Space Invaders

Recently, I’ve noticed a phenomenon when I’m out running on the streets of London, or just walking to work. I’ll be on a pavement or a path that is over two meters wide and I’m walking along with virtually no one else around me. I’ll spot a man ahead of me, usually middle-aged or older, and as we pass each other, with acres of room to spare, he’ll suddenly wave me through, as though he is creating space for me next to him. It’s usually a kind of Walter Raleigh gesture, involving an imaginary cape, and accompanied with a slight bow. What is this strange behaviour?

The first time it happened, I found myself auto-smiling in return, as though I was grateful for the gesture. Then I thought about it. Why am I saying thank you for taking up space I’m already in? Since then, I’ve always anticipated the move and powered on past, leaving the hand flourish behind me.

The Walter Raleigh move has variations – one of my *favourites* is the Comedy Jump. I can be running along, minding my own business, when I come up to a couple or a guy walking on his own. He’ll hear me coming up behind them/him and suddenly perform a clownish leap onto an adjoining path, accompanied with a loud, mock-afraid exclamation of some sort. Like I’m some sort of unexpected oncoming train. The last one actually jumped into someone’s garden. I am a normal-sized woman.

I’ve thought long and hard about why all of this happens and I’ve concluded two things. The first is about guys who are desperately trying to get a woman’s attention. Men who do a Walter Raleigh on me are invariably over fifty, and seem to love using ‘gentlemanly’ gestures to initiate a smile and maybe a conversation. They are the men who adopt that half-smile, ‘humble’ face that is designed to get women to smile back at them. It does actually take a lot of effort not to smile back, but once you’ve realised their faces are set that way ALL DAY it gets easier. They are usually the guys who love to say, ‘Give me a smile, love!’ and tell you that you look prettier when you do so. My stock response is that I’m a person, not a Christmas decoration.

These guys are cousins of the men who play little games with you to extract the same smile/conversation combo. I was at an airport recently where no fewer than three officials tried to withhold items that I owned or had just bought, just ‘for fun’. And why wouldn’t I smile? Because you’re withholding my passport and expecting me to keep putting my hand out only for you to pull the passport away in a comedy routine. When you did it again with my boarding pass and a cheese and ham baguette the joke had seriously worn off.

My second conclusion is that men do actually think I’m taking up more space than I really am. The Geena Davis Institute conducted some research which showed that if there was 17% of women in a group, the men in the group thought it was 50%. And if it was 33%, the men thought there were more women in the room than men. I wonder if, when they see me running or walking towards them, these guys see my 50% of the pavement as 75% and feel they have to leap out of the way? There has to be some sort of explanation for it.

It’s funny how, when you’re in a pub or club, the whole space-allowance thing goes out the window and *some* men use a packed venue as an excuse to touch you up. Suddenly you find the man you’re with has his arm around your waist, presumably because there’s no room for it at his side. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I thought about just casually removing his arm as I cringed under his grip but didn’t. He was the kind of guy who ushers women through doorways with a ‘helping’ hand on the waist or small of the back. Next time I’ll be ready and insist he goes first. Maybe I’ll give him a little encouraging pat on the bum. I often wonder if straight men touch each other as they make their way through a crowded bar – a quick pec fondle or buttock tweak might go unnoticed as they squeeze past each other. At least they’d be able to check out the competition.

An ex of mine sometimes complained about women who felt him up on the train. He did have a tight, muscled body and he reported being ‘accidentally’ fondled on his busy commuter train. He really didn’t enjoy it (who would?!) but I did think, ‘you have no idea, baby’. For most women, that sort of thing comes with a normal working day.

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Perception is Everything

A few years ago, a very, very wise friend and former colleague said three important little words to me: “Perception is everything.”

I’d got a big promotion at work and wasn’t planning to move offices from my current one, but she said that people would forever associate me with my former job if I stayed where I was. At the time I didn’t buy into the idea – I thought people would simply ‘know’ what my new role was and treat me accordingly. I stayed where I was, and lo and behold, I spent around six months saying, “yes but I don’t do that job any more” to everyone from the receptionist to the senior management. The person who was doing my former job suffered from the same treatment. Frustration all round.

I learned that once you get typecast into a role, you are to some extent there forever in people’s minds and you will spend a good deal of time having to re-educate them. And in some cases, you never will. I’d moved from being the director of a children’s non-fiction list to the Publishing Director of a list that included fiction, picture books and non fiction. Even though I represented the company on numerous occasions speaking about their fiction titles (mainly The Hunger Games, Captain Underpants or The Brilliant World of Tom Gates), people would associate me with non fiction. When I appeared at The Bookseller Children’s Conference about three years ago to talk about middle-grade illustrated fiction, The Bookseller journalist used my one mention of the non-fiction series Horrible Histories in her report for the magazine. Although that is a great brand to be associated with, I nearly screamed with frustration.

When I left that role two years ago, it was partly to cut the ties of that typecasting. Even though I was managing a hugely varied children’s list, people were forever associating me with Horrible Histories so I needed to go. I got the chance to move into publishing for adults – an opportunity afforded to nearly no one in the industry – so I grabbed it. What better way to change people’s perception than to move into a totally different sector?

I spent two years in that role and recently came to the conclusion that I needed to be back in the world of children’s books. I’ve just attended Bologna Children’s Book Fair in order to re-establish connections there and it felt like a homecoming. It is a wonderful world to belong to and it is the right one for me. Though it’s a rare thing now, there were a few people still assuming that I was looking for a role in non fiction. Thankfully I was only too ready to update them on my ‘actual’ experience.

I’ve found that, in life and work, my role is to point out the reality of a situation, to counter any misconceptions. In many ways, it’s the substance of this blog: if I feel that people are labouring under an illusion about something, I have to tell the truth about it. They are often surprised by my truths, and I enjoy the process of enlightenment. That sounds intensely arrogant, but I believe in getting to the truth of a situation and acknowledging it. (I’m happy to have my truths contested by other truths, if I’m seen to be labouring under any illusions).

I’ve found that people are very adept at creating an idea about someone and purveying it to others, largely to deflect the same idea about themselves. I first noticed this with my ex-husband’s best friend who used to love telling the rest of his friends that my ex was a hypochondriac. Oh how they used to ‘banter’ about it until I realised that the actual hypochondriac was the best friend. He didn’t like it when I pointed it out – I spoiled his ‘fun’.

It’s happened to me in recent years: friends who enjoy a drink or two label me as someone who enjoys a drink or two. It takes me a few minutes to cry, “hang on a minute!” before the die is cast. We’re both standing there holding huge glasses of wine and suddenly I’m the drinker. Likewise, I was once told that I was ‘sloppy’ in my work by the biggest purveyor of professional sloppiness I’ve ever encountered. The sheer, naked brazenness of that comment took my breath away. The last thing I will ever be in this world is sloppy and they knew it. (Thankfully everyone around them knew it too.)

I’m getting much better at spotting the signs of this ‘transference’ and am much quicker to counteract it these days. Perception IS everything and I want people to perceive the real me, not the one they’ve just decided to create in their heads to make themselves feel better.