Saying Hello Under the Shadow of Street Harrassment

Saying Hello Under the Shadow of Street Harrassment October 29, 2014

This post is part of a symposium on Loving Parishioners in their Particularity — discussing how the church community can focus its approach on serving people in different life circumstances.


In partnership with Hollaback!, Shoshana B. Roberts walked silently around NYC for 10 hours, with a confederate taping the things men said to her.  Predictably, she is now receiving rape threats for creating the video below.

I can certainly attest that her experience matches mine — I got several of these kinds of comments on my walk to work this morning, as usual.  The thing that confused me a little was her inclusion of some of the “Good morning/Good evenings” that seem pretty innocuous.  Or, at least, I hope they’re innocuous, since I tend to “Good morning” the people I pass when I’m walking down the street.

But, when I paused to reflect, I can see why Roberts included them, since, when I’ve responded cheerily to men’s “Good mornings” on my walk, the follow-up statement is usually unpleasant.  If I think about it honestly, I like saying “Hi” to people, but, at this point, I’ve got a defensive flinch when a male passerby says “Hi” to me.  Not every greeting escalates into a catcall, but enough do that I need to think about how I’ll respond, whether I’m alone with my interlocutor, and whether that’s a problem.

It’s hard not to carry that defensive posture elsewhere, and I think it can wind up inhibiting conversation and connection at church and elsewhere.  When harassers habitually corrupt ordinary greetings, it’s hard to figure out how to approach someone appropriately.  My recently married friends Sara and Anthony initially met at church, but they nearly didn’t connect, because Anthony held back from introducing himself, worried about the unpleasant attention women often get:

The night I first saw Sara, I was meeting up with a close college friend who was visiting from out of town. It was after confession and just before Mass when I looked to my right and saw Sara. I couldn’t stop looking at her, she was so beautiful. I was shocked to notice that she also kept looking at me!

When Mass was over, I wasn’t sure if I should go talk to her. Church is where a woman should feel safe to pray, not where you get hit on by strange men.

Luckily for Anthony, Sara talked to him (it’s a cute story).  But I think Anthony’s caution made sense.  He was right to be concerned that unwanted advances could make people feel defensive and distant from a church community.  The culture of street harrassment makes it hard to find ways to non-creepily approach people.  If “Hi/Good morning” are preludes to harassment often enough, it’s hard to hear and welcome them, even at church.  And it’s hard to offer them.

As a woman, this is way less of a problem for me as greeter, since my “Hi” is innocuous.  But, thinking about it from the other side, I think one of the easiest ways to avoid this problem is to avoid generic greetings.  Just as I’m much more comfortable hearing someone say, “Hey, is that Three Parts Dead that you’re reading? I loved that!” on the street, since it’s a comment directed at me and my interests, not just at my gender, I like hearing “Hey, are you going to the Adult Sunday School class, today?  I’m curious what Br. Dominic is going to say about the theology of angels.”

In fact, the existence of Adult Sunday School makes it a lot easier to greet or be greeted by anyone, since the theology discussions (and any questions my about-to-be interlocutor may have asked in class) give me a hook for our conversation, and something to be interested in besides the mere fact of the other’s existence.

It’s hard to overcome the activation energy of saying hi to a stranger, period, even without the shadow of harassment and other unwanted advances.  If the Church wants to catalyze connections between parishioners, it can help by giving us hooks to start a conversation.  I like my parish’s Adult Sunday School, but you could also leave little paragraph-long readings on some of the tables at coffee hour, so people have a way into discussion with each other besides “Hi, What’s your name, What’s your job.”

The goal is to make it easier to approach and befriend people in ways that sound nothing like street harrassment and come-ons.  And, outside the pews, to support groups like Hollaback! and to personally discourage street harassment, so that predatory guys have less power to taint our first meetings and casual encounters.


Make sure to keep checking the index post for our Loving Parishioners in their Particularity symposium, as new posts are being added every day!  Today, Calah Alexander and David Mills contributed reflections.

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