One of the stumbling blocks I repeatedly have over discussions of street harassment is that much of the time, on paper, it’s doesn’t look like harassment. Hell, much of the time what makes me uncomfortable isn’t harassment.
Much of the time, what makes me uncomfortable is hello.
Hello doesn’t get a lot of attention in discussions of street harassment. And why would it? When women get to hear gems like “I can smell your pussy” (that’s a link to Clarisse Thorn, not a link to l’eau de pussy) or even the cries of “beautiful, beautiful” that might seem like compliments but that take about two seconds to deconstruct as male occupation of public space, hello seems relatively harmless. Hello seems innocent, polite, open—even welcomed in a sea of harsher interactions. Hello seems friendly.
But as many women in urban spaces well know, hello isn’t always as friendly as it seems. I’m not talking about the kind of hello that helps build community; for example, hello has a history of functioning as a sort of verbal handshake in tight-knit urban neighborhoods—particularly neighborhoods largely consisting of traditionally marginalized people. Hello can serve as an understated way of saying: I see you, and you see me, and we’re in this together. (I should make it here that I am talking about urban environments, not rural or suburban ones in which it may be common to greet one another even if you’re strangers.)
That’s not the hello that bothers me. I’m talking about the hello that has an undertone of You, Woman, owe me, Man, your attention—an undertone that’s usually so subtle as to be difficult to define, leaving me wondering if I’m just being a misanthropic New Yorker who can’t play well with others. I’m talking about the hello that slides up and down the scale, the echo of a wolf whistle, its tone indicating what its denotation cannot. I’m talking about the hello that happens just as I pass a man on the street, the hello that is not a greeting but a whisper, the hello that puts me in a position of reaction—to turn my head in good faith to acknowledge the existence of a fellow human…or to hurry past, knowing full well that there’s a good chance it’s not my human existence, but my female existence, that’s being acknowledged.
The potency of hello relies upon its seemingly benign face: It’s a worldwide greeting, after all, and few of us want to live in a world where we can’t acknowledge one another’s existence. But the word itself originated as a call for attention (from the Old English holla, meaning to stop or cease), not mere politesse—and when directed from Anonymous Man to Anonymous Woman, you’re not always sure which hello you’re getting.
Therein lies the problem of hello: It’s not like I can’t be bothered to mutter a singular word to my fellow citizens, right? Nor do I believe that my presence on planet earth is such a gift to humankind that anointing a passerby with a mere word of my precious attention is some great act of grace on my part. Unless a hello was one that was spoken directly at my breasts with a wolf-whistle slide, whenever I sail by a hello-man without returning the greeting, I often have a moment of: What, you’re too good to say hi to him? At the same time, over the years I’ve learned that sometimes hello indicates you’re willing to have a longer conversation—and that often that longer conversation quickly enters the realm of what is unquestionably street harassment. (And even street harassment can bring conflicted reactions, as I examined at The Beheld earlier this year.)
So hello leaves me unsure, constantly second-guessing myself, not wanting to be all “uppity” but not wanting to leave myself open to uncomfortable situations. When I hear a vulgar comment on the street, I know how to react (or, rather, not react). When I hear hello, I feel caught. For as much as hello is a greeting, hello can also draw the lines clearly. Hello can mean: I am a man, you are a woman, and I am saying hello to acknowledge not your humanness but your womanness. Hello can mean: I feel I have a relationship with you, even though we’re total strangers, and the entire extent of that relationship is that I am in a role in which I am allowed to try to start a conversation and your choices are limited to appearing to ignore me or to play along with this conversation you made no indication of wishing to start. Hello assumes a familiarity; hello asks for acquiescence.
Sometimes I’m happy to acquiesce, even when I sense that it’s the kind of hello that wouldn’t happen if I were a man. (I asked some New York men about hearing hello on the street, and men who live in primarily Black areas said they exchange hellos in the neighborhood—other than that, it was a rare occurrence, I’m guessing about as frequent as when a woman I don’t know says it to me. Which is probably annually, not daily as with the hellos I’m addressing here.) My neighborhood is home to a bevy of elderly Greek men, and if returning their hellos means that I can bring a smidgen of joy to their day…well, in my personal calculus, the cost-benefit analysis of a silent schooling on the politics of public space loses out to a shared moment, a mutual smile. One skill I’ve cultivated over years of having a friendly, open, female face is sensing loneliness in people, and soothing that loneliness for a split second with a hello feels somehow morally compulsory.
And, of course, it’s that moral compulsion to be a “good girl” that has put me, and a lot of other women, in situations where we’re easily cornered, badgered, harassed, and endangered. I’m not arguing that a simple hello is harassment, but I also know that it’s often not simple or benign. And even when it’s nothing more than an old Greek man putting in a bid for a morsel of attention, I’m tired of—literally, I am emotionally exhausted by—feeling as though I need to parcel out attention to people merely because they’ve asked. And because it’s not people but men who make up the vast majority of the askers—and women their answerers—it becomes a feminist issue.
So, Feministes, I ask you: What is your reaction to hello? What cues do you look for that indicate how simple a simple greeting really is? Do you say hello to strangers? Do you say hello back to them? What are the dynamics of hello in non-urban environments, or in urban environments that don’t live as publicly as New York?