News Columns & Blogs

Natalia Naman Temesgen: Saying Something Nice

Once, I was cursed out for failing to smile at a strange man who had just paid me a "compliment." I was walking from my apartment to school. He told me I was too beautiful to look mad. I wasn't mad; I just wasn't smiling. As his comments and tone turned threatening, I quickened my pace.

Street harassment may be an unfamiliar phrase to you, reader. It can be defined as "any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation or gender expression."

A video has recently gone viral on Youtube, entitled "10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman." Some of the strange men this woman encounters make seemingly polite comments ("Hey beautiful," "How are you this morning?" "God bless you"), but we can assume that those comments are unwelcome based on the way she reacts -- or doesn't. I remember feeling compelled to say "thank you" or "fine, thanks" to comments like those, partly due to my manners and also the threat of an angry reply from a man scorned.

It's natural for us to make generalizations based on our personal experience. To that end, I considered street harassers to be almost exclusively men, late teens or older. Then #alexfromtarget shook me up a bit.

Alex Lee, a 16-year-old Target employee from Texas, became Internet famous last week when a teenage girl posted a Twitter pic of him bagging her groceries. Alex looks like a Justin Bieber clone, and the pic spread like wildfire among the female tween/teen demographic, which then brought it to all of Twitter's attention (and major news outlets, and Ellen!).

Alex is a real teenager. He has thousands of digital street harassers ("you're so sexy" "HES SO HOT" "yum" "HAVE MY KIDS BYE") and their comments are endless. Most of them are young women. While their comments are being filtered through the Internet rather than yelled in his ear, they are still heard loud and clear. I realized that a street harasser could look like that creepy man staring at you from across the street or that high school girl calling out "hot shirt!" then laughing with her friends.

This begs the question: is it harassment if the harassee doesn't have a problem with it? In the case of #alexfromtarget, Alex doesn't seem too bothered. His Twitter account expresses thanks for the positive comments and he seems pleased with his overnight popularity. But how can we know whether he isn't letting a culture of politeness or an interest in preserving a positive image dictate his responses?

We can't. It seems the adage "say something nice or don't say anything at all" is technically not the right approach here. Because what we think is nice (perhaps complimenting someone on their appearance) may be unwelcome or threatening to a stranger. It can be a blurry line, but maybe say something that isn't inspired by the person's gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. That might be a safer start.