Dear strange man on the train - I say strange man because you are a stranger to me. I do not know you and you do not know me.
Anyway, dear strange man on the train, there is a reason that you got a different reaction from the two people you tried to engage in conversation. Two women. Both strangers to you, to each other and to me, all trying to get home to loved ones and warmth and light.
I know why the women reacted as they did, so different from each other and so surprising to you. I know because I know the calculations of being a woman.
I’m sure you are a lovely man, so lovely with pure intentions. I’m sure you just have never considered the calculations a woman makes in their head when approached by a strange man. Actually I’m not sure. But I want to be sure because I always want to believe the best in people. But my experience has made me wary and judgemental.
You see, as soon as you approached the women and sat in their set of seats, the calculations would have begun. You were clearly drunk- the smell of alcohol and your bloodshot eyes betrayed you. To a woman that is the smell of danger and immediately calculations start. You sat uncomfortably close to them both, spreading out (I believe some call this ‘man-spreading’). To you perhaps a gesture of comradary, to them a huge warning sign displayed in body language that says ‘I dominate this space’.
You see, the calculations begin before you open your mouth. Then- you spoke loudly, almost shouting, into an otherwise silent train carriage. Perhaps as Londoners we are too unfriendly and should talk to each other more, but raised tones always feel threatening. He who roars the loudest leads the pack. Or something.
The first woman you spoke to calculated that friendly replies were suitable. She would have been scared that to not respond would have led to you getting annoyed that she was not replying. Maybe you were just trying to be friendly but she only chose to engage because your response to the alternative could have escalated to aggression. How do I know this? I know this because I have been that woman. Every woman I know has been that woman.
The second woman decided not to engage. She kept her head down and ignored you. She calculated the opposite. That to reply would have encouraged more attention, unwanted attention and a situation that could have escalated from that. How do I know this? I know this because I have been that woman. Every woman I know has been that woman.
I have friends who have been followed home by men after politely engaging with them in order to avoid confrontation in an uncomfortable situation between two strangers. Apparently they were ‘asking for it’ and ‘leading on’.
How did you react? You called her unfriendly, frigid and cold. Both women’s calculations instantly justified in that instance. The first escaped by being called ‘the nice one who doesn’t mind talking to me’ and the second one in her defiant silence, proved that you were a mean and intimidating man.
One row back I shrank in to my seat, for fear of being forced to make a calculation. But I was calculating all along- if I put headphones in will he ignore me or does that make me vulnerable? When I get off the train do I make eye contact and smile? When my stop came, myself and the two women all rose to get off, scurrying past him. ‘You look like an actress’ - you said to me as I practically climbed over your leg in the aisle. ‘Thanks’ I mutter, hating myself for not saying something more fierce in response.
The three of us do the well rehearsed choreography of women making their way home in the dark. A glance over the shoulder to check you aren’t being followed. A text to a loved one to say you’ll be home soon. Reaching for keys in the pocket, a talisman of safe return to warmth and light and loved ones.
To the man on the train, to all men on all trains- I’m sure many of you mean well and are lovely. I’m sure of it and I want to believe it. But please have some empathy and imagine how tiring it is to calculate every word and movement for your own safety.