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Erica Munro: Assertiveness might not be my strong point but why can’t creeps learn boundaries?

The thrill of a trip on the sleepytrain never leaves me - although one passenger on this journey wouldn't take a hint.
The thrill of a trip on the sleepytrain never leaves me - although one passenger on this journey wouldn't take a hint.

Assertiveness is not one of my strong points. Sorry about that. Blame my sheltered, Highland upbringing and education.

Blame good manners. Blame me. Then please take a look at the following two minor examples and tell me if you’d have behaved differently.

I was travelling solo on my beloved Caledonian Sleeper to spend a few days in London and had bagsied a table in the lounge car to enjoy my book and a pot of tea before bed. The thrill of a trip on the sleepytrain never leaves me; it’s my happy place.

Only not this time. A huge man shambled over with his pint and sat down opposite me. I blinked; there were plenty of other free tables. In fact, the carriage was ominously quiet.

He began to talk at me. What’s that you’re reading? Is it any good? What is it you do then? Where are you off to? I answered monosyllabically, avoiding eye contact, embarrassed by my own rudeness while hoping he would get the hint. Silly me – of course he didn’t get the hint! He was fully relaxed, fully confident of his space in the scheme of things, fully prepared to wear me down.

My first instinct was flight – but why should I be the one to retreat?

Inevitably, his mood darkened as my non-engagement persisted. What’s the matter? Eh? What’s up with you, then? Just trying to have a chat here…

When it comes to fight-or-flight, it’s usually no contest and my first instinct was to retreat to my wee bedroom and lock the door. But why should I? The trouble was, I didn’t know how to ask the man to leave me alone; it seemed so rude. And even though there was an attendant at the other end of the carriage who would of course have helped if I’d asked, I’m afraid I was a little bit afraid. That said, this was getting ridiculous. I knew I owed it to myself and to women in general to stand up for myself.

A man on the train refused to take a hint as I tried to read my book. Stock image by Shutterstock

“I’m sorry,” I finally said, looking him in the eye for the first time, “but I’d really like to be left to enjoy my book, would you mind?”

Oh but yes, he most certainly would. He glared, muttered an unprintable or two, then finally hauled himself to his feet and began to walk away. Then he turned back.

I began to blame myself

“You just wait,” he growled, gesturing at me with his pint. “Just wait a few years, five, yeah, five years, you’ll be glad of any attention at all by then.”

This was news to me. Such pinpoint specificity regarding my fair-game cut-off date, for a start. But good of him to let me know. If it means creeps like that keep their distance then five years can’t pass quickly enough – but for heaven’s sake, what is it with some people that they think they can approach strangers and demand their attention?

Of course, after he’d gone I began to blame myself. Because that’s what we do. A cheery “there are free tables over there!” might have headed him off at the pass. Or a more robust “Do you think you could sit somewhere else, please?” at the outset – the whole exchange may not have happened. I had been so feeble! But I’m not used to telling strangers to go away. It’s no excuse. It’s not good enough.

Younger generation far better at boundary setting

Another failed opportunity for assertiveness presented itself last week. Pulling into a supermarket parking place, I noticed glumly that the man in the car next to me was shaking his head and rolling down his window. I knew. I got out.

“Would you not have been better reversing in?” he advised. “Hahaha I’m just lazy!” I chirped, before hurrying off towards the store, furious with myself.

Actually, sir, I would not have been better reversing in. If you had experience of trying to manoeuvre a wayward, shoogly trolley close to the boot of your car in a packed car park to unload your heavy bags, which I suspect you don’t as you were clearly waiting for someone else to do it for you, you’d know that it’s far easier to have plenty of space…but rather than saying that, I made sure he continued to feel good about himself whilst belittling myself in the process.

My children’s generation is generally far better than mine at boundary-setting and respecting others’ autonomy and space. They have a more enlightened education system, greater equality and representation in the entertainment they consume and of course there’s the welcome boost of the MeToo movement. Thank goodness. Rays of light and hope for a challenging world.

Erica Munro is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and freelance editor

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