Someone tried to rob me the other day.
It’s not a big surprise. In fact, in a town like Addis, the only surprise is that it’s taken two months. Addis is a safe city- safe from violent crime against expatriates, particularly. But it’s notorious for petty theft, especially in some parts of town. Not so much my part- but that’s probably because my part is boring, and there aren’t many expatriates. In fact the only crime round my neighbourhood I’ve witnessed, I rocked up at my local bakery after a thief had just lifted 70 Birr (about $4) from the till, much to the despondency of the girl behind the counter.
I was walking back from lunch with my wife, about 200 yards left to get back to my apartment. There was a young guy, early twenties probably, in a football shirt and jeans, talking animatedly on his cell-phone against the wall. As we got closer he walked over to a car parked beside him, a buddy in the front seat, and leant against it, facing away from us and still talking. Then, as we drew level, he spat, smattering gobs of saliva all over my pant legs. I stepped away from him, and he looked up, swearing in English and instantly apologetic, and as I walked away, pulled out a kleenex and energetically offered to clean my pant legs.
The game’s a pretty simple one, when you know what to look for. Young and slightly uncouth Ethiopian male accidentally spits on foreign white guy walking past. Foreign white guy is disgusted. Ethiopian apologizes profusely and offers to wipe off the offending spittle, and while doing so, helps himself to the contents of white guy’s pockets. The beauty of it is that the initial emotional shock of being spat on overcomes any warning signs about letting a stranger on the street get close, and the natural revulsion of somebody else’s spit on your clothing is comfortable letting somebody else- the offender- deal with it.
When you think about it, the psychology is really quite elegant.
I’m not sure at what point I knew I was being set up. There was a brief second where I, too, was revulsed, and sidestepped but kept walking. Another brief second where I was perfectly happy to write it off as an accident. About five paces on I turned to watch the guy pull out his convenient kleenex to wipe down my legs, knew what was up, and kept walking away without taking my eyes off him, ignoring his requests to clean me off except to say ‘no thank you’. He gave up when we were fifty yards further down the road, and I pointed out to my wife a moment later what had just happened.
I’m naturally suspicious. Almost anywhere. Particularly on the street, and particularly in third-world countries where I know I’m a higher profile target than on a street populated by other white guys like me. So my situational awareness is generally ratched up pretty high. I’d been given a security briefing probably two months ago that listed a bunch of different robbery setups that went on in the city, and although I’d forgotten about this particular variant until it actually started to happen, the moment it did it must have triggered the memory and tripped me into alert mode. Even if it hadn’t, though, I doubt I’d have let the guy come up to me. I’m not usually prone to letting strangers get within touching distance unless we’re just passing on the sidewalk, and even then I’m watching like a hawk. Even in Melbourne.
With the benefit of hindsight, the clues are there in the setup. The guy on the phone is already on my radar as I approach. First, simply because he’s a guy, and I’m going to be getting close to him, so I’m watching, just because. All the moreso because he’s in that late-teens to twenties age-bracket, which is where you’ll find a lot of street crime. Second, because he’s noticed me. He’s on the phone, which makes him a little innocuous, gives him an excuse to casually cast around as though he’s not actually looking at anything but is actually focused on the phone call (again, nice psychology). But the fact is, I’ve seen him look up, and look away again, and I’m aware I’ve been noticed.
Now come the pieces that ought to start raising flags. First off, we’re on a stretch of the street between the main road and a construction site, so a ways from other people. It’s broad daylight, and there’s buildings a hundred yards to the front and the back, so it’s not dangerous- just has a little more isolation, and he’s perfectly situated halfway down this stretch. Second, he’s standing ten feet from a car, passenger door open, a buddy behind the wheel. Obviously, when you know the setup, so that they can make a quick getaway once the lift has been made. But, who stops at the side of a city street to talk on the phone when they’ve got a buddy driving them? Sure, you can come up with suggestions, and some of them will be valid. The point is, it’s a little unusual. And when you’re talking security, and situational awareness, unusual is the point where you start asking more questions.
Now the guy crosses the sidewalk to be next to the car, right before I reach him. It lets him turn away for a moment so that the spit can seem accidental, so that he’s looking away from me when he does it. He’s also hoping that I’ll stop right there, maybe berate him a little so that he can look contrite as he offers to wipe me clean. Point is, he’s keeping by the open door of the car. Ready to bolt if it goes wrong, or move once he’s been through the pockets.
And then the spit. And there, too, you have the unusual. There are places where spitting is commonplace. French West Africa, for example. You can’t walk a hundred yards down the street without hearing somebody hock a spatter onto the sidewalk. Ethiopia’s not like that. People don’t spit that often on the streets. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. But it’s not endemic like it is in other places. So again, you’re asking the question ‘why’.
Finally, the convenient kleenex. By now the play is well and truly underway. Sure, plenty of people might have a bit of tissue wadded up in their pockets. But you’ve just spat on somebody. If you’re a regular, healthy sort of person, right about now you’re probably feeling sick to your stomach. Guaranteed it’s going to take a good five or ten seconds before it occurs to you that you just happen to have something in your pocket to clean it off, even longer than that to decide you want to get within arms reach of somebody who’s probably contemplating knocking your block off for being disgusting. To have it out within a couple of seconds and offering to wipe the offending spit off within a couple of seconds? Just a little bit too much eagerness going on.
Situational awareness as relates to personal security is both a conscious and a subconscious thing. Conscious, in that you make a decision to watch and observe, to stay alert, to track for anything unusual. Body language. Things out of place. People changing track to move towards you. There’s a host of different signs and triggers to be watching for, which you can identify in part through training, in part through experience, in part through instinct. Unconscious, in that putting it all together in your brain to trigger a warning sometimes happens without you being aware of it.
Professionals tell you that the key to situational awareness is mindfulness- being aware, and being in the right-here right-now, not letting the brain drift. It’s a skill, a technique, akin to some types of meditation. It’s being able to identify something that’s a little off, track that something, but not lose focus on a dozen other somethings at the same time, just in case that first something is merely there to attract attention. It’s letting the conscious mind pick up a dozen different points of interest in half a minute, and let each one slide by as it reveals itself as harmless, and keep repeating that in subsequent right-heres and right nows. It’s about constantly updating your next step, your ten-second plan, should one of those somethings turn out to be real.
If there’s one tip I’ve always given when I’ve been giving security briefs or training on personal security, it’s never to ignore the gut reaction. The human brain is a phenomenally complex, highly adapted organ designed first and foremost to help you survive. It has evolved over millenia to identify potential risk factors, process them, and help you act to survive. Many of those processes are embedded deep in the subconscious. For example, studies have demonstrated that people produce micro-expressions- brief changes in facial muscles that unavoidably communicate intent, that last only fractions of a second. The subconscious brain can read those signals even while the conscious mind may not see anything happen on the fact because it’s all too quick. Likewise, a brain that is constantly scanning and feeding raw data to the subconscious may pick up a series of clues you didn’t even realise were there and have them pieced together. The fear reaction this subconscious processing produces is easy to subdue or dismiss as irrational. However being able to listen to a warning siren in the brain may give you just enough time to avoid something bad coming your way.
In my case, I was scanning and aware, without realising that I was about to be targeted until it actually happened. However, somewhere between the deliberate decision to be mindfully aware, my brain picking up the various pieces of data it was observing, and my memory of the security brief that I had ‘forgotten’ from my conscious mind, everything fitted together to set off an alarm-bell in my head within a couple of seconds of what could have been easily interpreted as a natural accident, or overwhelmed me with fluster before I could work out what was happening. As it was, I felt an almost immediate sense that things were not okay, reacted to that by putting distance between myself and the would-be thieves, gave my conscious brain the time to work out what was happening, and avoided the whole situation. The only casualty? My pants went straight in the wash.
Why am I sharing this? Well, I guess, if you come across this scam in the future you’ll know to avoid it. But really, it’s to encourage you to mindfulness. Be aware of what’s going on around you. Listen to that gut feeling, don’t drown it out or supress it, but encourage it. Above all, stay safe.
How about you guys? I’m sure many of you- whether you work in the aid world, whether you travel, or whether going about your daily lives- have had moments where, for reasons that may not have been immediately clear at the time, alarm-bells went off and it helped you avoid a harmful or unpleasant situation. I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.