Making mistakes in a foreign culture
In the context of street harassment, de-escalation is perhaps not as useful a tool as verbal boundary setting (or non-verbal bodily communication). Street harassment—or any harassment, really—involves some kind of boundary crossing: one person violates the physical and/or emotional space of another person. In these cases, the safest response is usually some form of boundary setting; and if that does not work, exiting the situation (the RUN Finger).
However, not all forms of violence begin with boundary crossing. Sometimes they begin with an offense, whether real or imagined. When traveling in a foreign culture, we are bound to make mistakes. No matter how well we study the culture, there will be clues obvious to locals to which we are oblivious that would have informed us of a cultural violation. Others may be offended and become angry; there may be a need to apologize. Sometimes conflict arises simply as a result of differences between cultural expectations. I have both experienced and witnessed this on multiple occasions.
During one home-stay experience, I was living together with another foreigner in an Indian household. The other foreigner had a difficult time digesting Indian food and preferred to eat lighter meals. Rather than eat the meals prepared by the host family's cook, this foreigner snacked lightly on her own during the day and then quietly picked at her food at night. In her eyes, this was a non-confrontational way of handling the situation. No one's feelings need be hurt; and no one went to bed hungry (or with stomach pain!). From the perspective of the Indian cook, however, this was interpreted as a supreme offense. Choosing to eat earlier so as to not be hungry for dinner effectively communicated (even without words!): "I don't like your food." In an Indian context, and I suspect throughout South Asia in general, cooking food and sharing meals is more a communal process than it is a simple necessity (as it is for many Americans used to eating on-the-go). To reject food that is offered in South Asia is difficult because of the social implications. As someone who struggles with quite a few food allergies and sensitivities, I have become all too aware of the social complexities involved in politely declining food or drink.
One night (when my housemate was absent), I overheard the cook complaining loudly to our host mom in Hindi that my housemate must not like her food, because she never eats it. The cook was very plainly offended and hurt by these actions. I spoke with my host mom later to try and clarify the situation, but because it was a communication issue between my housemate and the cook, my words alone could not resolve it. My housemate had intended no offense; but because no verbal communication was given, this was a tension that remained for the remainder of her stay. This could have of course ended in a different way. With different personalities this tension might have escalated into a full conflict with yelling, screaming, and throwing things.
De-escalation is difficult in part because it requires us face the possibility that we may have made a mistake; we may have caused offense, even without intending to do so. More importantly, it is difficult because it requires us admit that we may need to apologize for offenses unintended. The number of times I have accidentally stepped on, or too close to something sacred while in India are too numerous to count. I often (er, usually) err on the side of rudeness when negotiating with rickshaw drivers. I have raised my voice at bureaucrats, rickshaw drivers, and shop clerks alike while traveling, more times than I care to admit. Traveling can be a very highly stressful situation wherever in the world you are; this is probably doubly true in South Asia. But de-escalation is not simply the nice, polite thing to do; sometimes it is a safety necessity. Because sometimes--and like with street harassment we never know when--the situation has the potential to escalate to physical violence. Just like in road rage situations, we never know where that final line is beyond which a person snaps and may try to hurt us.
'Road rage' in Sarnath
One day in Sarnath (Varanasi, UP) I was riding a bicycle home from my research institution. There is a turnabout (traffic circle) not too far from my guest house. I was still trying to get used to the seemingly bizarre rules of the road--not to mention riding on the far left side of the road. I accidentally went the wrong way on the turnabout, swerved to avoid being hit by an auto-rickshaw, and stopped just short of full collision with the thigh of a middle-aged man who had been standing at the corner. Or at least I hope it was his thigh.
It was clear I had still hit the man despite trying to stop in time. The man was (understandably!) quite angry and approaching me, very apparently preparing to yell at me. I stepped down from the bike, stepped back, placed my hands in front of me in a placating and apologetic gesture, and apologized to him calmly and sincerely in Hindi: "Mujhe mauf keejiye Uncle-ji!...Aap theek hain?" (I'm so sorry, Sir!.... Are you ok?). I repeated this quite a few times before he registered what I was saying. Taken aback by my response, the man was shocked out of his anger and started calming down, begrudgingly wobbling his head to indicate, "No." With his attention, I asked him once again if he needed help, to which he again (but more decisively) wobbled his head, "No." He waved me on, and so I left as quickly and safely as I could.
This incident was clearly my fault; I made a mistake and had nearly injured someone. But the situation could have clearly been reversed. I could have been standing on the side of the road and nearly hit by someone on a bicycle who then became angry at the inconvenience of having to stop. How many times does it happen with car accidents (or bike accidents) that both parties exit their vehicle yelling and screaming at each other? While an apology may not be the appropriate response to every incident, de-escalation itself is a powerful tool that can go a long way towards diffusing anger and stopping violence before it starts.
How is de-escalation applied in South Asia?
De-escalation requires us be honest with ourselves; we have to honestly evaluate whether or not we have caused harm and what, if anything can be done to remedy the situation. The key is often to apologize if appropriate, and offer to do something to help "fix" or remedy the situation if that is possible.
We also have to be aware of what could escalate a situation, which is also important in the context of street harassment. While we may feel tempted to snap back at someone in anger or strike them with physical force, is it worth the risk of escalating a conflict? Recall the story I shared in the post on Boundary Setting, where a woman stood up to slap her harasser in a restaurant. In this case, woman's response escalated the situation; the harasser struck her in the head with a beer bottle from the table. While aggressive responses are generally safer than passive ones, aggression carries with it the additional risk of escalating the situation. This is not to say that we should err on the side of passivity to avoid confrontation. If an assertive response does not work, and the harasser intensifies the harassment, at that point it might be safer to leave (if possible) to exit the situation. If you can't exit the situation, a seemingly aggressive response (preparing to fight to defend yourself) might be the only safe choice left. Once your physical safety is threatened, remaining passive or attempting to bargain or negotiate is not the safest approach. But this does not mean that aggression is the safest first response to harassment while traveling in South Asia. It is important to be mindful of the effect our reactions may have in the context of a culture foreign to ours.
Boundary setting is the Self Defense tool I have used most frequently while traveling in India. However in my experience, de-escalation is no less important a tool and can be crucial for increasing our safety while traveling. For the most part I have found that the de-escalation tools I use in the US are quite effective in South Asia as well. When someone is yelling at you in the moment, I have found that breathing deeply (to calm yourself) and speaking calmly and repetitively, like a "broken record," can be effective in South Asia as well as the US. Tools that we teach in Thousand Wave's Self Defense seminars include:
- Using apologetic but assertive body language (not aggressive);
- Apologizing sincerely when appropriate;
- Offering some form of assistance, aid, or compensation to remedy the situation;
- Speaking in calm, sincere tones repeatedly, like a broken record;
I have found distraction also to be a powerful tool. While that was not my intention, apologizing in Hindi had the unintended side effect of distracting the man from his anger. Of course, like anywhere in the world, there may be a time when words and the offer of compensatory actions are not sufficient to de-escalate a situation, in which case exiting the situation (the RUN Finger) might be safer.
One final note about de-escalation in South Asia: I have noted that there are differences between the way and men and women display and react to aggression in India compared to the US. Women in the US are more likely to try to avoid raising their voice and often rely on polite, bordering on assertive responses sooner, preferring to avoid aggression in most situations. Sometimes even women's assertive behavior is viewed with hostility in the US (and I suspect in many Western countries). We are often made to feel uncomfortable for simply asserting our rights to not be touched, whistled at, or otherwise objectified. If we assertively communicate to a harasser that we don't appreciate being commented upon, a common response is the indignant phrase "ungrateful b&*%h", conveying that we somehow have transgressed the gendered norms laid out for us as women. It is a useful contrast to note that I have never been insulted in response (even in Hindi) for assertively--or even aggressively--calling out a male harasser in India.
I believe this difference in responses to assertiveness (and to female displays of anger) is related to gendered norms for displays of anger and 'aggression' in India. Throughout my travels I've noticed that Indian women are more likely than Americans to passively (or passive-aggressively) ignore a given situation for a while, but will then switch to an aggressively angry response quite quickly in many situations--whether they are being harassed, cheated by a rickshaw driver, or offended in any other way. I have observed--both from my personal experience and from the experience of others--that Indian men are made visibly quite uncomfortable and embarrassed by an aggressively angry woman (whether Indian or foreign) and will often do what they can to de-escalate the situation themselves by offering apologies (and sometimes compensation)! I have noticed it is considerably less common for men in India to display such aggressive forms of anger--at least in public. For foreigners accustomed to the gendered norms for displaying assertiveness, aggression, anger, and so forth common in the US, navigating these differences can seem daunting; however, the basic principles and tools for de-escalation still apply.
I wish everyone safe travels during the upcoming months!