During our Fullpower and Teenpower self-defense workshops for adults and teens, we have students practice setting boundaries in role-plays about someone approaching them for help on the street. We ask them to imagine being a place that is isolated and that this person could potentially be a threat to them. The person might be asking for a little money to buy food or coffee, for you to take a paper, for directions, or for help finding a lost child.
We practice briefly acknowledging the person’s presence and quickly disengaging from this person. This can be done by giving quick glance and then walking away, with a quick glance back to stay aware of what this person is doing. People can add language that is gentle but clear by saying, “Sorry, no.” Or, “No, thanks!” Or, “Not today!” We have people practice using an attitude that is calm, aware, and confident – assertive rather than passive or aggressive.
If someone is more pushy, the message needs to be stronger. For example, “I said NO!” Or, “Stop following me!” Or, “Stop right there!”
Often a student, almost always a woman, asks questions like, “But what if this person really does need help? What if social stereotypes about people are causing me to make unfair negative judgments? What if I hurt this person’s feelings when he or she meant no harm?”
I say, “My assumption is that you already know how to be nice. You are safest if you can make being nice a conscious decision rather than an automatic habit. Assess the situation. Assess the person’s behavior. Remember that an attacker wants privacy and control. By getting close to someone in an isolated place, you are making it easier for someone to attack you.”
I also demonstrate how someone who just wants help will probably respond to a boundary, such as, “Stop right there!” In this case, the person will probably stop, take a couple of steps back, and say something like, “I didn’t mean to startle you. I just need help.” This response gives you time to think about whether or not you feel safe or okay about giving the help asked for.
Someone who is not respecting your boundaries is likely to keep trying to approach you no matter what he or she is saying. Someone who keeps trying to get closer to you is giving you less time to make a decision and it is safest to be clear and to disengage as quickly as possible.
This doesn’t mean you don’t choose to help people. It means that you make helping a choice rather than a habit.
Here are two stories about similar situations where I made different decisions.
Once a few years ago, I was picking up bagels donated by Noah’s for our Kidpower instructor training program very early in the morning before they were open. There had been a number of assaults on women on that street. I was knocking on the door of the shop to get the attention of the staff, but kept up my awareness of my surroundings.
Suddenly, a large man approached me from behind. I whirled around with my hands up. The man quickly backed up, but kept lurking nearby. I decided that the safest place was inside the shop, so I kept knocking.
When they let me in, I had a brief internal struggle with myself about not wanting to make assumptions, but ended up mentioning the man and saying that I’d appreciate someone watching while I walked to my car, in case there was trouble. A large man in an apron said cheerfully, “I’ll be your Bagel Bodyguard!” and walked me to my car.
The next day, we had bagels donated by Santa Cruz Bagelry, which was also in the area where the assaults had occured. Again, early in the morning, I started knocking on the door to get someone to open up. This time as I was waiting, a different man called out from about ten feet away, “Mam, I’d appreciate a quarter so I can get coffee at the 7-11. I’ve got one quarter and I just need one more.” He opened his hand to show me the quarter.
Normally, I don’t like to give money to people on the street because I worry that it might be spent for drugs or alcohol, so I said, “Sorry, no!”
The man very respectfully said, “You have a nice day, anyway.” He sat down on the ground, well away from the entrance.
When I came back outside, the man was still sitting. He smiled at me, but didn’t say anything.
It was cold outside and I appreciated his not asking again, so I said, “Come inside and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
“No,” the man explained, “That’s designer coffee and costs a dollar for a little cup. For just 50 cents, I can get a great big cup at 7-11.”
I walked over to where the man was sitting and gave him the quarter.