How do you handle confrontation with strangers?
May 23, 2020 11:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm not a confrontational person, but sometimes it seems necessary. How do you approach and handle this? Details below the fold.

I'm female and have a small child. Since having my kid, I've found myself in situations where I want to defend the child/stand up for something but also want to avoid confrontation--both because I am not confrontational, and because I don't want to expose my kid to that. An example is a park. Where I live, regional parks are open if social distancing is maintained, and dogs are required to be on leash (as a dog that doesn't come when the owner calls means the owner might have to break social distancing). My toddler likes to walk around and pick up sticks and leaves (as most toddlers do!) Bub is not waving or shouting or anything, but just toddling about with me or my partner nearby. We've had numerous incidents of larger dogs (40-60 pounds) approaching my child and trying to grab their stick. This has been the dog charging my child, leaping with an open mouth and bared teeth, and running in circles around my child. I am a dog owner and dog lover but find this completely unacceptable, COVID or no. Half of the time the owner gives a halfhearted apology and says "oh, they're really a very shy dog but just want your child's stick" and the other half they're in their own world, don't apologize, perhaps looking at their phone or talking to someone else (i.e., not at all paying attention to their dog that is not under voice control). I respond to the situation by guarding my child, picking them up, walking away, shooing the dog, etc., but have not asked an owner to put the dog on a leash, etc. I understand there are longer-term actions I can take like contacting Parks and Rec to ask for stricter enforcement of the leash regulation. But how do I manage this in the immediate term? When I have seen others ask people to put their dog on leash, it's turned into a shouting match. I'd like to avoid that.

NB: This is just one example of a time when I'd like to speak up but don't. Responses to this specific example are fine, but I'd also appreciate any broader advice for handling these sorts of situations. I should add that generally in a professional context, I am happy to speak up if something needs addressing--it's more in my personal life that I turn away from conflicts with strangers. If I can think of other examples, I'll try to post again in the comments. Thanks.
posted by stillmoving to Human Relations (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Give them hell! This is totally unacceptable! Tell them they need to maintain better control over their dog and they need to train it better so that it does not approach children. (I'd probably be screaming at them if I were in the park with my grandchildren and this happened.) How the hell are you supposed to know the dog doesn't mean any harm?
posted by mareli at 11:57 AM on May 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

You could speak up to the stranger and then walk away immediately if they react badly. It only becomes a shouting match if both people stand there shouting.

The recommended way to confront people is to stick to indisputable facts ("your dog is off leash and my child is scared") and minimize opinions ("your dog is scary and could hurt my child, and it is irresponsible to have the dog off leash"). Also, work to maintain a neutral calm tone of voice.

However, even after doing that, there is no guarantee they will react well.

I would advocate that you speak up anyway, and accept that some people will be a jerk in return. Currently your child is learning that enduring danger is better than risking any displeasure from others.

It is worth speaking up, because it may lead the other person to act more responsibly with their dog (even if they get defensive initially) and it teaches your child to speak up.
posted by cheesecake at 12:05 PM on May 23, 2020 [28 favorites]

I have to do this sometimes but as a teacher, not a parent. I'm also female and I've had to confront men on my own. Just like cheesecake, I stick to a neutral, polite tone. Almost monotone. Sometimes people try to escalate, but I find that maintaining a neutral politeness makes it really hard for them to raise the conflict level and protects me and the children under my care.

In your specific example, my script would be something like: Please put your dog on a leash so that my child will stop feeling scared. If the other person tries to make excuses I would repeat in some way: My child doesn't understand that your dog wants their stick and is feeling unsafe now. Please put your dog on leash to help my child feel safe at the park. If they refuse, I agree that I would walk away. I might say: My child isn't feeling safe around your dog so we are going to go away now. Please consider putting your dog on a leash in the future. If they do comply, I'd say: Thank you for being considerate of my child's feelings and enabling us to play safely at the park. The lesson here is that sometimes people don't respond to our requests and sometimes they do, but here's how to do it. I've used the dog incident as an example, but I've followed this kind of 'script' in different scenarios. I think of it as a kind of firm, but relentlessly polite wall of boundaries that scatters rudeness. (Of course, you might not agree that you should do it this way!)
posted by mkdirusername at 12:44 PM on May 23, 2020 [14 favorites]

What's good about mkdirusername's script is that it keeps it about you. It's not them, it's you. It's about you and your perceptions and your needs. Keeping it about you helps keep people from getting defensive/escalating.
posted by aniola at 1:17 PM on May 23, 2020

I walk a pair of elderly, tiny dogs on leash, and I know how it feels when a strange, off-leash dog suddenly runs up on you.

Now, I must acknowledge that these days, I clearly present as "old lady" and that may give me an edge with this approach ... but I've had some luck with acting absolutely panicked. When I start at level 11 with near-tears and fear-filled, quavering voice, it seems to almost force the other party to be calmer and more reasonable in an effort to calm ME down.

"Oh, my gosh!! Is that your dog?? He... he... he scared me to DEATH!"

"Oh, don't worry, he's harmless..."

"But how could I KNOW THAT? He came out of nowhere, teeth bared, running so fast, and he's so big, and my little dogs would be a SNACK for him! What if he'd knocked me down?! I could have been hurt so badly. Isn't he supposed to be on a leash? Why would you let him SCARE people like that?"

And remember, this is all shrieked in a can-barely-catch-my-breath tone that reads "abject terror," not anger or admonishment. More often than not, I get apologies and promises to do better. Sometimes I even attract allies from nearby, who readily step in to handle the confrontation on my behalf while I whimper.

Yeah, it's a bit disingenuous. But you play the cards you're dealt.
posted by peakcomm at 2:29 PM on May 23, 2020 [14 favorites]

Oh, I feel you. I've been in so many situations like this, and always want my reaction to be one where I'm not the cranky lady.

I try not to make it about me, or my kid, or my dog, or my property. I make it about what is wrong, why it's wrong, and what immediate response makes sense. These days there seem to be more than a few people who don't actually care about other people, and think that their singular behaviour excepts them from consequences. I'm a bit of a right fighter, but I try to take the tone that they're not deliberately being rude, just that they forgot it matters to others. In tone, I'm a bit puzzled, and a bit matter of fact, and then just dead direct. I also practice for common situations - walking my reactive dog on leash, or when I'm in my back yard which is part of a ravine, or when I worked as a parent volunteer at a school.

"This isn't an off-leash park. The dogs or I can get hurt if my reactive dog snaps at yours because you don't have control. If it becomes an issue where bylaw enforcement is called in to this park more often, it's spoiled for everyone. Please leash your dog."

"This is private property - I think you missed the sign. There are plants her that protect the slope from erosion. Please stick to the walkway the city installed. Having to fence this because of trespassers will spoil the natural beauty."

"Oh, this is a school playground. I see that you want to exercise here, but there's a bylaw that states adults aren't allowed unless accompanied by children. When this happens too often, the school locks the gates then nobody can play after school hours. You should probably go to a city park."

And though my kid is a teen now, I remember VERY clearly issues at the playground that were always tricky. I practiced for those too. These aren't exactly what I said, but it went like:

"Oh hi! We brought these toys to the park, and it's up to (my kid) if she wants to share. Sharing doesn't mean she has to hand them over right away, it means that if she feels like giving you a turn, she chooses when and can have them back whenever she says so. And she knows the same goes for your toys."

or from my mom's friends of a certain age who were sweet, but used to teasing and being a bit grabby:

"It's nice that you want to be friendly, but she gets to choose whom she wants to touch (or to touch her) and we're working on her not answering questions she feels are too personal for safety reasons. She might feel like a fist bump if you ask her, and will maybe feel like talking when you're less of a stranger to her. Give her some time and space."

And lately, because of things being what they are, when grocery shopping:

"Traffic in this aisle is supposed to run this way according to the arrow. It's frustrating to have to take a different route, but that's what the store has designated for safety. I'll stay back here while you turn around and go back the way you came from."

The trick is to practice, or I get flustered and flub everything - or I don't say anything and go home with that person taking up space in my head for the rest of the day. I am a much happier person once I've reinforced my boundaries.
posted by peagood at 3:01 PM on May 23, 2020 [10 favorites]

I am also extremely conflict-averse and often in a park with kids, so I've been in this exact situation. Here's the thing: when someone has their dog offleash at a park, they are very explicitly in violation of the rules. Rules that are painted on signs all around them. They *know* they are in the wrong and have made a conscious decision to do so. Their plan is to count on people like you and me to just not mention it and let them roll along. Realizing this -- that I was being intentionally taken advantage of, that some jerk was expecting me and my human children to forego reasonable use the park we pay taxes for so that their pet could run around here instead of the dog park two blocks down -- made me stop pussyfooting and meekly using framing that was "about me." It is about them and their unlawful usurpation of a public good. You are one hundred percent in the right with the full force of the law behind you! So square your shoulders and own that. Say directly to the dog: "Hey Mister Pooch! Where's your leash? " And then to the owner, smiling and channeling energy that says Lol wink, good on you for having a bit of mischief before we showed up: "Can you get a leash on your dog? There's a great dog park on Maple if he wants to run around." or whatever. You don't have to get aggressive or dog hating, but nor do you have to cower and beg for someone to stop breaking the law.

I absolutely refuse to genuflect to such people and let them think that by following obvious posted rules they are doing a huge favor to a fragile, spooked snowflake. And let me reiterate: I am so conflict-averse that I spent two years digitizing the entire 75 year archive of a local flower club because I accidentally walked into the wrong committee meeting.
posted by apparently at 6:07 PM on May 23, 2020 [13 favorites]

Here is an anecdote about how I handle things like this. I am also a woman who does not like conflict, but I've developed some work arounds to prevent arguments or angry answers back (which to my mind are the worst part of conflict).

I was recently on a regional park trail with my (on leash) dog, and a lady jogging with her (off leash) dogs passed me. Her dogs came up to sniff mine, ok fine. Then another couple with a dog came the other direction down the path and the off leash dogs *savaged* this poor animal for having a ball they wanted. This all happened around my feet as the off leash dogs tore past me to get to the ball-haver.

After she pulled away her dogs, (so much for social distance!) while the other couple was frantically checking theirs for bites, I just looked her in the eyes and said, not aggressively but very seriously, "You are being incredibly irresponsible. Put your dogs on a leash immediately or leave."

Her look of humiliation and contrition was immediate, and she leashed her dogs while I watched. It was not confrontational. I was giving her a clear, firm statement of what she needed to do in a low, serious tone (as I do with any recalcitrant animal or child who needs clear boundaries). Had she responded angrily, I would have repeated myself once and left. In my experience, though, if you speak with authority and confidence this will almost never happen.

It feels super aggressive at first if you're not used to being firm with people, but you'll get used to it. Watch Super Nanny. She's the master of the low tone.
posted by ananci at 7:30 PM on May 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

I am a small middle-aged lady who was raised by a small middle-aged lady who went ABSOLUTELY BATSHIT CRAZY at injustice and danger and I have to say, no one expects the mild-mannered woman to go absolutely batshit crazy. It has literally no joke saved my life at least twice. So I say, don't fear that batshit. Just respect its power, and use it (much like the Batlight) only when needed.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 9:37 PM on May 23, 2020

When cars are parked in the bike lane, I first ask the driver if they're ok before asking them to move. It shows that I care about their well-being, and then if they are having an emergency (which they might be! they ARE parked in the bike lane) it provides an opportunity to offer help if appropriate, and then I can get to the meat of the issue, which is that they're making it more dangerous to for me and others to bike safely.
posted by aniola at 10:13 PM on May 23, 2020

Confrontational person here. Unleashed dogs in our leash law park make me see red, and I'm merely defending my leashed dog. I lock the evil eye upon them and calmly say in my command voice, "You are breaking the law. Leash your dog.". If no immediate compliance I take out my phone and inform them, "I'm calling this in. Expect a monster ticket.". And I am dialing as I speak. I do not respond to argument or excuses. People uniformly grab their dogs and scurry away. I'm a 5'2 woman, with gray hair. Believe me, this works.
posted by bearwife at 10:25 PM on May 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

On sort of a meta level, it would be good to separate how well you handled the situation from how well the other person reacted.

Sometimes, when you stand up for yourself, you will say a reasonable thing in a reasonable way and the other person will still be mad about it. And when it's in your personal life and not at work, it can be especially frightening because there's no higher authority you can appeal to who can say "Stillmoving handled this reasonably." But it will go better if you can get to a place where you can say that to yourself: "Yeah, I'm satisfied with how I said that. They were upset. That's unfortunate, but it's a fact about them and not a fact about me."
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:31 PM on May 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Interesting choice of example because that situation (time sensitive, danger component, want the other person to intervene as fast as possible) is the sort where I've trained myself to be more proactively confrontational. Especially since adopting a reactive dog who I have to keep on a leash always. I have a standard playbook: I make eye contact, use a hand signal (pointing, and/or using the football timeout sign), and then shout the action I want them to take while also taking action myself. I focus on making a clear, brief and specific ask, influenced vaguely by some decades-old reading about combatting bystander effect in public situations. I shout "She's not friendly! Get your dog!" while also pulling my dog away. Situations like this (or intervening in street harassment, or a variety of emergency response situations) are ones that really benefit from working out how you're going to respond in advance to be as clear and direct as possible because there's a timeliness element and no pre-established relationship.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:19 PM on May 24, 2020

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