I watched another one of those movies last weekend.
You know the ones–like Missing, starring Liam Neeson.
This was an Australian film about a woman traveling solo and being lured into a terrible situation. And, as usual, the lead character not only went to the apartment of a person she'd just met but she went into the apartment despite it being in an abandoned building and without leaving information with anyone as to where she was going.
Because she trusted him.
Which raises the question, how do you know who to trust?
Being suspicious of everyone you meet is not a fun way to travel. How do you balance the necessity of caution with having a good time? How do you know who to trust and how far to trust them?
How to Know Who to Trust
In Don't tell kids not to talk to strangers — encourage them to trust their instincts, psychotherapist Philippa Perry reported that children as young as three can evaluate trustworthiness accurately, and by the time they are seven they can do so as well as adults. In other words, knowing who to trust comes naturally. A University of California, Berkeley research study “suggests it can take just 20 seconds to detect whether a stranger is genetically inclined to being trustworthy, kind, or compassionate.” The studies confirm that we can and should trust our guts.
The vast majority of the people we meet on our travels are deserving of our trust. However, there are some who are not. A small portion of those who we should not trust are difficult to evaluate as such because they are con artists. This section is about knowing who we can trust. We'll get into the less trustworthy people further down.
As a solo traveler, I have often picked up and traveled with another person for a day or three or more. In each case I decided that the person was trustworthy before I did so. I knew in my gut that they were okay. Here's the essence of the trust I placed in these strangers and why my gut told me it was okay to do so.
- I camped in Torres del Paine National Park with Noemie after spending three days with her on the Navimag ferry. On the ferry I had time to see that she consistently treated people well and had a positive attitude towards life.
- I shared hotel rooms with Penny in India after meeting her at an ashram and spending time with her over the course of a week. Ashrams typically attract very trustworthy people and I saw her as one of them.
- I picked up cyclists and drove them over the continental divide in the United States. This is likely the most spontaneous trust I've ever assumed for people but then, bicycles are not typically the transportation of choice for dangerous people.
Those are specific situations. Let's look more generally at how to decide who to trust.
- Activity. The activity that the person is doing–not what they say they do, but what you can see them actually doing–can be a clue as to how safe they are. As per my examples above, I decided that cyclists and yogis are pretty safe.
- Listen. It's exciting to meet someone new and you may want to talk a lot, but it's better to spend more time listening than talking. By listening you learn about the other person from them rather than by drawing conclusions about them based on appearances.
- Talk less. When you're talking, you're revealing things about yourself. Things that a bad person may mirror to gain your unwarranted trust. As per number 2, when you're listening, you're learning.
- Look for eye contact. Trustworthy people tend to make eye contact. Of course, not all trustworthy people make eye contact and not all untrustworthy people have trouble doing so but, on the whole, research says eye contact suggests that a person is trustworthy.
- Watch body language. Trustworthy people engage. They demonstrate that they are listening and that they understand you by nodding their heads, smiling if appropriate, and holding an open body posture.
- Listen for specificity. Trustworthy people aren't hiding anything. Their stories should be consistent and believable. They should speak naturally, with energy, and with specifics about their topic.
In some cases it's pretty easy to see that a person isn't trustworthy. They may invade your personal space, directly ask you for money, be belligerent or out of control.
But there are also times when a person appears trustworthy but isn't. He or she is a con artist. They are interested in getting something from you and have techniques to get it so that you won't know what's happening until it's over. To go deeper into the topic read The Confidence Game: What Con Artists Reveal About the Psychology of Trust and Why Even the Most Rational of Us Are Susceptible to Deception.
If con artists are so difficult to spot, how can you protect yourself from one? By having certain safety rules that you travel by.
- Know your safety priorities. Your safety considerations in order of priority are your body, your documents, your money, and then your stuff. Take care of what's most important and, if necessary, lose the less important.
- Stay in public with people you've just met. Unless you have good reason to know that a person is trustworthy, always stay in a public place with them. Public is safer than private. It gives you more control over your situation. Doing so may have saved my life. Read Solo Travel Danger: Caught in a Con Game.
- Stay in control. Don't take lifts from people you don't know. Don't let others make all the decisions in terms of where you go, when, and with whom.
- Let others know your plans. A text home or a casual conversation with a desk clerk: it doesn't take much to let someone know where you're going and when you'll return.
- Keep your wits about you. Keep drinking and drugs to a minimum and sleep well.
- Lock your stuff up. Whether you're in a hostel or a high-end hotel, lock your things up. There are potential thieves everywhere.
- Don't lend money or valuables. Unless you're willing to part with it, never share money or valuables with people you've just met.
- Get the help of others. Con artists like to have total control over their marks. If you bring someone else into your situation you will probably lose the con artist. This could be another traveler, a store clerk, or even a phantom person that you call. When choosing a stranger to help you…
- Use stereotypes. Look around for someone who fits your stereotype of a safe person. Perhaps it's a person with a family or an older person.
- Approach them. Be proactive. Rather than wait for someone to help you, approach your person of choice to get help. It's unlikely you'll make a mistake, whereas if you look vulnerable the wrong person could approach you.
- Explain your needs clearly. I did this in New York City once. I came out of a theater alone and got turned around. I wasn't sure which way was north and which south – I just knew that I didn't want to go south. I chose a couple in their thirties who were talking about the play. Yes, in my mind theater goers are safe. I approached them, asked which way was north, and got on my way.