Every so often, Trumwill and I go a few rounds on a well-worn topic: what is the debt of social civility that women owe to men. While I hesitate to speak for him, I would describe Trumwill's position on this question as minimalist: that women have an inalienable right to deter unwanted interaction by any lawful means they choose, and that men have a corresponding obligation to suffer these means without limit, rancor, or retaliation.
In contrast, I would describe my own position as maximalist: that if a woman is approached politely, she is obligated to respond politely, and that social sanctions can and ought to attend violations. I will admit that my generality is not without limits, as perhaps Trumwill would allow exceptions to his rule, but that is my overall sense of where the discussion is.
As the XKCD comic above illustrates, one of the problems (though not the only one) that my "rule of politeness" seeks to address is in determining when an interaction has proceeded to an actual romantic overture. It is true that men rarely make such overtures cold; they are usually preceded by what my father calls "circling". But it is also true that not all interactions are actually circling behavior. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the interactions are platonic, but sometimes the guy on the train that strikes up a conversation about your netbook just wants to enjoy a conversation with a pretty girl. That's not the same thing as a romantic overture.
I was thinking about this in the context of a scene from the episode of Mad Men that aired 27 September. The setting was daughter Sally's class, which was outside observing a solar eclipse. Don was in attendance, and he got into conversation with Sally's teacher. But suddenly, in the course of Don's perfectly innocuous statement that his family would be staying in town for the summer, the teacher essentially accuses him of hitting on her!
Now, it is true that the teacher is quite pretty and that we, the semi-omniscient audience, know that Don has noticed this about her. But it is also true that Don doesn't pursue women. Women pursue Don. And this teacher is no exception, what with her late-night phone call to Don's house seeking consolation over something-or-other that didn't really make much sense. (Parenthetically, you never know when writers are being subtle and profound, or just yanking your chain.)
Be that as it may, I couldn't help thinking how gawd-awful rude that was. Accusing a married man of adulterous behavior, short of actual adultery, is unspeakably libelous. And furthermore, I can't imagine how a reasonable observer would strain from their prior conversation anything that sounded like something headed in that direction.
Don's response to this was, if anything, far more restrained than mine would have been: "If you don't like the subject of our conversation, then change it. We were just talking." (Or words to that effect; unfortunately, I have been unable to locate a script of the episode online.) He succeeds, I think, in halfway persuading the teacher of his innocence, or at least lack of aggression.
Of course, the series is fiction. The point was exaggerated, and I have no idea where the subplot is headed. But it perfectly captured the kind of unpleasantness that women inflict on the men around them by treating "hey, nice netbook" as a request for sex.