Yesterday Bloody Good Bloke and I were working from a table overlooking the sea (in Thailand!), when a booming American voice behind me said, “Excuse me…?”
BGB and I turned to him.
He waved his phone at me and asked “Hey, can you take a photo of me?”
“Sure,” I smiled, though a little baffled that he’d interrupted our work so that I could twist around backwards and take a photo of him with an ugly wall as a backdrop, when there was a friendly staff member standing right next to him in the perfect place to take a photo of him with the sea in the background instead.
He handed over his phone to where I was sitting and I twisted round further and held up the camera to take a photo of him. “Is this direction fine?” I asked.
It became clear that he wanted me to stand up and walk over to where the staff member was standing, so that he could have a photo with the sea in the background.
As he stood up to get in position, he asked in his huge voice, “Where are you from?”
“New Zealand,” I grinned. He didn’t even acknowledge BGB, sitting right next to me.
He held up his splayed hands near his head and squidged up his large face. “Do you speak Engrishhhh? Hahaha” he laughed in a horribly condescending mock Asian accent.
I recoiled internally as he continued to chuckle at his own joke.
We were surrounded by Thai and Burmese staff.
I took a few photos of him, sat back down and continued working.
“I’m from America, but I live in Israel” he butted in a minute or so later. I was still sitting with my back to him and focusing intently on my computer, but there was no one else around, so I turned around to confirm whether he was talking to me. He was.
“I tried to get my wife to come with me, so I just needed to take a photo to tell her ‘See, you idiot, this is why you should have come with me!’ I asked her what kind of watch she wants me to buy her on the way back through Dubai. She said she doesn’t want one, but I know women, so of course I’m going to get her an expensive watch.”
“We always know what you want even if you pretend not to,” he added, smirking.
I didn’t really know how to respond, already deeply creeped out by the guy’s energy.
He continued spouting random facts about himself to me, ignoring BGB completely/ allowing him to stay focussed on his work.
Eventually I said “Hey, it’s nice to meet you, but I’m just in the middle of my work day at the moment, so I can’t keep chatting.” As I gestured to the work I was in the middle of when he’d interrupted a second time.
“Oh yea, I can see that. No problem,” he said.
I turned back to what I was doing, but then worried I was being too unfriendly and added, “Great place to work from though isn’t it?” Then I turned around and got stuck back into work.
A few minutes later, he interrupted again from behind me “So, what do you do then?”
I just ignored him as though I hadn’t heard, as did BGB, and we both continued to work.
Well, I tried to.
Neville was fuming.
I couldn’t pin point it at first, because nothing the guy said was all that problematic, apart from the racist joke.
Then a beautiful young Russian super-model, half his age walked past and he stopped her in her tracks to talk to her and her tiny daughter (who ignored him as the rest of us wanted to). It was abundantly clear that super-model woman wasn’t interested in chatting and was being polite, but he wouldn’t let up.
Rage started to boil in me.
Finally it clicked into place. My nervous system had sussed this guy out immediately and recoiled from his creepy, entitled energy, but it had taken Neville a while to catch up.
This was a man who didn’t respect women’s boundaries. He interrupted women only, not men, and forced us to listen to his diatribes because we were too nice to say “Fuck off mate”.
I sat at my computer fuming, unable to focus. I knew that if he interrupted me a fourth time, I wouldn’t be able to hold back from telling him to fuck off.
Over the course of the next few days we saw him corner and interrupt a number of young women, and then talk at them endlessly about inane bullshit, with no pauses for them to speak. They’d smile and laugh, appeasing him, but you could tell they were thinking, get him the fuck away from me.
As women we can sense when we’re not entirely safe, when someone is likely to ignore our boundaries or wishes. Females often tend to move into “fawn and befriend” or “freeze” mode in these situations, rather than “fight” mode. Our nervous systems have likely learnt to do this because of our relative inferior strength and size compared to many men, and because we’re socialised to be “nice”, never aggressive or rude.
When I sense someone will ignore my boundaries, or that they could be dangerous, both of which I felt in this man’s presence, I’ll initially be friendly, but push me a little further and I’ll readily respond with bluntness or anger if needed. I’m not conflict-avoidant.
I’ve been known to kick men forcefully in Irish nightclubs when they grabbed my ass.
I’ve shouted at a middle aged man and his seedy drunk friends in a bar in Spain when one of them sauntered over to the group of us (young women half their age), and started massaging one of my friend’s neck and shoulders, completely creeping her (and all of us) out and causing her to go all laughy and friendly towards him (fawn response), while showing us her totally disgusted face. When he ignored me I stood up and repeatedly told him to fuck off until the male bar tender came over, at which point he finally backed off with a smirk.
I have many many stories I could tell like this, most women do.
On the occasions where I’ve had cause to respond bluntly or angrily towards men, they inevitably look at me like I’m a mad bitch (or tell me I am).
Our society conditions girls and women to be friendly and nice — not angry or fiery, while often praising and lauding men for acts of force and aggression, or just writing it off like it’s no big deal.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I learn more about trauma and the nervous system.
A friend, Marg* recently received a very angry email from a woman who was devastated and furious not to have been accepted onto a mental health program that Marg is running. She had tried to force Marg to accept her into the program.
As Marg told me about the woman’s furious response, she was sort of incredulous, like “Can you believe how unreasonable this woman is being?” Everyone else had responded with extreme sadness and disappointment not to be accepted, and she was the only one who’d responded with anger.
I thought about it a bit, and suggested a different perspective —
It sounds like the woman is devastated, just like the others are. I’m guessing, like me, her default response when she’s gutted or triggered is to go into “fight” mode, rather than becoming sad or dejected.
How interesting that our natural reaction to anger is to devalue the person or get annoyed about it — whereas if people respond with sadness or disappointment, we feel empathy for them.
*Marg’s name has been changed for privacy. And entertainment value.
Who doesn’t want a mate called Marg?
As humans, we often have a more dominant nervous system response to distressing situations.
Some of us default more frequently to the “fight” response — we become ragey, we speak out, become energised and take action. Often forcefully. I am one of those humans. Anger is my go-to response, as it is for most of my family.
Some of us default to the “freeze” response — we shut down, dissociate, go blank, go numb. Sometimes we lose all our energy and become incapacitated, as in the case of depression.
Some of us default to the “flight” response — we become anxious, panic, run, hide, withdraw, avoid. Like the fight response, we become energised — but we use the energy to run away (physically or mentally) or we channel it into incessant worrying.
Some of us default to the “fawn” response — we panda to people who we should probably tell to bugger off, we deny our needs and boundaries, and move into people pleasing mode. We can become codependent, and stop relying on our own instincts.
I could say so much on each of these responses, but for now I want to address how we respond to people in “fight” mode.
Because it’s time we start to recognise rage for what it really is.
Fear. Hurt. Sadness. Trauma being re-triggered.
I have been sexually harrassed countless times, and I was sexually abused — so when I feel even a hint of “creepy man not respecting boundaries”,
my nervous system flips into fawn response, closely followed by full blown rage, the fight response.
If every time you saw someone raging (even at you!) you asked yourself “what could be beneath this rage?” the world would be a much more understanding place.
How many times have I heard middle aged men calling their ex wives “crazy bitches” because she became so angry and full of rage towards the end of the relationship.
But what if they considered that her rage was a final symptom for the years she may have spent not being able to get her needs met in the relationship, at work, in our society?
Anger is rarely a primary emotion, it’s almost always masking something more painful.
Rage can be a beautiful thing, if you don’t take it too personally.
So look out for those people in your life who get triggered into rage. They deserve your compassion and your understanding, just as much as the sad, hurt, fearful people.