Saturday Snippet: Life outside the ‘normal’ you’ve learned


Marc MacYoung is well-known in the self-defense and security community as an expert on avoiding, managing and dealing with conflict of all kinds, but particularly criminal violence.  He has extensive personal experience of the latter – hence his nickname “Animal”.  He’s been speaking, writing and teaching about the subject for several decades, and is a highly regarded expert witness in the legal profession.  His many books have helped a lot of people, including yours truly.

Today I’d like to talk about one of the books he’s co-authored, this one with many different contributors.  It’s titled “Beyond The Picket Fence: Life Outside the Middle-Class Bubble“.

Marc has gathered together articles from many other contributors, each talking about their experience of what it means to enter, walk through and live in cultures, countries and attitudes vastly different from those in which they were raised, or in which they’re comfortable.  In many cases, those entering such cultures can give offense without even realizing it, perhaps giving rise to violence and rejection.  (A classic example would be a white suburban teenager getting lost while driving, and ending up in an inner-city poverty-stricken urban ghetto.  To say the former would be in danger there is putting it very mildly indeed, simply because they’d stand out like a sore thumb and have no idea how to relate or respond to the locals.)  This applies even more when traveling abroad.  If one behaves like an “Ugly American” in many countries, the consequences can be less than optimal – and that’s an understatement and a half, as those who’ve seen it at first hand will understand.

For today’s snippet, I’ve chosen excerpts from the first chapter in the book, where “Rebecca” writes about traveling in different cultures and the pitfalls we may encounter.

It is only possible for us to be literally ‘native’ in the place where we were born and raised. If someone was moved away from their birthplace at a very young age to be raised elsewhere, however, they are not likely to feel at home or be easily accepted in that birthplace when they return there. They may feel at home in the place where they were raised, but the people there will often times not accept them as ‘really one of us’. Historically, this was an unusual situation—though in our time it has become more common. So it appears that the concept of being native to a place requires both being born there and being raised there long enough to integrate into that social context. In every other place in the world, we will always be strangers.

Several years ago I read an interview with a Caucasian Anglo who had been living in China for many years. When I searched for the article again I wasn’t able to find it, but one of the things that she said struck a chord with me—so I remember it clearly. The interviewer had asked her whether it was possible for a foreigner to be accepted into Chinese society. She said no, it is not possible. But it is possible to become an ‘acceptable stranger’.

I was born in New York, but my family moved many times both domestically and internationally. A lot of my time abroad was spent in Jerusalem. Israel is a high-stress country, and Jerusalem is a very fragmented city. But as long as you don’t go out looking for trouble, the greatest threat to your health is simply driving a car (a Napolitano friend of mine felt right at home on the road there). It’s a very budget-friendly place to develop and test your methods for getting along with all kinds of people; with such a crowded mosaic of cultural enclaves, there’s no need for plane tickets. All you have to do is cross the street to visit a completely different world. And of course, if you are in the mood for trouble, there are plenty of options.

The concepts that have worked for me in my wanderings are very simple. I’ve tried to capture the main ones in short sentences that are easy to remember. These can serve as mental file labels, which help you to pull up the information when you want it.

Embrace the homework

Here’s your perfect excuse for Web surfing. The more background information you have filed inside your head, the richer and better your experience will be. At the very least you need to know which ideologies or religions you’ll be encountering, what the current conflicts are about, and what types of crime to watch out for. Learning the basic rules governing the way people communicate is also very useful.

For example, when a Japanese person is listening to you and keeps saying yes and nodding his head in approval every few seconds it does not mean that he agrees with you. All it means is that he is listening to you. Indeed, such a person will be actually confused or even offended if you will follow the American way of keeping your mouth shut while the other person is talking.

Knowing these basic things in advance will allow you to actually understand what the other person is saying. The fact that you may both be speaking English is not always enough. And learning how to say please, thank you, excuse me, yes, no, hello, and good-bye in the local language is a courtesy that will make a lot of people very happy.

Figuring out in advance how to manage logistics such as using public transportation systems and exchanging currency will make your life much easier. Technology is great, but a map that you printed out will never have a dead battery or be outside its network coverage area; also, there are places where you don’t want people to see that you have expensive toys like a smart phone or an iPad.

The deeper you go, the more interesting it gets. What are the land and the climate like? How do people make their livings? What are their ideas about family, friendship, foreigners, etiquette, social honor, and betrayal? What will they fight for and what will they tolerate? How have the power games played by their governments affected their lives? How have all these things changed or stayed the same over the last several generations?

When doing this research, it’s very important to read between the lines and do your own thinking. The Internet and the world in general is full of people who want you to believe what they say (I don’t, honest!). Some of the ex-pat and travel blogs are especially bad sources—almost invariably the ones that make their destinations sound idyllic and make simplistic statements like “the people in country XXXX are all very friendly” earn money by writing these things. The Web sites of First World governments are more realistic, though not completely unbiased. Use Google Translate to read foreign language Web sites. You will be surprised how sometimes you get can be very different information than what is available in English. Scan as wide a variety of sources as you can, then use your brain to sift the information and draw your own preliminary conclusions. Your personal observations and experiences will update those conclusions.

Keep them guessing and don’t make waves

Fashion magazines love to print articles saying that people make decisions about you in the first three seconds of your meeting, based on whether you applied the latest and greatest makeup that morning. In my experience, people really are not that stupid. They do, however, make assumptions based on aspects of your external appearance, which I think of as ‘handles’ for preconceptions and prejudices to use to grab onto you.

At risk of stating the obvious, if you are used to having a very specific image that is so integrated into how you dress and behave that it is an essential part of how you see yourself (such as, “I am a rapper” or “I am a respectable businessman”) then it may be very hard for you to step out of that image when you travel.

This is fine as long as you keep in mind that it may be a serious handicap in the wrong place, i.e., face tattoos don’t go well on Wall Street. You have much more flexibility if you can step out of any easily defined image and just become indistinct. You do not have to blend in and look like the locals. This may be hard to do often times (I, for example, have no chance of not looking foreign in China). But it is not hard to look indistinct—maybe slightly different—but not easily put into a very specific category.

By the way, it is a mistake to think that blending completely in and looking like a local always puts you in the best position. Being identified as a visitor has its advantages, as well. For example, your mistakes are more easily ignored or forgiven since the locals realize you are unfamiliar with the rules.

A lot of snap decisions are triggered by physical characteristics like eye color, skin color, hair color, gender, age, mass, and the way you move. If you are in a place where people react badly to any of these, then there is usually little you can do about it. Try to avoid such places, or if you can’t or don’t want to, do your homework by assessing the risk involved and the interactions you should expect. Have a backup plan in case you get more extreme reactions than originally estimated.

Note that for most of us when we are in our home town, the only people who may pose a threat are criminals. When traveling, however, we can sometimes find ourselves in a place where almost everyone around us is a potential source of trouble. Having the wrong sex, color, or ethnicity is usually the cause, though not the only one.

On a milder level sometimes your presence simply makes people uneasy. For example, I recall visiting a retirement community in Florida, and noticing that for some reason people at the rec center were edgy and some even slightly unpleasant towards me, even though I did my best to be charming. I finally realized that being much younger, I was moving too fast, causing a subconscious fear in the people around me that they may collide with me simply because their movements and instincts were slower. Adopting a slower pace eliminated this intangible tension.

In most places looking wealthy is not a good idea. People too easily stop looking at you as a person and start seeing you as a wallet. Resist the urge to show off. After that, the most problematic aspect of your external appearance is any sort of symbol—either text or graphics. Whether it’s a tattoo, a humorous t-shirt, or even in some rare cases a cap with a sport’s team logo. You can’t always tell who is going to misunderstand or respond badly to it (remember the guy in Singapore?). I don’t even like visible clothing labels, and I remove the address tags from my suitcase when I pick it up at the airport. If someone is checking that closely, I don’t want them to find anything.

Special stuff like colors, symbols, accessories, outfits, or hairstyles that are “owned” by certain groups is an essential part of your background research, as is the local standard of modesty if you’re female. A lot of these things are so habitual that we don’t realize we’re doing them. That’s why you may want to get someone who isn’t afraid of you to take a look and say whether any of these things is likely to attract undesirable attention.

One more thing I recommend is to dress in a way that allows you to easily run if the need arises. This is mostly an issue for women as almost all men’s clothes are fine in this respect. A criminal is more likely to choose a victim who can’t easily run away then one who can. I have seen this firsthand.

There are situations where fitting into a stereotype can serve you well. That works when you know in advance who you’re dealing with. You can keep things simple by letting them think they have successfully placed you in a box that makes them comfortable in their heads. When you’re wandering around just following your nose, I’ve found it best to be as unclassifiable as possible. Your style can be extrovert or introvert, but the fewer “handles” you have the better your chances of having people talk to you rather than to some imaginary character they just pasted over you.

Golden Rule revisited

Most cultures have had some form of the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—since way back into antiquity, and for a really good reason—it works. In particular our discussion above about respect and sincerity can be thought of as elaborating on one instance of this rule.

There is a caveat, however. While the Golden Rule works extremely well in a homogenous society (as most ancient cultures were due to the complexity of travel), it does not work as well when you cross cultures!

It can also be easily abused into a kind of imperialistic condescending attitude of ‘if it is good for me then it must be good for you, too,’ from which it is but a single step to ignoring the possibility that other people are truly different. What you may find is good for you or your society may not be so good for them. I sometimes wonder if some of the major blunders in foreign relations between countries can’t be attributed to making this mistake.

In my experience with many diverse cultures, the belief that people everywhere are basically the same is true only in a very narrow sense. First, to make things clear, I am not talking about genetics. I am talking about cultural differences, beliefs, and education. I find people to be the same in the sense that they all eat, drink, and sleep. Almost everything else can differ. Things like wanting to be happy, healthy, financially well, etc., are indeed common, but by no means universal.

Even the will to live is not as universal as one may think. I have seen many examples of people who are willing to die for what I would consider trifles, and even ones who were actively seeking (and finding) death, considering this life to be just a brief step on the way to immortality.

I once had a discussion with a friend who lived in New York City (NYC) for many years and has thus had the experience of being exposed to immigrants from all over the world. He was under the impression that this gave him a very good overview of what people were like everywhere in the world. I maintained that he only has an overview of what people in the world who are attracted to NYC were like, which is a very different thing.

The point I want to make is that the Golden Rule is a good one, but it should be applied carefully when interacting with someone from a different place, cultural background, or upbringing. Always keep in mind the possibility that they are different. They may be indifferent to something you hold dear and at the same time take offense from something that would not even make you blink. So what do I do? I do my background check to know what the major cultural differences I should expect are. I interact with respect and sincerity (though not infallible, these are fairly universal since they are rooted in our common biology). I do things in small steps, observing after each step the response I get and the effect it has. This last point is very important. It allows me to slowly feel my way instead of jumping head first into deep water.

Honesty is not always the best policy

Yes, you read that correctly. I’m saying that lying can sometimes be the right thing to do. It is also harder to do than you think. But if you want to connect with people whose lives are very different from yours, you will find that they hold opinions which you believe are absolutely wrong. In many cases, the reality is that nothing you say or do will change their minds. You then have several options: you can disengage and move on; you can try to dodge said subjects whenever they come up; you can politely refuse to discuss certain subjects; you can examine the possibility that they may actually be partially or completely right; or you can lie and say that you agree with them.

Something to keep in mind that took me a while to accept is that in certain cultures what you say and what you do not have to be in alignment and this discrepancy does not make one a hypocrite!

There a few reasons for that. First, in these cultures logic does not play a central role; second, people in these cultures consider conversation as merely a form of a game or entertainment; and third, they were raised to always express the ideal point of view (as dictated by society around them). Thus they are trained to say the ‘correct’ opinion, and would argue for it with vehemence. They do not truly deeply believe it, however, as evidenced by their actions. I have met some wonderful people from these cultures who would never have agreed in conversation with certain ideas that they have no problem putting into action.

As an example, one of them during a conversation expressed the uncompromising opinion that all gay man should be shot to death. Yet merely three weeks later, he introduced me to a person whom he described as a wonderful person whom he was spending the whole day helping to find a job. But then he whispered in my ear, “He is gay, you know.”

I have come to realize that some of these people are much more tolerant in deeds than many so called liberals who shout over barricades that everybody is entitled to their own opinion and then rush to push the next law that forces everybody else to behave according to their own superior point of view.

By this point, you have certainly realized that a central rule in the way I behave when I travel is: don’t try to change anybody!

It is very tempting to believe that the way you behave is better and that other people should learn your enlightened ways. Other more modest but also appealing mistakes are to think that the rules of our culture are universally applicable or that adapting your behavior to suit a new environment is being untrue to yourself and morally wrong. Yet another mistake is to assume that other people are as receptive as you are to opinions different than theirs. Finally, some people simply say, “Why should I change? They should change.”

Unfortunately, all of the attitudes above suffer from the same fatal flaw—they simply don’t work in practice! People who go to foreign parts to teach the locals a new way of behaving are called missionaries. Their work is often dangerous, more often than not partially successful at best, and it is always a life mission.

Why would you ever choose to connect with someone who needs you to lie to them? The short answer is because you see something to be gained by it that may be as simple as not gaining an enemy. It’s important to understand I’m not talking about legal contracts or deeply intimate relationships. I’m talking about relating to people who live in a different world than you do on a scale of intimacy from minimal (i.e., asking for directions) to moderate (i.e., a neighbor who is a religious fundamentalist) in order to serve a purpose that is beneficial—or at the very least beneficial for you and neutral for him. Whether that end justifies those means is an ethical decision.

For example, which is more worthwhile, helping your fundamentalist neighbor fix his car when his kid is sick and needs to go to a doctor or having a shouting match with him about democracy and religion? You don’t have to get converted and start going to worship with him. Usually, there are only one or two basic sticking points such as whether you still believe in God even if you aren’t strong enough to follow all the commandments or whether you understand that women are naturally inferior to men. If you lie about those, you’re one of the ‘good guys,’ even if you are still wrong about a lot of less important things. Welcome—you have crossed over the border.

Caffeine can’t fix everything

Exploring cultures is very interesting, but it can also be exhausting. While other people are relaxing or following their familiar routines, you have to stay alert, scanning for trouble and learning all kinds of things that are new to you. Following the advice given above means that you are not on auto-pilot—you are constantly modifying your natural behavior to suit your new environment. With time, this becomes a habit, but it still requires alertness and mental energy. And while back home you can usually detect when something weird is going on even if you are half asleep, in an unfamiliar surrounding the clues are not so clear and noticing them requires attention. So watch out for fatigue. It’s hard to have fun when you’re feeling burned out—and your chances of making mistakes increase drastically. Don’t be surprised if you need more rest and alone time than usual. And do your best to get them.

Take your time

Messing around with time zones is confusing enough, but when you’re trying to figure out how to behave appropriately it’s even more important to keep an eye on the timelines you’re sharing with other people. One fundamental rule is intimacy and trust take time. That’s because it’s easy to hide things and deceive people in the short term, but the longer you know a person the more likely it is that their less admirable qualities will show themselves. So the more time that passes without you harming anyone, the safer they will feel having you around. This rule is kind of like gravity—it can’t be ignored, but there are plenty of ways to work around it (birds and airplanes and hang gliders do it all the time). In order to work with or around this rule, you need to be sensitive to things like how long someone has known you, how frequent your encounters were, and what was the sum total of your time together. Just maintaining your awareness of that will save you from making basic mistakes like being too familiar with someone who just met you or treating someone you’ve met many times as if they were a stranger.

In case that sounds too easy, bear in mind that our experience of time is strongly influenced by the situation in which we spend that time. So when trying to understand how someone else perceives you—and how you perceive them—linear time is an essential part of the foundation. The contexts in which you share time will modify the subjective experience for everyone sometimes in completely different ways. For instance, an airplane stewardess may make a deep impression on you, but since she was dealing with several hundred people on that shift she may barely remember you. Your understanding of time and context will prevent you from taking offense where none was intended and point you in the direction of effective action to improve the situation.

An interesting example of how context can modify the effects of shared time is an encounter between people who will probably never meet again. On the Internet, this is the new normal, but face to face is a different matter entirely partly because in the real world violence or sex are on the list of possible outcomes. The conversation you have with a stranger waiting for a ferry at three in the morning should be both courteous and careful, but it can also be very profound because the lack of long-term social consequences makes authenticity much easier. If you keep your guard up tactfully and your mind as open as you can, people may share their deepest thoughts with you.

Since we don’t live forever and the variety of possible contexts is immense, there will always be a mystery at the heart of understanding each other and ourselves. Sooner or later, most of us will find ourselves in situations where we are the stranger so practicing the art of being an acceptable one is well worthwhile. We may not be native, but perhaps we can make ourselves at home.

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
—(T. S. Eliot)

This isn’t “Rebecca’s” complete chapter – she has more to say – but it’s a good example of the depth into which the book goes.  It’s not just foreign travel, either;  it looks at moving in and through ethnic enclaves within our own country;  the different cultures we may encounter based on national origin, race, language, culture, age, and so on;  and many other factors.

In today’s diverse world, where a growing proportion of American residents come from other countries and don’t think the way we instinctively assume most Americans will, “Beyond The Picket Fence” is a very worthwhile book.  In conjunction with Marc Macyoung’s other books, it contains the kind of information that can keep us safe, even alive, when confronted by potentially hostile – or at least unwelcoming – people and situations.  I recommend the following in particular:



  1. Notice how normies, when commenting on societal problems are always quick to make it clear: "First, to make things clear, I am not talking about genetics. I am talking about cultural differences, beliefs, and education.". The great chain of causality is Biology>Culture>Institutions>Politics>Economics. Hat tip to Zman here.

  2. The one thing everyone needs is a "spidey sense" that tingles when danger looms. Unfortunately you don't learn this from a book, no matter how well-intentioned the author and how informative the contents. You learn it from something called the school of hard knocks. My personal reminder of that is half a pound of titanium inside me.

    I suspect that most of the readers of this blog already know this. I pray that our children, nephews and grandchildren make it through the school largely unscathed.

  3. 'Caffeine can't fix everything'

    Damn right it can't. In fact, it can make things worse. I suspect that I have an undiagnosed mood disorder and excessive stimulants don't help. I've been cutting back a tad and adding calming supplements into my regimen.

  4. 1) Don't just learn please and thank you, great as those are.
    80% of all conversation is non-verbal
    So learn the things IN THAT MILIEU that will piss people off at 50 yards, and make them want to set you on fire before you even open your mouth.
    Things like "Don't reach for things with your left (butt-wiping) hand in Muslim countries."
    Take off you (filthy gaijin covered with road feces) shoes before entering a Japanese home.
    Make sure you know whether you're gesture means "come here" or "okay", rather than "Up yours!" or "I'd like to have immoral sexual relations with you!".
    In some countries, it's rude to face someone while you talk to them, and raising your voice might be a fighting insult. Find out the easy way before you go, not the hard way when everyone's acting like your the @$$hole.
    Once the crowd shows up with torches and pitchforks, it's too late to explain you made a mistake.

    2) People will judge a book by it's cover.
    Going "American casual" with flip-flops, shorts, and t-shirts makes you look like a slovenly bum or ne'er-do-well in most of the world.
    If, even on a hot humid day, even the guys sweeping the streets have a button-down shirt and tie on, your AC/DC t-shirt isn't going to get you a table, it's going to get you a bum's rush out the door.

    The converse is true: wearing a three-piece suit in England and looking like a proper gentleman will get you treated like a banker or Oxford professor, even if you're a septic tank repairman. But unless you're Dick Vandyke in a Disney movie, looking like a dustman or chimney sweep is going to get you treated like someone who should only come to the servant's entrance, or tossed out the door on first look.

    Sometimes, you may not want to look like the richest dude in the room, but equally is true is you probably don't want to look like something the cat horked up on the porch along with a hairball.

    3) Always know where you are, and how to get from Point A to Point B. Before you set out. If the cab driver realizes you don't know you're being taken for a ride the long way around, he may decide to see how far he can push things to rip you off. Don't make it easy for people to take advantage of you, and they won't. Act like am easy mark, you'll be treated like one.

    Where's the airport? Where's the hotel? The consulate? Where's the nearest hospital? The police station? If you don't know that before you get on the plane, you're already the retarded kid wearing a Rolex, and heading for Shady Town. And we'll read about you in the papers – not in a good way.

    4) Learn the value of keeping money, papers (passport, visas, etc.) in duplicate, in 3/5/eleventy places in or on your person, including money belts, neck wallets, sock wallets, and other places. Pickpocketting is an Olympic event in 98% of the planet, especially touristy spots. If all your eggs aren't in one basket, you're less likely to wind up with egg on your face, and a missing wallet, 5000 miles from home, at night, in a country where you don't speak the lingo.

    5) Watch flicks like Ronin, etc., and read up on CIA-level tradecraft. Learn the Moscow Rules.
    "If there's any doubt, there is no doubt."
    "Never go against your gut."
    "In God we trust. Everyone else: watch their hands."
    "Drink if you must. But stay sober."
    IOW, Eyes up, head on a swivel, total situational awareness.
    So you don't end up in a newspaper story. In a bad way.

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