“The problems around us are only compounding. We will need to rediscover our trust in other people, to restore some of our lost faith—all that’s been shaken out of us in recent years. None of it gets done alone. Little of it will happen if we isolate inside our pockets of sameness, communing only with others who share our exact views, talking more than we listen.” ~Michelle Obama
I’m up at the American River, one of my favorite summertime spots. I have a ritual of floating down it, then hiking back up the hill to my clothes. I love how the swift current knows exactly where it’s going, making any paddling unnecessary. I love how you can just lie back and let it take you as you look up at the cloudless blue sky.
As I float, the sun beats down on my skin, but the river’s coolness counteracts its scorch. Small groups of Canadian geese speckle the shore. The air is still, its quiet punctured only by the occasional train sounding in the distance.
Once I’ve reached the bottom, I set out back towards my towel—walking along a series of dirt paths consisting of small hills. They’re quick and steep like bunny slopes, coated with golden dust that glints beneath the sunlight.
While walking them I notice two men picking fruit from a tree in the distance. Feeling exposed in my half-clothed state, I immediately tense up. I realize that having no shoes means I’ll be unable to walk quickly past.
Bracing myself for discomfort, I continue walking. As the distance between us narrows, I wait for them to whistle, or to jokingly ask if I need help finding my clothes—or create discomfort in whatever other way, be it through words or stares (as I’d become accustomed to men doing).
I walk past, armor on, shield up—raising it a little more when one of the men begins to speak.
His words are, “Hello,” followed by, “You’ve got some tough feet!”
They contain no sexualizing, nor any subtle attempt at intimidation. And in response to this comment— the kind one human would make to another, his equal—I find myself reacting with human thoughts in return:
Yes—this terrain IS pretty rugged. I guess my feet ARE pretty strong. Thank you, Sir.
I think about how, in Whistling Vivaldi, a black man whistles classical music when crossing paths with white strangers on the street. He does this in hopes of quelling their fear and discomfort that are born from prejudice. Implying benevolent intentions and sophistication, his whistling preemptively wards off prejudicial treatment.
Perhaps this man’s comment was the (gender) equivalent to this example—an attempt at polite conversation to keep from coming across as threatening.
Or maybe he’d briefly entertained the same thoughts that often precede the sorts of comments I’d anticipated. Maybe in the past he would have converted those thoughts into unwitting weapon words, then launched them my way. Maybe, though, because our society is growing and learning and its people are evolving, he decided that day not to.
Either way, I felt relief that the men did not behave in the way I’d predicted.
It got me thinking about preconceived ideas. How we often develop templates, then apply them to the individuals we regularly interact with. How few encounters encourage us to challenge or expand these templates, because much of our lives are structured around familiarity. And how it’s easy to take one look at a person and file them away into a specified bin inside our minds, perhaps unaware we’re even doing it.
How often do we go into an encounter with our mind already made up—both about the person and about what they could possibly have to say? Their words pass through a filter in our head, confirming what we already know or believe to be true.
Sometimes our expectations turn out to be accurate. Other times they do primarily because we expect this of them, therefore never open our minds to the possibility that we might be proven wrong.
People act in ways that contradict our initial views of them, but we don’t see it when we’re not looking for it.
When I was a Lyft driver, I drove many passengers I was sure I’d have nothing in common with. One was a seemingly straight-laced white man who worked for a tech company. I thought we’d have little to talk about, but an hour later we were eating In ‘N Out and discussing everything from our country’s quick fix approach to handling emotions to how his brother’s coming out changed their relationship to finding a balance between impactful work and a job that pays the bills.
So often we decide a person is a certain way. Our mind closes. Thereafter we do, indeed, fail to connect. But not on account of differences, but the fact that no connection is possible when the heart and mind are closed.
No shift in thinking takes place in a single instance. The fact that those two men at the river pleasantly surprised me, for instance, doesn’t erase the overall pattern. Many more such encounters would be necessary for a true paradigm shift.
But it’s a start. And from now on when I have the bandwidth, I want to give people the opportunity to act in ways that contradict my preconceived notions of them.
I don’t want to get to that point anymore where I stop seeing others as individuals. Where I’m blinded to what we have in common because I’m seeing only what they represent; the harm done by the larger group they belong to; the political implications of their behavior.
For instance, several years ago a young man had approached me while I was reading at a bar—and I completely ignored him. At that time I was so fed up with men, so annoyed with their repeated intrusions on my dates with women, and so frustrated that it was them who approached me in public (never women), that I just kept staring down at my book. I didn’t say anything back. In the moment it felt empowering.
When I thought about the incident years later, though, I regretted my behavior. The guy hadn’t even been aggressive in the way he’d approached me. He’d been earnest, apprehensive, even shy—the way I imagine I can also be at times when I approach women. He didn’t represent All Men; he was his own person, doing something in that moment that might have made him nervous, or pushed him out of his comfort zone.
I’m not saying it was my job to ease those feelings, or that I owed him this. It’s more that I realized that now I would have genuinely wanted to. Wanted to have at least said hi. Wanted to have at least politely told him I wasn’t up for conversation. Wanted to, maybe not have smiled, but at least treated him more like a human than an implied enemy.
I want to take my frustrations with patriarchy and heteronormativity up with the concepts themselves—and with individual humans only when they are truly practicing it.
I’d like to believe that polarized positions aren’t set in stone. That they can evolve and expand with time. That we won’t be doomed to perpetual gripping of shields while walking this planet.
This isn’t our climate right now—but I hope and wonder if one day we’ll at least start inching closer.
About Eleni Stephanides
A freelance writer and Spanish interpreter, Eleni was raised and currently resides in the California Bay Area. Her work has been published in Them, LGBTQ Nation Tiny Buddha, The Mighty, Elephant Journal, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert, Dear among others. She currently writes the monthly column “Queer Girl Q&A” for Out Front Magazine. You can follow her on IG @eleni_steph_writer and on Medium.