A fan’s dilemma

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Nicole’s latest novel, “Stepdog,” was published last year. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.

Dear Nicole,

I am a childless adult, and occasionally I’ll stop by to watch a youth soccer or softball game. Since these are social affairs, I might start to chat with one of the parents. “Which one is your child?” a mother may ask. “I don’t have children,” I will respond. “I just stopped by to watch.” That’s when I encounter an immediate shift in body language, as if I had just said, “I’m scouting out kids to abduct.” Is it not OK for an adult man without children of his own to go watch a Saturday-morning youth soccer game?

Confidentially yours,

Innocent Bystander

Dear Bystander,

Of course it’s OK. In fact, it’s terrific. You really shouldn’t care what they think. That’s the most important takeaway from this. But the very fact you feel the need to ask shows that it’s more complicated than that.

You’re experiencing a rare form of socially sanctified reverse sexism. My 72-year-old mom goes to basketball games at the high school, and nobody checks her credentials (“So which one is your grandkid?”). And even if they did, and she said, “Oh, I just stopped by to watch,” she would not experience that shift in body language that you’re describing.

But my mother is a woman. And that has made all the difference, as Robert Frost would say. You know you’re not there to abduct anyone’s kid, but if you make an overt gesture or comment to reassure them of that (“Heh, it’s not like I’m here to abduct kids or anything”), it will perversely and paradoxically come across as if you were trying to get them to lower their guard so you can abduct their kid. That’s a losing battle, so don’t fight it.

You could try what untold generations of women have had to do upon encountering regular sexism: Suck it up. Ignore it. Be thick-skinned, shrug it off, and go ahead and have the good experience you are entitled to.

If you’re not thick-skinned, or if you’d like to be proactive about being more accepted (totally reasonable in a social setting), your options are limited, but following are a few thoughts.

Reverse sexism differs from traditional sexism because it’s based not on dismissing someone, but on taking them so seriously. The problem is not being invisible, but too visible. So an Amy-Schumer-like barb would be inappropriate and ineffective, as would a comment belittling their anxiety (“Oh, yeah, like any of these kids are up to my standards for child abduction. I think not.”). It is sadly understandable that parents might be nervous about a strange childless man scouting their kids, in a way they wouldn’t be nervous about a strange childless woman doing so. Your simply keeping that in mind when you speak to them might help — your own body language will alter oh-so-subtly from defensive (“Oh, jeez, am I going to get that attitude from a parent again?”) to relaxed (“What a great parent this is, looking out for their kid”). Parents are pretty intuitive, so they will hopefully pick up on that, and that could shift things.

You could also make it clear that you are a nice human being, instead of an anonymous observer. I am not saying it’s your job to reassure them, but doing so would be a good deed (on behalf of all nonabducting males everywhere), and if you want to reap the benefits of their feeling reassured, then the ball’s in your court to start that process. A parent doesn’t want to be suspicious; they want to know they don’t need to be suspicious. Try saying something that draws their attention, however fleetingly, to you as a long-term member of the human race, as opposed to a strange male who’s shown up unexpectedly in their immediate environment. A single sentence should do the trick: “I played second base when I was a kid; boy I miss playing,” or “I’ve been a fan for years, I used to go to my nephew’s games every weekend,” or “I love the community feeling that you get at sporting events, and when most of the spectators know most of the players personally — even though I don’t — there’s especially cool.”

You might still get attitude. I have childless female friends who go to games and get a little of the attitude you’ve mentioned. Any and all childless people who experience what you’re describing could try to lean in (I am not trendy enough to know if I’m using that phrase in its trendy way — I mean literally lean in) and say, “Do you think you’ll keep coming to these games when your kid’s not on the team anymore?” or “Wow, I loved the hockey team this year,” or “That shortstop reminds me of Dustin Pedroia — what do you think?” The goal here is to remind them that the game you are both attending is a public sporting event, and not just Their Kid’s Chaperoned Activity. Not every parent needs that reminding, but apparently enough of them do that it might be worth the mention.

If they get all that, and are giving you attitude just for attending a public sporting event, ask them who they’re voting for in the primary. This won’t improve their behavior toward you, but at least then if they have their hackles up, it’s due to a hackle-raising topic of conversation. If you’re going to be treated like a pariah no matter what, you might as well do something (nondestructive) to be worthy of it.

That’s my take.