Sunday, May 27, 2012

Young, male, and not very dangerous

As a child I wandered across my neighbours' farms, exploring the fields and streams near my home, but when I grew older I began to realise that the significance of my presence on other people's land was changing. If a farmer saw me at nine, plodding across their meadows, they might have remarked: 'Aw, look at him, off exploring' or at worst: 'That little bastard, trampling my meadow again!' As an adult I felt self-conscious because I knew the farmers spotting me trespassing on their land were probably now saying: 'Mary, fetch the gun'.

That is because a great deal of crime is committed by young men. Land owners spotting a solitary young man striding across their land may suspect nefarious intentions.

Yesterday it was beautifully hot and sunny here so I drove off into the countryside, took a quiet side road at random, found a grassy verge to pull over, and went for a walk. Soon I found a rather grand entrance to some property, with massive, ornate old iron gates blocking a path that wound off behind the trees. It looked pretty impressive and I had my camera but hesitated to go clicking photos because it was possible that the person living down that road might pass on the road and react unfavourably to seeing a strange man photographing his or her land.

Thinking about this, I wondered under what circumstances the presence of a strange man might seem less threatening. If I was accompanied by a young woman, I thought, we would probably appear like a harmless couple going for a stroll. If one or two little kids were with us too we'd probably seem like a perfectly unthreatening family enjoying the sun. The presence of another one or two young men with me would probably make us look more suspicious.

I'm so used to the potential unease I may cause strangers just because I am a young male, and share that demographic trait with most criminals, that I often take measures to avoid alarming people. Walking at night and overtaking another solitary walker, I shuffle my feet as I approach, kick pebbles to give a warning so that the other person is not alarmed when I suddenly pass. If I want to ask someone directions but the only choice is a solitary old woman, especially at dusk, I might pass by to avoid giving her a scare by my approach.

Lest this seem excessive, it was inspired by a few real experiences. I remember once as a teenager I wanted to ask directions from a middle aged woman sitting in her car. I opened the passenger door to poke my head in and the woman flinched, immediately alarmed. I realised straight away that she thought this teenage boy was going to rob or attack her. On another occasion an elderly woman gasped in terror as I quietly passed her by on the street; I just kept walking, frowning to myself in surprise!

From my perspective these events were slightly irritating. I know that I'm no threat, so it is annoying that people assume the worst because of my appearance. Generally I just accept it as a consequence of being this sex and this age, and try to avoid freaking people out unnecessarily with behaviour they might misinterpret.

So, day-dreaming a bit about this, I went for my walk and then returned towards my car. As I approached  I saw a few people near the car, one of them gesticulating with his arms in a way that made me a little wary: this looked like strong emotion on his part. I came close and the person, an elderly man, called to me:

'Is this your car?'

'Yes,' I said.

'Did you have trouble?' he said, meaning did my car break down.

'Oh no, I just pulled over to go for a walk,' I said. 'Such a lovely day.' At this the young family the elderly man had been speaking with laughed slightly, as if to say: all this fuss and he's just going for a walk!

It turned out that the man had called the police when he saw the car abandoned on the grass! He was pretty pissed off about the whole thing, complaining that it's 'not exactly meant for parking', and that he has to mow that grass 'every day'. I apologised but he turned his back, clearly a bit mad with me. Still, he and the neighbours seemed to think that the mystery was solved and that I was no threat; the fact that I was in a summery t-shirt and shorts apparently meant that even being a young man I didn't look like a criminal!

The more serious thought to all of this is that I sometimes see feminists complaining that men judge women by their appearance. I would counter that many people, perhaps all people, judge others by their appearances and behave differently towards them based on these judgements. Passing down the street I am forever reading the age and sex of strangers approaching in the opposite direction, trying to guess how dangerous they are likely to be by those characteristics along with others: dress, body language, hair style, apparent social class, etc. Other people do it to me and I can't blame them. Taken to extremes it is ridiculous, but some sexist discrimination is probably always going to be inevitable. I'll have to wait for old age before strangers stop thinking I'm a thug.


  1. Ha... coming from a rural area myself - especially one with such misleading footpaths we frequently got ramblers in the horses' field, and once in the vegetable garden - I completely understand landowners' tendencies to view everyone as a potential pain in the neck, whether they think you're about to nick the quad bike or just leave picnic litter all over the place. Sad, but true.

    However, at the wider level, yes - we all do judge by appearance, even if we try not to, don't we? It's rational, because appearance often does give away a lot, but society encourages us to pigeonhole people, whether based on perceptions of race, gender, class, culture, age, weight, or anything (and everything) else. And, of course, there will be always be people who *do* fit the stereotypes, thus reinforcing them. Maybe it's to do with the tenuousness of communities and the modern need for immediacy: we place more emphasis on forming quick impressions of people rather than reserving judgement until we know more.

  2. Hehe oh certainly, if I own land one day myself I will be irritated to see strangers crossing it. If those strangers are children I may think: "little feckers... but they're probably just picking my blackberries". If they are teenage boys I may be less charitable in my prejudices! SOME of these prejudices, some of the time, make sense. Not always, of course, though. Speaking as an Irish man who didn't drink alcohol until my mid-twenties, I know a bit about exceptions to stereotypes ;D


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