When Did ‘Hello’ Become Harassment?


by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

Let me go on record here: I don’t understand the point of the Hollaback video.

In case you’ve been on Neptune for the past week or two, here’s the story. An actress, Shoshana B. Roberts, took a casual 10-hour stroll through New York City neighborhoods while a video producer, Rob Bliss, accompanied her. Using a small portable camera strapped to his back, he surreptitiously filmed her as walked in front of her while she held two microphones in her hands. In order to create a neutral and unassuming appearance, Ms. Roberts dressed casually, in jeans and a black crewneck T-shirt.

The resulting two-minute or so compilation tape, produced by a viral-video marketing agency, revealed the following: Men noticed Shoshana. The team recorded some 100 “catcalls,” and the edited piece highlights this “street harassment.” An organization called Hollaback is working to bring an end to this for women everywhere.*

I’ve watched the compilation several times. Before I go any further, I admit that whatever catcalling I may have been personally subjected to—which feels minimal and immaterial—is long in my rearview mirror. Then again, I didn’t work in a large metropolitan area as a young woman and walk the streets daily to go about my life. And since I’m not an attractive actress in my 20s in Manhattan, I have no idea what women like Shoshana hear in public every day. But if this tape represents that experience and widespread “harassment,” I’m very confused.

My only reference is the compiled evidence, documenting this “pervasive issue affecting women around the world.” Out of the 100 catcalls, the tape includes approximately 30 encounters, and features the following verbal assaults:

“How are you this morning?

“Have a nice evening.

“What’s up, Miss?

“Have a nice evening, darlin’.

“What’s up, beautiful? Have a good day.”

Note: Joey Tribbiani (Friends) is alive and well in New York. Several of the men who spoke to Shoshana offered his familiar catchphrase, “How you doin’?” by way of introduction. (In the unenlightened ’90s, we used to think this was amusing.)

Slight variations included:

“What’s up, girl? How you doin’?

“How you doin’ today?

“How you doin’…good?”

Shoshana was also subjected to these:

“Hello, good morning. God bless you; have a good day, alright?

“God bless.

“Hi, beautiful.

“What’s up, beautiful?  Have a good day.”

Were there some greetings that were more aggressive, more sexually charged? Yes. Several men said “Damn!” or “Damn, girl!”  Or “Hey, baby.”  Or “Nice!” “Sweetie!” There were two creepy guys, as well, who walked beside Shoshana for a few minutes, one silently and one who attempted to talk with her but got no response.

I can only assume the video offers a representative sampling of her day. If that’s true, out of the 100 or so, 2 percent of the guys were stalker-ish, although, given the public setting, not overtly threatening her harm. A little scary and uncomfortable, for sure, and in a more remote area, they would be frightening. (Then again, if a man is intent on overpowering a woman, he will, regardless of the setting. Ask Carlesha Freeland-Gaither.) But these two don’t represent the majority by a long shot. Call me naive, but many of the men were what we used to call “friendly.” Sure, friendly and maybe a little desperate, since it’s unlikely the next woman (or the next or the next) who hears that “How you doin’?” line will stop and chat.

Help me understand this. If a man—a stranger—says, “How are you this morning?” or “Have a nice evening” to a woman—a stranger—on the street, we’re to interpret this as sexual harassment? What if he says, “God bless you—have a good day, alright?” Still harassment?

Uninvited? Yes.  Too aggressive and intrusive? Maybe. But here’s the thing: It’s not all men.  It’s not even most men. Shoshana probably passed thousands while being taped for 10 hours and heard from just over 100 of them, so it’s fair to say only some men do this. And maybe it’s only “offensive” when it comes from a stranger. Some of these very same comments from men she knows, the guy selling bagels, the one filling the fruit stand, the bus driver—men she encounters every day on her typical and regular route—would not be interpreted in a negative way.

So we’ve learned the following: Over the period of 10 hours in a city like New York, a young, attractive woman will be subjected to come-ons and unsolicited comments, from some men.  She will also encounter a few strange guys who don’t know how to meet women and therefore behave inappropriately.

And now we have it on tape to prove it.

*This is not a worldwide “problem,” by the way. The New Zealand Herald tried to replicate the video, and just two men approached the woman: one to ask directions and one who tried to start a conversation with Nicola, the woman on tape.

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.


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21 Responses to When Did ‘Hello’ Become Harassment?

  1. Karen November 14, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    Have to agree with you, Renee….I would also add “lighten up, people.” Where I come from “Have a good day, Beautiful!” is something very uplifting……….

  2. Donna in Delaware November 14, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    What can one say to this? Yes, an attractive woman will get these so-called cat calls when she walks down the street. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, I’ve had done to me in Switzerland of all places, in the ’90’s, when I was younger and I was walking WITH my now husband. Can you beat that? Now that is nerve! If my now husband had been a different sort of man, he would have dragged the two guys out and probably beat them to an inch of their lives. He is not that type of man, and I just told him to ignore the idiots. We did, and kept walking. My husband was incensed.

    There is a big difference in saying hello to someone, and being aggressive, harassing and disrespectful. The approach is everything. We have to be careful when this kind of thing happens. To accuse someone of sexually harassing you because they say good morning darlin’, well, is a bit of overkill. One can tell when there is a come-on, and one should be able to tell when someone speaks to you, and find you so attractive that they add a little, let’s say, “color” to their salutations.

    As long as they don’t touch you, come near you, block your path when you’re trying to get somewhere, constantly harass you daily (I would suggest changing your route or mix it up) follow you to your place of employment or home, then ignore them. Just keep an eye out for anything unusual, or get two huge guys to escort you around. Get some defensive training under your belt and stay in the mainstream. Be escorted in the evening. Take any, all and every precaution, because not everyone out there (as we all know) is simply “courteous.”

  3. judi hendricks November 14, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    Alas, anything can be taken to the extreme. There’s a big difference, as others have noted, between a pleasant greeting and a catcall. This video reminds me of something I read on a blog last year…a woman claiming that the old wintertime song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was actually about date rape. I think a little common sense could go a long way here…

  4. Alice Green November 14, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    One question, if the guys on the street are just being “friendly” why is it that they seem to only ‘be friendly’ when the woman is young and attractive? I’ve walked down lots of streets, by myself, and never had any stranger be ‘friendly’ by calling out to me. But when I’ve walked down the same streets with a friend who was very attractive, the ‘friendly’ calls began. Maybe “Hello” wouldn’t seem like harassment if it happened equally to all women. But when it is specific to only young, attractive women walking by themselves, I say common sense says it’s not so uplifting to the one being addressed.

  5. Renee November 15, 2014 at 10:37 am #

    I am grateful for the points of view added to the conversation here. Thank you, all. Couple of additional thoughts from me:
    Given the very negative turn this kind of interaction can take, very quickly and with a great deal of hostility, I expected the video to contain extremely disturbing and insulting behavior and comments. In other words, if the goal was to illuminate the worst of the worst here, it did a terrible job. In fact, it may diminished the problem in many ways by including everything that could possibly be interpreted as intrusive and unwelcome.

    As Karen said, I think we can all lighten up – not to ignore the problem but to maintain a little perspective.

    Donna – Maria and I had some exchanges about this before publishing of course. Europe may as well be the moon! Quite a culture clash between acceptable male / female interaction there, right?

    Judi- dear God help me. Really? A song about a guy wanting to prolong a date on a winter night? Yes, yes, yes – I’m sure that exactly what the lyricist had in mind. Nothing like a crime to create that holiday mood. : /

    Alice – I hear you! I do. I am we’ll past catching the eye of many men. I get it. I can certainly appreciate the looks of an attractive actor young enough to be my son! Doesn’t mean there aren’t older men who are also worth another look. But young, at his prime – just human nature to notice, no?

    Once again, thank you so much for the comments. Much appreciated.

  6. Donna in Delaware November 15, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    Renee- I forgot to add that these two men WERE NOT European! I think that this had a bit to do with the male/female interaction there. It would be really quite unthinkable for a Swiss or German man, much less a European man altogether, to exhibit this type of behavior. The two men were actually from Arab speaking countries, according to my husband, who is great with languages and areas around the world.

    Yes, Europe may as well BE the moon where this is concerned! In my 30 some years traveling in and around Europe, nothing like this has ever happened to me, or others that I know. (There was one isolated incident in Capri where this guy followed me, and I went to the hotel of my tour guide who told the man to get lost). After that, nothing of this nature ever took place again. Again, this is rare.

    Alice- you make a valid point.

  7. Alice Green November 15, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

    Thanks, Donna. For a bit there I was wondering if anyone but me understood what my point was. I wasn’t saying that humans shouldn’t be able to appreciate and notice when someone good looking walks by. But to go that extra step of cat calling makes it intrusive and rude, and can make a person feel embarrassed, at the very least.

  8. Donna in Delaware November 17, 2014 at 11:49 am #

    I get it! You are correct.

  9. Debbie November 18, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    Boy, I don’t know what to say. My first thought was that Shoshana B. Roberts and Bob Bliss should put their energies into something that really is a problem. Then I went on to read the comments, and now I am sure of it. Maybe the two should “do a study” on poor manners and/or lack of education, instead of unfiltered primal thoughts.

    Yes, perhaps these comments are unwanted and may be considered rude, but without them being constant and repeated, they are not harassment. With all of the media images and writings, and access to everything at your PC, no one is sheltered for long. There is no room in our society today for a thin skin. And no time to be making something out of nothing. Common sense. More common sense is needed in this world.

    If you are a person who doesn’t want any verbal intrusions, there are things you can do. A good option would be to check out the wide array of ear buds and other devices used to allow yourself to hear only what you like. I’m sure you could even find a soundtrack of city sounds, without the catcalls.

  10. Valerie November 18, 2014 at 11:57 am #

    When I saw this video my first reaction was – lighten up lady. Honestly, a few men were creepy – but most were nice, polite, friendly – and yes, she is a young attractive woman, so she gets more of these comments than other women would. I lived in NYC from age 21 to 51 and I will tell you the comments were always flying in my 20s, still some in my 30s, then…….Here is something I want to tell her – just wait until you become the invisible woman – it happens about 45 years old – and those friendly comments are few and far between. Then they stop! The silence is deafening. That would be one boring video.

  11. renee November 19, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    Thanks again, everyone, for continuing to weigh in with some feedback and reactions to the post and to the video that inspired it. Look, I know there is Harassment – with a capital H – but there is also something called being social. Does the activity in this video fall somewhere in between? Probably.

    But here’s where I continue to be confused. On one hand, we have TV shows like “Jersey Shore” that introduced the charming concept of being “DTF”; on the other we detect sexual overtones when a man greets a women with “Good morning, how are you today?” This issue has been stripped of any validity – based on this video – in my opinion. (I expected to see worse; much, much worse.)

    In addition to some of the comments here, I’ve heard from mothers of daughters who let me know it’s out there and it’s nasty. I’m sure they’re right and I’m not pleased to learn that their daughters need to deal with this kind of intrusive – sometimes very intrusive and unwelcome – behavior. (Me? I have sons. And the two I spoke to about this said they’ve never done it; can’t imagine doing it; don’t know anyone among their friends who has done this. Maybe it’s safe to say it not a male DNA thing. So is it cultural? Socio-economic? Learned? No idea.) But again, my contention here is that this video “evidence” does little to expose that experience and in fact does young women a disservice regarding the harassment they get on the street.

    Val – I’ve been the invisible woman for years! I can’t wait for sixty. I may hear more noise if I move into a cloistered convent. : )

    Thanks again, everyone.

  12. j November 20, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    Renee, I think I understand the point you’re trying to make, but I have to say I see it differently.

    First, I always thought it was up to the person being harassed to determine if it’s harassment. I watched the video, and under no circumstances did the young lady in question do anything to indicate to these men that she was interested in any communication from them. Therefore, it is unwanted communication, and on a number of occasions during the video, very clearly harassment.

    I regularly say hello to people I am passing on the street. We are usually moving toward each other on the sidewalk, have made eye contact, smiled, and THEN said hello (and moved on). What I saw in the video was completely different from this type of interaction. My gut tells me that these men are not saying hello to everyone that passes, and they are definitely not saying hello to other men.

    I do not appreciate unsolicited comments on my appearance, positive or negative, from complete strangers. I do not like being told to smile. I am downright freaked out by strange men who start walking beside me. And on the rare occasion when I have responded to the unsolicited hello, I have then been solicited as a prostitute. I wish I was kidding. This happened when I was over 40, dressed conservatively, and walking with purpose and intent toward my home. I am, at best, average in appearance.

    What I see documented in the video is, if not already harassment, the precursor to harassment. The majority of women I know do not enjoy this behaviour. I think it’s important that we validate the experience of other women when they are out in the world. Even if we wouldn’t feel harassed by this behaviour, we need to recognize that she does. And that should be enough.

  13. Alice Green November 20, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    Yes! Thank you J!! You have expressed just how I and many, many other women feel. Just because some women feel ok by been called out to or worse when they are walking – does not mean that all of us do. And if they think we should just be more “friendly” and lighten up then they are also trying to make us feel ‘less’ or somehow anti-social. Thank you for being able to express it so well, I also, often say hello when walking, just as you do, when you make eye contact and both people say hi, smile and keep walking on. That is being social, and not being harassed. Much different from what happened in the video.

  14. j November 20, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    Oh, and just to clarify: I do not discriminate based on appearance or gender. I am just as likely to enter into a friendly exchange with a homeless man on the street in the urban core of my city as I am with a well-dressed elderly female resident of the very affluent community I walk through on my way to work. And guess what? I have never had a woman tell me to smile, keep saying hello to me like they’re entitled to a response, or stare at me as I approach them. (Sorry, Renée; I really feel strongly about this, as you can tell! lol)

  15. j November 20, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

    Agh! Can’t stop!

    Didn’t the second or third wave of feminism work hard to establish a work environment where male employers did not use the terms “sweetie”, “beautiful”, “girl”, or “hon” to address female employees because it was demeaning within that context and created an imbalanced power dynamic and added a sexual dynamic to a professional relationship? Why should it be any different on the street? If you don’t know me well enough to address me by name, then I sure as hell don’t want you using a term of affection reserved for an intimate relationship to approach me.

    Okay, I’ll let it go now.

  16. Alice Green November 20, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    Once again, Thank You J! And no need to say sorry, I agree completely and am so glad to see someone express my own feelings so well. Reading your words helps to energize me and gives me hope that women still do have the right to be respected.

  17. j November 21, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    Alice: I also did the math on this. One of the contentions people have is that it may be rude behaviour, but not harassment. However, if she experienced this over 100 times in a 10 hour day, that means at minimum this is happening to her every 4 to 6 minutes. Sure, it’s a small minority of men, but even if it’s 100 different men, every FOUR to SIX minutes a male stranger feels entitled to communicate with her simply because she is a young, attractive female, and they’ve been allowed to believe that’s okay. It is a systemic form harassment, and it needs to change. How would most people feel if every four to six minutes their phone rang, just because a group of complete strangers had access to your number and felt entitled to say hello?

  18. Alice Green November 21, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    Well, not only are you able to express yourself well, you also are great at math! That makes it even more obvious that what feels like harassment to us is harassment, and not just some ‘friendly hello’. Thanks again, J.

  19. renee November 26, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    I love the interaction and I love the passion! Thank you for weighing in here, J – and Alice! I agree about a couple of things:

    First, I try to be careful when I post here about ascribing “truth” to any topic based on what seems to be the prevailing point of view among my own circle of friends and acquaintances. Want to make sure I don’t slip into channeling Pauline Kael if at all possible. ; )

    That said, if Shoshanna sees this as harassment – an invasion of her own space, her freedom to move about without being accosted in public, and in fact at times threatening her safety – that’s absolutely her prerogative; and entirely valid. Other women viewing it similarly is certainly also valid. I didn’t see it that way – my prerogative; my own lens and life experience this time – hence the post….

    I also believe this – as you do – what one woman hears as harassment may well be inconsequential to another. Doesn’t invalidate it – but it does indicate that there are shades / gradations / nuances that need to be considered; there is not one silo we call “harassment.” The interpretations of said communications are as diverse as the women who hear them.

    Regarding what is acceptable language in the workplace vs. in public: in my view – not applicable. The workplace is a very prescribed, very specific subset of society and defining what is or is not acceptable depends (somewhat) on the workplace, the workforce and the purpose it serves. I’d venture to say what is acceptable behavior and language at a strip club – or even in a bar full of 20-somethings – would result in someone losing his or her job within the offices of a law firm or medical center or school. Context matters – even if we personally find the context unsavory. (Which is why – back to my “Jersey Shore” example – a young woman who is out for an evening with friends and is not offended by a guy in a bar who asks her if she is ‘DTF’ as he buys her a drink may well be the same young woman who is offended by a man on the street who calls out “Sweetie!” )

    And I’d also venture to say that women who work as waitresses in places like The Tilted Kilt or Hooters hear what some would call disrespectful comments from their customers far more often than women who work doing the same job in a expensive steak house or five-star restaurant. Context matters. And – not for nothing – they applied for and sought those jobs, knowing that context.

    So taking this idea of context and what is or isn’t acceptable and adding in the component of public discourse – on a public street – policing what someone may or may not say / voice / speak there (and not accost, detain, intrude or otherwise physically impede on an individual) sounds slightly “thought-police” dangerous . Policing what some men say – men who apparently missed the women’s movement and everything it tried to address regarding respectful language – sounds just this side of censorship to me.

    But this isn’t exactly like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, right? Again, doesn’t mean we have to like it! But can we disallow it? I’m not sure we can. Call attention to it? Sure. Which is what this video claims to do, with dubious results as it turns out.

    Finally – some of the research I saw about the video indicates to me that the resulting tape is more of a socio-economic snapshot than a society-in-general snapshot of men and women interacting in public. Suffice it to say, Shoshanna spent little of her ten hours walking around near Tiffany’s or The Met on the first night of the opera season. So are we documenting men or mostly documenting men within a certain socio-economic class of society?

    And if that’s the case, is it fair to conclude some men are less “enlightened” than others? I ask again: is it cultural? Is it learned?

    And one more thing: if it is somehow connected to socio-economic segments – could it be that there are some women, in some parts of the societal spectrum, who don’t mind this kind of interaction at all? Not one bit. Are their feelings invalid? Just asking….what do we do about them?

    Lots of questions and very few answers; that I know. My good fortune is that Maria is open to varied discussions on her blog! The very best part of this forum for me are the voices who join the discussion. Again thank you so much for sharing your comments.

  20. j November 28, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

    thanks, Renee – I’m always open to hearing all sides of an argument; we don’t have to agree, but I think it’s great that there’s a forum where all points of view are heard and treated with respect! Cheers!

  21. Brent October 25, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    It’s always funny to me how these people claim that literally all women deal with awful harassment, then immediately after there are women saying they don’t.

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