Lately, I’ve been disturbed by an unexpected event. The event was trivial in itself, but every now and then it nags me like a piece of tin foil trapped between my teeth, raising questions about the everyday interactions of men and women.
The event was a brief encounter with a woman who had been a colleague of sorts several years ago. I had questioned her approach to collaboration, coming to believe she had used me when I was vulnerable as a recent widower. She responded condescendingly. It was not my proudest moment, but I became unspeakably angry. For a couple of years I publicly criticized her several times when doing so seemed relevant.
Learning that we would be at the same conference, I tried to make a gesture of apology. It was rebuffed with unnecessary rudeness, but I had become embarrassed by my past behavior, so instead of growing angry again, I simply decided that I would ignore her at the conference. In fact, twice, I dodged her in the hallway to avoid conflict.
I was at a talk of mutual interest, sitting midway in the audience, on an aisle seat. A few minutes into the talk, I noticed that the woman in question was sitting in the back, near the far wall, with half the audience separating us.
For the first twenty minutes, I kept my face mostly to the front. However, when the panel asked for questions, members of the audience spoke from a microphone just behind me, and I turned to face them.
The woman took a couple of moments to notice me, but when she did, she rose hurriedly and left. She did not exactly run because of the crowd at the door, but she looked as though she would have liked to.
I would prefer to think that she was rushing to another talk, but the next sessions were at least twenty minutes from happening. Her departure might have nothing to do with me, except that she looked panicked, even scared — even though being either seems out of all proportion to the event.
Her reaction gave me no satisfaction and no sense of power. Instead, it made me feel both small and imposed upon. I felt like I had been silently condemned as a bully or worse, yet I could not tax myself with anything worse than anger and the occasional sniping. My criticism was never as severe as it could have been, and I had said far less than I might have– as little as the woman is likely to believe that. Even here, I am leaving out details that might identify her.
Nothing was ever said in so many words, but I suspect that I have been press-ganged into her private psycho-drama, playing in her mind a stereotypical man disappointed that I could not have a relationship with her. Nothing to justify that view had ever happened or been said – so soon after my partner’s death, I had had no wish for any new relationship – but my impression was that the woman was reacting to images in her mind and past experiences, and hardly at all to anything I had said and done. So far as she was responding to me, she was slotting my words and behavior into pre-defined categories rather than viewing them independently. Given my views on the typical man, the idea leaves me even more insulted.
Ordinarily, my first instinct in such a situation would be to talk to the woman. However, after seeing her apparent flight, I am reluctant to increase her panic or fear now that I am aware of them as a possibility.
Anyway, I suspect an intervention would never work. It would simply reinforce her interpretation. As much as my reflex is to help, her view of me has such a limited connection to any reality that it is clearly something she has to work out for myself. All I can do is hope that she becomes indifferent to me as quickly as possible; at this point, I can hardly expect her to start viewing me as human.
Meanwhile, in what world is such behavior reasonable? I am left wondering: are relationships between women and men so toxic that other women would react the same way to such a minor series of interactions? I remind myself that the woman has run from at least one female antagonist, so I would like to believe that other women – if not most women – would react differently. But I am left wondering if male-female relationships could generally be as tangled as this, and whether my belief in the possibility of friendship or mutual respect between the sexes is naivety on my part.
Unfortunately, though, I have only fragmented answers. All I have is an uneasy guilt at having unintentionally hurt someone I have sometimes respected, mingled with a sense of being insulted and unfairly accused, and the frustrated conviction that the only action I can take is no action at all. It is a situation that has no effect whatsoever on a daily basis, but it annoys me because it seems so baffling.