Social Programming and Managing Contact with Strangers

Social Programming and Managing Contact with Strangers

Ladies, let’s talk about social programming and being approached by strangers.

What is social programming?  Social programming is the process by which we are all taught to fit into society.  Our family members, school teachers, and peer groups are all part of this process.

Part of social programming in Western culture is learning how to invite social interaction when we want it, and how to avoid it when we don’t.  We learn that we don’t need to bang on the table or shout to catch a waiter’s attention at a restaurant; doing so actually invites an uncomfortable amount of attention, and we can gain interaction with the waiter simply through eye contact or subtle gestures.  We also learn to avoid interaction with people we don’t wish to engage with, such as the panhandler looking for change in the parking lot or the “weird” guy talking to strangers on the bus, by avoiding eye contact, directing our attention elsewhere (which has become easier with the advent of smartphones), and appearing to ignore them.  A popular psychology website even lists “strategies” to avoid interacting with strangers on public transportation, which include “avoiding eye contact,” “listening to music on your phone and pretending not to hear people,” or “pretending to be asleep.”

Women tend to rely on the strategy of avoidance much more often, because of the social situations in which they find themselves, and, unfortunately, because of the unpredictability of men.  Some men who read this may struggle to see it or may be offended by it, but most women will know exactly what I’m talking about.  How many times have you heard a woman allege some sort of abuse or attack, only for the people who hear the allegation to say, “I don’t believe it, I’ve known him for years, I’ve never seen that happen”?  People who victimize others, whether in criminal assaults or in abusive relationships, conceal their behavior from society.  Just as bandits robbed stagecoaches in remote areas rather than on city streets, men who hurt women isolate them first because they innately know that if their behavior is witnessed, others are likely to intervene.  This masking of the abusive or assaultive behavior, coupled with the general fact that most men are capable of physically dominating most women (don’t jump down my throat here, there are exceptions), means that women don’t always know who is safe.  The woman who is approached by a man at the bar offering to buy her a drink doesn’t know if he’ll be the kind of guy who will appreciate and respect a straightforward “no,” or the kind of guy who will meet her in the parking lot on the way to her car after bar close.

In response, women rely heavily on strategies for avoiding social interaction.  They direct their attention elsewhere, don’t invite conversation, actively try to avoid eye contact, in hopes that the guy will see she isn’t interested and will move on.  Another strategy is to try to avoid offending the man by playing nice, engaging in conversation, accepting the drink, and maybe providing a fake number at the end of the night (ladies, this one can be very frustrating/confusing for men on the receiving end).  Although either of these strategies may work at the bar, when they are used in other situations, as they often are, they can actually invite victimization.

Have you ever walked from your car to the grocery store or vice versa, head down, avoiding meeting the gaze of the people around you because you didn’t want to acknowledge them?  Perhaps you didn’t feel like making small talk, or didn’t want the hobo looking for spare change to approach you.  Conversely, have you ever found yourself being intentionally nice and approachable just because you didn’t want to be thought of as cold, unfriendly, a “bitch?”

The interview process is used by predators to select victims.  An evaluation is made of body language, gait, overall receptiveness, level of awareness, and more.  It is a universal tool used by a wide range of predators to evaluate likelihood of success, from creeps looking to grope someone at a concert or subway, to violent criminals looking to commit serious offenses such as robbery, rape, or murder.  Even terrorists and insurgents use it; the military teaches that the squad that exhibits inattentiveness, walking with head down or convoying with gunners who look bored, is more likely to be selected for attack than a squad who stands straighter and seems more alert, gunners constantly swiveling turrets to scan their surroundings, etc.  Sometimes a ruse is part of the interview process, used to try to gain a more advantageous position while evaluating potential victims:

“Hey, do you have a minute?

“Excuse me, my car won’t start, and…”

“I’m lost, can you tell me how to find…”

“My child, pet, wife, etc. is missing…”

A woman who plays nice, by making herself approachable, by being reluctant to be brusque, can be more susceptible to these or other ruses.

Not everyone who approaches you in a parking lot is going to rob or rape you, and some people really do need help with a car that won’t start or a missing dog.  However, you need to be able to evaluate the situation on your own timetable, and from a safe distance.  To accomplish this, it becomes useful to break away from the social strategies women use to avoid interaction/offense.

Look people who you believe are approaching you in the eyes.  Acknowledge them, speaking clearly and directly, while you evaluate the situation.  Stand straighter.  Start thinking about options and escape routes.  Certain body language, such as a raised hand, can make a person pause or stop altogether (Western society subconsciously views a raised hand, palm facing us, as a sign to halt or stay back), keeping you at a more advantageous distance while getting your hands up to where they can more quickly protect you from a sudden attack.  Your goal is to communicate “I’ve noticed you, I’m not afraid to look at you, I see you moving closer.”  Because most women resort to the above social strategies and avoid eye contact, looking elsewhere (such as down at their purse or cell phone), doing these things sends a message that you are atypical, and possibly unpredictable.  Atypical and unpredictable is not the ideal victim and may dissuade an attacker from targeting you.

Sometimes these things won’t dissuade an attacker…sometimes, their decision has already been made and you are the target.  However, a person continuing to approach you despite acknowledgement and a raised hand doesn’t necessarily signify that you are about to be attacked.  Men don’t often have insight into the world of potential victimization that women live in, don’t understand the need for caution, and might be totally oblivious to your desire for space.  The panhandler looking for change might be intoxicated or mentally ill, and not able to pick up on subtle cues.  If an approaching stranger reaches a distance that makes you feel uncomfortable, rather than playing nice and allowing a potential attacker to put you at a further disadvantage, some clear, direct communication is warranted.  Don’t be disrespectful, hostile, or confrontational; you aren’t issuing a challenge here. Being disrespectful or confrontational to the wrong person can be extremely counterproductive, but if you *are* in an attacker’s interview process, they’re going to play on your desire to abide by societal norms/avoid making a scene.  A firm “stop” or “hang on a second” is usually enough to prevent most well-intentioned people from continuing, but if it isn’t, there’s nothing wrong with loudly saying “don’t come any closer,” or “you’re making me uncomfortable.”  If this verbal “line in the sand” is ignored and the person continues to approach, it provides you with immediate confirmation that something isn’t right. 

If you aren’t de-selected during the interview process, having options is critical.  By “avoiding avoidance,” by making that eye contact, acknowledging people who approach you, using body language to subconscious trigger pauses, and verbally requesting that someone stop, you will spot bad intentions sooner and buy yourself precious time to react.  It’s okay to be curt with people if that’s what it takes to keep you safe.  It’s definitely okay to make a scene if someone disregards your clear requests to stop outside your pre-defined personal space.

If you are interested in additional information on protecting yourself, I highly recommend reading “The Gift of Fear,” by Gavin de Becker, and “Creepology,” by Anna Valdiserri.  You don’t need to be a gun enthusiast, martial artist, or paranoid prepper to gain important tips on protecting yourself from these two subject matter experts.  Take care of yourselves.


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