Be Yourself, Unless You Can Be Holtzmann

The art center where I took the wheel pottery class did a Student Expo at the end of the term, with work on display from all the classes. The teachers did such a cool job setting all the projects up as if they were pieces in a museum. My pieces, which had previously looked lumpy and tipped to me, now looked like Significant Primitives With Artistic Value. And I will have more to say about the pottery class, now that it’s over, but I want to wait until I have all my pieces back (some things haven’t been fired yet) (or do I mean kilned) (anyway they’re not done) so that I can illustrate the post with a picture—and because the way those final pieces turn out will contribute to my final evaluation of the class.

What I wanted to talk about today is that as I was looking at all the art, a guy came up to me and started telling me about the acrylic paintings I was looking at. I thought he must have been a member of that class, so I nodded and smiled politely. Then I moved on to the next display, with work from another class. He followed me, and started telling me about that display too, standing at Friend Closeness instead of Stranger Distance. I showed even less interest. I started being more deliberate with my body language: closed, turned away, stepping back to Stranger Distance, no eye contact, sounds instead of words, leaving the display as soon as he joined me and going to one across the room rather than to the next natural one along the path. He kept following me and talking, and there was no one else in the room. I had been feeling uncomfortable from the beginning, but now I started to feel increasingly anxious. Why was he telling me all this? Why did he know so much about every single class? Did he work here, or had he taken all the classes, or was he Not Quite Right and he was making it all up?

Then Paul, who had been looking at something in the next room over, came over and joined me. The guy turned into mist and vanished. I was relieved, and also upset. I felt as if I’d had to use Paul’s protection—and that the guy had respected Paul’s mere existence as a man, when he hadn’t respected my clear social signals to leave me alone. The guy had been nearing the point where, if Paul hadn’t been there, I would have had to either leave the building or else start an uncomfortable confrontation. But Paul just appears next to me, and THAT’S what communicates to this guy that I don’t want him near me? If he were actually genuinely thinking I wanted to have him following me and talking to me, he would have stayed and continued “educating” me even with Paul there, and in fact would have included Paul in his informative lectures; his swift departure indicates that he knew perfectly well I didn’t want him around me, and that he was counting on social pressure to keep me from saying anything to stop him.

Thinking about this in the days afterward, I’ve wished a bunch of things. I wished I were Holtzmann in Ghostbusters. She would have glanced in his direction and then licked a gun or something, and he would have backed away, first slowly and then much more rapidly. I wished I were someone who would say the uncomfortable thing and get rid of the guy myself. I wished for, like, a completely different culture, where women don’t have very good reasons to feel nervous about the risks involved in strange men and confronting them.

20 thoughts on “Be Yourself, Unless You Can Be Holtzmann

  1. Matti

    I’m sorry you had a run in with such a lame, clueless, overbearing, jerk. And I’m with you on that last paragraph. I was Holtzmann for Halloween this year. And I’m keeping the costume in case I want to be her next year as well.

    I can’t wait to hear about your thoughts on the pottery class, though. On Sunday, almost out of nowhere, my dad suggested I take one just because. I love my dad, and art is one of the things we share (probably also we share the relevant DNA). It was nice of him to think of me, but I just thought to myself that I would wait to see your latest update on the class before signing up.

  2. Elsk

    Ugh, that is horrible. I hate when men treat me like that. Makes me all the more determined to point out that kind of thing to my son to be like “…don’t do that.” I’m sorry that happened to you.

  3. Suzanne

    Yuck! That sounds so uncomfortable and quease-inducing. I am glad Paul was there and also grossed out by the man’s actions and refusal to acknowledge your feelings and reactions. Yuck.

    I am, however, looking forward to your report on the class!

  4. StephLove

    I’m sorry you had that experience (and that almost all women have had a similar one). It sucks.

    I agree it could be a good teaching moment for your older sons, or heck, maybe all of them. I often find myself telling mine How Not to Act Around Women. I don’t remember what age he was when I started but the fact that he’s not great at reading social cues to start with and the toxic culture we all live in makes me worry about this. On the other hand, he’s extremely introverted, so the chance of him interacting with a stranger in this way (or at all voluntarily) is practically nil, but still…

  5. Slim

    Now I have a variation of a song from Mame in my head: “Because we need a little Holtzmann, / Right this very minute . . .”

    Unfortunately it’s not seasonal when we’re talking about creeps.

  6. Jean

    What would you say? I can never figure it out! Especially in the moment. I need a book with scripts. The only thing I can imagine is “I’m sorry, do I know you?” Which … #1 – doesn’t work! #2 – I’m not sorry, argh! #3 – I can’t make myself say it!

    1. Aurora

      Scripts I wish I could make myself say:
      “Please leave me alone.”
      “I don’t want to talk.”
      “Excuse me,” puzzled face, “I’m not sure who you are or why you think you know more about this than I do, but I really just want the art, not the lecture.”
      “My art appreciation preferences actually lean more to quiet contemplation—I’m going to say goodbye now, but I hope you can find a friend or somebody who likes sharing these things with strangers.”
      “You know, I really enjoy looking at the art and trying to figure out everything I can from it all by myself. If you tell me everything, you’re spoiling it for me.”
      “Actually,” really embarrassed face, “it feels really awkward to tell you this, but you are standing too close and talking to me too much. I don’t know you, and the way you’re behaving makes me feel weird. I know it’s hard to be told these things, but I wouldn’t want you to go on thinking you were being nice when other people aren’t experiencing it that way. You need to know so you can try a different approach on someone else.”
      Things I might actually manage to force myself to say:
      “So…um…do you have some affiliation with the gallery?” (and then kick myself for having invited further conversation.)
      “Sorry, gotta go!” (and it would be very very hard for me to do that without giving a reason even though he is in no way owed a reason.)
      “Can you point me toward the bathroom? And then if you don’t mind, I’ve been in mom-mode all day—I could really use some quiet time in my own head before someone needs something else from me.”
      What would probably actually happen:
      Exactly what happened to Swistle, only with even less clear signaling of my discomfort. Then, lacking my own blog, I would probably spend all evening reading Captain Awkward for scripts and solidarity.

      1. Jean

        You’re a genius! A hilarious genius! You need a blog! Or Swistle should post this! I love every word.
        It also sparked an idea that I wish I could try in real life – hold my finger to my lips and say quietly “sshhh”. Or, ask where the bathroom is, say thanks and walk to next piece. Make them uncomfortable! Bwah ha ha.

    2. ButtercupDC

      Maybe also a cheery/flat/borderline manic, “can I help you with something?” Which allows him to either skulk off, or to reply with something you can shut down. Like, “just chatting with you;” oh, I’d rather look at the pieces alone. Or, “I was just being friendly;” ok, well, see you around! The opening gambit is confrontational without being pointedly rude (though he might deserve it). And then you’ve acknowledged this man invading your space and can spin on your heel and walk off somewhere else, and plan your next move (swift kick to the shin?). Did he follow? Maybe then, “please stop, you’re making me uncomfortable.”

  7. Chris

    I hate that we live in a society where it would be rude for a woman to say, “Thanks, but I’d rather move through the pieces silently/by myself/with my husband” and have it not just be rude. Like, that is a PERFECTLY reasonable thing to say! And yet, I would feel rude. Ugh.

    Years ago I was at a high school football game with a friend and two boys started following us around the dark grounds away from the field. We repeatedly told them we weren’t interested but they wouldn’t back off. I finally tossed the hot chocolate I was holding at/on one of them and we ran away. I STILL feel bad about it. (17 years later!) But shouldn’t they have just listened instead of following two 14 year old girls around, late at night?

    1. M.Amanda

      Yes, it IS perfectly reasonable. And if you say that and they get huffy, then THEY have a problem. The problem is that women are conditioned to feel responsible for other people’s feelings and men aren’t. We’re taught not to upset people, to be “nice.” Then when you start realizing that some people get upset over perfectly reasonable, non-personal statements, you start thinking you should just allow yourself to remain in uncomfortable, unpleasant, and upsetting situations rather than expect them to be a freaking grown-up and get over themselves. Our feelings are just as valid.

      Rant over.

      1. Jean

        So many light bulbs here. I also wonder if some women are also just born feeling this way? I think I was. I also saw it in my daughter at a very young age but not my son. Or does feeling concerned turn into feeling responsible? So interesting.
        Is this why we begin to stay quiet? Why we begin to think we’re not important or worthy?
        May the tide keep turning! We are rising!

  8. sooboo

    That sucks! I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. I had a similar thing happen when I rode Amtrak recently. The person had been drinking too. Thankfully I had headphones with me to block them out. Oh, to be a woman in public. I thought I had aged out of this phase of life at 46.

    On a happier note, I cannot wait to see the pictures of what you made. “Significant Primitives With Artistic Value” had me loling!

    1. Jean

      Oh my gosh, we could all carry headphones with us and pop them in when people make us feel weird! Don’t even have to connect them! Just bop our heads to the “music!” Wait…does everybody already know this? Are my demographics showing?


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