Thursday, December 03, 2009

What the Party Crashers Can Teach Us About Personal Safety

Everyone is abuzz about the White House Party Crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi. Some of the media coverage has been way overblown--former FBI Profiler Clint van Zandt just about blew a gasket on The Today Show last week talking about the unlikely, extreme things that could have happened. But whether you write this off as a reality-show publicity stunt, or consider it to be a serious breach of security, this incident does provide a great example that we can learn from in order to prevent real-life wrongdoing "party crashers" from crossing our own personal boundaries.

You see, the Sahalis got in by acting and dressing and acting the part--dressing to the nines, in fact. Michaele looked gorgeous in her formal bright red sari. I think that the fact that she had on such a specific dress for the state dinner to welcome the Indian Prime Minister really helped them get in. Most Caucasian, American women would not have such an outfit already hanging in their closets, so she clearly looked like she belonged at this specific event. By dressing so appropriately and distinctively, she was hiding in plain sight!

What else helped them get in? Today Maureen Dowd's column says:

"The Washington Post reported the Secret Service guard waved in the Salahis, breaking the rules, because he 'was persuaded by the couple’s manner and insistence as well as the pressure of keeping lines moving on a rainy evening.'"

This is how gate crashers and boundary crossers operate. If someone means you harm, if they came running at you with a gun, you would see them coming from a mile away and get out of there.

But if they follow a cultural script, they can not only get close to you, they can also get you to commit to the early stages of interaction. Once you have committed to the interaction, it's harder to reject the person later. Think about the steps leading up to a date-rape scenario. If a woman accepts a man's invitation to go out on a date, has dinner and drinks, maybe he's even paying, when they get to her door at the end of the night and he wants to come in and she doesn't want him to, it's harder for her to say "No" to him if he's persistent about coming in, because through her actions she's already committed to being with him up to that point. It's more difficult to turn him away, but not impossible, and this is exactly why we each need personal safety training, because predators count on their ability to twist cultural scripts and use them against us. We have to be prepared to abandon the "polite" script and ditch our previous "commitments" to change course when someone wishes to harm us.

Irene van der Zande, founder of Kidpower, says “In our Kidpower personal safety workshops, we tell our students that they already know how to be nice and polite, but that they are safest if they make being nice a conscious decision rather than an automatic habit. We have them practice imagining that they are not sure a situation is safe even if the other person is very friendly, and then leaving or setting boundaries rather than getting involved with this person.”

Then there is what I think of as the moment of confusion, which the Salahis created by showing up looking so good and insisting that they belonged, all while there were many other people waiting in line behind them. So the Secret Service waved them in. When we are busy, distracted, emotionally triggered, inconvenienced, or not sure what to do, that moment of confusion can leave us vulnerable to doing things we ordinarily wouldn't do. Most of the time, when we aren't sure what to do, it serves us well to do the nice and polite thing and go along with what everyone else is doing. But this convenient mental shortcut can be used against us, as predators deliberately create the moment of confusion to create an opportunity to hurt a victim.

If I asked you whether you'd go to a private location with a stranger who approached you in a parking lot, what would you say you would do? You wouldn't go, right? Not in a million years, you might think. But what if a man came up to you, frantic, pleading, "Help me! My baby isn't breathing!" and ushered you to his car in a remote area? This is a powerful lure. In the moment of confusion, you respond to the idea of an emergency and the emotional trigger of a baby in distress, and if you don't stop to think about it, you might immediately follow him, especially if he emphatically and convincingly rushes you into it.

Now I am NOT saying that you should not ever help a person in distress, but I am saying that you should be aware of your surroundings and never lose sight of the context of what you are doing. In a moment of confusion, think about hitting a "pause" button in your mind. It can be a brief pause, but it can allow you to collect yourself, analyze the whole situation, and think about your response. You have choices: Can you call 911, or go to a populated store for help, or get mall security, rather than blindly rushing into a potentially dangerous, isolated situation? You can assess the environment: is this day, night, near other people or sources of help? What are your potential vulnerabilities and options? For young kids, by the way, I stand by the idea that adults should not ask kids for help. If this parking lot situation happened to a kid they should go find safety, such as a store, and tell the store employees what has happened. Then those adults can follow up and call 911 either because a baby really needs help, or there is a man luring people with a false story.

The moment of confusion does not always look so dramatic. It can be simple and fast. When I traveled to France this fall, I kept my awareness about me, especially when visiting major tourist sites that are known pickpocketing venues. We were in Notre Dame Cathedral one day, a crowded environment full of people milling around, and a situation where I knew to keep a firm hold on my purse, when a French woman approached me and asked me in French whether people had to pay to tour the church. I answered her quickly and kept moving to make sure I didn't get separated from my family. Later, I realized this could very likely have been a pickpocket set-up, with her working to divert my attention while someone else went after my purse, or my husband's wallet as he was distracted, too, making sure we did not get separated in the crowd.

Why do I think this was a deliberately staged moment of confusion? Because why would a French person ask an American tourist what to do in this situation. I was the one who should have been "lost." Also, everyone else in Paris took one look at me and immediately addressed me in English (even though I was trying to speak French!). In Notre Dame we were not in a situation where there was a ticket taker visible, and we weren't even near the entrance; we were well inside looking up at the stained glass windows. I'll never know for sure what this nice-seeming woman's intentions were, but I do know that her actions evoked that moment of confusion feeling in me. Fortunately, I did not allow myself to get too sidetracked, and I stayed with my family and we all held on to our belongings, too.

Personal safety expert and author Gavin de Becker talks about developing one's intuition and the key is to not only listen to your intuition, but to also ACT ON IT. If you don't have a good feeling about your date, the time to draw the line is early on, before you get in a private, more vulnerable setting. Gavin de Becker's books talk about early warning signs of trouble to watch out for. For example, if your date fails to hear the word "No" in any situation, that person is trying to control you. Knowing that, if your date pressures you to accept a drink you said you don't want, you can see that not only should you refuse the drink, but you can take that as a sign to end the date early.

As parents, the action part is incredibly important. If you have a bad feeling about a babysitter, coach, or any person who has a major and controlling role in your child's life, it is really important to take those intuitions seriously and follow up on them by getting more information about what is going on, if possible, and removing your child from that situation if necessary, even if it's embarrassing or inconvenient for you.

Most people are good and most of the time acting nice and polite serves us well and keeps us on the right track. But the White House party crashers remind us that just because someone looks the part, acts nice, and insists that they belong, that does not automatically mean that they deserve an open door into our lives.

Sign up now on the home page to receive a free e-book of the new Courageous Parenting anthology, edited by Amy Tiemann and featuring a chapter written by Kidpower founder Irene van der Zande, when the book comes out in March 2010!

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