Have you ever sensed that something did not feel right with someone, that their body language, words or intentions seemed off? You may have felt a sensation in the pit of your stomach or a sense of unease and anxiety; as though your body was attempting to shout at you, to warn you that something was wrong. Too often, people may sense when someone has ulterior motives or concerning intentions, yet fail to act on these warning signs. We doubt ourselves and dismiss these warnings, often believing that the issue is us or that we have misunderstood something. It is important to trust ourselves and have confidence in our decision making and own intuition. Unfortunately, some people are exploitive and seek to take advantage of others. You may have experienced such people in your own lives or have heard stories from friends or family. It is important to be aware of troubling and alarming behaviours, knowing the warning signs and behaviours to look out for.
The following 7 warning signs are indicators of concerning behaviour. You may have previously encountered someone displaying these behaviours before and sensed that something felt wrong, questioning whether the issue was with you or the other person. The 7 warnings signs are behaviours that share overlap with many criminal acts, from sexual offending to luring a vulnerable person into a criminal gang. These warnings signs should be used as a guide along with your own intuition and feelings regarding the situation. If you are uncomfortable with someone and observe any of the below warning signs, the best response is to be assertive and remove yourself immediately from the situation. If several of these behaviours are displayed at a time by either a stranger or an acquaintance, then caution is required.
It is important to note, that some of these behaviours can be acceptable in certain situations. For example, men talking to women at bars may display one or two of these characteristics, however, when a combination of the behaviours are displayed this can be troublesome. Be aware of the context, ask yourself whether you believe that this is normal behaviour in the situation, question motive and know your relationship to the person. You do not owe anyone anything, including a conversation. It is important in any situation where you feel uncomfortable that you are assertive, speak up for yourself, set boundaries with behaviour that you do not like, and if all else fails, remove yourself immediately.
Be aware of what’s hidden behind the mask
1. Charm: Charm aims to establish rapport and is an intentional act directed towards a purpose. Charm is an action, not a trait. Therefore, it is important note that someone is intentionally trying to charm you. Viewing charm in this light enables you to question the person’s motives. Charm may not often be sinister and it can be dependent on situations, yet it is an important behaviour to be aware of. The most common method of charm is through smiling, aiming to create a sense of niceness. Charm is problematic as it can be deceptive and lead to false impressions, suggesting that a person is sincere and nice. Serial killer Ted Bundy was renowned for his good looks and ability to charm females, deceiving and luring in the women that he killed.
2. Ignoring “No”: Failing to listen to “no” is a sign of controlling behaviour. It is rarely appropriate to ever ignore the word “no”, especially if said several times. If someone ignores you saying “no” this indicates that they are trying to either control you, control the situation, or refusing to release their sense of control. If your “no” is ignored, you need to ask yourself why this person is attempting to gain control? If a stranger or person that you do not know well repeatedly ignores “no” this is particularly troubling. If you believe that someone has ignored you saying “no”, the worst thing that you can do is begin to doubt yourself and give in. This suggests weakness and under-assertiveness. Manipulative and exploitive people may often test your assertiveness by challenging your ability to say “no”. If you fail to be assertive and do not remain firm to your word, then this indicates an opening to exploit. There is no negotiating with the word “no”, any attempt at negotiation suggests that the person has not either properly understood what has been said, or does not care.
3. Volunteered Promises: Promises are attempts to offer reassurance. Most concerning is when a stranger or acquaintance offers a promise that is unsolicited or unneeded. For example, a person that you have just met through friends offers to give you a ride home from evening drinks. You are unsure about getting into the car with this person as you do not know them very well. Sensing this and wanting to convince you, the person states, “I promise I will take you straight home”. This line would be concerning as the context of this conversation never suggested that you would not be taken straight home. The volunteered promise is used to convey reassurance and convince you of sincerity. It is an attempt to guarantee that everything will be fine or that nothing is wrong. Ultimately, unneeded promises are attempts to dispel your doubts, only serving the interests of the person making the promise. When provided out of context and by a person that you do not know well, this behaviour suggests other intentions.
4. Oversharing: Oversharing and providing to many details is another method commonly used to build rapport and establish an alliance. Oversharing like charm can be dependent on the context, with this behaviour more likely acceptable at a local networking event, rather than by a stranger at a supermarket. This behaviour is typically done to create confusion, redirect the focus of the conversation and mask inconsistencies/lies in stories. Be aware of oversharing, particularly in relation to the context of information being discussed. If someone approached you at a supermarket and initially started talking about ways to cook food, then moved on to talking about their cooking skills, then progressed to their career or lifestyle, this would suggest oversharing as the conversation has quickly moved away from the context (the supermarket and food). Manipulation and conning behaviour aim to distract us from the obvious. Oversharing creates confusion while masking underlying intent.
5. Disarming Labels: This occurs when a person uses a slight criticism or a negative insult to create doubt and insecurity within a possible victim. This behaviour typically uses reverse psychology, with the person criticised then striving to prove the labeller wrong. For example, a perpetrator might say to a female victim, “I wanted to come and talk to you, but I was worried that you would be to snobby to talk to me”. Commonly, this line would lead to a person responding to the antagonist, attempting to prove that they are in fact nice and not snobby. The aim of using disarming labels is to engage the person. If you engage and respond, the labeller wins. The most important thing to remember is that the disarming labeller does not actually believe what they are saying, just that it will get you to bite and respond. Engaging with this behaviour can be costly.
6. Creating Debt: This behaviour is rooted in offering assistance, then having the person owe you. It is the classic, ‘I’ll help you, but you will owe me one’. The only difference is that the person wanting to be owed a favour, has actually set up the situation. They have gone out of their way to help you and then expect something back in return. In creating debt, the perpetrator will come to the victim’s aid, rather than being requested. Too often these scenarios become confusing for victims, with victims perceiving that they created the situation, unaware of the true dynamics. Creating debt is effectively used by many con artists and fraudsters, it provides an opening into a person’s life and an opportunity for greater influence and manipulation.
7. Intentional Teaming: This occurs we somebody attempts to create unity and suggest that the two of you share similarities. It implies that you are both the same, both sharing similar interests or intent. The vital word to look out for in these situations is the use of “we”. For example, you are walking with groceries to your car and are approached by a man stating “ You look like you need some help, why don’t ‘we’ handle this together?” He then continues, “there is nothing worse than juggling groceries, I know how you feel”. This situation suggests that the person is forcing an alliance and rapport with you. There is no shared experience in this situation, except for the one that the man is creating and trying to force. It is an intentional and sophisticated form of manipulation.
*If you are interested in building upon your resourcefulness to deal with potentially dangerous people or situations, the following readings are recommended:
Gavin De Becker. (1997). The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence. New York: Delta. (*the tips mentioned above are influenced by the work of De Becker).
Robert Hare. (1999). Without Conscience. Gilford Press.
George K. Simon (2010). In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. Parkhurst Brothers.