I’m thinking today about the trappings of authority, and what our proper response should be when we are faced with them. We are raised, of course, to respect our elders, our betters, the people who have some greater skill or knowledge than us, or some kind of moral or actual power over us – people who can direct the courses of our life for some amount of time. They include not only teachers, but police officers, doctors, religious leaders, and more – even service technicians. We often assume that those who are in those roles are automatically an authority, someone we should listen to, whose words we should heed. Sometimes, we’re wrong. When we are, we are victimized by people like Sarah Everard’s killer who was a police officer, Larry Nassar who was a national gymnastics team doctor, or the perpetrators of the Catholic Church’s or the Boy Scouts of America’s child abuse crises who were priests or troop leaders. The institutions and the positions aren’t inherently bad, but sometimes the people in them are. Figuring out when we shouldn’t follow along with a person who has a title or uniform is tough, but there are a few guidelines that can help us.
Start with the obvious: is the individual claiming to be part of an organization that actually exists? Looking for business listings and other outside evidence can be helpful, as can contacting that organization through an email address or phone number that you locate independently. Don’t be afraid to learn how to dig deeply into state registries and domain ownership listings, especially when the stakes are high, such as when you are being asked to pay a significant amount of money to that person. Remember that anybody can create an official-looking website or business card, though, so be careful to comb through them carefully to ensure that they make sense and that there aren’t suspicious gaps or problems in the information provided. It’s true that a legitimate company or group might have a lean website, a cheap-feeling business card, or other indicators that don’t seem quite right. In those cases, asking lots of questions will help you get a better feel, as can looking for third party references who aren’t folks that the individual has directed you to themselves.
Once you do find that the organization is real, find out if the title is also real and if the individual you’re dealing with has it. Instead of taking that person’s word for it, you might call their claimed employer directly and ask if they really do have, for instance, a Director of Fixing Customer Service Issues, or if the apparent police car pulling you over belongs to an on-duty officer. If so, then who is in that role? Names help, as well as descriptions. Alternatively, you might ask for other ways of confirming an identity or qualifications, such as an ID card or bio/resume, or a description of the correct markings on a service vehicle or uniform. Again here, references help. So does having some background information, like knowing in advance what the police in your area drive and wear or the name of the technician expected to come to your house to fix your Internet (again). If the person is for real, they’ll understand your caution, especially if you are clearly potentially vulnerable, like a single woman on the street or person home alone might be. If they act like they don’t understand or accuse you of being rude, then perhaps that’s a clue all by itself about someone you want to take great care with if you continue to interact with them.
Regardless of what you are or are not able to confirm the organization, the role, and the person in it, continually pay attention to whether the individual is acting as you’d expect someone in that role to act. If you aren’t sure, it’s a good time to both question them directly and to consult with other sources. A doctor may be trying an innovative treatment on you, or a group leader or potential mentor befriending you, but perhaps their actions seem a little strange or overly familiar. Someone with good intentions should be able to explain their actions and their reasoning. You don’t have to take their word for it though. You can – and should – also check with your peers and with authorities you already have vetted and trust. As a child, that might mean asking your parents or a teacher or coach from another area of your life. As an adult, that might mean searching for guides that describe the steps of a medical procedure or what you can expect from visiting a certain type of doctor.
It’s a little like figuring out if someone is an expert, but not entirely. People who wear the trappings of authority might not be an expert so much as just a person who has more ability or power than you in a particular setting. You don’t necessarily need to figure out if they’re the best at what they do, rather than if they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. After all, we aren’t always looking for someone to learn from or to solve particularly difficult problems. We might only be looking for someone to perform a specific job. It’s still important to get it right, though, because the consequences of getting it wrong can range from annoying to negatively life-altering. You might simply not get something fixed or learn a wrong bit of trivia…or you might be assaulted or killed by someone pretending to be what they are not, or using their roles as cover for wrongdoing. Makes it seem worthwhile to take the time and effort to be careful, doesn’t it?