Sociolinguistic Studies, Vol 10, No 4 (2016)

Street remarks to women in five countries and four languages: Impositions of engagement and intimacy

Benjamin Bailey
Issued Date: 13 Apr 2017

Abstract


In this paper I analyze the remarks men make to passing young women on the street in 134 naturally occurring encounters that were video recorded in 2013 and 2014 across five countries and four languages and posted on the internet. I categorize these remarks in terms of the speech acts they contain, showing the most common acts, in descending order of frequency, to be addressing, greeting, expressing astonishment or admiration, summoning, and asking rhetorical questions. In immediate interactional terms, the great majority of the men’s actions are thus oriented to constituting what Goffman (1963) called a ‘focused interaction’, a face-to-face engagement with a common focus of attention. The very ordinariness of these acts in terms of content and surface meaning – they are not vulgar or explicitly threatening – may explain why defenders of street remarks regularly draw attention to seemingly benign referential or speech act content, e.g., ‘He was just saying “Hi”’ or ‘He was just giving her a compliment’. At another level, however, street remarks impose intimacy on passing strangers, thus flouting the normative conventions for interaction through which we manage social and personal risk and establish trust. Women targeted by street remarks treat them as breaches by not responding to them. The very ordinariness of the language in the street remarks documented, along with the relative difficulty of articulating the implicit social conventions that they breach, may veil their harm and indirectly contribute to the perpetuation of male domination of women in public spaces.

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DOI: 10.1558/sols.28020

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