Etiquette In Unknown Areas (How To Avoid Starting A Riot)



I am Selco and I am from the Balkan region, and as some of you may know it was hell here from 92-95, anyway, for 1 whole year I lived and survived in a city WITHOUT: electricity, fuel, running water, food distribution, without any kind of organized law or government. The city was surrounded for 1 year and it actually was a real SHTF situation. Our allies were our enemies from one day to the next. Today I’m prepared and share my experience on this blog.

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crowded street


This summer the team at SHTFSchool have been busy travelling and planning for a new range of courses. This is in addition to my routine and extensive travels for other work.  Today  I share a summary of some key things I’ve learnt in my travels on things to do (or not!) if you find yourself in a ‘new place’ or are unsure of what the social ‘norms’ of the area you are in may be. I hope it is of use and interest!

Remember, in these days of increasing ‘multiculturalism’ it is perfectly possible to get yourself into trouble breaking ‘cultural rules’ without travelling to a foreign country

The overarching consideration for this type of problem can easily be broken down into two categories. Deciding on a recommended course of action or displaying a behaviour can always be held up to this simple litmus test…

1) No harm can come from this… (Insert action)
2) No good can come from… (Insert action)

See how this applies in this list of top 10 things to consider below:

1. Be Observant

Breaking rules in other cultures can attract moderate to severe penalties. (Go to Deera Square in Saudi Arabia on a Friday afternoon to see a stark example). Due to the potential severity of punishment of what we may see as ‘slight’ or minor issues, the exquisite art of observation must come into play as early as possible. Scrutinize your surroundings and compare yourself to them and see in what ways you will/are ‘stand out’ and then take action to address those issues swiftly. No harm can come from being observant.

2. Keep Covered

This applies to men, but even more so to women. No harm can come from covering as much of the body as possible in an unknown area (See how the test works!?) If you feel you ever are realistically going to find yourself in such an ‘unknown’ situation we are illustrating, then make sure long sleeved trousers and tops are worn or are immediately available. Early observation should indicate if you need to cover your head. For shawls/scarves/head covers unless you KNOW the tribal identifiers (e.g. patterns and colour connotations on a shemagh) keep them as neutral and non-specific in style as possible. Your dapper blue cravat may look great at the cocktail bar in your tennis club but will probably cause you problems in South-Central LA.

3. Avoid Comments

Let’s face it, you are probably already ‘pinged’ by the locals or residents as being a stranger. Trying not to stand out will help, but an overheard comment (especially a negative or derogatory one), no matter how outstanding, strange, odd or degrading event you are commenting on is going to get you on people’s radar swiftly and not in a good way. No good can come from mentioning how ‘different’ these people are from you, or you are from these people.

4. Stick Within Your Gender

Do not attempt to engage, in any way, with members of the opposite sex. Full Stop (Period). Be as affronted at this advice as you want, but take it. No discussion is required. If you can’t follow it in this format you WILL be taught another way…

Also know this isn’t just about you. If you are introduced to a woman do not offer her your hand. Wait for her to offer. If you hold out your hand in simple politeness you may be forcing her to choose between insulting a guest (you) or touching a man she is not married to—either or both of which may be harshly punished for.

5. Steer Clear of Religious Buildings/Areas

In the absence of a professional guide, or clear acceptance of tourists, the odds of you breaking up a VERY significant rule are so off the scale it is not worth the risk.

6. Remain Clear Headed

Degenerating your ability to be observant, and cognitive ability to understand why you need to stick with these rules is a plan no good can come from… On this, please note, just because you see locals doing something doesn’t mean you can too…don’t get drunk or high in dangerous places. More strongly, NEVER alter your mental state except in a confirmed safe place.

7. Don’t Engage with ANY Solicitation

Do not give to beggars, do not feed the poor. From personal experience don’t stop the child running in to the road clearly in your line of sight (it’s bait for a trap you don’t want to be in). Don’t talk with prostitutes, even if you are ‘Just asking for directions’, avoid street vendors, touts, self declared taxi drivers… You get the idea.

If You Need Help, Ask Someone in a Public Facing Role or just ‘Back Up’ – Look for assistance from service staff, waiters, store owners etc. DO NOT stop random strangers in the street, and don’t stand in the street looking lost and/or bewildered. If you have ‘inadvertently’ found yourself in the wrong place, turn around and go back the way you came (Like if you ever accidentally take an express subway that doesn’t stop at 70th Street in New York City, but takes you straight to Harlem at 11pm at night, and you are translucent white, not American, and look like you just got a beating from Muay Thai class, get back on the Subway and head back the way you came…)

8. No Pictures

You’ve realized you may not be in tinsel town, so stop wandering around like a tourist. Unless you’re taking pictures of your teeth for dental record analysis later on, no good can come from getting in peoples way with a camera.

9. Don’t Display Wealth

If it’s shiny and possibly expensive looking stow it away or hide it. Dress down to the best of your ability.

Most important point last!

10. Be Polite

Not witty, engaging, entertaining, fascinated, shocked, pious, or committed to ‘educating people’, or any other way you may think I mean by ‘Polite’. Out and out, genuinely polite. You are the odd one out, you are under scrutiny, anything going wrong WILL be seen as potentially your fault, so try not to do anything ‘wrong’ (even though you don’t know yet what wrong is) so be sincere and respectful in your actions until you’ve figured out what is going on…

These 10 simple measures will hopefully ‘buy you time’ to figure out how to best act and proceed in an area previously unknown to you. Getting into trouble in an unknown area is fraught with additional risks. Inciting a mob is a situation you will very likely never escape from.

Do you have any ‘rules’ you follow when you are in ‘unknown areas’…? Please comment below and share your experiences…

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23 Responses

  1. Good commonsense advice. I would only add that avoiding ‘backstreet areas’ that is out of the mainstream traffic should be avoided unless you have no choice. Along with advice of #8 (No Pictures), I would avoid turning your head unnecessarily which pegs you as someone who has not been there before. Use your eyes more than your neck to view different areas.

    Thank you for the post.

  2. When I was an aircrew member in the US Air Force, I used to fly to the Philippines a lot. One of the things I was told during my first trip was, “Don’t let yourself get talked into doing anything that you weren’t going to do when you first left your hotel room.” No good can come of that.

    If a local stopped us on the street and asked us if we wanted to exchange dollars for Philippine pesos, the correct response was a polite “no, thank you.” They had very strict currency exchange laws in place, and seeing the inside of a Philippine jail was not on my “to do” list.

    And speaking of currency, when making a deal with, say, a taxi driver, make sure that you are both talking about the same currency. I once forgot this. The taxi driver said his price was “20.” I thought he meant pesos, but upon arriving at my hotel I found that he had meant dollars (about 160 pesos at the time). That could have gotten real ugly, real fast if another American hadn’t happened by and advanced me a short term loan.

  3. Do this in your own community but in the bad part of town. It really is a different country. when I leave work and decide to stop at the ghetto walmart, I silence and pocket my iphone and iwatch, untuck my shirt partially to look a bit more slobbish. I then walk a little hunched over and have my head down instead of up and looking confident.

    The only thing that is a dead giveaway for me is the $400 shoes, and I really should keep a pair of $9.00 beat up sneakers in the car.

    I go from professional with a good job and wealth to guy that is down on his luck in minutes. I pay with a creditcard that you can have as a photo, I used the image of the local area food stamps card for it. so it completely looks like I am paying with food stamps like all the other poor people.

    practice this weekly, blending in is the SECOND MOST IMPORTANT thing you can learn for SHTF right after situational awareness.

    1. “I pay with a credit card that you can have as a photo, I used the image of the local area food stamps card for it. so it completely looks like I am paying with food stamps like all the other poor people.”

      I REALLY like that idea!

  4. If at all possible do not go into a possibly “hostile” location at night and do not go alone at any time of day.

    If you carry a purse don’t have the strap around your neck. Carry any valuables in your pockets, not in purse.

    Carry significant valuables under your clothes, not in pockets, backpack or purse. Passport, cash, credit cards, identification.

    If accosted by anyone continue walking toward a public location: store, restaurant, policeman, fire station, church….

    Be alert to what people are doing. If you are the center of attention you are in trouble.

  5. 1. Always be nice. Being courteous to service workers, can go a long way toward making your journey more safe and comfortable. If you know nothing else of the local language, find out how/ when to say “Please”, “Thank You”, “You’re welcome.”. Even if you can’t pronounce things EXACTLY right, the effort will be appreciated. (This works at home, too.)

    2. Always try to travel areas, that are new to you, with a reliable, local, guide. You should use someone who will have a vested economic interest in your continued well-being. If staying in a hotel, ask someone in management to find you “reliable transportation” you can hire for extended periods of time, instead of using random taxis. Ask hotel management, or desk staff, for someone experienced, who can drive you around. Ask what the going rate is to hire a car & driver for an hour/ afternoon/ evening/ day, and agree to pay that. Know beforehand, that you’re likely paying an customary, unwritten tourist “surcharge”, and don’t try to “nickle & dime” for a cheaper rate. Most likely, the driver will give the hotel staff member a “finder’s fee”. The driver has an incentive to keep you safe, so as to keep you as a customer, since he’s likely making more money driving by you for an extended period, than trying to pick-up fares. The hotel staff has an economic interest in you continuing to use the driver, and receiving their “commission”.

    3. “Eyeball Rule A”. Avoid looking directly into someone’s eyes, unless they have initiated a conversation with you, first. Direct eye contact, in almost ALL cultures, signals a high level of familiarity, and possibly, dominance, by the person initiating the contact. In certain subcultures in the US, a locked gaze is called “mad-dogging” and is a gesture of aggression. If you make eye contact, such as when saying “Thank you.” to the waiter/ host/ hostess who has just handed you a cup of tea, make it as brief as is necessary, waiting only a moment, for their acknowledgement of your gratitude.

    4. “Eyeball Rule B”: DO NOT STARE AT PERSONS, PARTICULARLY THOSE OF THE OPPOSITE GENDER! NO EXCEPTIONS! Even if you suddenly see the most beautiful woman/ man that you have seen in your life (It was Addis Abbaba, 2006 for me.) don’t stare! Most cultures are very protective of their womenfolk, so JUST DON’T DO IT!

    5. “Eyeball Rule C”: If you find yourself in a place, where the crowd has more “eyeballs” on you, than on the other activities of daily life (shopping, commuting, eating) you’ve attracted attention. It may be because of simple curiosity, or it could mean that they don’t often see folks like you. Either way, start looking for a way to calmly, and quietly, extract yourself from the area.

    6. “Mind the birds.” If you spend much time in the outdoors, in a forest, or in the middle of the city, there is a normal ambient, background noise present. It can be made up of chirping birds, honking car horns, vendors hawking their goods, sounds of construction machinery, etc. Take a moment to listen to the background noise in an area, and also take a quick visual inventory of the activities going on. If you notice a sudden change in the “background sound”, take it as a warning. Just like all the birds in the woods suddenly ceasing their calls, it means that something is coming, or something is about to happen. Don’t stick around to find out what it is.

    7. “Fake it, ’til you make it.” – As Selco, and others have already suggested, if you do find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, and unsure of the route to safety, don’t “telegraph” your situation to onlookers. Pick a direction (in an urban setting, moving toward more open areas is usually best) and walk confidently, as if you know exactly where you are going. Avoid triggering the “prey response” in street people.

    8. “Cover your ink, and leave out your piercings.”: Although tattoos, and piercings, are increasingly more acceptable in the West, they still carry negative connotations in some cultures/ countries. The mere presence of tattoos, never-mind their subject matter, will draw increased scrutiny, from the public. It can also bring unwanted attention from law enforcement. As Selco said, wear, or have handy, long sleeves, and long pants. If you were so stupid as to get tattoos above your neckline, know that in Central America, they are an indication of high status… in a street gang, like MS-13! In some parts of India, the style and placement of nose-rings and earrings, can indicate status (caste)… or be an identifier for prostitutes.

  6. Dressing down is very good advice, especially for a woman. I always do this when I travel Greyhound. Torn jeans and shirt, no jewelry, no makeup. Blend in like a drop of water in a river and prevent much difficulty!

  7. I’m a rather large white male, so I stick out already. (I’m 6’5″ 355 lbs. Powerlifting body type) I’ve noticed in my travel that the more confident I look, the more people get out of my way and let me be. I’ve tested looking sheepish in and sticking to the sides of rooms and roads. People are more likely to approach me then.

    I just walk around with a smile and maintain eye contact with everyone that walks past me. I really haven’t had any problems doing that.

    1. You are a unique case in that people expect confidence and dominance from a man of your stature. The rest of us are not so fortunate… 😉 But thanks for the story.

  8. This is good advice. I have lived by these rules for the past 20 years working in the Middle East, Africa, South America and Asia. Try to blend in as much as possible. I have been in some places where I was the only white face for hundreds of miles. In that instance develop allies quickly they will keep you safe. I was in an Arabic bazaar on the border of Cameroon and Chad a few years ago when insurgents arrived to rob the local vendors. My interpreter who is also a good friend quickly got me out of the area before they could find us. He is the son of a senator for the Cameroonian government. Being the proverbial fly on the wall can extend life considerably in unsettled times.

  9. Have a couple of ‘watchtower’ (Jehovas witness) pamphlets available and in good condition. If you find yourself in a sketchy bus stop/station/subway just whip them puppies out, hold them up to your chest and look eager. No one will bother you.

  10. Never, ever wear the jersey, logo, or even specific color combination of a sports team. Regardless of where you are, gangs, thugs, hooligans and punks all identify with the local professional sports team. In the US, wearing a Pirates hat in St. Louis might get you shot, while wearing a Cardinals cap in Pittsburgh might just get you beaten. In the rest of the world, wearing a football ( soccer) jersey from the wrong country or club will get you noticed quick. In England just wearing a scarf with the wrong colors might get you rolled by a crowd of drunks.

  11. Twain was right when he said, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than it is to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. In that light, be respectful to all, without being obsequious to any. Obsequiousness can be just as annoying as disrespect, but a little humility goes a long way. There’s a verse in the Bible, and I’m sure there’s something similar to it in many other religious texts: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom”. It is entirely possible to have an air of quiet humility, whether or not you are individually a religious person, and it is generally acceptable behavior nearly anywhere on the planet….at least in the countries I’ve travelled in.

  12. Now that you mention it, humility is the root of almost all of the specific advice in both the article and the comments.

    Nothing bad can come from quiet, observant humility.

  13. – Lots of good info in this feed. If you wear a hoodie, when the hood is off, tuck it down into the shirt so it cannot be grabbed (especially from behind). If it is grabbed and/or jerked, it automatically rings your neck and throws your balance to the wind.
    – Black is a universal blend in color for most areas, but evokes emotions of negativity, while dark blue is also universal, it evokes more positive emotions, consider colors carefully. Also, study area gang colors before you dress; obviously brights are like a ‘see me’ light.
    – First thing I buy when in a strange place is the local newspaper, folded over in half. Carrying the local newspaper loosely in your hand makes one look ‘local and daily’ in most places. If you find you’re lost, in most cases, you can buy look around time by pretending to read and make glances every so often till you get a bearing. If something starts going down it will keep you from appearing as if you are someone who gives a damn. No one ever seems to bother anyone reading a newspaper for much of anything.
    – Walk at the same pace as most others around you; never hurried, never slower, keeping pace keeps you in place and less likely to be approached if too slow and less likely to seem like a ‘catch me’ challenge if too fast (both can appear rude).
    – Stay in the middle, especially where streets are on one side and buildings on the other, keeps an easy street push from happening, keeps an easy doorway force in from happening and if 2 people split you (big hint) then you have clearance room to diagonal step back. If you have a 3rd behind person they will have to step past you (triangulation impact is thwarted)
    – Don’t wear a phone ear piece or any ear gear, it both distracts you from hearing on both sides and makes you appear hearing handicapped.
    Just a couple inputs, thanks for letting me share.

  14. I have run experiments abroad in places I obviously stand out and agree. If you remember one thing, cover up your head. We principally use the face, head and shoulders to identify and discern the intentions of others. Most cultures folks on here will interface with wear some type of head gear and sunglasses. Buy what you see others wearing.

    Also don’t accept “guide services” or transport services (like a taxi) offered by “locals” or from anyone you haven’t vetted. A lot of criminals live off tourists and even cartels get in on the action because of the money.

  15. A furtur comment to “dressing down” for men.. Don’t be clean shaven.. it makes you look a little “rough”. Blue jeans and boots. “Working class”. In the part of town where I often shop.. it is common to see people wearing “hunting colours” either the forest pattern cammo.. or even the red, blue, pink versions of the forest cammo (safety colours). It is a rural town and hunting is a common activity.. for some this may be their only warm clothing. So you don’t stand out.. but you look “tough”and working class. This may not work in the city..:-).

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