Harpy. Witch. Nag. Shrew. Termagant. Scold. There are so many synonyms and euphemisms for "unfriendly woman" in the English language that I could just keep listing them until I ran out of space for the meat of this column. And language controls how we think; the fact that there are so many terms for a woman who is Not Nice indicates that this is something that society has thought about rather a lot, and wants to be able to describe in great detail.
When we were little, even before we had a very good grasp of language, we knew which little girl in the cartoon was going to be the princess who had birds landing in her outstretched hand and which girl was going to help out the wicked stepmother and come to a bad end by which one was smiling and one was frowning. There are powerful cultural incentives for being Nice that linger long beyond when childhood desires for a talking pony have faded.
The downside to this is that so many things done to be Nice or non-threatening play into the hands of criminals who are engaged in selecting their potential victims. One easy example of this is a habit I've tried, with greater and lesser periods of success, to rid myself of for years. You've seen it, too: The head-down scurry across the grocery store parking lot, perhaps with a little waist-level placating wave to drivers one thinks one may have inconvenienced.
When a friend saw me doing that once, years ago, he asked why I did. "Well, I don't want to be in anyone's way or inconvenience them..."
"Well, stop it," he retorted. "It's a parking lot and you have as much right to be walking through it as any other customer. Plus, it's submissive-looking, and that just attracts bad dudes like 'skeeters to a bug zapper. And with your head hunched down like that, you can't see what's happening around you."
He was absolutely right, and I've found that even when I walk normally, head up and smiling, nobody gets mad at me for using the parking lot for, you know, parking and walking into the grocery store.
Another way criminals use the fear of being Not Nice is during what is sometimes called the "interview process." See, the initial attention from the criminal will come from a snap judgment formed by something like body language, gait, dress...something that initially draws attention and makes the bad guy think "This looks like easy work." The interview process is how they simultaneously confirm their decision and get close enough to do their work.
The interview process is where the morbid fear of being Not Nice can get us into trouble:
"Hey, do you have a minute?"
"Do you have the time?"
"I'm lost, can you tell me where North Point Mall is?"
"Hey, my car is out of gas and I need to get my kid to the doctor..."
Obviously not every stranger who approaches you in a parking lot is an attacker. Most are simply panhandlers and, heck, some small percentage of them really are out of gas and need to get their kid to the doctor...but this is something that you need to be able to determine on your timetable and at a safe distance.
A criminal interviewing you is going to play on your desire to abide by accepted norms and your unwillingness to make a scene by calling them on their violations of those norms. It's okay to be rude if a stranger is trying to get up in your personal space. It's very okay to make a scene if someone disregards your clear requests to stop outside your space.
It's okay to be firm with strangers if that's what it takes to keep yourself safe. Even if it makes you feel rude or, worse, Not Nice at the time, it's still okay. It doesn't go in your permanent record, promise.