Don’t mind your own business

I’m walking home on Wednesday night. It’s about ten o’clock.

“Leave me alone! Don’t touch me!”

I hear a panicked woman’s scream about half a block away, coming across the street, from the far side of a parking lot. At a distance, I see three people, two men and a woman. The woman is obviously trying to get away, weaving her way through parked vehicles. Evasive manoeuvres.

I divert my path and head towards the trio with a quickened stride. I am extremely self-conscious of the fact that I have zero plan of action. It is like walking into the final exam for a course you never attended. But worse.

But ignoring the situation is clearly impossible. You can’t ‘unhear’ a scream. To walk away is to be an accomplice to whatever is happening over there.

The three individuals are now moving in the opposite direction. The woman makes an attempt to cross the street to create more distance between her and the two men, but one of them keeps pace with her. He attempts to constrain her by the arm, but she pulls away and trips over the sidewalk curb. By now, I am rushing over as quickly as I can. The third man, following behind more slowly, arrives at about the same time I do. All three individuals appear to be in their early twenties.

I have no idea what to do. Social convention does not provide a clear script for confrontations like this. So I approach the woman and ask, “Are these men bothering you?”

(Let’s be honest: I probably heard that question in a movie or something.)

The woman does not hesitate. “Yes!”

Several things suddenly happen all at once:

The first man — the one who had followed her across the street first — lets out an exasperated grunt and throws his hands in the air, looking at the woman angrily.

The second man — the more aloof of the two — steps forward. “It’s ok, man. I’m completely sober.”

“We’re all co-workers,” says the first man.

I have no idea what is happening. “Do you feel safe?” I ask the woman, not really sure what else to say.

She replies, “No. I, I’m not… I mean, yes. No, it’s my birthday and I just…”

I suddenly realize that I was talking to an extremely inebriated individual.

“You need to feel safe,” says the second man to the woman.

It only took a millisecond for me to see the situation in an entirely different light. What first appeared to be two men assaulting a woman in a parking lot suddenly became two co-workers trying to get their intoxicated and belligerent colleague home safely after a birthday celebration.

Paradigm shift. It’s lingo and jargon, but there is probably no better description for what just happened in my mind.

While driving past, a paramedic had witnessed the woman wrestle free from the first man and fall on the curb. He had parked the ambulance just down the street and now arrives at the group on foot. The woman grows agitated at the sight of personnel in uniform, and hurls several insults at the paramedic, despite his reminders that he is not a cop, and merely concerned for her safety. She is not a happy drunk. Not at all.

It is obvious that she is so stoned that her present unwillingness to cooperate with her concerned colleagues extends to just about everyone else in society. The paramedic radios in the situation. It is clear that the police are about to get involved.

“I don’t have to deal with this shit,” says the second man, the most sober of the three. “I’m out.” He disappears down the street.

The first man — the man who I originally thought was the primary ‘aggressor’ — stays with us, unwilling to ‘abandon’ his friend to two strangers (namely, the paramedic and I). This, for him, is obviously a bar night gone terribly wrong. He is admittedly at his wit’s end, aware that continuing to ‘chase’ a screaming person through downtown is an ineffective tactic, but currently without recourse to a better solution.

We wait. Trying to keep the woman preoccupied and distracted, in an attempt to dissuade her from wandering off. But at the first sign of the police, she takes off again, with her colleague following her, against more protest and yelling. The paramedic and I chat with the officer briefly, before he continues after them, around the corner and out of sight into the night.

With the police now involved, the paramedic and I talk for a minutes and then go our separate ways.

As I continue to walk home, I reflect on how seismically wrong I initially was about the whole situation. From across the parking lot, I had entirely misjudged what was happening. My frame of reference had ‘defined’ the situation in my mind: to the point that I did not even notice how drunk the young woman actually was until asking her a few questions. Heuristics are powerful, powerful indeed. It is amazing when you catch a glimpse of your own automaticity at work.

At the same time, ignoring those initial instincts to intervene and ‘get involved’ would have been irresponsible, selfish. For as much as my intuitions and hunches were incorrect, acting on them was still the right thing to do. To ignore the impulse to intervene would be to rationalize myself into an excuse for just ‘minding my own business’ (possibly to the harm of someone else).

In hindsight, I think I did the right thing: I asked questions. Just two questions, but adequate questions to counter-check my own blinding biases in the moment. (Clearly, the worst possible approach would have been to assume the role of a ninja, vigilante, or righteous liberator from the outset. Had I not asked any questions, my initial response could have been categorically inappropriate for the actual situation.) I can’t pat myself on the back for calculating this approach, but the lesson learned will doubtlessly inform my tactic, response, and assumptions next time.

Don’t just ‘mind your own business’… but do start with questions.

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