The right thing.

“I am rubbish at dealing with conflict! I never do the right thing!”

“For instance?”

“Like, the other day four guys in a car started shouting abuse at me in the shop car park, and I didn’t do anything. I just walked away as quickly as possible, got in my car and left.”

And that’s where so many people’s heads are at. Resolving a confrontation in a way that maximises safety is “not doing anything”. A result of “I got home untouched” is a fail.

Try asking people who absolutely detest conflict – not just physical violence, but any sort of interpersonal friction – to describe somebody who’s good at dealing with it. Many will come up with someone falling somewhere between “unnecessarily confrontational” and “giant flaming asshole”.

I think that this is a direct result of the fact that we deprive people of the opportunities to learn and practice conflict-management skills. We’re farming conflict resolution out to third parties. In school, call a teacher. At work, call Human Resources. On the street, call the police. Do not attempt to resolve the situation yourself; that carries not only the risk of failure, with resulting consequences, but also the near-certainty of getting punished socially.

Determining whether farming out conflict management is a Good or Bad thing is largely an ethical issue. For instance, would you send a child to a Zero Tolerance school? What would be your criteria for making that decision? Would you look at their results – their statistics on bullying or academic achievements – or the ethics behind their policies? Let’s park the philosophy for the now, though, and concentrate on the fallout.

I think most of us will agree that if you don’t learn and practice conflict management skills, they’re unlikely to be there if/when you need them. We’re bringing up people who are uncomfortable around conflict because they have been deprived of the chance to become comfortable around it, to model different strategies, to work out what actually works for them.

Because conflict is such unfamiliar territory, people see it as frightening and/or epic. Furthermore, it’s seen as an occasional aberration – an Event – rather than as part of the way humans interact on an everyday basis. People raised to be unnaturally* fragile and meek embrace the myth of the glorious warrior who doesn’t take shit from anyone, and damn the consequences. That colours their perception of what “success” looks like.

Too often, we want to Win. We want to “teach them a lesson”, or “show them what’s what”. We want to be Genghis Khan, crushing our enemies and hearing the lamentation of their significant others. But Genghis didn’t have to work with his enemies the following week, or eat food they prepared… And he had a horde of mongols as back-up… And he wasn’t going to get arrested for disorderly conduct, or fired…

We act as if a familiarity with conflict, an awareness of our abilities, would make us more likely to hurt others. I reckon that the opposite is true.


And, best of all:


Aaaaaaand then you get the inevitable question: “How can I tell if I was accurate in my assessment and justified in my actions, when the result was that nothing happened?” I don’t know about guys, but this is often a big deal for women.

I believe this has a lot to do with the way we’re socialised to deal with conflict. There currently appear to be three main schools of thought:

  • Absolutely under no circumstance do anything that could upset/offend/anger anyone. Always be polite. Never make a scene. (A bit passé now, but still present in our society. This is how I was brought up.)
  • Go utterly apeshit at the least provocation. How DARE they give you any cause for concern? Be the biggest bitch you can be; that’ll teach them!
  • It’s your Right to live in a conflict- free world. So, don’t try to learn about conflict at all. Do not develop any relevant coping skills. Act as if the world was what it should be, despite any evidence to the contrary.

Although these attitudes are very different, they have much in common. They all ignore the various levels at which human conflict can take place, opting for a one-size-fits-all strategy. They all ignore the need to take into account your personal resources before picking a strategy. Most relevant to the question at hand, they all ignore the possible costs of an inappropriate reaction – and both under- and over-reacting can cost you a lot.

What does this have to do with the original question? Well, if you subscribe to a very narrow view of suitable conflict management options, it’s really going to matter if you misclassify a situation.

Say a guy at work is making you uncomfortable. Do you ignore your gut feelings, and take him to the abandoned warehouse like he asks? Do you act out on your feelings, and bludgeon him with your chair? Do you go home and write an internet post detailing how you feel oppressed by the violence inherent in the system?

Response no. 1 may get you raped. Response no. 2 may get you locked up. Response no. 3 does not change your situation. The thing is, they are not all the possible responses. There are countless other ways of dealing with the same situation that, not being as extreme, don’t carry the same costs if you got your assessment wrong.

For instance, in the above example, you could start by telling the guy calmly and clearly that he’s making you feel uncomfortable. His reaction to that statement can give you further data points. If he wasn’t being malicious (or even if he was, because he now knows you’re on his case) the situation could be resolved right then and there, with no further worries and absolutely no bloodshed. It’s not 100% badass nor 100% polite (and absolutely not 100% guaranteed), but if it does work, the result is pretty good.

You may never know if your assessment was accurate; but if your reaction didn’t cause any damage to anyone or anything, what’s the big deal?

But nothing happened!

(Kinda linked to the previous blog.)

I was bootcamping Max, the abandoned rottweiler, to make him a bit more rehomeable. He was the biggest rottie I’ve ever seen and I’m a very small person, so I made damn sure that he knew who was in charge and what was acceptable behaviour.

We were walking nicely on one side of the road. On the other side, this older guy came up with his Alsatian, who is notoriously dog-aggressive. His dog started to go nuts. Max braced up to lunge forward, so I checked him back with a yank and a “don’t even think about it” in my least friendly tone and we carried on walking nicely.

A few days later, the older guy collars me in the local shop. “Someone like you should not be taking out a dog like that. If he’d wanted to have a go, you couldn’t have stopped it.”

Mkay. So, you’re hanging at the end of your dog’s leash while the damn thing is, literally, doing somersaults around you trying to get at other dogs, and that shows that you can control it? But because I check my dogs’ behaviour before it gets extreme – control their intention, basically – that means they are out of my control?

I’d like to think that it takes a special kind of genius to think in those terms. Alas, it seems fairly common.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spotted a guy who was clearly (to me) going to be trouble and made him know in no uncertain terms that he was shit outta luck if he thought I was going to play along. If there are people with me, they almost universally tell me off because “he hadn’t done anything”. No, but that’s because I didn’t give him a chance to. The fact that nothing happened was a result of my intervention (and, as far as I’m concerned, if I can get someone off my case without having to go physical that’s the best result I can get. I’d much rather not “wait and see” how far he escalates, and then find myself having to use greater force.)

When the result is “nothing happening”, people can’t judge the effectiveness and appropriateness of an intervention, unless they can accurately read the situation. And the problem isn’t just that many people can’t do that, but that they absolutely believe that they can.


Walking around Sheffield with Rory Miller. Dark, empty streets. Rory about two steps behind me. This guy walking in the opposite direction goes by.

“Did you see that?”

“Errrrr, I think so.”

“What did you see?”

“…you go first?”

And no, it turned out that I hadn’t seen it. Rory had spotted that the guy had his right hand hidden up his sleeve. I’d completely missed that – that is, my eyes had seen it, but my brain hadn’t registered it. What I had seen was a guy with a disorganised face (chemical shortage?) spot me, lock on, change vector to aim towards me, glance past me, spot Rory, disengage, and change vector back to go past me, all in the blink of an eye.

Once I stopped kicking myself in the ass (HOW did I miss someone so obviously concealing a weapon? What am I, some sort of cretin? This sort of stuff is IMPORTANT!), I realised that it makes sense. I’m not used to scanning people for weapons; thankfully, that sort of problem hasn’t been a feature of my life. I am used to noticing if someone’s classified me as a prey item, cos that’s featured a lot.

So I notice the stuff that I’ve learnt to notice because I’ve needed to notice it. Gee whiz. Remember kids, you heard it here first.

Where that gets interesting is when it’s turned upside down. On countless occasions, I reacted to something or someone and the people around me thought I’d lost the plot. From my point of view, I was reacting to a loud and clear signal (voluntary or not). From their point of view, I was going off on one for no reason at all. They hadn’t seen the signal; or rather, they had seen it but not registered it.

Most of the time, for most people, the fact that then “nothing happens” is further confirmation that I was out of line. They wouldn’t/couldn’t accept the possibility that my actions (generally nothing more than me bracing for impact, speaking sharply, or just giving someone the evils – I don’t walk around waving machetes) had prevented an event from taking place.

I’ve sometimes managed to explain to some people what I saw and why it was significant to me. It’s an interesting process for me because it forces me to use my words. I know how I spot a sexual predator, but describing it is like trying to describe the colour blue. It also forces me to work out how I learnt what I’ve learnt. Sometimes this allows me to connect hitherto unconnected pieces of information into neat little quasi-theories. For instance, working out what emotions displayed in the expression of a stalker I’m reacting to can help me work out why they are stalking.

Often, it forces me to realise that all I can do is spot the kind of issues I’ve already had to deal with. A lot of my cognition is nothing more than recognition. And that’s a concern.

The Social Rant

I’m not precisely a Social Violence genius, but…

So you’ve seen this YouTube video showing this guy handling this Social Violence situation in this manner, and you think he was all wrong, and you’ve got a little stiffy in your pants thinking about how you’d have Sorted It Out in a far more epic fashion… Think again. Cos maybe, just maybe, the guy is doing what is appropriate in his social environment, which is different from your social environment.

For crying out loud, the clue is on the LABEL. Look at the bloody name of the bloody thing. SOCIAL violence. That word isn’t there by chance.

It goes beyond the fact that the violence is between members of the same group (which is, in fact, not always the case, depending on your definition of “group”). Everything about that type of violence is ruled by social parameters, and social parameters are not universal. If you are not familiar with the parameters of the particular society the violence is taking place in, your assessment may be completely off.

For instance:

  • You may not be able to distinguish between normal communication, sheer asshole posturing, threat displays, and assault indicators.
  • You won’t know what that society requires before retaliatory violence is justified.
  • You won’t know if that society has limits beyond which violence is actually required.
  • You won’t be able to determine whether someone is playing a short- or long-term game (e.g., are they strangers in a bar, or neighbours with an infinite number of social connections?)
  • You won’t be able to tell if choosing alternative methods of conflict resolution, for instance calling the police, are the safest way of disengaging or a surefire way of getting the entire community on your back forevermore.

In essence, you can’t expect the rules by which the game is played in your part of your town to apply in Kuala Lumpur, or even in a different part of that same town. And given that this is Social Violence, social rules are pretty damn important. If you go applying your own rules to different situations, you might well end up turning the situation from Social to Asocial, getting stomped by the entire community, going straight to jail, or starting a feud. (Hint: these are Bad Things. You don’t want them to happen.)

So how the hell can you tell what’s what if you’re looking at unfamiliar societies? Well, you can start by looking at the people around a situation. They are the one who best know what the social standards are in that particular place, after all.

For instance, if during a situation there are women chatting and children playing and people generally going about their business only a few feet away, you can pretty well assume nobody’s gonna whip a bazooka out of their ass any time soon. Clearly this is everyday behaviour not expected to escalate. (So your pre-emptive striking would actually be seen as an assault.)

If as things progress you notice a collective intake of breath, or onlookers starting to shake their heads, then something’s gone off kilter. If everyone starts rushing away or rushing towards, you can safely expect that something is about to go down (and if you’re actually there and everyone is suddenly scarpering, ’tis a damn good idea to follow the herd).

If after a situation everyone in the local community kinda nods or shrugs and goes back to doing their thing, you can pretty well assume that it was handled well. And no, it doesn’t matter a fig that you would have done it all differently and that you think your way would have been much better, cos this isn’t your social conflict. This isn’t your place and these aren’t your rules.

And believe me, if after watching this sort of interaction from a distance you still think your way is The Best Way, then you’re infinitely safer maintaining that distance. Stick to the places you know, where people play by your rules. You can’t keep a context social if you insist on ignoring other people’s social codes, and asocial violence is really not good for the health.

Road Blocks. 24.05.15

I’ve just returned from a lovely road trip: me, two dogs, one van, and the open road. No official campsites, as much coastline as we could manage, and, as we were Up Norf, no plans beyond chasing the sunshine. To me that’s the height of luxury. I’ve got shelter and I’ve got (relative) safety and I’ve got freedom and I’ve got all the time in the world and I’ve got my pack about me. What more could I wish for? How could life be better?

Things were much harder in the good/bad old days. Travelling the open road on foot, or by public transport, is infinitely more dicey. Unless you pack up with somebody who can be relied upon to watch your back, you can never truly rest. Frankly, vanning it is so comfortable that it seems like cheating. At the same time, I remain aware of the fact that there are a number of charities working hard to ensure that nobody has to live like that. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It would also not be my cup of tea in the middle of winter (though surely that’s why they made roads that point south) or if I was sick or injured. Nonetheless, I love it so much that I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not precisely the norm. More than that, I have to remind myself that normal people think it’s odd and scary. “You’re doing what? On your own?!”

Thing is, for me that kind of situation is comfortable (and comforting, too) because I’ve done it so much that I know how to do it. Even though the opportunities these days are sorely infrequent, every time I hit the road I find myself slipping into my road mode. I look at places, people, and situations in a completely different way. My focus is different, because my priorities are different. I catch myself dressing and behaving differently, aiming for a greater  level of insignificancy (it’s as good as invisibility for making people ignore you, and it doesn’t interfere with crossing the road). I don’t have to think about shifting gears; I’ve operate in this mode so often and for so long that the switch happens automatically. Really, it feels like going home.

I find that hard to explain to people because for me it’s all just there, and for them it’s completely foreign. If I put it into words, it either comes out sounding ridiculously obvious or woo-woo esoteric. Either way, I worry I’m not presenting a detailed enough picture. How do I know what they don’t know? What if I miss out something important, and get them hurt?

I took Vikings: a History by Neil Oliver to read on my trip. It was a good little read, and very appropriate given the places I was visiting. One point in the book, though, gave me a wtf moment. Oliver is tripping out over the fact that he got to spend a night in a reconstruction building. He had only a fire for heating! He had to go to sleep in his clothes! Without a mattress! And he found out that although the night was cosysnug, the morning was sharp and uncomfortable!

And I’m like, DUH. So much duh.

How does anyone get to adult age without knowing that? I mean, I understand most people don’t spend any time sleeping on the streets (though it still seems kinda odd), or live in houses without automated heating, but surely at least they go camping? How can anyone end up thinking that it’s a big deal to spend a single night unplugged from the grid?

I have to remember that, although I absolutely do not feel that my life has been extraordinary, I have done and still do things that are out of the ordinary. I have to remind myself that, although I’m absolutely not extraordinary, I’m definitely not normal. I have to remind myself that there will always be a communication barrier between me and normal people.

I’m as blind to their experiences and point of view as they are to mine. They haven’t done some of the things I have done, so they look at the world in a certain way. I have done those things, so I look at the world in a my own way. If I don’t keep that difference in mind, I can completely fail to communicate with them. I can end up missing things out, assuming that they’re givens. We can end up talking apples and oranges. And that’s even if they care to listen.

I have the same problem talking to people who’ve never been poor, or totally alone, or so injured or ill that they were incapacitated. “No, you can’t just get that, because there is no money.” “No, you can’t get help, because there is no help to be gotten.” “No, you can’t just do that, because your body won’t let you.” “No, you can’t just try harder or wish more – that thing you want or need is just NOT THERE as an option.” Half the time, even if they grasp it conceptually, I just can’t make it real for them. I don’t know how to break through the barrier.

(NOTICE: The Bastard has moved. Old blogs can still be found at – different platform, same stupid name.)