On Her Own

How to tell if someone is a good guy or a bad guy

You may have seen that I’ve been posting short “lessons learned” drawn directly from news snippets that I run across on a regular basis. They’re real-world illustrations of the topics I discuss at length here at OHO, meant to give you short and simple reminders to help you stay safe every day. Often, you’ll see themes across posts not because I’ve saved them all to put up together but because they come up that regularly. For example, we’ve seen a lot lately about strangers with unknown motives who turn out to be bad guys. They might look like they’re asking or offering help but after they tempt our good guys into range, that “help” turns into robbery or murder.

It’s such a common problem that there is an entire paradigm – Craig Douglas’s Managing Unknown Contacts – to deal with the approach of someone you don’t know so that you can attempt to avoid conflict. If you aren’t familiar with it, check out my Self-Defense Resource Center (linked from my profile). Essentially, it’s a method for drawing boundaries and by doing so, either directing that stranger away from you or divining their true purpose in trying to interact with you. MUC is an incredibly useful tool, but you still need to interpret the stranger’s response if they don’t simply leave you alone, and sometimes if they appear to leave but may return. You might also want to examine the stranger’s actions and watch how they interact with others before you must engage with them, so that perhaps you can completely avoid a potential problem. While I can’t be exhaustive about every single red flag that might show up, here are a few broad categories to pay attention to when you’re trying to figure out if you can trust your safety to someone:

Are they trying too hard to gain trust? A relationship of trust is normally built over time, with both words and actions that increase each person’s faith in the other. Someone who is trying to accelerate that process may simply really want to be your friend, or they may be trying to get you to do something you would only do for someone you believe. If they are working their way from person to person trying to quickly make friends but moving on without a visible pause, perhaps they aren’t going to be genuine when they reach you. If they speak in a way that identifies you together, as a group or a team or otherwise on their side, even if you might not know each other at all, perhaps they’re creating a false sense of community and common purpose. It’s a method called teaming, and it can be a legitimate way of highlighting the connection you might have with that other person. It’s less innocent, though, when they’re trying to talk you into following them down an alleyway because they need help and we have to save the kittens. It sounds like an obvious lie when you’re reading it now, but it may be less so when you have an honest- or needy-looking person in front of you, asking you to help them. Right now. Which leads me to the next tactic…

Is their request coming with a sense of urgency? You may be used to being skeptical of this type of behavior when it comes to scammers, and people who are trying to reel you into their violent plans are really just scammers of another type. It might be targeted just at you, or at the world at large, but the intended effect is the same. They’re both attempting to short-circuit your logical brain by making you think you have to choose your response super fast. By rushing you into action, they’re taking away your ability to listen to your doubts or spot holes in their words and actions. They’re also hyping you up and making you focus on an external problem that needs to be solved right away instead of calmly evaluating them. The immediacy of “act now, or else” can tempt you into doing something you might regret later, because you don’t want to miss your chance. It might not be so obvious as a claimed life-threatening emergency, but it might be, say, a stopped car with blinkers on not quite far enough off to the side of a busy road. There are always exceptions, but it’s a warning sign if they encourage you away from taking your time to deal with the next question…

Does your gut tell you their ask is insincere? You might have a tiny lurch of hesitation or a nagging little voice in your head that maybe that guy isn’t for real or that they’re moving awful fast. Listen to it. You don’t need to be able to quantify or articulate why you feel that way, just have an idea that something feels a bit off. You may have recognized a pre-assault indicator, or your subconscious may have seen some mismatch between words and body language or setting. Or you might unreasonably feel immediate dislike that could prove wrong later but you can’t see into the future to find out. Both harmful and harmless people might acknowledge your doubts and reassure you, but the former might ring less true to you than the latter. Either way, you aren’t required to take someone at their word that they are trustworthy and don’t intend to hurt you. You can seek outside reassurance from a more trusted source or choose to not trust them now and wait for other indications that they mean you no harm. It’s your choice, and the other person’s reaction to your decision will tell you something too. Go back to the prior categories: is that person trying too hard to talk you away from your instincts? Are they pressing you to act immediately despite your misgivings?

Figuring out if someone is shady in the kind of way that will get you hurt is more squishy art than hard science (and conversely, making sure you act like a safe person when you’re asking for or offering help comes with all sorts of challenges that may depend on perceptions that are out of your control). There are types of behaviors that make it more likely than not that danger is possible, but they can be perfectly innocent as well. When it comes to preserving your safety, erring on the side of caution is wise, but I advise that knowing that when it comes to preserving your humanity, you might choose to take the leap anyway. That’s why you need to have a plan and the skills to back that plan up if you make the wrong pick.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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