30 November 2017

Are You Okay?

“Are you okay?” 

I look up from my backpack to see two men cresting the hill around 7,400 ft. I’m alone on the southeast flank of Mt. Rainier, where Pebble Creek kisses the tip of the Muir Snowfield. I’ve been in this spot 40+ times in recent years, and today I’m especially grateful for the bluebird skies and expansive views. The question startles me from my nature-suckling stupor. 

“Uh... yeah, I’m fine.” I mutter in response. “How’re you?”

“We’re good,” the one in front says, and passes me by. 

Just like that they're gone. On their way up the mountain to find October turns. It’s the same reason I’m here. 

I return to my backpack, fish out my other sock, and continue the process of swapping from hiking boots to ski touring boots. My friends will arrive shortly, I’m sure. 

But the longer I stand here, the madder I get.  

Why has he asked me if I am okay? What about my intentional movements and well-worn gear give the impression that I am not okay? Couldn't he tell I am with the group he just passed below, not 4-minutes earlier? We're all wearing tutus for goodness sake! I'm clearly not alone nor am I doing anything out-of-the-ordinary. I'm just a girl standing on a snowfield stoked to slay some corn in October.

Then I realize the source of my discomfort: his question has the unmistakable spray of sexism. 

I have gone on record about sexism in the outdoors and my experience with “mansplaining”, but to be honest I think women can go too far with those accusations. Sometimes a guy is just trying to be helpful, or he spends a few minutes putting his foot in his mouth before realizing a faux pas that may have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with being oblivious. All genders are guilty of this mistake. I like to give the benefit of the doubt and assume best intentions as a general rule. 

But this guy. This guy’s question really got in my craw. 

My friends arrive and I recount the interaction for them, trying to be as unbiased as possible. I ask for their honest feedback: was this dude being sexist or was I overreaching? 

In a group of two women and three men the verdict was unanimous: sexist.

Here’s the problem: “are you okay?” is not a question a man would ask another man in the same situation. “How’s it going?”, “What’s up?”, "Beautiful day!" would all be acceptable salutations. But "are you okay?" implies that I am not okay - that there's something about me which implies a lack of okay-ness. And this question, this unexpected “are you okay?” sends a message that I’m in the wrong place. That I shouldn’t be here. That I don’t belong. 

I’m glad to have a tutu posse to confirm this is my place. 

The lesson is this: if you are a man, and you encounter a woman, before you open your mouth consider if the words you are using are the same words you would use to speak to another man. If it's not, don't say the thing you were going to say. It's that simple. If that doesn't do it, I encourage you to check out The Rock Test: A Hack for Men Who Don't Want To Be Accused of Sexual Harassment

That day on the mountain, my friends and I laughed it off and started skinning, making small talk along the way. Every fifteen minutes or so someone would stop to grab a snack or adjust a binding, and another of us would look that person sternly in the eye and says “are you okay?”  

I have to admit it was pretty funny. But no, it’s not okay. 


Erica said...

The worst! On the mountain and off, like you, I try to give the benefit of the doubt, but am often angered by sexist comments (like the group of men who told me I must be buff because I outpaced them).

Kind of silly side note, I just got back from England, where people in shops/restaurants ask "are you okay?" when checking in. Definitely questioned why they chose those words the first few times, but then realized it's just their way of checking in with everyone ��

Michelle said...

Maybe it's just me, but when I see someone(man or woman) sitting on the side of the trail I ask if they're OK as a blanket common courtesy. In my intention, I see it more as being the overhelpful person wanting to be sure that a fellow human hasn't had a mishap with their person or gear, rather than simply scooting by without acknowledging them on the sideline.
If a persom says more unhelpful or unnecessary comments than an overall human check, I definitely give the comment a sexism overhaul...

Chris said...

Not to make excuses for whatever intended tone this person exhibited, but in cycling, I often ask if someone is alright if they are off their bike. They could have a flat and left a pump/patch at home, be bonking and need some help, or a cell phone to call for help. The common reply is "I'm good, thanks!" I realize there's a big issue with sexism in the outdoors and I think your reply was apt. Be confident in your skill and experience and don't let others get you distracted. You're better than "Okay" and keep plugging with a positive attitude.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there's some missing context like tone or body language or something....but anytime I see anyone on the side of a trail (or skin track, etc.), I ask if they are okay or if everything is okay as a common courtesy. I have been asked as well and I have never concluded that the person asking was assuming that I was NOT okay, let alone not okay because I am a woman. Honestly, I'd rather someone ask if I'm okay when I'm not showing any signs of trouble than not ask because they're afraid of offending me. I think it's a very common question and I appreciate it.

Brian McFarlane said...

My hope is you are reading more into it than is needed. If I see people not traveling with a partner (something that I feel is important for safety), and they are not moving - I will almost always ask if everything is ok. Twice in my time in the outdoors, others have passed individuals (one was a man and the other time it was a woman) and when I prompted if they were ok, the answer was no. The man had a concussion and needed assistance but wasn't in the right frame of mind to ask. The woman was ill equipped for the conditions and I am guessing was afraid to draw attention to that.

When I am not with a partner and am sitting or not moving quickly, I appreciate others to also check in.

I can't speak to the tone, but I have learned a good life lesson of Always Assume Positive Intent.

Anonymous said...

I'm a woman. I can't tell if that guy was being sexist just based on the one question he asked. I feel like more data is necessary to know if he was being condescending/sexist or if he was genuinely just checking in on a fellow backcountry human. I guess body language, tone, eye contact, and the rest of the conversation are as important. When I'm alone (or not) in the backcountry, and come across other people, I usually try to have a short conversation with them. If they're cool, it's a good experience. I actually can't think of a bad experience that came of this... Most people are nice, I think!

A few of my guy friends and I talked about your situation and we discussed how all of us have asked how someone alone was doing when we saw the possibility that they needed help, and we had asked them regardless of that person's gender. And we agree that we are happy when others check in with us when we are alone. We have to watch each others' backs out there!

I think it's hard to know a stranger's perceptions/judgments/thought process and I wouldn't be so quick to assume that I know how they would or wouldn't treat another-gendered person.

I'd hate for well-meaning people to stop talking to other people because they don't want to be called --ist.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the folks who say this comment is neutral. Verging on sexist would be something like, "you really shouldn't be out here alone" (unless it's obvious you should be on a rope line or you're in avalanche terrain). Non sexist is, "is everything ok?". I'm a guy and to be honest guys are not nice with each other - we can be brash and rude and generally unpleasant. We 'guy talk'. Maybe it's the politeness in me but I'd never subject a woman to that kind of talk, so be careful if you ask us to talk to women the way we talk to each other. Am I at risk of being called sexist because I'm implying that women can't take it? Or am I being sweet and properly raised? Gosh this is confusing! I don't want to live in a sterile society where lawyers need to interpret and the court of public opinion needs reinterpret every last comment. It's a common courtesy to offering a helping hand to someone out of the goodness of your heart and it's disheartening to know that such simple gestures of humanity are unwelcome because of some societal meta debate. If you ever see me on a trail in a hostile environment alone, please feel welcome to ask if I need help; it won't be interpreted as implying that I'm somehow less of a man. You might be saving my life.