simple- she stopped getting out of the way for people. Even if she was going to walk into someone full on, she didn’t change her course. She took quite a few hits during her experiment. You might consider her rude, but a look at the results offers further opportunities for thought. She concluded by saying she could probably count the number of women she ran into on one hand. She could use her other hand to count the men who had gotten out of her way. She coined the term “manslamming- getting run into by a man who shows no recognition of your presence.” I’m sure you can read about this now-famous experiment (or others like it) anywhere, but I found it on thecut.com. What follows is my own experience.
When I first read it, I found the results to be obvious, but was blown away by the premise. A person who doesn’t get out of others’ way? I thought that was extraordinary, especially because I assumed that everyone got out of the way more often than not, men and women alike. To go one step further, how would you even think of starting such an undertaking? It opened my eyes and made me start paying attention. I needed to be more aware of why I did things, even to the extent of walking.
I consciously stopped getting out of the way, too, conducting my own experiment and gaining experience with a different kind of confidence. It should be mentioned also, that when I began conducting this experiment, I had moved abroad to Korea- a place with many more pedestrians. On the surface, all the rules of personal space were different. I might have said there were no rules, but after 5+ years and counting, the more subtleties and nuances I pick up. There definitely is an order to the walking structure, and guess who it favors?
On one memorable day, I was walking through a crowded area popular with university students. I wasn’t window shopping or anything- just trying to walk from point A to point B, and the fastest route happened to be this very popular street.
The sidewalks in Korea are beautiful- made with pavers and limestone blocks. Therefore, they provide VERY straight lines to follow. Though I hadn’t been “consciously walking” for very long, I was committed to walking a straight line with purpose, and refusing to disengage for anyone.
That’s when, in the distance, I spotted a man coming toward me. Of course there were hundreds of men coming toward me, because that’s the norm in Korea, but I noticed him particularly because he wasn’t moving with the traffic. Just like me was following a straight line- the same line that I was following. I stopped being aware of the other foot traffic. I nervously glanced at him every few seconds to see if he had changed paths. What would I do when he was in front of me? When it came time to pass? Did I want to force a collision? Even though I had noticed him a long time ago? Our eyes met. I saw in his face, a challenge. He had seen me too, and realized that we would inevitably arrive at the same point. It felt like a long time that we approached each other, and when the moment came, I stepped off the line, all the while not looking at him. Almost ashamed, and dealing with it by pretending I didn’t know what was going on.
At this point, I had an epiphany, and I’m so glad I had it before I’d collided with too many men. This is the reason I undertook the walking experiment, you understand. Not the situation, but how I automatically dealt with it. My feelings. Backing down as soon as someone noticed what I was doing. Up until now, I had assumed the experiment was about proving the misogyny of how men and women are trained to think- basically blaming men for their privilege.
To me, that seems like the angle the press took on Beth’s experiment. At that introduction stage, statistics were probably needed. But I realized my experiment would be different. I was testing myself. When push came to shove, I was the one who had given up my perfectly justified walking route. I wish I’d run straight into that man and proved us both equally entitled to that straight line. Don’t get me wrong, I had nothing to prove to him! I had failed to prove my own worth to myself.
I’ve continued this experiment off and on, and over the years, I’ve gotten quite good at it. By that I mean not getting out of the way and possibly colliding if the situation is appropriate. By that I mean I don’t collide with little old ladies. By that I mean I yield to others as well, but I never back down on the challenges. By that I mean if he’s paying attention, has seen me, and continues to walk right toward me, I don’t back down. However, these days I’ve had another epiphany: no matter how much progress I make, it will never be enough.
Just a few weeks ago, I was carrying a heavy load of groceries, heading to the bus stop to ride home. My neighborhood is not that busy outside of rush hour, and I could tell there were only a few people waiting at the stop. When I came up to the door, though, it was almost blocked. Two men had clearly come through the doorway, but stopped right it front of it- with their giant suitcases almost barricading the entrance. In Korea, almost means there is still room to walk through. Even when there is no room, people often attempt to push through anyway.
I thought I was doing well to sidle through the crack between suitcase and bench, just barely brushing the suitcase with my heavy bag. I needed to check which bus I should ride, even though it would only be about 4 stops to my home. As I read the routes and noted several buses I could take, I heard one of the men saying something loudly. My brain processed the bus stop information and his words at the same time, and I realized he was saying “can’t you say excuse me?” In English, with a thick accent. It was the accent that saved me, gave me a split second to decide if I should turn to face him or not. Such was his tone of voice that my heart began beating faster as I froze in place. I decided to ignore him. Based on his and his companion’s relatively large size and angry tone, my fight or flight instinct was telling me to run away, but my earliest bus option would be another 2 minutes. All of this went though my subconscious brain in about 1 second.
The man continued his tirade in his native language, but in a loud enough voice that I knew it was meant for me. (If he had been Korean, I could have understood him. It would have been entertaining. They were both foreign. This detail is included to help you visualize, but not to say certain cultures have bad men. We all do.) His friend laughed at his commentary. My embarrassment quickly faded, and instead I became angry too. “How dare he raise his voice to me, when his suitcase is clearly in the way! Here I am carrying a heavy load, and he has to yell at me for waiting at the bus stop like a normal person?! Good thing these guys are getting on the airport bus and getting out of here, because they’ll never survive in Korea like I have,” I thought. I fleetingly considered saying some of those thoughts to his face, but decided it wasn’t worth it, and could potentially be dangerous.
This guy with his giant suitcase blocking the door at the bus stop, trying to intimidate me for existing. Unfortunately, it worked because I was just scared enough to pretend I didn’t understand English. To not “accidentally” bump into his suitcase again. To not turn around as I boarded the bus, and call him an asshole. I realize such a prick who takes up extra space readily and then yells at other people for trying to be in a public place where it’s normal for others to be- verily, a DOORWAY- wouldn’t benefit by being called an asshole.
Like I said, no matter how much progress I make on the confidence, bravery, equality front- sometimes it’s not enough. Under similar circumstances, most women think “safety first.”
This, you understand, is the rest of the problem. It’s not enough for me to be confident, brave, even powerful. I have a responsibility to use the confidence I’ve gained in a way that does not affect others’ confidence, well-being, or walking path.
Now, when I return home to America, I have to be more aware of space. It turns out, the walking experiment is MUCH more effective in America than in Korea. In Korea, one could argue that there is no where else to walk. Not so, in Montana, when the only other person in the aisle is walking straight toward you, and you refuse to move. MUCH more obvious. The men… are the same.
I once came upon two people having a conversation as they strolled through down one aisle of Walmart. One was walking on the far left- the other on the far right. They were wide enough apart for an elephant to go through. It’s a wonder they weren’t yelling to bridge the distance. I had plenty of space to pass between them, and they were strooooolling so slooooowly that I did just that. One of them paused her story long enough to snootily shoot “well, excuse you!” in my direction. Perhaps I should have listened to their story and chimed in, instead of interrupting it.
At other times, when standing in an American line, I have to be conscious of the space I leave between me and the person in front of me, and sometimes they still turn around and give me that nervous little expression that nonverbally communicates- “Why are you so close to me?” In which case, I take a step back. I realize personal space infractions can be used to intimidate, which is actually the last thing I want to do.
The walking experiment for me was about other people at the beginning, but it became more about me as I progressed. Before, I was letting everyone walk all over me, excuse the pun. These days, I aim for a balance of confidently possessing my space, but not encroaching on others’. I never would have found that balance without experiencing the opposite extreme of forcing walkers to either get out of the way, or run into me. Essentially forcing my value up to be equal with other people’s value.
For me, the experiment does not stop at walking, because that is a very small part of life. It is about equality.
I share these stories for those unable to feel comfortable wearing anything they want. I share these stories for those who shame the clothing choices of others.
For the man who doesn’t understand why a woman might take offense to the term “guys”, but at the same time readily admits he would be offended if someone expected him to answer to “girls.”
And for the group of girls who collectively refer to themselves as “guys”.
For those who feel they need to teach a stranger about their own perception of good manners.
For those who can’t believe another celebrity has recently been accused of sexual assault. When will it end? It’s not possible that they are all guilty!
For those who think certain nationalities are inferior, and for those who feel like they need to list their accomplishments to be seen as worthy of immigration.
For those who participated in the Women’s March. For those who can’t figure out why women are marching.
Yes, these stories are short, and relatively light, but my reason for sharing is that the percentage of men who haven’t attempted to put me in my “place” with some tactic or another is low. Terrifyingly, some do it automatically, while I used to take it and not even notice. I share these “aha moments” from the beginning of my journey as a way to communicate some of my experiences that might spark a thought, or an experiment of your own.
My journey is still at the beginning as well.