Though many experiences in a young adult’s life, good or bad, facilitate a healthy maturation and shape his or her character for the better, there are some mistakes in life that simply do not need to be made.
What I wish I could have told myself years ago, and what I will tell you now, is that “harassment” does not need to exceed a threshold of severity to be considered wrong or damaging to your character. In an e-mail I wrote to some young writers, about to conduct their first interviews in the city, I reminded them of this:
“My biggest piece of advice on this [unwanted attention]: there is no level of ‘harassment’ that someone must surpass, so that you feel the need to tell me (or someone you trust) about it. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, then there is a problem. It took me much too long to learn that.”
The event that prompted me to write the e-mail stemmed from a seemingly innocuous situation with what I thought was a harmless person. Last fall I interviewed a man over the phone for a piece I was writing on his company and later that evening, at an event we both attended, he asked to meet to answer more of my questions.
Other than his uncommonly casual tone on the phone, he presented no cause for concern and I felt completely at ease with the thought of speaking in person. Mid-way through the evening, he found me towards the back of the room and though I paused at his recognizing me by face, I barely gave it a second thought.
Over the course of the next twenty minutes, he began to reveal that he knew significantly more information about me than I had ever given him. He verbatim quoted my responses from an interview I had done the previous year, along with other facts not included in that piece and then used those to make pointed comments about my appearance. Without pausing to mull this over, I quickly removed myself and spent the rest of the evening with other colleagues, but as the man attempted to join my conversations on more than one occasion, I found myself looking over my shoulder with a trace of panic.
Later that night, I told a mentor of mine about the situation, and it was all swiftly resolved. Maybe everything would have been fine if I had not said a word and it is quite possible that the situation would never have escalated. But, one too many instances spent waiting around, biding my time until someone did something worse, something that could be characterized as “harassment,” have taught me to err on the side of caution. I urge others to always do the same.
Countless people are paralyzed by the thought of “is what’s going on bad enough to tell someone?” on a daily basis. The outcome of such silence can be disastrous. Though I have had plenty of discussions with family members and friends about general safety, I wish someone had told me about how to conduct myself in these more nuanced encounters.
Do not feel like any unsolicited attention you are experiencing must progress to a more threatening stage before you can say something. Very few lessons I have learned in college have been more valuable than that and my only hope is to instill in others the importance of heeding that advice.
Samantha Rhodes is a rising senior in the College. Watch Your Step appears every other Tuesday.
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