Missed signals and entitlement

Otter with his paw up.
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
Before overhearing the conversation the other night, where I heard a young man cajoling a woman of his acquaintance for not liking one of their mutual acquaintances enough to date him, I had been thinking of the many ways that we are all socialized to accept, excuse, and even enable a lot of socially aggressive behavior from guys. And also how we, as guys, are socialized to aggressively take what we think is ours.

It started at the end of a previous weekend, but I’m going to save that story for later, because it involves a topic that causes some people to stop listening and start arguing. Instead, I will start nearer the end of the week, and rant about bit about a guy on the bus…

I was sitting in the very back of the bus with my headphones on and my backpack held in my lap. I was listening to music from my iPhone while I had a browser open on the phone and was reading email from work. I do that because sometimes there are urgent issues that I can handle right then, and if I can’t handle them by answering some questions, I can at least be ready to jump on the emergency as soon as I get to the office. Also, meetings get re-scheduled or moved to new rooms a lot.

I had only been sitting there for a minute or so when, at the next stop, several people get on, and one is this guy who walks very quickly and determinedly toward the back of the bus. Since I had glanced up as people got on, I’m looking at him when he points at me and motions for me to move.

The very back of the bus is a bench seat, it is divided into five seats, it was one of the few spots open when I got on the bus. There were three of us back there. One guy at each window seat and myself in the middle. That meant there was an empty seat on either side of me. All three of us had bags and some kind of mobile device. One guy had an iPad, I had my iPhone, and the third guy had a laptop. All three of us had out backpack or laptop bag in our laps, and each of us was trying to occupy only one seat.

Partially opened sardine tin.
Sometimes being on a crowded bus feels like being one of these fish.
It’s no accident that we had maneuvered so that there were empty seats between us. It’s always nice to have a little room rather than to be squeezed in like sardines in a can. Anyway, technically, he could have chosen to sit in either empty seat on either side of me, but it is also not at all uncommon for someone sitting where I was on the bench seat to slide over when more people get on. If you don’t slide over, because of the way that the other seats stick out into the aisle, the new person as to climb over/maneuver around at least two sets of knees to get to the empty spot.

So, I slid over. Not a terribly big deal, though he was radiating enough attitude that it felt more as if I were giving into a demand than simply being polite.

He then plops down, managing to fill the two empty spaces that were now consolidated. Just like those pictures you see on the Men Taking Up Too Much Space On the Train tumblr: legs spread as wide as they will go, elbows sticking out of both sides. And he’s not just filling the two seats. Even though I had scooted over until I was bumping against the guy with the laptop, the new guy was still crowding me, making me now feel like the aforementioned sardine.

But it’s not enough that he’s made me move over and is overflowing two seats. Then, he has to lean over so that his mouth is at most an inch-and-a-half from my ear, point to my phone and ask, “Is that an iPhone 3?”

“It’s a 5s, actually,” I reply. By this point I had opened an email thread between three engineers and a tester, discussing a complicated and somewhat unexpected behavior of a product we’re about to release, bringing me into the loop because while the part of the process that everyone agrees is a serious bug will be fixed, the rest of the behavior probably needs to be added to the documentation, and they need me to say whether I think I can make the necessary changes without delaying the document release schedule. So I’m trying to parse the string of back-and-forth messages well enough to understand what I need to explain, think about which document is the best place to put it, while calculating the deadlines and effort remaining for all the other projects I’m on.

In other words, I was not in a headspace of being desperately bored and wanting to have a conversation with someone.

He replies, “That’s a 5? Really? I thought they were skinny?”

“I have a battery case,” I replied, turning it slightly so he could see how thick the plastic case was.

“Huh. Well, obviously you’re not very friendly.” Then he turned to the guy with the iPad, and asked him what model it was. He barely let the guy answer before he launched into an animated explanation of the things he’s done with an iPad, arms gesturing rather emphatically.

While being jostled by his gestures, I replied to the email, and switched over to the iBooks app so I could resume reading the book I’ve been reading on the bus this week.

The guy sits back, planting his hands on his waist and managing to more than jostle me with his elbow again and announces in a loud voice, “This is my stop!” He points to one of the people sitting nearby, “Pull the cord! This is my stop!”

Now, admittedly, one can’t reach the request-stop cord from the seat he was in, and people frequently ask other people sitting in the seats that can reach the cord to pull it for them. But they ask, they don’t demand.

He stays sitting in the two seats he’s overflowing until the bus actually stops. Then he slowly climbs to his feet and starts to move toward the door. “Everyone have a good day!” he says. He pauses, looks over his shoulder at me, and says, “Even you, Mr Anti-social!”

And then before he gets to the door, the doors close, because there has been more than enough time for people to get to the doors and leave. He yells, “Hey! I’m still trying to get out! Back door! Back door!”

The driver opens the door, and the guy starts to exit. But he has to pause yet again and yell out, “Have a good day!”

As annoying as he was, he was at least able to read my non-verbal signals that I wasn’t interested in a conversation. If I had been a girl he thought was pretty, it might have been a very different story. But I’ve had plenty of encounters with guys who were aggressively social like that who seemed incapable of even recognizing the non-verbal cues that say, “Leave me alone.”

When a person in a public place has earphones on and is reading a book or looking at a phone or computer, they are not looking to have conversations with strangers. If a person gives short answers to your questions and does not look up from their book or phone or computer, they are busy. While there is an obligation to be civil, there is not an obligation in a public place to set aside whatever we are doing right now just to provide you with an audience for your bragging. Or whatever.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t ask someone who is doing something else questions, but they need to be questions for which you need answers. “Excuse me, do you know if this bus goes to the Veteran’s Hospital?” For instance, is an acceptable question to interrupt someone for. “Oh my god, that man has a knife,” “Excuse me, can I get past you?” “I think I’m going to be sick,” “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?” or “Excuse me, do you know which stop is closest to the Seattle Art Museum?” are all legitimate questions to ask a fellow bus passenger when they are reading, et cetera.

And if we are going to catalog the anti-social behaviors that happened in the encounter that morning they were:

  • Pointing at and motioning for a person to move without the slightest hint of a “please” or “thank you.”
  • Taking up two seats when you are an able-bodied person and not traveling with small children or pets or other creatures requiring extra care and space.
  • Jostling people beside your repeatedly for no reason other than to emphasize your conversation.
  • Not saying “sorry” or “excuse me” when doing said jostling.
  • Interrupting a person who is doing something to ask a question which is solely to satisfy your curiosity about something that does not pertain to you.
  • Chastising a stranger for not entertaining you.
  • Interrupting another person who is doing something to ask a question which is solely to satisfy your curiosity about something that does not pertain to you.
  • When the person answers your invasive, interruptive question, not really listening to the answer, but use the fact that they made eye contact when they responded to launch into a monologue bragging about yourself.
  • Ordering (not asking) another passenger to pull the stop cord for you, then not thanking them for the favor.
  • Taking such a long time actually exiting the bus that it interrupts the flow of the bus traffic, delaying everyone else a half minute (it’s only half a minute, you say, but it’s half a minute time the 50-ish passengers on that bus, times how often do you do this?)
  • Chastising a stranger a second time for the horrible offense of not dropping what he was doing to be an audience for your self-aggrandizement.
  • After already delaying the bus the time it took to re-open the doors, pausing to make another announcement, instead of letting everyone else get on with their day.

The sad thing is, he sincerely thinks he was just being friendly. He doesn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t be eager to engage in conversation with such a friendly guy. He doesn’t understand that because he has been raised to believe that he is entitled to other people’s attention, entitled to however much space he wants, and entitled to take his time doing things regardless of whether it delays other people.

He’s a mild example, and we all enable guys like him for various reasons. It’s less aggravation to ignore as much as you can and let him do his thing than it is to call him out on his rudeness. And anyone who has ever experienced one of these happy, entitled men flying into a rage when challenged knows that it’s safer to let him be a dick than to call him on it.

We’re told to make allowances for other people. We’re taught that not getting angry or otherwise sweating the small stuff is a virtue. And so on.

There isn’t an easy solution to this. The best most of us can do is watch for ways that we thoughtlessly take up other people’s time and space without asking and try to do a better job. We can talk to guys who know us well enough to listen to us and point out when they’re stepping over such lines.

And most importantly, we can thank people who take the time to listen to us when we feel the need to rant (or whine) about something.

So, thank you for your time.

4 thoughts on “Missed signals and entitlement

  1. Hmm. I both agree with you and disagree with you, for fairly complex reasons.

    As a basis for discussion I stipulate that I accept your description of what happened on the bus. If the incident had been video taped I believe that any reasonable person would agree that your description of what occurred was accurate. The man on the bus behaved in exactly the way you said he did.

    I also stipulate that his behavior objectively inconvenienced other people on the bus, and that inconveniencing strangers in public without a socially acceptable reason is an acceptable definition of “rude”.

    I also agree that if you or I were to ask him why he behaved the way he did he would most probably say that he as just being friendly, outgoing, and possibly even entertaining. And he would say that you were the rude one for not responding positively to his friendly overture.

    But then comes the question of motivation and intent, what his behavior meant. What his behavior said about him, and you, and society in general.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but, I believe the point of your essay was that he behaved the way he did because society has taught him that he is entitled to behave that way. That he was acting out of a sense of confident entitlement.

    I don’t agree with you about why he was behaving the way he was.

    I believe that you are a thoughtful person in both meanings of the word: you think about things a lot, and you consider the effect your actions have on others. I suspect that the man on the bus is a thoughtless person in both meanings: he doesn’t think very much or very deeply, and he is not aware of the effect he has on those around him.

    If I understand you correctly, you believe his behavior is the result of his belief that he is entitled to take up space, make demands, and generally, inconvenience others. That he thinks he is more important than the other people on the bus.

    Well, first of all I don’t think he thinks about his behavior very much. I doubt that he is very self aware. This is a bit of a moot point since neither of us can know for sure what is going on in his mind, and I doubt if he could tell us if we asked.

    More to the point, I think his behavior is the result of almost the opposite of what you think it is. I believe that his behavior betrays deep-seated insecurity.

    I assert that the rude man on the bus is so insecure about his value as a human being that he needs constant outside validation. I suspect that if he is not taking up space and getting constant attention he feels as if he doesn’t exist. He was offended by your refusal to pay attention to him because you were effectively telling him that he wasn’t important and there is already a voice in is head telling him that constantly. He experienced your behavior as a threat to his self worth. Which is really very sad.

    You found his behavior annoying, inconvenient, and inconsiderate. But it didn’t threaten you because you are confident about your inherent self worth. It is more important to you to be an appropriate social being. Because you know that you have value you don’t feel the need to prove that you are important to strangers on a bus. You don’t enjoy being a fish squeezed into a tin box but it doesn’t touch your self worth.

    For this stranger on the bus I suspect that NOT being the singled out for special attention is unbearable agony. How awful must it be for him to go through life feeling injured by the casual disregard of strangers.

    1. No fair!

      You’re jumping ahead to the point of my incomplete follow up. 🙂

      We can’t know what’s going on in his head. Certainly not from this brief interaction. I can’t determine from this whether his bragging is simply confidence spilling over or the signs of a deeply insecure person.

      Entitlement is a many-edged sword. He believes attention and space and time are owed him. Whenever he isn’t getting it, that means he’s not respected. His behavior is some form of acting out. Whether it’s a desperate plea for attention or a confident demand for attention may largely be a matter of semantics.

      Similarly, not having disinterested witnesses or video to cross check, I can’t be 100% certain that my own perception of the events wasn’t skewed by my own issues. Did I defer to annoying behavior because it’s less aggravating to let him be annoying? Or did I assume he was going to be annoying and passive aggressively provoke him into asserting himself?

  2. A simpler explanation would be that the rude guy was a high-functioning autistic (aka, Aspergers). From your description he sounded like one.

    If that’s the case, then there is no reason to call him on it (though I probably would at least say, “Please, stop”) because it’s a syndrome and not necessarily something easily changed.

    1. Well…

      If this guy has Asperger’s, then 95% of frat boys have Asperger’s. And at least 10% of the guys I meet in the mundane world have Asperger’s.

      It’s possible, and I know that my anecdotal recollection of how often I meet guys this challenged about boundaries isn’t going to be a scientific sample. I’m also aware of the arguments that have been made that the real reason 4-6 times as many guys are diagnosed with Asperger’s is because some definitions of Asperger’s are just extreme “guy-ness.” I also realize that the one person I know well who has been clinically diagnosed with Asperger’s is also one of the highest IQ guys I know, and so he is very good at “hiding” his syndrome, but I don’t think that Asperger’s is more likely than an over developed sense of entitlement.

      But, I could be completely wrong.

      It is certainly worth considering.

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