"Real" harassment against women is, of course, awful, unwanted, and, for some, traumatic. But for a woman, every day can present a hundred smaller, less obvious violations to her comfort zone that keep her on guard.
The other day I was talking with a friend who said she had a problem. "Not a big problem, but it's bothering me." She explained that she frequents a 24-hour market near her apartment and that lately the guy who works there has been making her uncomfortable. "I think I was just too friendly," she said. She added that she felt guilty. "He's nice; it's not threatening; I even think he's married - it's just a lot of 'I've missed your pretty smile,' and 'you haven't been in this week' - and I kind of dread going in there!" I knew exactly what she meant. But when I tried to explain the situation to a male friend, he looked at me blankly. "Does he insult her?" No. "Is he inappropriate?" Not exactly. "He's just being friendly? What's the problem." The 'problem' of course, is that as women we're vulnerable in ways guys can't appreciate. Sure, they can comprehend that catcalling is offensive and that pervs rubbing against you on the subway is disgusting. But they can't understand the smaller things you need to guard against, day in and day out, that you can't be too friendly, because it just leaves you...open.
My friend's situation with the shop owner is a case in point. It can be hard to explain the complexity of a dynamic in which you just feel slightly intruded upon: in a word, uncomfortable. I've stopped going to delis and stores because of things like this; once or twice I even asked a male friend to go in with me which, sadly, always seems to put an end to it. In none of these cases was the guy in question rude or vulgar or even predatory - it's not like having to brush off a creep at a bar or something - but there was always an excessive interest and a certain lack of boundaries probably only women are aware of. An insinuating look, an overly-long glance, a significant smile can be enough to make a trip to the store a daily ordeal.
When you're a naturally friendly person, learning these lessons can be hard. Another friend said she made the mistake of trying out her Russian on a neighbor who lives downstairs and now she feels they have an uncomfortable rapport. In the same situations where my brother can laugh and joke and flirt, I need to stay reserved and controlled - pleasant, of course, but always a little bit remote. He might enjoy the attention; for the most part, as a woman, I'd rather fly under the radar. I'd like to say this is a function of urban living, but sadly it can be true anywhere. And, no, as problems go, it's not a huge one -certainly not on a level with real harassment or danger. But it is a hard-to-explain reality of being a woman that men can't understand and we can't avoid.