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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 20 March, 2019

Prioritising manners over personal safety is an unfortunate proclivity of many women

‘In a moment of agitation and panic, I said yes.’

I’D SEEN HIM at 06.30 every weekday morning for months.

luas Source: Shutterstock/faithie

While my work attire was determined by the weather and the spot I chose on the Luas platform depended on the number of people waiting to board, his appearance and chosen spot never changed.

Dressed in the same gear, waiting in the same spot, boarding at the same time, and alighting at the same station; this man was as constant a presence in my morning landscape as cleaning my teeth, brushing my hair and locking the front door.

And maybe that’s why I agreed to take a lift with him one morning – shortly after dawn – when the Luas failed to arrive.

Seeing my alarm when it was confirmed that the tram would not be running until further notice, he offered to drive me to work.

And I said yes.

In a moment of agitation and panic, I said yes.

While the other woman on the platform walked in the direction of the nearest village in order to wait for a bus, I was acutely aware that the next bus wouldn’t get me to work on time.

So I said yes.

And within approximately 30 seconds of leaving the platform and walking alongside a complete stranger in the direction of his car, I realised how foolish – how desperately irresponsible – I was being.

But I said nothing.

Mild-mannered and cordial, he didn’t pick up on my sudden sense of discomfort, and instead chatted easily about his morning routine, explaining why he chose to take the Luas each morning instead of the car.

Making small talk, we walked back in the direction of his street – deserted, given the time – and with every passing second, my sense of unease grew; not because of him, but simply because I was going against everything I had been taught about strangers, hitch-hiking and personal safety.

And still I said nothing.

Why? Because I felt paralysed by the idea of seeming ungrateful or suspicious in the face of a good deed.

He knew there was no Luas and he saw that I had vetoed the idea of a bus, so to change my mind was surely a direct indication of my perception of him.

shutterstock_1040561 Source: Shutterstock/Darren Pierse Kelly

Why else would I suddenly backtrack and choose to be late for work if not because I was uncomfortable about getting into a car with a stranger?

Why else would I decline an offer I had so gratefully accepted minutes before if I hadn’t abruptly changed my opinion of the person doing the offering?

I knew how it would sound if I changed my mind.

To all intents and purposes, he was helping out a fellow commuter when they had both found themselves at the mercy of Dublin’s public transport system, so to turn on my heel and flee felt like a mammoth overreaction.

And yet every fibre of my being knew that with every step I took towards his car, I was going against all I had ever learned.

And still I walked beside him.

It’s hard to articulate just how conflicted I felt in that moment, and how difficult I found it to extricate myself from the situation.

A desire – born of years of gender-specific teaching – to be amenable or to come across as acquiescent meant I jeopardised my own safety, so as not to offend in a particular situation.

Objectively speaking, I can see how inconceivable my actions were, and with the benefit of three year’s hindsight, I would like to think that I would be more confident in articulating myself today, but in that moment it felt damn near impossible to remove myself from the situation.

How might he react if I suddenly said I didn’t want to go with him? Was I placing myself in danger by admitting I had changed my mind?

And so against all my better judgement, I took his offer.

He drove me to work safely, was respectful, polite and friendly, and despite this, I promised myself I would never tell anyone I had taken a lift from a complete stranger.

What was I thinking? I knew so much better. 

However, since then, I have told people what I did that morning.

And I was equal parts relieved and horrified to learn that they too have found themselves in situations where they have prioritised manners over personal safety.

Whether it’s a strained smile, a forced laugh, or a fake number, these are just some of the bog-standard responses in a woman’s arsenal when she’s confronted with certain situations.

Subconsciously, we utilise the milder response so as not to escalate specific situations, and perhaps that goes some way toward explaining my decision that particular morning.

Was my concern actually this person’s feelings or was it the fear of what may happen if I offended him by changing my mind? I just didn’t know.

The establishment of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp over the course of the last 12 months have helped me to understand my thought process on that morning.

I wasn’t in danger, and, objectively speaking, I could have turned back, I was fearful of the reaction I might elicit if I did so.

Writing in The Huffington Post, Lorraine Devon Wilke taps into this, explaining:

The powerlessness is a more nuanced, subtle kind; less defined or understood. It involves a certain passive element of female imprinting, those subconscious gender proclivities and unspoken expectations we’re buffeted by, the ones that lead women to self-negating decisions and behaviors that often demean and endanger them.

Acknowledging the regularity with which women find themselves prioritising manners over ensuring their personal safety, she makes reference to a line in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

“It’s hard to believe that the fear of offending can be stronger than the fear of pain.”

From an outsider’s perspective, it is hard to believe, but from an insider’s perspective, it seems inexplicably worth risking in that moment.

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About the author:

Niamh McClelland

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