From manspearing and mansplaining to manterrupting and manslamming, men have been known to exert their power since the dawn of time—look mom! I’m mansplaining right now.
Most of the time, we aren’t actively trying to be assholes who dominate the physical space around us, we’re just unaware.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.
Blissfully entitled and unaware of the space we deprive of others and the hoops they have to jump through to navigate our surroundings so that we don’t have to get out of the way.
Because that would be absolutely unthinkable.
Or would it?
Which is why a year ago, after reading about Beth Breslaw’s experiences as she reclaimed her space, I wondered if I could give up that space freely.
Spoiler alert: Unlike Beth, I didn’t collide with at least 28 men during my experiment.
Mænˈslæmɪŋ (verb) When a man doesn’t give way on a busy pavement and walks into another person apparently oblivious to the existence of other people.
Now imagine yourself walking on the sidewalk when suddenly a 6′4″ man is lumbering straight towards you. His eyes glazed over as his mind is transfixed in a world of its own.
What do you do?
You either a) wait until you’re close enough and assume they notice you enough to do the awkward right-left-right-stop-left shuffle to give way to each other, b) step to the side so the other person can move, or c) carry on forwards assuming the other person will get out of the way.
Option B it is then.
Walk on, for science!
Every day, I walk from the train station to work and back. It’s a 60-minute stroll in total that takes me right through the heart of Cambridge.
Right through the heart of entitled assholes with zero spatial awareness and the, mostly women, who get out of their way.
This is the perfect laboratory.
My experiment was a simple one, get out of everyone’s way before they get out of yours, that’s it.
Imagine if you will that it’s all a game and your starting score is 0. The aim is to keep your score at 0.
Let’s call it, “manavigating.”
Rule 1: Every time a person gets out of your way, you lose a point.
The first few weeks were the hardest.
Not used to getting out of the way meant a lot of people managed to do it before me.
Kids, don’t try this at home. Try it outside, with people.
When you lose a point, whilst the temptation to curl up in a fetal-position is alluring, instead, take a moment to reflect about why they managed to get out of your way first and what you could do differently next time.
Rule 2: The Double Down is the only way to get a point.
Imagine as you’ve just gotten out of someone’s way, they too have moved out of yours. Suddenly, you’re both in each other’s ways again. Except they haven’t noticed it because they were relying on their peripheral vision at 500 feet away. This happened surprisingly often.
Get out of the way again and claim that magical Double Down point.
Phew, that was close.
But you did it, you got out the way again, increasing your current score to -23.
An interesting side-effect of actively trying to get out of people’s ways is that you need to look at people’s eyes to anticipate their direction.
This also means making eye contact with quite a few people.
It’s super weird to be the white guy who stares intensely at people. Don’t be that guy.
Rule 3: Smile.
Introducing the new, ‘Smiling at people.’
With the new, ‘Smiling at people,’ you won’t seem like such a serial killer hunting for their next victim as you walk by strangers on the street.
Unlike other primates, Homo Sapiens are unique in that, ‘Smiling at people,’ is not seen as a threat but instead tells your fellow primates that you mean them no harm.
Make sure you’re always smiling with your eyes as well, as otherwise you’re still just looking like a serial killer.
Despite my best efforts and appropriate facial gestures, there were still days when I just wanted to punch everyone I met out of sheer frustration.
I didn’t, of course, because as a society we’ve decided that we’re not okay with punching or screaming at strangers. And because I didn’t really want to.
Unlike some of the people that I witnessed in the laboratory.
Like the 6′4″ white guy, I saw one morning, as he refused to give way to the 5′2″ petite blonde who was quite blatantly reclaiming her space.
Within seconds they came to a halt in front of one another.
What followed was a dramatic display of aggression as the guy looked down at her and instantly shouted, “Get out of my fucking way you thick cunt.”
She stood her ground and he, thankfully, walked around her a few moments later.
Why a year?
Unlike Beth Breslaw, I wasn’t looking to test my assumptions about gender differences in communal spaces.
Instead, I wanted to change my mind. A week or two wasn’t going to be enough to make any lasting changes to my neural pathways.
Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT, looked at the duration required for a new, equally complex activity to replace an existing one in the motor cortex in her book Neuroscience for Leadership.
Her experiments required three to four and a half months for new brain maps to be created.
It also shows that hydration, nutrients, and rest are even more important as your brain learns, unlearns, and relearns behavioural patterns. Which should hardly come as a surprise but is still good to remember.
But what was once new, can become the norm.
Now, I’ll be honest. I don’t think I’m especially woke.
At best I’d say I’m, “Waking up.”
The reality is that it’s hard ass work unlearning over 30 years of indoctrination. Add to that my own demons of inadequacy and worthlessness and it quickly adds up to a herculean task.
But it’s also important.
There’s no reason not to do it.
We still have a long way to go before we’re treating each other as equals.
Which is why we need to keep working on it, every day.
It’s why I need to keep working on it.
It’s now become almost second nature and I sometimes find myself lost in my own thoughts, whilst still getting out of people’s ways.
Which seems like good progress in a year of actively giving space to other people.
But I still have a long way to go. Pun intended.