Beyond headphones: interrupting an artist at work

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, some neanderthal posted an article about how to talk to women who are wearing headphones. And the internet exploded.

And then I came across this tweet:

The target of this note, a cartoonist named Melanie Gillman, was drawing with their headphones on, and a guy “aggressively” tried to get them to stop and pay attention to him. (And yes, this happened after the headphones article blew up.)

I’m no artist, but I am a writer. I like to work in cafés. I like to work on park benches. I like to work at the library. I like having people around me while I’m trying to give life to my characters. And people do this crap to me all the time.

And yes, they’re usually men. But not always. Sexism is a factor, but it’s also a problem of obliviousness and entitlement, and that can affect any gender. There’s an assumption that you are more important than whatever else is holding that person’s focus at that time. And, sorry, but you’re probably not.

One instance from years ago still bugs me to this day.

Picture a young woman sitting alone at a table, papers spread out across the entire surface. Her lunch is half finished on a plate, and she clearly hasn’t touched it in a while. She’s scribbling furiously into a notebook and cross-referencing pages from her manuscript as she goes. She’s in the zone.

And then Joe Coworker, who has never spoken to her before, sits down across from her. He doesn’t acknowledge that she’s working on something. Doesn’t even ask about it. He just introduces himself and starts up some general office small talk.

It took a few minutes for my glare to get through to him, but eventually he left.

Was this horribly offensive? No. Did he insult me? No. But it still annoys me, four years later, because it was selfish and entitled and just rude. But I don’t think he meant for it to be any of those things. He was just completely unaware of what he was doing, or what I wanted.

The thing about the headphones is that it’s not really about headphones.

It’s about assuming that you have the right to someone’s attention when they don’t even know you and they’re clearly giving off signals that they don’t want to be bothered.

It’s the artists who can’t sketch anything without some stranger looking over their shoulder. The readers trying to finish the last few chapters of a book. And the writers who just want to get their ideas down on paper before they slip away forever. It’s the business professional filling out paperwork, and the teachers getting some grading done.

And the assholes who come up and bother them anyway.

Please don’t be that asshole.

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Categories: General

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2 replies »

  1. Maybe it’s a generational thing, or maybe it’s the difference between a small town and a big city, but I was raised to believe that if I am in a public place I have an obligation to respond to people who approach me. Then again, I wouldn’t try to do creative work in a restaurant or a park. A library, perhaps, if I had research to do that I couldn’t do at home.

    So I don’t really have any sympathy for wanting to have people around but not wanting to have to interact with those people. To my way of thinking that’s treating people as objects, and I think that’s rude.

    • I disagree. What’s rude is interrupting someone who is obviously busy and trying to work. Someone who’s made it clear they don’t want to be interrupted. If it’s someone you (and I don’t mean “you” specifically, here) know, that’s probably more acceptable, but don’t bother a stranger who’s trying to get something done.
      There’s nothing wrong with wanting to talk to new people and get to know them, but you should try to be aware of when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t. If that coworker had come to talk to me when I had nothing in front of me, I would have obliged happily. But everything about the situation screamed, “I’m busy, don’t bother me,” and he did it anyway. That, to me, is an obvious failing on his part.
      And this isn’t for every case, of course! It’s not so bad if you tentatively see if they want to talk to you, and if they turn you down, you leave them alone. The tweet I embedded above was about a guy who continued to try to interrupt the artist while they worked, even after they made it clear they weren’t interested, and that happens all too often.

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