The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I walked ‘like a man’ for a week, and here’s what I realized.


My editor was surprised to learn that men run into me sometimes. Several months ago, as I happened to mention to him, I’d experimented with not moving aside for other pedestrians on the sidewalk. I wasn’t rude about it, and exceptions were made for octogenarians, stroller-pushing parents, etc. etc. But in the choreography of sidewalk ballet, one party generally scoots to the side while the other carries on. I’d spent my life scooting, and I wondered what would happen if for a few weeks I didn’t.

What happened was that women got out of the way. What happened was that I realized something: Women had always gotten out of the way. Without even making eye contact, we’d automatically rotated around the sidewalk like two repelled magnets.

What happened was that men ran into me.

Not all of them! Not most! But in every crash, it was a gentleman charting the collision course. Suited ones, mostly. Ages 30 to 50. Sometimes they were on their phones, sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes they registered my presence, sometimes not. And then — well, I can’t explain it any other way. They ran into me at full speed. They’d apparently expected, via decades of experience, that I’d move, and so it never occurred to them to.

“How did they react?” my editor asked.

“They got annoyed,” I told him. The gentlemen who ran into me were flustered that I was in their way. One told me to “watch where I was going,” though he’d veered into my path. One whispered, “Whooooooa there,” and steadied me like a startled pony.

Only once did one apologize: “That was so crazy,” he kept repeating sweetly, as if this was an odd fluke rather than something that might happen regularly if women weren’t dodging him.

“Whoa,” said my editor, a man I cannot imagine ever mowing someone down. “I assume you’ve written about this.”

No, I told him. Because it had been a private experiment born of curiosity, and it would be hard to write about without sounding sanctimonious. Like I was spoiling for the chance to call out a few inconsiderate boors.

But the whole reason we were having this conversation was that he’d forwarded an article about an orthopedic surgeon instructing female patients to “sit more like men.” The natural structure of women’s bodies, she said — wider hips and pelvis — when paired with more “feminine” sitting styles like crossed legs, could cause joint strain. The cure was spreading out, legs planted wide.

After fleeting despair over another thing I was apparently failing at and needing to do more like a man (add it to salary negotiations, meeting behavior and assertive communication) it occurred to me that a problem with the doctor’s advice was that it was given in a vacuum. It was given with the expectation that everyone could always have room to spread out rather than what life actually requires: two strangers board an airplane, then silently negotiate an armrest the width of three chopsticks.

I always give up the armrest.

This was, I assumed, some kind genetic deference born more of being Midwestern than female. But a friend recently mentioned her mixed-gender yoga class, in which the instructor told everyone to make T-shapes with their arms and be mindful of each other’s space. The men all stretched wide as directed. The women all bent their elbows upward, like cactuses, to make sure nobody got bonked.

No men were deliberately being rude, and no women demanded more room. But everyone locked into the pattern without thinking.

The thing is, more women sitting like men requires some men to sit more like women. It requires attention to someone else’s personal space. And more deeply, it requires a perspective shift: that no person inherently deserves to have a larger psychological piece of the universe than another person. Your wingspan might be wider, for example, but your comfort shouldn’t indifferently come at the expense of someone else’s.

It requires the genuine belief that there is value, sometimes, in being the one to defer.

No fewer than half a dozen female friends forwarded me an essay in the New York Times about the “Lean In” movement. The author, Ruth Whippman, criticized the presumption that workplace “success” meant teaching women to behave more like male colleagues: Talk louder. Stop saying “Sorry.”

We could, and should, quibble over what it means to behave “like a man” anyhow, since men can and do behave all different ways. But when the phrase is used, it’s often as a shorthand for extreme assertion and overconfidence.

The “stop apologizing” advice is based on shorthand, too: research that women are generally more sensitive to offensive behavior and more likely to apologize if they fear they’ve committed it. This is seen as a professional drawback. “But really,” Whippman wrote, “isn’t a person with a ‘high threshold of what constitutes offensive behavior’ just a fancy name for a jerk?” How about if everyone, men and women, said, “I’m sorry” not less but more?

The word “microaggression,” describing subtle (and often unintentional) slights that accumulate over time, has been mocked to the point that it’s lost some meaning. But it would be lovely to get behind its corollary: microkindnesses. The awareness of the space we take up, and the subtle ways our actions mean other people get less or more space.

My experiment with sidewalk leaning-in was short-lived; it felt pointless and rude. And I didn’t like the entitlement it created in me, the gradual sense that other people should move. I didn’t like feeling that way. And I figured I did enough other annoying public things — fumbling for my Metro card at the turnstile — that I should share the sidewalk with extreme politeness.

And besides, otherwise men will sometimes run into me.