No, You Don't Have to Talk to That Stranger at Your Local Coffee Shop to Be Polite

4 min
A stock image of a pumpkin spice latte. (iStock by Getty Images)

Teenage girls often feel pressured to act politely in uncomfortable, and sometimes even dangerous, situations. This story was written by two juniors from Woodside High School, Taila Lee and Chloe Postlewaite, for KQED’s Youth Takeover series.

Chloe: We’re 16-year-old teenage girls, so naturally, we were at our local Starbucks, working on a school project. We were having a conversation when a 20-something-year-old man approached us and asked if we had the Uber app on our phones.

Taila: Neither of us did, so we apologized and said, "no." Then he said, "Can I sit down and talk to you guys? I just got out of jail and I really need to talk to someone.”

Chloe: Without waiting for an answer, he pulled up a chair, sat down with us and started talking.

Taila: We waited there, nodding patiently and listening to him, because politely asking him to leave seemed impossible. He continued with his story, casually asking us how old we were. What school we went to. If he could buy us a drink. Then he said, "I actually didn’t even need an Uber. I just wanted to talk."

Taila Lee, 16, is a student at Woodside High School.
Taila Lee, 16, is a student at Woodside High School. (Courtesy of Taila Lee)

Chloe: He apologized for interrupting our study session and although he was generally pleasant, he never implied that he was going to leave.

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Taila: We texted each other about what to do, all the while still nodding and smiling at him. But, when he left to go to the bathroom, we grabbed our belongings and ran out of the cafe. We sprinted for two blocks. The worst part was that, when we left, we felt guilty for leaving him alone.

Chloe: We haven’t been back since. Zoe Mason, a junior at Woodside High School, mentioned a similar situation she was in.

"I was walking home from school and this guy approached me and wanted to talk about the flowers in his yard," Mason said. "So even though I felt a little bit uncomfortable that this much older man was trying to get me to talk to him, I stood there for a few minutes until I could excuse myself."

Taila: Ever since kindergarten, your parents and teachers tell you not to talk to strangers.

"They raise you to be aware of the whole 'stranger danger' thing, but... my parents raised me to be polite and kind and nice," Mason said.

Chloe Postlewaite, 16, is a student at Woodside High School.
Chloe Postlewaite, 16, is a student at Woodside High School. (Courtesy of Chloe Postlewaite)

Chloe: In middle school, we’re told not to reveal any personal information about ourselves, like our name, age or school. But social media has blurred these lines. When I was 13, a man started messaging my public Instagram account.

At first I thought he was just a kid trying to be friendly, but small talk quickly escalated to him asking me invasive questions and trying to role-play. I was worried about acting rude to someone who I thought was just trying to be nice. But when I found out he was 23, I finally blocked him.

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Taila: Although the #MeToo movement has made a powerful impact on society, there’s still more to be done. Sure, #MeToo empowers women and spreads awareness for sexual assault. But at the same time, it doesn’t address the pressure to be polite, especially for young women placed in potentially dangerous situations.

The standard to be polite has not been directly addressed by #MeToo, but the movement has still helped to end the stigma to speak about prevalent issues directly affecting women. Students at Woodside now have more access to campus resources to deal with these concerns, like counseling, confidential doctor appointments and community groups.

Chloe: Practicing how to leave a difficult situation and how to say no are essential to ending this problem. This is only a temporary solution since female high school students are still expected to conform to unrealistic behavioral standards. Girls are supposed to value safety over courtesy, but also act politely in all circumstances.

Until this expectation changes, teenage girls will continue to struggle with these uncomfortable situations.

Taila: This is your reminder. Whether it’s online or in person, it is always okay to say no.

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