How do I act tough on the street?
June 22, 2009 7:10 PM   Subscribe

How do I reduce the amount I'm threatened on the street in an urban environment?

I am a tall, young male, but about one a month on average, I get hassled by people on the street. No one has outright attacked me, but enough people "test" me by blocking my way, lunging at me (pretending to attack), yell at me and challenge me, etc. that it bothers me and makes me nervous.

I'm not so much interested in "how to defend my self"; there's plenty of that kind of material out there. I'm interested in how to not look so weak and nervous -- how to head off attacks before they even begin by projecting a tougher attitude.

For me personally:

* I definitely have some agoraphobia; I feel uneasy when first going out, especially after being cooped up for awhile. I tend to be a hermit on weekends and evenings unless I have something social planned or the weather's especially nice
* I wear glasses (i.e. nerd association)
* I dress nicely, yet sometimes walk through areas that have street people who probably resent the fact that I have money
* I enjoy walking fast, just naturally, but maybe that can be interpreted as being afraid.
* I'm bad at making eye contact

But I hope this thread is useful for people in general who live in rough areas, so please, any general tips are great too.

Things I'm doing or plan to do:

* I am trying to not look down at the ground so much, trying to look straight ahead more
* I really want to get into better shape and join an MMA gym (not just for self-defense, but because martial arts is fun for me, just haven't done it in ages)
* I'm trying to stand up taller and not slouch or hunch my shoulders so much
* Eventually want to get contacts, to look less nerdy and just because glasses are a PITA sometimes

posted by wastelands to Human Relations (47 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: there was an article in Psychology Today recently about this exact topic.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:24 PM on June 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

Really, if you want advice, I'd say act crazy. Talk to yourself, flail a little bit, mumble.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 7:24 PM on June 22, 2009

Can you say what city this is in? I have to admit I'm a little baffled; I've never once had anything like this happen to me and I live in Los Angeles. Are you absolutely positive you've been interpreting events correctly? Are these just random people hassling you? People you know? Homeless people?
posted by Justinian at 7:25 PM on June 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Good posture goes a LONG way toward getting that type of person to leave you alone. Look at people but look completely disinterested.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:27 PM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you're already working on a few fronts. Perhaps also work on how you respond to the hassling. Treat it like (and be) unthreatened as if they're just peers having a bit of fun, as if perhaps some other day you'd join them and hang out, make new friends, but you're on your way someplace. Smile - be friendly instead of fearful.

Projecting a "tough" attitude is going to attract hassling too - it's potentially issuing a challenge, and could also come across as hostile. What you want to project is uninterest borne of self-assurance.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:27 PM on June 22, 2009

I would also like to ask what city/neighborhood this is in, as I've never experienced this.
posted by pravit at 7:31 PM on June 22, 2009

When I lived in Echo Park in LA I used to joke about being OK on the streets as long as I was wearing my Dodger cap. It's a fairly silly notion, but adopting a community's fandom can go a long way towards normalizing yourself within your environs.
posted by carsonb at 7:37 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Wear sunglasses - get prescription if you're not ready for contacts. Also, walking fast is great (as long as you're not sprinting) -- don't let anyone/anything slow you down. If someone gets in your way, just smoothly walk around them and keep on going. Momentum is your friend

Personally, I don't really agree with the "be friendly" advice -- that's just inviting people to engage. You want to pass through these antagonists' environment as quickly and as smoothly as possible. I've found, as a SWF (in the U.S. and other environments where I stood out - think middle of nowhere Cameroon and the Congo) that if I would go about my business with purpose and intent, most people really don't have the energy to truly fuck with you. If you stop or encourage them whatsoever, you're just inviting them into your world, which is not what you want.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 7:39 PM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What you want to project is uninterest borne of self-assurance.Exactly right. "Know" that you will destroy these adversaries, should they decide to impede or infringe on your autonomy. Focus on their necks, not their eyes. The neck is great because it allows you to focus on the body as a whole, and respond quickly. Also because it's a great target (as you probably already know from martial arts). If you look at people as clusters of targets you're already ahead of the game. Groin, knees, neck, eyes. It doesn't hurt to be able to back it up, of course.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:40 PM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

2nding Inspector Gadget. Walk tall, be cool.
posted by zippy at 7:40 PM on June 22, 2009

I was raised in a very (very!) rough area, and was always skinny and short, and appeared to be a victim. I faced the same thing on a nearly daily basis. What seemed to work for me (and I can't say it works for everyone) was I really had to focus on walking in a determined fashion (not rushing, not dawdling) with my chin and eyes UP and looking ahead. If I walked near anyone who seemed to start making a "testing" move, I would make eye contact, smile, and say pretty loudly "How ya doin!" and kept walking. For many people, it threw them off enough they didn't know how to respond. The key was to address them before they addressed me.

If anyone asked about money (supposedly for the bus, etc.) I would immediately chuckle loudly and say "Hey I was gonna ask you the same thing!"

In general, it seems that predators have a script in their head, and if you can subtly disrupt that script, and thus their expectations of you, you have less chance of getting harassed.

Disclaimer: this worked for me (most of the time), but your personality could be totally different. If your smiles or chuckles come across as condescending, mocking, or disrespectful, it might be more trouble. Also, obviously, if someone is genuinely threatening, hand over what they want. Nothing is worth your life or health.

Good luck! I've been there!
posted by The Deej at 7:40 PM on June 22, 2009 [9 favorites]

Best answer: You don't need to act tough. Read that Psych Today article 5_... posted. Read this first google result about command presence.

Staying apart from the fray is mostly posture, awareness, and self-image, not "toughness", or presenting a threat. If random people are rushing you on the street, there's something going on. Good luck to you!
posted by graftole at 7:43 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Are you new to the area? I was very nervous when I initially moved into the city from the suburbs, and there is a period of time where you need to become accustomed to neighborhood and its particular hazards.

Awareness of your surroundings (which also included the places not immediately straight ahead) prevents you from becoming a victim. Look around for other people to walk near. Avoid problem spots like unlit areas in parks, isolated streets with little traffic, vehicle or otherwise, and take wide turns around corners.

Avoid walking by yourself late at night. Even if this means walking near other people heading the same direction you are.

Friendly, casual attitude helps out a lot. Eye contact, head nod. Smile. Keep your hands out of your pockets.
posted by gagoumot at 7:44 PM on June 22, 2009

Totally go with your doing/plan to do list. Everything there sounds like it will help you feel, and therefore be, more confident.

I'm a small woman so my methods of dealing with many-times-a-day harassment in sketchy neighborhoods really won't apply to a young man. Except for this:

STAND UP STRAIGHT. This was literally whacked into me in childhood by nuns and parents so I'm not sure what to recommend for developing it in adulthood. Yoga? Anyway, this is crucial.
posted by dogrose at 7:47 PM on June 22, 2009

I live in DC and fit your physical description. I occasionally walk through rough areas but never get hassled. You hit the nail on the head with what you are working on - walk erect, head up, confident. Making extended eye contact can actually be a bad thing, so look forward. Appear as though you are walking though your own neighborhood. You dont have to look tough or crazy, just confident.
posted by rumsey monument at 7:48 PM on June 22, 2009

nthing be confident & act uninterested.

as a female, i try to be cautious in sketchy areas (and i find it hard to 'act tough' because i am friendly by nature). what seems to work the best for me, in terms of not getting hassled or being approached, is walking along with a disinterested look on my face. it's not an angry look - just sort of a "meh" look. it helps if you look completely comfortable with your surroundings (which can be tough to project if your heart is pounding or you're trying to predict whether Sketchy McSketcherson over there is going to stop you, but you can fake it!).
posted by gursky at 7:59 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In addition to walking with purpose and projecting a "meh" look, you need to be very aware of the space and people around you. As you walk forward, keep your head up and look forward, but sweep the street up ahead of you with your eyes. Be aware of who's passing you and listen for footsteps behind you. If you see someone suspicious, move out of his way or cross the street well before you're in his space.

This is not about being afraid. This is about being aware and in control so you don't feel afraid. After a while, it'll be second nature to you -- simply extending your senses out into your environment, so you can build a picture of what's around you, and what's coming up.
posted by PlusDistance at 8:20 PM on June 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

"... I'm interested in how to not look so weak and nervous -- how to head off attacks before they even begin by projecting a tougher attitude. ..."

Presuming that, for some reason, while you frequent areas where you are being regularly threatened, you prefer, or are unable, to arm yourself (I'd recommend a J Frame and a SmartCarry, but that's another discussion), you might still affect the appearance of a poorly concealed carry weapon, by stuffing a couple of rolls of quarters, taped together inside a small pocket of cardboard, in your jacket or pants pocket, where their asymmetric concentrated weight might look like a small pistol in a carry holster. A surprising number of people will pick up on the new hang of your jacket, or pants, and stand away, or present a side profile (minimum target) as you pass...

And if somebody does call your bluff, which is the main problem with concentrating on appearances, you'll at least have something on your person to ineffectually and ironically throw at them.
posted by paulsc at 8:25 PM on June 22, 2009

Something I thought was really interesting about the directions in the psych today link (that was in the paper magazine but isn't on their website) was the way that they found out who gets targeted - they talked to men who were in prison for robbery and similar charges; they showed them films of people on the street, and asked them to point out who they would victimize, and explain why. They found the patterns that emerged a bit surprising, as some of the people who they would have expected to be targeted were actually avoided. I can dig out the magazine when I get home from work if anyone wants more details.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:34 PM on June 22, 2009

as a female...what seems to work the best for me, in terms of not getting hassled or being approached, is walking along with a disinterested look on my face. it's not an angry look - just sort of a "meh" look.

I was gonna say exactly this. Walk tall, walk briskly, be intent on your destination, but don't appear too impressed or scared or lost in your thoughts. This is my go-to stance when walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood or walking home late at night. On the rare occasion that someone says something to me, I might muster a half eye roll, but I keep walking, and that's the end of it (and I'm at the ready with some [possibly meaningless, but they make me feel good because I'll blind your ass without a second thought] self-defense moves if anyone dares fuck with me).

I'm a girl too, so this might be different for guys. But apparent indifference with a subtext of "I'm gonna f you up if you come near me" can't hurt.
posted by AlisonM at 8:54 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Walk like you own the street: tall, shoulders back, head up, going somewhere, and not too fast.
posted by x46 at 9:04 PM on June 22, 2009

Yeah, let's try to cut the racist undertones here, eh?

I am a half-Asian woman in Bedford Stuyvesant, a traditionally black neighborhood in Brooklyn. When I first moved here from the 'burbs I was literally scared of my neighbors. I just didn't know what to make of them; they were so friendly, they hung out on the street, they always said, "Hey, mama, what's up?" when I passed by.

But you know, then I realized that sounds of cars backfiring really were cars backfiring, and the guys on my old block? I miss them tons. By the time I left we'd sit around for hours talking, drinking, smoking. They were amazing men, good parents, good friends and ... oh yeah. Scary black guys! Big scary black guys who intimidated me when I first met them!

I'm just saying, maybe once you get to a point where you're legitimately not afraid because maybe the people you're running into are actually people and possibly good people and maybe even awesome people ... maybe once you can accept them and not be so nervous, they won't seem intimidating. Indeed, maybe they're not trying to intimidate, and you're misreading their social cues.

I wouldn't know. I've never been a white guy. But in Bed Stuy, Korean counts as white. One night, I was hanging out on my friends' stoop with them, and one of the guys left for awhile. When he came back, he said to me, "You still here, white girl?" And that was cool. He could call me that, and I knew he was being friendly rather than hostile.

Good luck.

*mutters under breath about "thugs" in the "pedro-wagon"*
posted by brina at 9:18 PM on June 22, 2009 [7 favorites]

As a fairly large person who often works in Philly's worst neighborhoods and has been told that he can be pretty intimidating, I would counsel you not to try to look or act tough. It's not what works for me nor what I rely on to get around in the field. It is a great way to get your ass kicked. If you project a vibe that is felt as challenging, someone is eventually going to gladly accept your challenge, and if you are not the kind of person who is actually interested in that kind of interaction, then you should not invite it.

Two words: make friends. Get to know more people in the neighborhood and build your social capital there. Start conversations, get to know names. If someone blocks your way, diffuse the situation by saying something like, "My bad, my bad," smiling and sidestepping the person in question. This is called "de-escalation," which is a common phrase in social work safety trainings, you can google some actual training materials if you want.

There have been times at work when I have had to put a front on that relies on my size to project a sense of willingness to fuck someone up, but these were last ditch efforts in precarious moments when I thought the potential for getting assaulted was real and present. But that's not what we're talking about. You're not in a public housing project lobby full of gang bangers who are eying you all hard. And who knows if that really worked anyway, maybe they were just too blunted to really want to bother fucking with me. Either way, it was a bluff, and if it got called, I would have been in a world of shit.

Fuck you in seven different languages.

Just ignore, we've been over this kind of stuff in AskMe before, how to behave in a poor neighborhood is yet another thing Metafilter does not do very well.
posted by The Straightener at 9:21 PM on June 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

I used to walk half a mile through West Oakland to get to the BART station. I always walked briskly, looked aware, made brief eye contact, in which case many people I passed often responded with a nod or "how ya doin" to which I replied in kind. I avoid eye contact in many situations, generally being a shy person, but I feel better looking people in the eye as I pass them. Plus, it seems sort of rude or passive aggressive not to, which is kind of an invitation for someone to bug you if they feel like it.

That was with people on the street. Neighbors on the porch or driveway I waved to or said Hi.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:44 PM on June 22, 2009

I'm going to call first The Gift of Fear recommendation. As I recall, it doesn't only discuss predicting erratic individuals, but also responding to them.

As for martial arts, many aikido teachers are really good on posture, relaxation, etc. -- all those things that can translate as signals of comfort and belonging.
posted by paultopia at 9:52 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Yeah, let's try to cut the racist undertones here, eh?"

Maybe I missed something, but I didn't see a single mention of race in the question or any of the comments. I think that's an unfair accusation/assumption. People and neighborhoods of any race can be scary if their behavior is scary.

As a woman who works in a rough part of Los Angeles, and hangs out in/has lived in some high-crime areas, my strategy is to a) check the police dept. crime maps online, so I have a realistic appraisal of the neighborhood (rather than just relying on my fear) and b) to act accordingly. For me, this means never walking alone in certain areas, and there are some areas I won't walk through at night even with someone. Obviously this choice is not for everyone, and many people might think I'm being overly cautious, but I prefer "better safe than sorry".
posted by Dilemma at 9:52 PM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

5_13_23_42_69_666, please do post that stuff, I would love to read a summary!

I will second the comments to appear fairly neutral and disinterested. Don't make eye contact, don't stare at the ground, look ahead, as if you are very busy focusing on your journey. You're busy going somewhere, and so familiar with the environment you don't need to check out the people and places you walk by.
posted by Joh at 9:54 PM on June 22, 2009

Maybe I missed something, but I didn't see a single mention of race in the question or any of the comments. I think that's an unfair accusation/assumption. People and neighborhoods of any race can be scary if their behavior is scary.

Yes, you did miss a really obnoxious reference to thugs and race, plus at least one response. The mods in their wisdom took care of that.

I'd just add that the emphasis ought to be on behavior—something that other person has actually done, not what you think they might do because they live in a particular neighborhood or have a particular pigmentation.
posted by dogrose at 10:09 PM on June 22, 2009

"Yes, you did miss a really obnoxious reference to thugs and race, plus at least one response. The mods in their wisdom took care of that."

Oh, that makes more sense then. Here I thought everyone was being all civilized.

I agree that the emphasis should be on behavior, which is why I look up the actual crime data. That way I'm not basing my fear on assumptions or stereotypes (assuming the crime data is reliable, which is another story).
posted by Dilemma at 10:15 PM on June 22, 2009

I am a small shy woman. I have lived and gone to school in some very rough neighborhoods. Fed Ex would not deliver to one neighborhood I lived in. People pretty much considered it their duty to attempt to harass me. What you have to do is walk at a steady clip, keep your eyes ahead, like you are looking a where you are going, and get on with your life. Unless you are a tough guy, don't challenge or engage, just keep moving like you know where you are going and nothing is going to get in your way. Many friends swore that sunglasses were a good idea. Avoid eye contact, but don't be shifty and do not look afraid.
posted by fifilaru at 10:45 PM on June 22, 2009

Best answer: Ah - I found the article. It's here
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:19 PM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Male, slim, average height, live in LA, never been hassled. Then again, I've lived in several European countries, and travel extensively. Rarely have I been hassled, and never attacked. My MO in an iffy area is simple: I adopt a grim expression, and I walk with a definite aim in mind - no dawdling, no looking around etc. unless in a safe area. Grim expression: jaw jutting forward, sharp gaze, slight frown - discourages contact; busy, no fucking time; look as if were you to be addressed, your expression says "can I fucking help you? I'm in a bloody hurry, K, bye!". They move onto another target. Basically, you can't fall into a pattern that they'll recognize - passive, or looking for a fight, or lost, etc. You should look as if you are simply not operating on their plane, and have no intention of agreeing to interact on their terms, period. And - this is important - keep moving, don't stop, even if spoken to, keep walking, shake your head, answer curtly - don't stop when answering. Don't give them time to try and figure you out. Research shows, attackers pick targets they are familiar with - targets they understand, or have experience with. The less time you give them to figure you out, the less likely they'll attack you. Confident, somewhat impatient, moving forward relentlessly (not running though, just very methodically, like a tank on a mission, unstoppable).
posted by VikingSword at 12:03 AM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Totally what gursky said.

I used to live in a rough, if not the roughest, neighborhood of Osaka. From time to time, by chance I'd enter the yakuza-run brothel street, Tobita Shinchi. Or in Kyoto, Gojo Rakuen, a yakuza enclave a few feet from the city's touristy center. Nothing remotely in English honestly describes these areas or I'd post links. In both cases mamasan or yakuza conveyed the "keep the fuck out" message. The mamasan yelled at me and the yakuza stared.

I soon learned that if I walked at a pace neither fast nor slow with a "don't fuck with me" scowl, I'd be fine. I added "I'm in a hurry to get where I'm going" scowl later on and slowed down my walk even further to perfect the look. It worked.

The scowls also protected me from most (but not all) sexual assaults in Japan, perpetrated by and large by middle class men with status. I wish I had perfected scowling sooner.

Anyway, for women, the key is to look like you've got reason to be wherever you are and to cultivate a "don't fuck with me" scowl. Don't walk fast, don't take your time, but if you had to choose one or the other, I'd say swagger a bit. This is easier for some women than others.

So far this strategy has worked for me in Philly too so I might be on to something.

But you sound like a guy so I don't know that my advice is relevant.
posted by vincele at 12:58 AM on June 23, 2009

I used to work on Haight St. in San Francisco for 5 years. Walking down the street on a daily basis I had to run the gauntlet of drug addicts, panhandlers, homeless, psychos, etc. (usually some combination of all of those things). While most would just beg for change some, especially the younger transient park dwellers, would be a bit more aggressive when asking for money.

So over that period of time I developed a way of walking down the street that pretty much kept people off my back. I would walk with an absolute purpose to wherever I was going. If asked for change I would either say nothing and continue walking or let out the most curt 'No' possible while still walking at the same pace. On top of that I would have a rather unpleasant scowl on my face. I didn't look angry or like I wanted to fight anyone. But I had a definite look that I didn't want to be bothered.

To this day I still walk down the street in the same way. I've even had friends say they saw me but didn't feel like bothering me because I looked like I wasn't interested in talking to anyone.

I will also confess that I am 6'6" and until a year ago had a shaved head. I suppose if you didn't know me I might look intimidating. However, when I was younger, and still very tall, I would occasionally get bothered on the street. I think my attitude back then was totally different as I hadn't been "hardened" by working on a street full of homeless and drug addicts.

So essentially I'm Nthing everything said above. Walk with a purpose. Don't stop to talk with anyone. Look like you belong there. Shave your head.
posted by Sandor Clegane at 1:22 AM on June 23, 2009

There was a UK documentary that screened in Australia recently - damned if I can remember the name, but maybe it'll prompt somebody else - that might be of interest if you can find it online.

They had a bunch of people motion-captured while walking. They played the very simple stick figures to actual felons and trained martial artists and asked: "Which of these people would you mug?" They all picked the same person, who turned out to be somebody who is beaten regularly. I'm no mugger, but even I could tell from the stick figure that this person was easy pickings - head down, small shuffling steps, arms in and across the body etc. They also asked who they wouldn't choose to mug, and it was always somebody who stood up straight, head high, arms free swinging, a bit of a swagger - somebody who looked like they weren't afraid.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:08 AM on June 23, 2009

Not sure if this would help or get your phone stolen from you.. but growing up in Brooklyn where in the 5 blocks between the train station and my parent's apartment I'd get hassled by old men at night asking if I take it up the butt, or followed for a block by guys who are just hanging out waiting for their drug dealer... I noticed that if I was on the phone and walked fast they were way less likely to bother me. I guess they saw I was busy and really would not care what they had to say. Sometimes I would call a friend and just be like, I'm walking and it's scary - talk to me, and other times I just pretended to be on the phone if I saw a large group of guys a block ahead.

But I'm a girl, and cell phones are fancier now, so it might not apply to you, or might just get your iPhone stolen.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 5:12 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Skinny male here, big glasses, I'd like to second standing tall and put on a good poker face, seriously. I used to get harassed a few times a month walking down the street. For some reason in the past year it's just, stopped. I think it has a little to do with my look of not putting up with any of that anymore. Maybe.
posted by Sreiny at 6:07 AM on June 23, 2009

* I enjoy walking fast, just naturally, but maybe that can be interpreted as being afraid.

That's an important point, right there.

I love the advice on the Positivity Blog:

11. Slow down a bit – this goes for many things. Walking slower not only makes you seem more calm and confident, it will also make you feel less stressed. If someone addresses you, don’t snap you’re neck in their direction, turn it a bit more slowly instead.
posted by General Tonic at 7:07 AM on June 23, 2009

General Tonic is on to something, but I'm not sure that "slowing down" is the answer exactly. I think that the most important part is that there is a difference between a hurried gait and a determined pace. Play with the difference. When coupled with the indifference described above (perfect the "withering glance" - once you can nonverbally communicate that "i'd roll my eyes, but you aren't even worth that level of energy" you're there), your determined gait will convey to people that you shouldn't be trifled with.

I live in a neighborhood of Philly where several friends work. They are always posting things on Facebook to describe the random things that happen to them while walking to work - things that I can imagine happening...but not to me. Mostly, they are dawdlers. And I think the added time it takes them to mosey down the street probably makes them a slower moving target. But I also suspect that if they were racing down the street it might inspire unwanted attention also.

Good for you for having the "it's not you, it's me" talk with your city. If more citydwellers took that approach, we'd all be happier.
posted by greekphilosophy at 7:47 AM on June 23, 2009

I live on the east side of los angeles, and I guess this happens from time to time to me...but I really wouldn't think much of it..Its mostly people messing with you cause you seem out of place. Really trying to look one way or another, or pretending to be tough is a sure route to people wanting to try to take you down from that high horse.

I grew up skateboarding in the worst neighborhoods across the country, and anytime we ran into trouble we were just cool with them and pretty much talked ourselves out of I guess just keeping that in mind I try not to worry about and go on with my day.
posted by mattsweaters at 9:27 AM on June 23, 2009

I wear glasses, am very skinny, and pretty short, and I walk wicked fast. People usually don't give me shit on the streets. You just need more self-confidence I'm guessing. I do not look like a bad-ass in the least, but I also probably don't look like i'd put up with someones shit. Walk like you have a purpose.

I live in Toronto. Maybe people are just better behaved here.
posted by chunking express at 10:20 AM on June 23, 2009

I noticed that if I was on the phone and walked fast they were way less likely to bother me.

From one of the articles suggested earlier upthread, they suggest that talking on a cell phone is harmful:
Distraction is another cue criminals look for. Some people think talking on a cell phone enhances their safety because the other person can always summon help if there's trouble—but experts disagree. Talking on a phone or listening to an iPod is a distraction, and armed robbers are casting about for distracted victims. "Not paying attention, looking like a tourist—having the map out, looking confused—absolutely makes people more vulnerable," Burke says.
posted by funkiwan at 11:01 AM on June 23, 2009

Response by poster: Update: I practiced walking more confidently today: standing tall; looking straight ahead, not down; walking at a determined but not fast pace; etc.

It went really well! People moved out of my way much more than normal and I felt more confident.

I think the problem was that I was just not taking walking in the city seriously. I'd daydream and stare at the ground and generally not walk purposefully.

Anyway, thanks everyone!
posted by wastelands at 6:04 PM on June 23, 2009

I've heard (second hand, but apparently originally from a junkie who mugged people) that walking with your headphones on is a good way to get yourself mugged - not only are you somewhat distracted & mostly unable to hear what's going on around you, the headphones also signify that you probably have at least *something* of value worth taking (whereas a completely random victim might only have a few bucks in their wallet).
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:29 PM on June 23, 2009

Best answer: Something else that might not have been mentioned: footwear.

I know that I feel a hell of a lot more relaxed & confident walking dark streets in a pair of steel-toecapped doc martens than in a pair of leather-soled cuban heels.

If I were hassling or mugging people, I'd probably similarly look out for those whose footwear makes them unable to run fast, and easier to get off balance, or off their feet altogether. Steelcaps would make me think twice, for sure.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:40 PM on June 23, 2009

And one final one: I walk quite fast, habitually chew gum, and in a millisecond can do this eyelids-wide-open kinda glaring thing, with a net result that makes me look pretty much like I am completely fucking psychotic and/or on meth - possibly enough to make people think twice.

That might be a bit like a magic stone that keeps tigers away, but occasionally, people I know will say "What's up with you? You look totally deranged!"

"Oh, I must be doing that thing with my eyes; was just thinking about something..."
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:00 PM on June 23, 2009

I am a smallish (5'4") male, 47 years old, living in north Minneapolis. Crime central.

I have only once been messed with since moving here in 1992, and that time, I was shot at ... so it was gonna happen no matter how "tough" I looked.

I tend to walk rapidly and with purpose. I am not especially muscular or tough-looking; I wear glasses (thick nerd glasses). I am always confident (not on purpose, born that way).

I have wondered whether facial hair / maturity has anything to do with it, but when I moved here in '92 I was 31 years old, no hair facial or otherwise, and walked with a pronounced limp due to an injury that lasted a long time. I even spent some time in a wheelchair.

I think it's the confidence thing. You can get some confidence by being physically active; go climb some rocks or ride your bike. That's my 2 pennies worth.
posted by dwbrant at 6:37 AM on June 25, 2009

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