A greeting in translation

The expectation of politeness towards a stranger’s greeting should be secondary to an awareness that we do not owe them anything in return

Krakow’s old town is encircled by a thick strip of green. It’s called the Planty, and it hugs the sides of the city’s historic centre, where every few metres, you can slip into by way of a cobbled street. Or you could choose to stay on one of the Planty’s benches, which clutter the entirety of this funny park, and watch the trams hobble by and the cars unapologetically speed along. One entrance to the Planty is tucked up beside Wawel Castle, the famous site on top of Wawel Hill where the Polish royalty used to reside.

It’s winter, although it’s only 4pm,  it’s already dark. I have just turned into the tree-enclosed Planty from the swollen Wawel square and I feel like I’m turning into a different city. It is as if I am sinking lower and stepping down into a different atmosphere, although it is in fact elevated above its externalities. The street lamps are dim and sparse, so it’s speckled with shards of true night and it’s eerie. In the daytime it’s a bustling, welcoming shade, but sometimes, as it does now, it has a feeling of emptiness – even though I am not alone. 

It’s a little warning. It’s a little voice that says ‘brace yourself’”

There are two men sitting on the bench immediately to my left. It’s a quiet afternoon, so when I am the only one on the entire path, I am not surprised, and I know the men can see me clearly. But with a different sense, that’s not a common one, I know that they have noticed me. It only takes a second’s glance at the older man of the two to see his face light up, like the whimpering streetlight hanging above us. This is a sense that has been developing since I was much younger, so I can feel it acutely now. My physical safety is being threatened. If I was an animal, my fur would stand on end. If the Planty was more forgiving, there would be a wall that I could slip behind right about now. It’s a little warning. It’s a little voice that says “brace yourself.” 

I have headphones in. My music is on, but I can still hear him when he shouts with elation, “Dzień dobry Pani!” Polish culture is quite polite, and the formal tense is used a lot. Pani means “lady”, and dzień dobry is “good day”. Maybe he shouted because he knew I was wearing headphones. Maybe it sounded like shouting to me but that was just his normal tenor. I don’t know, because I don’t know him one bit. The early darkness tires me, and maybe that’s a reason why I don’t feel like responding. So I pretend I don’t hear him. My peripheral vision isn’t flexible enough to see him as I walk by the bench a little faster now, but I feel his gaze latching on to me anyway. I am relieved when I pass the bench, which is when I hear him again from behind me: “Możesz przynajmniej odpowiedzieć!” ‘You could at least reply’, he has shouted angrily, and he isn’t using the polite form this time. 

“If replying to him was the least I could do, then what did he suppose was the most I could do?”

At first, I felt rude. Should I have been polite? I could have effortlessly said, “Dzień dobry Panu!” I could have smiled underneath my mask. Doesn’t he deserve that, for making the effort to grab my attention over headphones that I turn up to full volume now? Then sprung up the deep rooted seed of self-doubt. Was I vain? Was I misguided that I assumed his simple greeting was an expression of his attraction toward me, of his excitement of seeing a young woman wandering toward him alone? Then, I felt cold. It was only when the curve of the Planty’s path had finally taken me out of his view did I wonder, if replying to him was the least I could do, then what did he suppose was the most I could do? It was then that I felt his greeting in its full weighted force. Yes, I had been hit on. 

Polish street culture is reserved, and though I have been here for three months now, I have never been severely catcalled. Not like back home in Ireland, or even worse in France, where three men in a truck once beeped their horn and shouted at me from an open window while I was cycling. The sheer volume and utter surprise caused me such a fright, I very nearly fell into a brambled ditch. This was not the first or last time a male stranger has shouted at me on the street. This wasn’t the worst thing a male stranger has ever inflicted upon me on the street, yet I still consider myself fortunate. In my experience of nearly a lifetime of street harassment, I am the lucky-one, because I know there are always much worse things a stranger can do. 

Physical and verbal assault is a persistent reality for the vast majority of women since we are a very young age, yet catcalling remains a misunderstood, even controversial topic. How can a simple formal greeting have made me feel so incredibly uncomfortable? Was it a compliment? Was it harmless? Am I too sensitive? Or had I just experienced a kind of sexual harassment? 

Sociologists have studied the deep conventions that are a part of our urban culture, such as the social science behind why strangers don’t talk to each other. Perhaps we are simply not interested, but Erving Goffman in his book, Behaviour in Public Places, claims that this custom has a deeper meaning and serves an important social function. He insists that we are not simply ignoring the people around us when we don’t talk to them, we are actually pretending to not be aware of them. With this, we can award each other with a sense of privacy which he calls civil inattention. Our silence, according to Goffman, is in itself an exchange, or a social contract, which assures the other person, “You don’t threaten me”, and promises the other that “I will not threaten you”. When this norm is breached, we can often feel unsafe, and it is perhaps why unrelenting stares and unwanted conversation on the street feels so wrong. 

“But when exactly does paying healthy attention to a stranger morph into something unpleasant, or even frightening?”

So, therefore, is every attention between strangers an act of mistrust and disrespect? No. But when exactly does paying healthy attention to a stranger morph into something unpleasant, or even frightening? Unwanted attention can be also understood through sociology with politeness theory, and its accompanying concept of “face-threatening acts”. According to sociologists Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, in the public space we can wear one of two “faces”: a positive face or a negative face. Our faces are our self-images that we are consciously presenting to the world. Our positive face indicates to others that we want “to be liked, admired, ratified, and related to positively.” Our negative face tells others that we would like “every competent adult member” to refrain from impeding upon our actions. When our faces get damaged, it is when someone acts in opposition to our wants and desires. This is a face threatening act. One can threaten a positive face by not replying to their formal greeting, for example. One can threaten a negative face by imposing upon someone’s desire to, say, walk through the Planty in peace. 

So if all that happened that afternoon was just a “clash of faces”, how can I avoid a situation like this from happening again? Maybe I should practise my “negative face” in the mirror. Maybe I should keep a “do not disturb sign” in my coat pocket to hang around my neck for occasions like these. But I don’t think the issue is that people simply do not know how or when it is appropriate to approach strangers. A pandemic of social-ineptness has not spread through the global population. It is not a question of whose face trumps whose in a social situation. I think, on that afternoon, the issue was, and continues to be, that my “face” is a woman’s and his “face” is a man’s. This dynamic can’t be simply explained by behavioural sociology. It is bigger than that, I’m afraid.

“I was being thrust into a culture commanded and constructed by the male gaze on my unpleasant walk home that afternoon.”

And this is where culture comes in. If it is custom to talk to strangers on the street, like it is in my small Wexford village, it might be considered rude to not greet the stranger crossing your path, regardless of the person’s gender. I am not an expert on Polish culture, and it could have been an unknown custom to me at the time, for old men to insistently greet young women who enter dark parks alone. It isn’t, but that’s beside the point. I wasn’t being confronted with Polish culture of any kind that afternoon—I was being confronted with a culture that isn’t defined by borders, class, race or religion. I was being thrust into a culture commanded and constructed by the male gaze on my unpleasant walk home that afternoon—a culture where women have been objectified and sexualised, then treated inhumanely, for as long as we can all remember and even longer still. A culture where men consistently inflict artificial, unwanted intimacy on women, create a disarming fearful atmosphere in our public spaces, and then expect something in return. A culture where up to 81% of European women have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15. A culture where 80% of women endure frequent street harassment worldwide. Simply, I was experiencing our culture.

This article was updated on February 21 to remove descriptions of a person’s physical appearance. Trinity News deeply regrets and apologises for the inappropriate nature of these descriptions.

Milena Barnes

Milena Barnes is a former Features Editor of Trinity News.