Feeling safe at the gym
How to respond to unwanted advances, plus returning birthday voice mails.
Recently at the gym I was sidelined by a stranger who grilled me about my fitness goals, gave unsolicited advice (such as “You are a woman, so don’t lift those weights or you’ll end up looking like a man”), and suggested I have liposuction, just as he had -- even going so far as to lift his shirt to show me the bandages. How can I handle a situation like that without feeling as if I am being rude (and yes, that does matter to me), but still getting away as quickly as possible? Something about being in the gym makes me feel extra vulnerable. M.F. / Revere M.F., I received your letter -- and drafted my response -- before George Sodini killed three women and wounded nine others at a Pennsylvania health club, out of rage that the entire female gender did not pay him the attention he felt entitled to. This is what I wrote, then:
“You could start going to an all-female gym, and if being in a gym makes you feel vulnerable, I’d strongly suggest you do so. Not that I’ve never run into an eccentric at the women’s health club I go to, but it is a different vibe and might be a more comfortable one for you. Of all the things one may want to feel in a gym -- invigorated, exhausted, challenged -- vulnerable should not be on the list.
“I sympathize with your desire to be polite, but politeness is not the only virtue in life. As I’ve written before, if you deliberately stick out your foot and trip someone, that’s rude. If you stick out your foot and trip someone who’s running away with your purse, that’s kung fu. Saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m here to work out and don’t have time for a conversation’ is perfectly acceptable. Your body is not public property for others to comment on, and other people do not have a claim on your attention and time.
“Two other thoughts: You could try an iPod and earplugs, which send a good ‘bug me not’ signal. But if you don’t like iPods, why should you have to ruin your hearing in order to avoid other people’s rudeness? You might also want to alert the staff about this man. I’d bet you a month’s towel service you are not the only person he’s bothering.”
I stand by this advice. I would add, too, that if the Pennsylvania gym killings have exacerbated your feelings of vulnerability, please consider taking self-defense training. I’m a graduate of Model Mugging, and I highly recommend it. It won’t turn you into a bulletproof ninja, but it will give you the ability and confidence to define and defend your boundaries, both verbally and physically.
On my birthday I received numerous voice mails with good wishes. Am I obligated to return those calls or is the onus on the caller to try again to reach me? It seems rude not to return a call, yet it is awkward to call someone saying basically, “Hi, you can wish me a happy birthday now!” Most of these calls are from more distant friends and family with whom I’ve settled into a mere birthday and holiday card relationship. J.M. / Brookline The callers themselves certainly don’t need to keep calling until they can wish you a by-this-point-belated happy birthday in person. They did what they wanted to do and left a little verbal bouquet for you to enjoy at leisure. Calling them back to thank them for their good wishes is a nice gesture, though not strictly necessary. (If some of these folks called during a time when they could reasonably assume that you were at work, that’s a good sign that they didn’t want to have a conversation.) Keep up your end of things by leaving them voice mails or sending cards on their birthday, as you do, and enjoy the well-meaning, lackadaisical status quo.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to email@example.com. BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct. CHAT Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.