The safe male traveler

I’m in Moscow, a bit jet-lagged, getting ready for a guided tour of the Kremlin. My hotel has a lovely view of at least part of Red Square, and I managed a comfortable vegan breakfast this morning. I’m on my own for this trip, the main purpose of which is a lecture next week. My wife and daughter are back home, and it’s for the best — I’m not sure Heloise is ready for the cold. It’s -5 Fahrenheit outside, not counting the wind chill, as I write.

There’s a not entirely undeserved stereotype about men traveling alone. I’m fortunate to have traveled a great deal in recent years, often with my wife (and in the last year, quite a bit with my daughter), and also frequently alone. I’ve noted over and over again the subtle (and occasionally, not so subtle) distinction between the way I’m treated when I’m by myself and when we’re together as a family. I’m keenly aware — and this is probably an awareness rooted in my work — that I’m often seen as a potential predator when I’m by myself. Young women in the service sector (in nice hotels, for example) tend to be just a bit more guarded with me when I’m alone than when I’m with my wife. It’s not that my behavior is any different whether or not my spouse is with me; it’s that a great many women the world over know that single men can be “troublesome”, particularly for young women who are employed to serve them in some capacity.

Part of being a responsible single male traveler — particularly a relatively affluent male traveler in a less affluent country — is to be cognizant of the potential threat (and in a few instances, the potential opportunity) that one poses.
I don’t hide from my Americanness (I may have a UK passport, but my manner and bearing are very much of the New World), and of course, I don’t disguise that I’m a man. I know very well the “ugly American” stereotype, and I know the stereotype (grounded in considerable but not universal truth) that men of my age traveling alone are very interested in using whatever leverage they have to get sex.

And so while I hope I’m hardly impolite when I’m with Eira and Heloise, I’m even more aware of my manners when I’m traveling abroad by myself. I know full well that though it might seem the job of hotel staff, for example, to put me at ease, it’s also my job to make them comfortable. That doesn’t mean I don’t ask for extra pillows if I need them (and I frequently do; I tend to like to build small fortresses on the bed). It does mean that when making requests, I make sure that I am cordial, appreciative, and utterly and unmistakably safe. Having a wedding ring helps, but the number of philandering traveling husbands (and, to be fair, wives) has done much to vitiate the power of that symbol to indicate a particular kind of safety.

I have a private tour guide this morning, a young woman who has already phoned twice to make sure I will meet her at the appointed place and time. I know that when we do meet in person, in about half an hour’s time, I will do my best to project myself as an earnest, inquisitive, ever-so-slightly bumbling, desexualized American. Yes, that comes naturally to me now (especially the bumbling bit).

I certainly don’t expect others to adopt my personality quirks. What I do think is reasonable is to ask ourselves — as well as our boyfriends and brothers, fathers and friends — how we behave when we’re alone “on the road” and around women whose livelihood requires serving us in some capacity. Do we flirt for validation? Do we tip more generously those who flirt with us, or those who are more attractive? If we do — and a great many men do — we aren’t having a little “innocent” fun. Ask women who have worked as a server in the food and beverage industry; flirtation is frequently mandatory. After all, there are few things more disheartening than watching a middle-aged man in a restaurant leer and fawn over a young waitress half his age merely because she doesn’t have the power to tell him off or avoid him. Most of us have seen this countless times.

It’s not enough to not be part of the problem. We — and in this case, I mean single male travelers and business professionals — have a moral obligation to make sure that those who are paid to care for us and provide us with comfort on our journeys know that we are safe. We each need to practice our own form of gentle, polite reassurance.

Oh, and newsflash, people: when you’re in a hotel, you tip the cleaning staff. Every day. Don’t wait until the day you check out to leave a single amount; the maids generally rotate, and everyone who comes to tidy your mess needs to be recognized.

18 thoughts on “The safe male traveler

  1. the starbucks i work at is frequented by lecherous old men. it’s creepy borderline scary that a few of them even know which cars the women drive (“girls” to them).

  2. I will do my best to project myself as an earnest, inquisitive, ever-so-slightly bumbling, desexualized American.

    You’d think there would be some kind of middle ground between “sex-crazed lech” and “American Clouseau.”

  3. This is interesting.

    Two comments:

    One, what I have found from the female perspective (having served as a waitress, etc.)is that when male travelers do take the time to project safety, compassion, and present themselves in a polite manner, they invariably becoming very, very attractive people. Thus, they actually have more chance of “genuine” flirtation and conversation.

    Two, it always surprises me that most men are not more conscious of their behavior when they leverage themselves in a threatening manner, and I wonder how to make them aware in a way that will not bash in their ego.

  4. Agreed, Kate.

    Funt, when you are in a relationship of unequal status (barista and customer, hotel desk clerk and guest, masseuse and client) the person paying money has a moral obligation to recognize that economic necessity makes sexualized reciprocity impossible. Hey, if you meet a desk clerk in a bar where she doesn’t work and where you aren’t staying, it’s all good.

  5. As an openly gay man, it’s often very hard for me to remember that women might take me as being threatening in a sexual way … because it would never occur to me that there was any possibility of a sexual interaction between us.

    Which means that, while I’m generally very polite with anyone in a customer service role – having done technical support for four years, I am very, very aware of how much interacting with the public can suck – I’ve probably inadvertently been threatening to people while travelling.

    [As an aside, when travelling in non-western places, i'm much more concerned with not being obviously gay in a way that could draw me the attention of disapproving locals.]

  6. Funt-

    Hugo’s heart is in the right place. He can sometimes be very “black and white” about things, but that is pretty common for a recovering addict. Ambiguity can be a very scary thing for a recovering addict.

  7. Hugo: Unlike Scarlett O’Hara, Maria von Trapp was a real person who really did marry her employer and become stepmother to his children, though the movie took some liberties with her story. There are other famous real-life couples who met in an employer-employee relationship of unequal status: Patty Hearst and Bernard Shaw, and Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind. So maybe impossible is a little too strong, but certainly such relationships are fraught with difficulty and at risk of being exploitive if the more powerful person doesn’t realize that the less powerful may be under economic pressure to appear agreeable and to be reluctant to say no to unwanted attention. The successful relationships also generally discontinue the employee/employer relationship once mutual romantic interest is established.

  8. Well, for my part I find that flirting service people, be they female or male makes me uncomfortable and rather wary. I am likely to perceive it as fake if it extends beyond normal courtesy towards strangers. That’s probably me being scandinavian.
    I used to travel in my work before I got married and my son arrived. Back then I always researched what was the normal rate of tipping in my destination and stuck to that rate unless they provided me extra help related to the service I was buying from them. When the waitress in a restaurant in Rome gave me a free desert after my meal I tipped more. When a waitress in a cocktail bar in Denver complimented my body I didn’t tip more. However, I was told by my american friend that I should tip the flirtatious waitresses more if I intended to dine at the establishment more than once and cared about the ..uhm.. integrity of my meal.

    So here I find myself actually doing what Hugo says, but still not agreeing with all of his arguments or at least the way he frames it. It should be enough to be polite and courteus and at least somewhat aware of cultural differences when traveling. Do not take undue advantages of your economical position when traveling to poorer places.

    But I found the tone of Hugo’s article a bit too negative on the men – framing all single men as potential threats when they actually are perceived as potential threats. It almost sounds as if he suggests that single men traveling should sport a “fake” wedding band to soothe the female service staff. I’m probably being too harsh reading Hugo’s post, but it could’ve been written differently without detracting from what I consider the main point: behave yourselves – also when traveling alone.

  9. Funt, when you are in a relationship of unequal status (barista and customer, hotel desk clerk and guest, masseuse and client) the person paying money has a moral obligation to recognize that economic necessity makes sexualized reciprocity impossible. Hey, if you meet a desk clerk in a bar where she doesn’t work and where you aren’t staying, it’s all good.

    You’re kidding, right? And Gone with the Wind made it clear that the slaves were happy, too… sheesh.

    Unequal. Necessity. Impossible. Slaves. Way to nuke the agency of the (presumably) female workers there, Hugo.

    Penalty. Unnecessary Marxism. Fifteen-yard penalty, fourth-down.

  10. lol, Tom :)

    I think we all need to keep in mind, that Hugo does recognize that he is addressing a “stereotype.”

    “There’s a not entirely undeserved stereotype about men traveling alone.”

    Is it always the case that male travelers are perceived this way? No. Is it likely in many situations? Yes.

  11. Boy can I relate to that. Having traveled to several South American countries alone since I have a preference for accomdations that involve significant risks to safety and health, I have to deal with this quite a bit. I do think the nature of the travel activities tend to change how you are perceived. Wealthy tourist in Buenos Aires drinking at a night club will be touching nerves in a way that chartered a trip to spend a week in the rainforest in a thatch roof doesn’t. The politeness bit matters but also linguistic proficiency counts for a great deal as well. Fluency and adopting the region’s accents are ideal, but being patient with those not fluent in English helps too. Also, what sort of travel books are people reading that don’t have tipping and compensation etiquette covered?
    Also, I think you can see shades of these dynamics and the need for the same considerations if you go to a major metropolitan area in America. The need to prove that you aren’t some guy skeazing and boozing his way through NYC or wherever disappears when you travel or go out in a group that is mixed-gender. I don’t think that treating waitresses or baristas like a captive audience is exclusively a problem for women in foreign countries. That said I never worry about even being perceived as a jerk imposing on a waitress when I’m with a female friend.

  12. “Part of being a responsible single male traveler… is to be cognizant of the potential threat (and in a few instances, the potential opportunity) that one poses.”

    Just curious, Hugo, what “responsibilities” would you impose on a single female traveler? If men are supposed to worry about whether or not they might be perceived as “threatening”, would it not be fair to ask women to spend the same effort worrying about how _they_ are perceived by those around them?

    Or perhaps travelers of all types should stay within their realm of control and simply behave themselves, instead of trying to mind-read.

  13. This post has elicited a lot of thinking for me and discussion for my family.

    My initial and overwhelming response is that it saddens me to realize that men feel obligated to protect us from their sexuality. Sexuality is so central to who we are as people, and to assign danger to men’s sexuality is to hold that their essential nature is dangerous. It feels like rejecting the most core part of men.

    As I thought about this post, it occurred to me that maybe you just take yourself too seriously. I wanted to say, “Dude, you have a penis in your pants, not plutonium (or enriched uranium or whatever it is that we are supposed to live in mortal fear of falling into the wrong hands.) But my husband and son assure me that they feel the same way.

    This need to protect women from men’s sexuality is often extended into marriages, where we wind up with the man saying, “I respect you too much to have wild monkey-sex with you” This comes back to the old adage: “Sex is dirty and exploitive; save it for the one you love.” Only in this version, we are saying sex dangerous and oppressive to women, so men should only request it from their wives and even then it should be said with a “if you wouldn’t mind terribly and I’ll try to make it as good for you as possible.”

  14. One other question, and this is a real question, a genuine attempt to better understand your point of view, not a cloaked argument: what do you think would happen if a desk-clerk or a barista declined your advances? Of course she knows that she can say “no” to you. As a matter of a fact, I doubt she would feel as if she has the choice to say yes. I work in an academic environment, and I have no fear of declining any sexual advances. I am terrified, however, of the consequences of saying yes.

    It would be easy to say that my socioeconomic status affords me the luxury of saying no. But I was once a young, impoverished hotel desk-clerk. Nothing bad ever came from saying, “thank you, but I have to get home to my (imaginary) boyfriend/fiancé/husband.” It is expected that men will hit on the desk-clerk and that she will politely decline. Women are fired not for saying “no” but rather for saying “yes.”

    So, I ask, what pain could you inflict by flattery or flirting?

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