What are “street smarts”? Street smarts, to me, are simply how one carries oneself outside of one´s home. They are a sub-system of common-sense and the ability to think logically, rationally, pragmatically, sometimes under varying scales of duress, tension, stress, and conflict. I´m going to give a brief overview from the perspective of someone living abroad, in Central America, in a middle-to-lower-class neighborhood here in Costa Rica. There are certain elements that go into making one “street smart.” Let´s take a look at just some of those:
- The criminal element within that particular environment. How is the crime in the neighborhood. Is it high, what types of crimes are most common, are there drugs and parties, do they target foreigners. These are some of the questions one needs to ask oneself and, seeing as we´re discussing “smarts” – how to avoid the above, not how to best engage within them. Here, through the neighborhood “watch” program and the private channel that locals engage in the community to keep all members abreast, we´ve come to realize some examples of those things listed above:
- Crack is a problem here and a number of locals one sees daily working within the community are involved and under the effects on an addictive level.
- Home invasions are also an element that are present here on the micro-level of the neighborhood.
- Robberies via scooter or motorcycle have occurred at various points with some frequency as well.
- Brandishing weapons during those robberies or random criminal interactions as well – both guns and knives.
Learning to identify the difference between a resource predator and a process one can also greatly help with understanding context and the whys and for whats of given circumstances. Resource predators are actors and agents who engage in crime out of necessity, whether (for instance) poverty, desperation, need, or pressure. Process predators enjoy the process, whether that process be control, dominance, adrenaline, or simply joy. Resource, here, generally aim to acquire that resource with as little chaos or problems as possible without finding themselves in a amok of potential trouble while doing so. High-success, minimal-risk, in-and-out, low-potential for identification, and as little “mess” as possible. Process are generally more dangerous as they´re willing to take greater risks to accomplish their goal, they don´t always need or even want resources, and there´s a status involved – the thrill of the actual act itself.
So finding out the sources of local crime and knowing when they´ve taken place is a rather invaluable knowledge tool for avoiding them. Staying informed and keeping tabs on things and how to go about preventing and mitigating them is imperative to that avoidance.
2. The comment above introduces our second point – engaging with the surrounding community or environment. The neighborhood watch, small business owners, respected people within the community all keeps one informed on the above and some of the others that will follow. Being an upstanding decent member of the community allows for information to transfer that could be invaluable to staying safe. Talk to people, engage with locals, support local business, get to know the daily members of the environment that will trust you – legitimately, not as a ploy – and trust you enough to share valuable information about the goings-on in the community you live or the environment you frequent, whether it be for work, errands, resources, or supplies.
3. The above does not usually occur without the idea of blending. We´ve talked about the “grey man” but this is more than that. As a white North American with imperfect Spanish and blue eyes, “going grey” fully is simply not a proposition for me so I do my best to blend into whatever environment – or class – I happen to be traveling in at that required time. Dressing-down, not wearing jewelry or any accessories that will draw attention, no high-quality colognes or smells, carrying only the cash I may need for that specific excursion. Taking the opportunity to speak to the locals in their language. Being humble, respectful, and empathetic instead of the stereotype so many have come to resent alleviates a ton of attention and negative feedback – especially within a small, tight-knit, recognizant community. I stand out like a sore thumb regardless but I am able to mitigate or control some of that of my own doing and make myself “as innocuous as possible.”
4. Criminal tactics. In the wider national sense, certain areas have come to be known for specific gimmicks to take advantage of unsuspecting travelers.
- Placing tacks or spikes on the road so that tires are blown or flattened. When the driver gets out to check on the tire, one member of the “team” offers to help change the tire while the other cleans out the backseat, passenger-seat, and/or trunk. Note they pick specific targets to accomplish this – lone motorists, women, novice drivers – people that will be an easy mark for multiple participants. (move to a different location prior to repair, a populated area, a business, or a shop that can repair the tire, lock the doors, keep someone in the car with those doors locked, firmly refuse assistance)
- Unsuspecting tourists who want to dip their feet in the ocean for the first time upon seeing the ocean are often met with having their tech (computers, cells), cameras, passports, travel money, credit cards, and identity cards taken by waiting locals who know where that first gorgeous ocean view is coming from the airport and in various touristic havens across the country. It has happened to a number of our guests already and it makes for a rather time-consuming annoyance when one already has limited time on holiday. (Take your valuables with you, keep someone in the vehicles and take turns, go to a secondary, more inauspicious location, stop where you have immediate access to the vehicle)
- At the top of the hill in our barrio to get to the main street, it´s known as a somewhat uncontrolled intersection where extended wait times and unsafe inability to cross lanes or traffic or merge into traffic-flow is part of the joy of driving. Inevitably, it´s a funnel, a bottleneck where there is simply nowhere to go. Recently a group of two or three young men take that disadvantage of immobility to throw rocks through the car windows and make a quick-grab of anything valuable in the front passenger seat while simultaneously shocking and freezing the victim, whose mind is already with full attention on the rather auspicious traffic and somewhat chaotic driving found here. This “smash-and-grab” is also done with two people on a motorcycle while rush-hour traffic builds on the main roads and knowing that pursuit or engagement is nigh impossible with the bumper-to-bumper situation often present. (Here´s where pattern-alteration is applicable. We talk so much about changing patterns but the circumstances given don´t match-up with the risk presented. I don´t alter my patterns because I feel people are constantly monitoring my behavior, tailing me, or have me under surveillance. I alter them because of specific incidents – tangible incidents – I´d prefer to avoid and have already been confirmed to be happening. Most of us aren´t Jason Bourne so a constant behavioral change often isn´t necessary)
- Stolen manhole covers can be both valuable on the black-market and used as a set-up to blow tires or cause accidents while that vehicle is then stolen from a frustrated or time-restrained driver. (pay attention to “home-made” holes or ruts in the road, keep your head about you if you break-down, and don´t neglect to stay attentive should it happen)
- Home invasions occur from social-media announcements, geotagging, GPS locations given freely on the Internet. Remember, almost everyone has instant access to the Internet and social-media now – it´s not an upper- or middle-class-only game any longer. It costs as low as $10-15 here to have monthly access, which means that as easily as you log in, so to do street gangs, lower-class denizens, and the criminal element. (don´t geo-tag, announce when you´re going out for the night or on vacation, post your GPS location)
The ”street smarts” aspect comes not only in being aware of these tactics but coming up with contingency plans to either avoid, evade, mitigate, or neutralize the tactic itself.
5. Identification. Knowing who has what role in the street community. As we live in a 3rd-World country, everybody does what they do to get about, some of it honest, some of it not. There are what´s called “watchimen” who offer to watch your car while you´re in somewhere running errands or obtaining resources. They most often don´t ´really´ watch your car and certainly aren´t going to be proactive should something – or someone – happen to it, it costs fifty cents or less for their trouble and they have been known the key or scratch your car as it´s driving away if you ignore them. Sometimes their presence and alert is enough for the criminal element to avoid them. They can be your friend or foe and for a handful of change it doesn´t pay to find out which one. There are street hustlers who “perform” for the crowd at red lights or traffic jams. Indigent people begging for change at intersections. And a sometimes very subtle criminal element that operates by blending into these elements. Knowing which one is which can be identified by clothing, type of conversation, where they´re situated, and the activities – or lack thereof – they´re doing while all this is going on. It´s not easy but immersion and experience often give valuable tells if you´re paying attention. IF you´re paying attention. This would also include paying attention to markings on buildings, graffiti, subliminal-messaging within the environment. Gangs and gang members have certain hand signals here, distinguishing marks they use to identify gang territory, signs in graffiti, and clearly-marked territory – again, if paying attention.
6. Situational vs. environmental awareness. Note that we´ve distinguished between these two before. Situational is the interaction with other humans and the scenarios we find ourselves in pertinent to those other humans. Environmental is the overall perception of what is going on in the physical space around or peripheral to you. It pays to make that distinction as the environment and the humans interacting within it present two rather different and unique challenges. Notice also that the context and emotions of those two interacting can be a rather complex interaction that leads to multi-levels of understanding in terms of what exactly is going on around you.
7. Time. I rarely, if ever, go out after dark unless it´s for my own required resources out of need – children´s or family medication, supplies for the bed-and-breakfast, emergencies, etc. and NEVER without a car. After dark my profile stands out even more for opportunists to take advantage of. I´ve learned this the hard way at times when stalked, followed, called-out, or threatened but that´s also an element of the learning curve and street smarts – through that experience, immersion, environmental-understanding I add to my street smarts repertoire through experiences that fine-tune or hone it. Making micro errors is part of the learning curve, making macro ones can be hard to bounce back from, as some recent tourist deaths have highlighted while walking alone, off the beaten path, at night thinking they were in the familiar environment and not this one, have demonstrated. Trauma, psychological/mental/emotional damage, even death can occur. Knowing which are the micro and which are the macro is a sometimes quite nuanced but achievable – and absolutely invaluable.
8. Bribe stops. Police will often have “random” stops to check for any plethora of things like drinking-and-driving, license authenticity, if proper equipment for emergency stops is adhered to, all in the guise of getting a little something from locals or a little something more from perceived rich foreigners. There are very often different prices for foreigners than for nationals and that staggered pricing has caused tension in both communities from time-to-time. Knowing where discourse and negotiation is applicable, where posturing and projection are, acquiescing, and where silence is bloody golden is an art-form and not always so clear to the uninitiated. Law enforcement here is not nearly always your friend. They have been known to bribe, steal evidence at crime scenes, go easier on nationals than foreigners, look the other way in traffic infractions, and inaccurately fill out crime reports for personal benefit. This is not to say all, certainly, but to point out that it is a rather prevalent thing here.
9. Carrying oneself. What do you want to project to the attentive public and doting criminal-element. We hear things like “walk confidently”, “a fast pace shows them you mean business and are location-focused”, “walk with intention and never show fear.” These are all great but they also neglect to acknowledge context, that great magical pie-in-the-sky theory where every theory delves from. I´ve found that sometimes a deeply-aware, slow gait, confident posture can be every bit as effective as a ultra-focused, fast-paced, intentioned one can be, depending on circumstance. How is your body positioned? Curved, ready to pounce like a cat, lithe, and ready? Straight-up, stiff, rigid in anticipation of worst-case scenario? Are “submissive postures” a potential benefit while briefly stationary? Is clothing concealment a benefit or a hindrance? Are any weapons easily accessible or within reach, or hidden in a place where instant access is an impossibility? There is way to carry oneself that is applicable to circumstances, and sometimes those circumstances can change suddenly. Remember that nothing is carved in stone, there´s never a single way to do a thing – and do it successfully, and context is always the guiding light behind the why and for what that we do, when we do it, what we do within that context, and where it´s applicable.
10. Traffic. Driving here is sometimes an adventure at best. “Rules of engagement” are sometimes simply recommendations as much as rules themselves. We have had a reputation as one of the worst driving countries in the world in the past. There is no driver´s education, law enforcement sometimes is very laissez-faire in enforcing conduct and infractions, and quality is not something regularly found. Accepted protocols and gestures are very different than in Canada and North America. Gestures, symbolism, and subliminal-movements mean different, more unpredictable things here than there. And a simple middle-finger has gotten people shot on more than one occasion since I´ve lived here. Defensive-driving is not just a “good idea” but paramount for a multitude of reasons. Accidents are negotiations as so few have vehicular insurance and on-the-spot payoffs avoid more expensive legal-entanglements. Standstill traffic is often an opportunity for the criminal element or opportunist to take advantage of. Advertising on the vehicle with macho, testosterone-driven bumper-stickers often puts a target square on one´s back either due to the fact it reveals money, demonstrates there are things of value in the vehicle, or that you have an elitist, entitled attitude that makes robbery a higher-alternative to frontal engagement. Do not showcase your wares or take away your advantage of concealment, learn how to play “the game”, and minimize your exposure to circumstances that will not end favorable to you.
11. Be calm. I know, easier said than done. But quick decisions, cognitive coherence, highest-percentage problem-solving, come from calm, not panic. Maintain your composure. Breathe. Nothing happens in a vacuum and there are always tells and give-aways to the perceptive mind. Being hyper-vigilant draws unnecessary attention, taxes the physiological system, and forces one to see threats everywhere – even when they´re not there. Remember, notice what´s there, don´t self-create what´s not.
12. After all this reconnaissance, plan ahead with making a solid mission-statement on what precautions you´d take and how you´d handle some of these incidents or avenues when they happen. It´s never too early to assess potential occurrences and go through fail-safes, alternate options, or pre-planning methods of management should you be faced with them.
13. Set personal biases, stereotypes, and arrogance aside, as much as is possible outside of heuristics and your own relatable and pertinent experience(s). In new environments you simply don´t know what you don´t know. Not everything is transferable, but everything is context-dependent and you will not always know the context in unfamiliar arenas. Listen, engage, learn the difference of when to do one over the other, be attentive (I did not say paranoid), learn, and leave your mind open. There´s nothing worse for taking away common sense than transferring everything you think you know to another totally different unknown. Walking in with previous established perceptions and biases. Assuming. Becoming one of the stereotypes. Misunderstanding your place in the matrix. And, as a close friend of mine always states, talking when you should´ve been listening. (take that both literally and metaphorically)
Street smarts – common sense – delve from experience, experiences, immersion, exposure, and a host of other perceptual filters that contribute to “upping survivability-quotient” and making daily seamless decisions that keep one safe. There´s not a one-stop shop for becoming proficient at being smart on the street – it´s an accumulation of the above over time, understanding, and learning intimately one´s environment, whatever that environment may be. Making smart decisions, keeping emotion as far removed as possible from those decisions, making the highest-percentage calls on problem-solving that leaves all saving face and with as much of a win-win result as possible, and knowing your limitations – an often under-valued acknowledge that keeps ego, pride, and biases at-bay, or at least minimized under some semblance of control.
*Note this is a microcosm of being “street-smart” and not at all comprehensive as one could write a book on this. It is simply one perspective to open the door of possibility from a micro-environment in which a single person lives.