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When Did 'Hello' Become Harassment?

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?
11/17/2014 06:35pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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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 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.

For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com