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A woman fills up her vehicle at a Toronto gas station in 2011.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Self-service gas stations are not, by nature, mysterious places. The name pretty much sums up the experience. You serve yourself gasoline.

Yet appearances can be misleading. For instance, I’ve learned that for some women, using a self-service station can be a fraught experience. A few weeks ago, @emrazz (“Feminist Next Door”) asked on Twitter what women would do if, “for 24 hours there were no men.”

The tweet triggered 10,000 replies. Many wrote they’d go for a late-night walk, others would go for a drink alone or travel solo. Self-service gas stations figured into the mix. @Leslie wrote that she would “Gas up my car without needing a passenger/witness.” Another wrote, “Not having to look for a gas station with more than 0 or 1 cars at the pumps after dark.”

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@RespectableLaw wrote that when he and his future wife started dating, he noticed that she almost never filled up her car. He teased her about being lazy but was later surprised to learn that “The truth is that she’s had too many bad experiences pumping gas, and it makes her anxious. Gas pumps are weird because even though they’re public, you’re somewhat alone and vulnerable … Nearly every time she stops for gas by herself, she is approached by a man. Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s creepy. Sometimes it’s just awkward and uncomfortable.”

I was surprised by these revelations. I hate self-serve gas stations, not because I’m wary of what might happen there, but because I don’t like getting out of my car and prefer my communication with strangers to be regimented – e.g. “Can I help you sir?” “Yes, please fill it with regular.” I hadn’t realized that others might dislike them for much more serious reasons.

So, I reached out on Facebook and Twitter asked women to tell me about their self-service gas station experiences. While quite a few had not experienced any harassment at stations and weren’t reluctant to use them, there were also many who had. Ashley Wallace, who grew up in Alabama, only uses gas stations she’s familiar with because of the amount of “cat calling, unwanted physical advances, and intimidation tactics” she has endured. On one occasion, she wrote, two men blocked the driver’s side door and she was forced to crawl in through the passenger’s side window in order to lock the car and escape. “I’ve been driving for 12 years since I was 15,” she says. “I am 27 and dread going to get gas.”

“I get stared at and judged by all males there pumping gas,” says Toronto resident Chelsea Larkin. “Like, they look at me and think, ‘Wow, a girl is pumping gas by herself?!’ They either laugh at me or watch every move I make. If I don’t park in the perfect spot for reach of the gas hose, they smirk and scoff like I’m an idiot. It’s infuriating.”

I realize this problem can’t be fixed by the glib mansplaining of an overstuffed columnist. It’s deep and complex (two words seldom used in reference to me).

That said, perhaps a little instruction on proper etiquette might, at the very least, curb the poor behaviour of those who may be unaware they’re crossing the line and lead them to call out harassment when they see it.

The first rule is straightforward: The self-service pumps are not Tinder, Grindr or any other kind of dating app. The other drivers are there for the same reason you are – to purchase gasoline. Do not hit on people at the gas pump. Just serve yourself some gas and get on with your day. Sadly, if you’re using the self-serve as your personal hook-up spot, you’re also using the grocery store, your place of employment and virtually every other place you go in similar fashion. This may be why everyone hates you.

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Rule 2: Keep the friendly car advice to yourself. Don’t tell someone, especially a woman, how to use the windshield squeegee. Don’t explain how the gas pump works. Don’t make a suggestion. Don’t talk about their car. If you are asked a question – for instance, “How do you use this squeegee?” – then feel free to weigh in. It’s your lucky day! Otherwise, just stand mute like a colossus. Use your time at the gas pump the way everyone else does, to contemplate the futility of our modern existence and that it is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.

Rule 3: Cut the chatter. Some folks can’t resist small talk. They’re chatty. If you must speak with the person at the next pump, keep it in the vein of “nice day, isn’t it?” Weather is good. Sports work. But take a hint. You’ll know if someone isn’t in the mood for discourse by the pained look on their face the moment they see your gums bumping and tongue wagging. Just because you know you’re not a psycho with ill intentions doesn’t mean the person you’re rambling to about some obscure topic does. For all they know, your “do you know it actually gets warmer at night in the winter” talk is a preamble to pathological stalking.

Finally, Rule 4: This one goes out to everyone – get your gas and move on. That goes double at times there is a wait at the pumps. If you plan on going in to buy a coffee and donut, pay at the pump and then go park by the station so another driver can fill up. Don’t waltz in and swan around for 15 minutes.

It’s a self-service station, not a self-centred station. Keep this in mind and carry on.

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