I’m speaking at WordCamp US. Someone I don’t know pinged me and said they were happy to see I was speaking, and they’d be there from their country. I haven’t the foggiest idea who they were or why they were telling me this.
A few years ago, at my first WordCamp San Francisco, someone followed me for a few city blocks. Or at least he tried to. I was going out and he followed me out of the area. I paused, we chatted a moment and as I tried to leave, he kept talking. This pattern repeated until I finally said “I need to go. Good bye.” He kept talking. I spotted a female WordCamper I knew and she immediately came up and told me my wife was on her phone and was mine broken? Not at all. We lied. But I went with it, checked, looked shocked that it didn’t light up, and said it must be dead. I took her phone and proceeded to start a fake conversation that my wife had locked herself out of the car, 3000 miles away.
In 2015, I was at a WordCamp where someone was very much crowing up in my personal space to talk. I quickly stepped back and when he leaned in, held up my hand and asked for personal space. At another WordCamp later that year, a similar thing happened to a friend of mine. I saw she was agitated and wanted the conversation to end, so I walked up and smiled and said I’d been looking for her. I knew the man, I thanked him, apologized for interrupting, wished him a good day, and he nodded and walked off.
These are pretty normal events in my life.
It’s a common, regular occurrence for people like me.
I talk to hundreds of strangers a day in my work. I email at least 30 people a day with notes about their code. I converse with customers, co-workers, and a lot of random people. I don’t know many of them. We are not friends, these random people and I. We are not besties. We are not people I hang out with on their couch and play rude games. But the perception is, since we’ve had some conversations, we’re somehow closer than normal.
And yet all four of those people, all men by the way, seemed to assume a level of connection that I did not. They all immediately felt I was ‘one of them’ and monopolized my time, not taking the social cues of ‘no’ until it was stated, and even then I had to be forceful.
Flip the tables.
Have I ever felt this way about women? Actually yes. I’ve had women at WordCamps do the exact same thing. 2014 someone kept asking me question after question about being a Woman in WordPress, until I politely turned to another woman and pointed out she too wanted to talk to me. In every case with women, however, they get it when I try to redirect the conversation to ‘I need to leave’ or ‘this conversation should end now’ and they get it without rancor or offense.
This happens outside WordPress too. It’s actually a great deal worse outside WordPress. But in many cases, people attribute a greater level of friendship to an online social connection than I seem to.
Of course there are exceptions. Most of my greatest friends came from random internet connections. People who, literally, changed my life with a job recommendation, held me while I sobbed over a death, had a girly sleepover where we giggled until 1am when we totally shouldn’t have since we had to be up at 6am for volunteering, offered me a couch, schwarma, or even just a gentle “Hey, I’m here for you. Are you okay?” They too came from this online place.
So what’s the difference?
We’re more approachable online, certainly. We let our barriers down and we engage more because it’s (mostly) safer. We can talk about how we feel, we can sob, and no one sees us. We’re freer. And with this freedom and honesty comes a ‘connection’ that sometimes transforms into true and honest friendship, and sometimes doesn’t.
But when we move the online relationship into a physical one, we worry. We worry if the person is who they presented themselves to be and we worry if we’re going to get hurt. Many women worry if we’re going to be physically hurt. And we can’t tell. We often have no way to figure this out until it’s too late.
I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I can tell you this. When I meet new people, even at a WordCamp, and when strangers reach out and tell me they’re excited to meet me, I receive that with a little trepidation and caution. I text my wife to tell her where I am, who I’m with, and if I’m worried. This is unlikely to change any time soon, and has nothing to do with the US political climate. What it has to do with is the understanding of what exactly makes up our connection.
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