Walking at night? Be one of the good guys

Lots of people usually alight at my station, even late at night. But as we all exit and walk off in different directions, the streets, especially at night, can get pretty quiet very fast.

The awful murder of Eurydice Dixon has got us as a society once again talking about personal safety issues.

While it’s true the risks are actually greater at home among people we know, there are obviously some dangers out in the world.

One article that caught my eye was this piece in The Age, about walking home in the dark.

I get off the train in the darkness, and see a woman. She is smaller than me. Most are. She strides with purpose – upright, head on a swivel – seemingly alone, with only her “situational awareness” for company.

She would have seen me, too. I’m the big stranger behind her, leaning into the wind, dressed all in black – boots, hat, coat, with a beard.

She moves quickly, but in the same direction I’m headed. In the hurry to get home and see my wife and little boy, I could breeze by her, quickly closing the gap between us until my long strides overtake her short ones. I could fall into lockstep with her brisk pace, following from a short distance away. I could bolt past, if I wanted.

But I don’t. I haven’t done any of those things in a long time. These days I stand and wait a few moments, to create a comfortable buffer. Or I choose an alternate path home. Or I call someone on the phone, hoping my voice engaged in light conversation might dispel any sense of troublesome disquiet that my silence might otherwise stir.

Of course, most people are willing to help if something bad is happening. (The article has specific advice on this; please read it if you feel the need to comment on this specific point.)

But this is an important reminder that also there are things us blokes can do to ensure our presence is not intimidating to others.

I recall many years ago, when I was about twenty, reading a letter in a newspaper on this topic. The female author was thanking an unknown man — she had been waiting at a dark lonely railway station late at night, and he arrived to catch the same train. She noted that where and how he entered the platform to wait nearby, and his body language, appeared to be deliberately non-threatening.

This rubbed-off on me.

When walking at night or in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, your own personal safety means it’s often better to convey a sense of purpose, and that you know where you are going.

But beyond that, there are things you can do to avoid being unnecessarily intimidating to others around you.

Not just women — anybody who might consider themselves vulnerable to others. Kids on their way to school. Anybody walking alone when you’re in a group. Anybody smaller than you.

Everybody’s got a right to be out there on the street. It’s not Might Equals Right.

Jasper Road at night

So what can you do?

Don’t walk directly behind someone. Back off, or overtake quickly — perhaps at a spot where the footpath is wider so you don’t get too close; or cross the street.

Don’t walk in silence. If I’m with others, I talk to them. (Around the streets of Bentleigh in the evenings, you’ll often find my sons and I walking, talking about their favourite topic: movies and TV!)

It seems to me that even little gestures of body language might help put the other person at ease. If walking in the opposite direction, by all means acknowledge, but don’t stare. Even bow your head slightly to stare instead at the pavement is likely to give off the signal that you’re not a threat.

I’ve never even thought to ask anybody if this makes sense to others, but apparently it’s seen as a positive:

Some of the reactions to the Age article have been interesting. One (female) letter-writer suggested men should call out offering help, even if everything seems fine. I’m inclined to think that’s just going to be perceived as creepy.

Some responses have just been grumpy, and selfish: What should men do? Are you kidding me? Nothing is the answer. Why? You are in charge of your own safety, not men.

Why? Because we live together in a society, that’s why.

It’s not Every Man For Himself. We can work together to help each other; to make our spaces safer and more enjoyable.

One of the joys of living in a city is random helpful interactions with strangers.

Open a door for someone; give a lost person directions; pick up and pass back something someone has dropped or left behind; volunteer some water for someone who needs it; even just standing on the left of the escalator.

I just watched Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette“, just released on Netflix. It’s excellent, compelling viewing. I won’t give away the ending, but there’s a marked change of tone towards the end, and one thing she discusses is people’s humanity.

Having consideration for others, helping (and being helped by) strangers — it’s not just the right thing to do. If you don’t have these random happy moments in your life, you’re missing out.

Be one of the good guys.

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9 Replies to “Walking at night? Be one of the good guys”

  1. This is something I’ve always done and I thought it was just common sense. We were all children once, and we all had that experience where a scary stranger might have been following us or eyeing us off, so we explicitly avoid doing the same when in their position. (Maybe its just because I grew up in a bad neighbourhood that I had this experience.)

    On Gadsby’s Nanette: I have never been to a stand-up who so captivated their audience. Part traditional stand-up, part turbulent emotional insight; having seen it live was a pretty rollercoaster experience as Gadsby’s got some real gravitas and stage presence. I also recommend it: just keep an open mind and try not to have expectations of what it should be.

  2. I, without too much conscious thought, try to do this in the lift at home if I am with a lone female, especially if they are young and Asian born. I deliberately focus on my phone and stand at a good distance. I don’t move as they leave the lift and I press the button for my floor first if we enter the lift together.

    Yes, very few men are a threat, but it is all about empathy.

  3. I’d agree but I’d also push for later connecting buses from stations. Not saying that this eliminates all forms of violence (we had recent news articles which highlighted women and children being sexually assaulted on trams and buses) but at least it increases safety significantly (in most of the articles that mentioned assault also had the perpetrators caught on camera).

  4. Well, at least to some extent, it’s about “courtesy” isn’t it? And just how to reconcile “old-fashioned” acts of courtesy with society’s post-modern views on gender equality?

  5. I’ve always tried to appear non threatening to those around me at night too. It’s just common courtesy.

  6. That murder was a freak event in two senses of the word. A freak person attacked her, and it is a very rare event for people to be murdered walking the streets of Melbourne.

    Getting car jacked is far more common, along with home invasions and so on. It could in fact be far safer to walk, than take the car for example?

    Having said that, all people, men and women, need to be alert to their surroundings at all times, be prepared to duck or punch if need be. At the same time, we need tight laws, good judges, and remove those of who are such a threat to the civilised human world.

    Tight laws and legal system, will at the best reduce the risk somewhat, so an offender can not repeat the crime. You still have those who you do not know will attack, until they have done so.

    I feel like an 18c lawsuit against those who blame men for this. The typical man, does not go around raping or murdering women like this. To the typical man, it is an alien idea to as much as think about murdering another fellow human, male or female, or other, as for doing such an evil act.

    It is only creeps and psycopathic-creeps who do this. Nobody else.

    Being a tall person, who walks quickly, I always overtake most people, try and say hi, smile and/or nod my head at those who I cross paths with.

  7. I think crossing the road is about the most helpful thing to do. I’m female and often walk in the dark (especially at the moment), but this is helpful even in the daylight.
    I’d also suggest don’t loiter – I’m always a bit suspicious of people who are just hanging about, and in my younger years I would very routinely cross roads or take longer routes to avoid walking past groups of men.

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