Assertive courtesy is the term we’ve coined as part of our Presilient Communication programme to describe the balance between these two important principles of self-protection. The essence of assertive courtesy is that we default to polite, respectful interaction, but maintain an emotional detachment from the conversation so that we are not sucked into the games often played by conmen and other predators. By remaining emotionally detached, we can treat each piece of verbal and non-verbal communication analytically, further arming our intuition.
The weaknesses that predators rely upon are hardwired into us. We are a social, pack animal. We have a biological need to be liked. For 90% of our history as a species, being ostracised from our tribe meant certain death – left to fend for ourselves in harsh environments full of deadly predators. As such, those who didn’t learn how to build relationships and friendships soon found themselves removed from the gene pool.
This need to be liked leaves us open to a variety of attacks. A person who can’t control this need to be liked is like a landlocked country with an open border policy, or your aunt Esther who instantly clicks on any link that lands in her inbox. We trust too fully, get sucked into the game, and can be taken advantage of by even the most unskilled manipulators.
As Gavin DeBecker writes in his classic text, The Gift of Fear, we need to think of charm as a verb, not an attribute. Instead of saying “This person is charming”, we must think “This person is trying to charm me.” By associating charming as an attribute, we create a halo effect that puts the other party on a pedestal and draws us closer to them, building trust that may not be deserved. When we recognise charm as a skill that can be developed and deployed in a deliberate way, we can then more analytically take stock of other behaviours to see if they a congruous with a generally charming person or if there are inconsistencies.
An Assertive Courtesy response to someone using a charm strategy simply involves maintaining respectful, socially appropriate dialogue while mentally cataloguing the attempt to charm. We do not allow ourselves to begin liking the person just because they flatter us and build our ego. We stay on guard, and if the charming individuals starts to push boundaries that would normally be tightly enforced, we step in with an assertive response:
“Steve, you’re a lovely guy. But I’m not going to break the rules for you or anyone.”
“Dianna, I’m very flattered, but I’m not going to compromise my integrity for you.”
“I’m sorry you seem to have been given the wrong information, and you seem like a nice guy, but surely you understand that I’m not going to allow a stranger into my apartment without any kind of warning or verification. Tell my building manager to call me. Good bye.”
Beyond charm, there are a host of other manipulation strategies that Assertive Courtesy guards us against. Two common examples are authority and reciprocity.
The authority strategy builds upon the basic human instinct to defer to someone we believe to be a figure of authority. Marketers have known this for years. That’s why toothpaste is advertised by someone pretending to be a dentist, why cigarettes were originally marketed by doctors, why sports stars are used to promote electrolyte drinks, and why celebrity chefs are paid handsomely to promote frozen meals they definitely threw in the rubbish after filming. Of course, any intelligent consumer knows that these are marketing ploys, but it doesn’t make the strategy any less effective.
Predatory criminals use this same strategy. Common examples include
- Using police strobe lights on the dash of their vehicle to get lone drivers to pull over
- Wearing recognisable uniforms (police, military, ambulance, firefighter, etc) to gain entry to properties or elicit a different level of service
- Wearing high-vis workwear to gain access to building sites
- Cold-calling scams claiming to originate from a government department, threatening arrest or law suits if a fictional fine is not paid
The Assertive Courtesy response to this one is also simple. Detach from the urge to comply and think to yourself “Is this person really an authority figure? Is there anything else about them that confirms or contradicts what they’re claiming?” Perhaps the “police vehicle” doesn’t have any visible antenna for communication. Maybe the high-vis construction worker is sporting perfectly clean work boots. Or you might notice that the person who claims to be a council inspector is flustered and aggressive when challenged to show identification. In all such cases, an assertively courteous response would be:
“I’m more than happy to comply, but I’d like to see some proof of identification first, please.”
If not convinced, ask for more. Seek external verification if needed. Never allow yourself to do something that feels unsafe just because someone of authority tells you to.
Lastly, the reciprocity approach is another common tool of marketers and conmen alike. The general idea of reciprocity is that if I do something for you or give something to you, you will feel inclined to reciprocate. Here’s the kicker though, the reciprocity is seldom proportionate. This is why sales teams will gift $500 theatre tickets to executives that can sign over million-dollar contracts. It’s also why every shopping centre in the world will have someone giving away free samples or a product at all times. Once you’ve received something, you tend to feel honour-bound to at least listen to the person who gave it to you, if not actually buy from them.
Criminals use this strategy in a number of ways. Catfishers will often spend a long period of time developing trust with their victim by sharing a huge amount of (fictional) personal information. Inevitably, the victim will buy in and begin sharing their own (real) information, which leaves them exposed to identify theft, extortion or other manipulation. Many random killers and rapists over the years have used the strategy of innocently offering help to draw close to a victim. Perhaps it is carrying groceries to a victim’s door and then leveraging this good will to get an invite inside. Or it might be an extravagant unsolicited gift of Valentine’s Day, hoping to secure an otherwise unlikely date.
The Assertive Courtesy approach to this situation is really just telling it how it is without crossing over into the territory of rudeness. For example:
“I’m very flattered by the gift, Steven, but I don’t want to pursue any kind of relationship with you. You’re welcome to give the gift to someone else if this changes your mind.”
“You’ve told me a lot about yourself, which is information I didn’t ask for. It’s nice that you trust me enough to share, but I am not going to divulge information in this forum that might make me vulnerable. I’m sure you can understand why.”
“I didn’t ask for your help. You offered. Now I am asking you to leave. Please respect my wishes.”
Obviously the more ominous the situation seems, the blunter your response can be. Just be mindful that doing this will put the predator into a position where they will need to decide what action to take next. They may escalate or de-escalate. You must be prepared for either eventuality, but it is still a better option than allowing yourself to become more vulnerable by falling for the manipulation.