Yesterday, as I was lounging with four girlfriends at one of Austin's swimming holes, a middle-aged man approached us and asked if we would mind if he put his floatie down by our group while he went for a swim. He explained that he felt a little better leaving it with a group rather than unattended, and that his wife was sitting up in the shade, which was at the other end of the rocky beach. We agreed, and exchanged a few pleasantries about the heat and the water, and he went off to swim.

Innocuous enough, except that we were at Hippie Hollow, the clothing-optional stretch of Lake Travis; four of us had exercised half the option, and the man, needless to say, had ditched his bottoms too. He came back a bit later with a second floatie, and said that if any of us wanted to use it, we were welcome to, because his wife wasn't going to go in the water today after all. "He just wants to look at our boobs," joked one of my friends. I said that he was probably more interested in showing us his penis. "Not that there's much to show," she agreed, "I mean, I know there's shrinkage, but come on." Later he stopped to chat to one of the girls as she emerged from the water, and after that, he paddled his floatie out to talk to the fifth girl, who was bobbing along (on her own floatie) by a buoy. At this point I was watching him, and wondering if I should swim out there to join her; but she was the one who was fully dressed--maybe he was just trying to be chatty, and realized it would be less inappropriate to talk to the clothed woman?--and as I watched he floated away. When she came back on shore, she said that he had been encouraging her to take her top off. She said that she was fine as she was, and he said that although it was a pretty zebra print, it would mess up her tan.

As it happens, the day before I had been reading Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear. De Becker is a safety expert, and the book argues that our intuition kicks into gear when we're faced with a threatening situation, although we typically discount these intuitions because we're worried about seeming paranoid or rude. To be clear, I read the case yesterday as annoying rather than threatening (and to be fair, when I was leaving I did walk past a woman sitting at a table in the shade, who seemed to fit the description of the wife). However, it was startling to see, as the situation played out, a number of the "pre-incident indicators" (PINs) de Becker identifies. There was the "forced teaming," in which the man made common cause with us over the heat of the day and our views about the water. "Too many details" about the wife, and his reasoning about his floatie's safety, which was in absolutely no danger of being stolen. The "loan sharking" offer of the second floatie, which none of us asked for and none of us wanted to use. There were the jokes between me and my friend; dark humor, according to de Becker, is a way express concerns without asking them to be taken seriously. And, most troublingly, his discounting of "no," when he floated out to talk to my friend.

On balance, then, I thought the situation was a good illustration of de Becker's argument. Nothing bad happened in this situation, except that it put a sort of creepy shadow over what was otherwise a pleasant morning, but neither would anything bad have happened if we had been unfriendly to him. My usual response to strangers who strike up a conversation with me is to be pretty chilly (on an airplane, in a bar--and yesterday I didn't communicate with the man in question beyond a few indeterminate noises ("h'rm")). That's typically not because I'm worried about safety, but because I don't want to be bothered. It's possible that I err on the side of unfriendliness, and I've been accused of that. But I'm sure that no one's ever been unfairly disadvantaged by my approach, and it hasn't caused me any trouble. It's perfectly obvious that the kind of stranger who would object (as when men tell women to "smile!") has thereby demonstrated that they're not the kind of person we should feel obliged to smile at anyway.

This isn't to say that I think people (particularly women) should be overly worried about their personal security. As I said in an earlier post, I think people can almost always rely on the kindness of strangers; I've done that lots of times, especially when traveling. One of the occupational oddities of being a journalist is that you're constantly doing things--approaching strangers, arranging to meet with them, passing around your personal contact information, trying to ingratiate yourself with them--that you would otherwise be advised against. But it seems to me that you can almost completely obliterate the risk by making sure that they're the strangers you approach (which de Becker recommends) and by having no qualms about flakng out if you've got a bad feeling. Looking over the past few years, I can think of a few cases where I wish I had been more wary, and none where I wish I had been less.

It's also well worth reading the de Becker book, even if you're not worried about personal safety, because it's an interesting study of intuition, which can be a somewhat mysterious phenomenon. De Becker describes it in a way that might comfort highly analytical people--that it's not magic so much as an extremely quick and complex cognitive process that takes place before it bubbles up to the conscious mind. In his case studies, it's often the case that the victims of violence had a foreboding feeling, and after some exploration, they can typically identify what triggered it. One woman, who was carjacked, said that she had a sudden surge of fear and tried to lock the car doors just as the attacker reached her; after thinking it over, she figured out that it was because she had seen a sudden flash of denim in the side mirror--a flash that appeared so quickly and so closely she intuitively realized it wasn't just a person walking by. De Becker uses the example of driving in traffic, which is an extremely complex endeavor that requires a ton of predictions about the behavior of other people. Experienced drivers can do this almost thoughtlessly, partly because they're not second-guessing themselves or worried about offending other drivers. De Becker's argument is that we should have more confidence in ourselves in other arenas.

07/07/2011 06:03

I saw you at blogging heads. I was wondering why you were wiggling around- water on the lap would do it.

Becker's book is very good. His book: 2 seconds is also interesting, although a little less applicable to the every day.

The tactic that Becker notes has a continuum. It is not just used by predators. In this case you an older guy who likes to flounce around and chat up unclad younger women. That is the behavior he is trying to establish. It is fair to call his behavior creepy, provided you understand that modern beach attire itself is a bit strange.

You might do something similar (approach-wise) if you saw some political big-wig at a social setting. You set up a non-threatening pretext to speak with them first.

The important distinction in your examples is that most people are not dangerous. If you ask for help from random (or near random) people, you are much safer, then if someone is approaching you. Thus if your car won't start at the "store" and you ask someone in the parking lot if they have jumper cables, you are most likely safe. The odds are reduced if you breakdown along the side of the road and they stop to help. Fortunately, the number of truly dangerous people as a percentage of total population is low in the United States.

07/07/2011 08:03

Hi Russell--I think you're right. I imagine the tricky part for people making the approach is that the assessment of creepiness sometimes has to do with the perceptions of the recipient rather than the content of the behavior.

The most provocative argument in de becker's book, for me, was the idea that people make tons of lightning-fast decisions when they're driving without second-guessing themselves, and they're usually right. there's an article on slate today about autonomous cars. I wonder if widespread adoption of those would erode that capacity...


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