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Oh dear! I keep forgetting I'm not in Kansas!
                         Wizard of Oz

High Risk Behavior and Knowing Where You Are

On this page:
The Customs of Your Tribe | Barbarians in Rome | An Example of Differences | Partying in Barbarian Lands

We have a saying: Just because your lifestyle takes all your time, doesn't mean that's all there is to life.

Between the two of us we have been in 43 of the 50 United States, been in 15 different countries and three different continents. We've lived and worked in the the largest urban centers in the North American continent and lived in towns so small that they barely register on the map. We have been in corporate high rises and cattle barns. We have been in the mansions of millionaires and squatted in the gutter with winos. We regularly consort with movie stars, truck drivers, politicians, cowboys, artists, scientists, college students, college professors, secretaries, scientists, busboys, CEOs, bikers, criminals, cops, military, liberals and gang members. We have lost count of the number of ethnic/cultural/socio-economic groups we have routinely dealt with not only professionally, but on their terms. In short, unlike many people, we exist outside a very narrow cultural/social/socio-economic/racial circle.

We tell you this because of how often we have seen people mistake how things are done in their niche existence as how things are (or should be) done everywhere. When in another type of situation, they proceed to act according to the 'rules' of their usual circle.

And then they wonder why the other person attacked them.

Customs of Your Tribe
In 'Caesar and Cleopatra' George Bernard Shaw wrote: Pardon him ... he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.

It is ironic that Caesar was speaking about Britannus (a British Celt). We say ironic because:
    A) In modern times the British are considered so civilized.
    B) It is civilized, educated people who most often make the mistake of
        assuming their customs are the laws of nature.

What many people do not realize is that "When in Rome, do as the Romans" works both ways. It is as difficult to shift gears 'downward' as it is upwards -- perhaps more so. Yet you can get in a lot of trouble if you can't do this.

Many 'civilized' people feel themselves to be egalitarian, when in fact, they are very much like Romans. A people who's lifestyle relies on the existence of
     A) a working/servant class,
     B) a political/business system and
     C) police/military
to provide them with their needs and security. These 'modern Romans,' seldom travel outside the comforts of their lifestyle; their particular 'Rome' if you will. (The "Just because your lifestyle takes all your time ..." statement applies here). When we bring this up, those who consider themselves cosmopolitan strenuously object, but understanding this modern Roman analogy is important to grasp what follows and how it can effect your safety. Despite the fact that these 'modern Romans' deal with non-Romans all the time, they don't realize that they are dealing with these people under very narrow circumstances. Circumstances dictated by the 'customs of Rome.'

In short, they are dealing with 'barbarians' who have come to their Rome. And that is a far cry from how barbarians normally play -- especially in their own homeland.

Barbarians in Rome
In 'civilized circles,' the civilized person has the upper hand in interactions because the 'barbarian' is the outsider. An outsider, who doesn't exactly understand the rules of the circle he has found himself in. Simply stated, in Roman circles there are often two sets of rules: that which is stated and obvious and what's really going on. These secondary rules are subtle, unspoken and not immediately obvious ... as are the repercussions of violating them (e.g. a promotion goes to someone else or someone is subtly 'excluded' from events). To really grasp these one must either have spent many years operating in these social circles or born into that social class. In addition to all these unspoken protocols, there are all kinds of subtle nuances that dictate status and power in these circles (this will become important in a bit).

But here's a little reality break ... the barbarians don't care about what passes as power and status among Romans. They don't want to become Romans, they don't want to rule Rome. The barbarian have come to Rome not to invade, but to work. And when they are done, they want to go home again. Therefore, while they'll follow the obvious rules, they do not adopt the subtleties of Roman ways and thought.

This is why we say that most people only deal with 'barbarians under Roman terms.' Usually such a person has come into this different environment in search of his livelihood -- such people usually provide services those in civilized circles are not only unwilling, but incapable of doing themselves. George Orwell said of Rudyard Kipling: He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them. This arrangement provides a win/win situation for both parties.

While generally beneficial, three issues arise from these circumstances that can become problematic:
     1) Many people mistake the choice not to adopt 'civilized' mannerisms as
         an indication of mental inferiority.
              Although in Western culture "intelligence" is considered to be a   
             highly valuable trait ... it turns out that intelligence is a more
             complex subject than originally believed. It appears there are several
             different kinds of intelligence. Just because someone isn't a smart
             and adept at operating in your social circles as you are, doesn't
             mean that person is not a force to be reckoned with in his circles --
             especially in circles where physical violence is commonly accepted as
             an option in conflict resolution. Although it is popular to assume that
             'intelligent people would choose to live civilized lives,'  those deemed
             'less civilized' often have a type of intelligence that is not covered by
             conventional IQ tests. It just doesn't apply in your social circles. In
             his own way, that person is just as competent as you ... perhaps
             more so(1).
             Understanding this prevents you from making the common
             mistake of believing that the person you are dealing with is either
             inferior (or not a danger) because he comes from a different social
             status than you.

     2) In dealing with someone trying to make his livelihood by coming into
         'their' circle, many civilized people mistakenly assume the same 'rules'
         apply when they are in the other person's social circle and territory.
                  "Slumming" is a popular past time among younger people from
                  more civilized circles. It's fun to go out and party in places that
                  have a reputation for danger. Even more mature people will
                  occasionally find themselves outside their normal circles and
                  attempting to function in different social circumstances. This is
                  analogous to "leaving Rome and ending up in a barbarian long
                  Often this is accompanied with the person outside his/her
                  normal circumstances making the false assumption that the
                  unspoken rules of conduct of his/her social circle apply there too.
                  While usually nothing occurs, when this is assumption is
                  demonstrated to be wrong, the results are usually traumatic to
                  the person with the expectation that barbarians adhere to the
                  same rules of conduct.

      3) In the case of conflict, civilized people tend to revert to how things are
         'done in Rome.' This is not only insulting to the less civilized person, but
         usually provokes violence
                  In civilized circles repercussions for unacceptable actions are
                 usually subtle and down-the-road. For example, you get passed
                 over for a promotion, someone starts slandering you to others,
                 etc.. It is not unusual for these repercussions to take weeks,
                 months or even years to manifest. Even at its most extreme,
                 civilized conflict are limited to strong emotions and harsh words.
                 Most of what you see in these circumstances are degrees of
                 threat display. While often loud and emotional threat displays are
                 a means to avoid physical violence).
             The less civilized tend to take a more direct and immediate
                approach. Both in the action and threat display. To them, a threat
                display IS the last warning you're going to get before violence
                erupts. If you don't alter your behavior, violence will happen.
                 Furthermore, in those circles, you do not make certain kinds of
                threat displays unless you are ready, willing and able to back it up-
                especially ones that are insulting or challenging.
                Unfortunately, too many civilized people who find themselves in
                conflict with less civilized people take the approach that they
                would to dress down a rude busboy. While that might work to
                intimidate a laborer in Rome, (who is afraid of losing his job 2), in
                his own territory he will not tolerate it. This is not Rome, here the
                customs of his own apply. And this goes double if the person being
                verbally abused is a  'barbarian warrior.' In those circles, if you are
                not willing to kill or die over your words, DON'T say it ... because
                he is. And right then and there.

For the record, we aren't even talking about dealing with muggers and other criminals. This is how things work in certain socio-economic/ethnic/cultural levels. This is Joe Average and his cousin from the old country, Jose Mediania. Those rules  that dictate 'civilized' behavior do not apply where where they are from. The rules and customs of where they live are very different than how they are done in your 'Rome.'

Unfortunately, many modern Romans fail to realize this when they travel into other socio-economic/cultural levels. Therefore they do not recognize when their behavior is both inappropriate for where they are and dangerous to themselves.

An Example of Differences
To show how different social classes can be, we'd like to use something we mentioned earlier, displays of power and status.

Different cultures, different ethnicities, different socio-economic and different lifestyles ALL have different ways of displaying their status to like-kind. Those who know how to 'read' these signs can, at a glance, generally tell what someone's social status is and how powerful a person is in particular circles.

And right there is the caveat. Being powerful in one circle doesn't mean you are powerful in others -- even if the decisions of one circle effect another, that power is not direct.

Here is something to consider, in circles where things do not happen fast, these signals tend to be far more subtle. For example, in business/politics the trend is avoid the crass or overt display of power. The signs however are still there, the Rolex watch, the Armani suit, the silk tie, etc.. You may not know exactly who this person is, but you know he/she is powerful in a civilized context. In an organized system, these subtle displays of power also serve as a 'warning away' signal to social inferiors. You don't deal directly with the CEO, you go through channels.

Realize however, that a great deal of this 'power' comes not from the individual himself, but rather the system. A large group of people have gotten together and decided to grant this person authority. So the signals such a person presents also have to give confidence to those in the system (e.g. he is looking out for us and not going crazy on extravagance). This is a Mercedez Benz would be acceptable for a bank president, but a Ferrarri wouldn't be. Subtle power signals tend to work in stable environments such as systems.

On the other hand, circles where violence can explode, status displays tend to be more overt and obvious. Bling, gang affiliation clothing, tattoos and modes of dress all create an immediate "This is who I am, this is what I am capable of, this is who I am affiliated with ... don't mess with me" signal. These signals tend to be less reliant on a slow system and more about displaying the individual's power and status in a powerful group.

Let's take this from a general idea and get more specific. No one would deny that the President of the United States is a powerful man. But, in a dark alley, a street thug would rob the President just as fast as anyone else. Whereas, a member of a motorcycle gang could walk through that same alley with impunity. The reason for this is that in the world of the mugger, the power and status signals of the biker are recognizable, the President would just be another guy in a suit.

We tell you all of this to frame an explanation. A person from more civilized circles often relies on subtle signals to tell a laborer to either not approach them at all or 'with hat in hand.' Whether this be on the job or when that person has hired a workforce (e.g. housepainters). There is an unconscious assumption that this is how a lower class person will approach you.

This is the kind of situation we referred to earlier as "dealing with them on Roman terms." It is not uncommon for a civilized person to assume that this protocol is how things always work -- because after all this is how an overwhelming majority of interactions occur. In those kinds of circumstances the combination of subtle signals, the system and outrage (until someone else can show up and take that dirty laborer away) IS an effective strategy.

Now add to this that someone from an organized system either expects inferiors to get out of their way OR, in the case of equals to compromise by both of them moving to opposite sides. In short there is an expectation for the other person to keep his distance. The subtle power signals dictate whether you move, he moves or you both move.

The same thing applies in less civilized circles. Inferiors are expected to move, respect is provided by both of you moving. And violation of these standards has consequences.

In case you haven't realized it we have just set up an example of how you can get cross-wired with someone if you leave your social group and are trying to function in another. We're not even talking about with a mugger or criminal, like we said, Jose Mediania (Joe Average). In certain circles, simply expecting the other person to step out of the way can lead to conflict.

Here's how: You, looking at him think he's a laborer because you fail to recognize the signals that display his status and power in that circle. Knowing your status in your circle,you expect him to step around you. In doing so you not only insult him, but do it in front of his peers (a great loss of face). What's adding fuel onto this fire is that he also fails to recognize the subtle signals that you are presenting. In his world, the power of the system is less important and individual power is far more effective. In his eyes, he's not seeing much of that coming from you. So in his world view, you are the inferior who needs to be stepping out of his way.

See how two set of expectations can collide?  When you are in Rome, do as the Romans. When you are in barbarian lands, adjust your expectations. It is a foolish person who leaves their 'civilized' circle and goes into less civilized circles expecting the same rules to apply -- especially any misconceptions that someone will not become violent with you over your actions.

Partying in Barbarian Lands
In the HRB page we defined high risk behavior as: Any behavior that puts you into circumstances where violence is probable.

Throughout this page we have been talking about how average people can find themselves at odds with a person from another culture/socio-economic level. And how it can occur by simply walking into another group's territory(3). You may have legitimate business in these places and yet, despite this, trouble can just pop up. The good news is that most of the problems are in fact threat displays and therefore resolvable. Still you must realize that just being there isn't necessarily high risk behavior, that's the difference between possible and probable. Granted it can increase the risk of being involved in a violent situation, but it isn't high risk behavior ... yet.

The simple truth is that if you know how to act, you can safely pass through some very dangerous areas. This brings us to the point: High risk behavior is largely dependant on what you do while you are there. What we are talking about is behavior that takes violence from being possible, into a probable.

Here is where things start getting problematic, it is not uncommon for modern Romans -- mostly the young --  to intentionally travel to barbarian territories in order to 'party.'  It is here that young Romans believe they can throw away all the rules and do whatever they want. The rules of Rome do not apply in barbarian lands.

While the last statement is true, what is not true is that there are 'no rules.' This is a small, but important distinction; a distinction many young Romans do not make. This failure often puts them into deep, deep trouble. And again, we're not even talking about predation, just interacting with barbarians while in their territory.

To begin with there are still laws in effect, but they are barbarian laws, not Roman. ANYWHERE that you go, there are protocols, taboos, customs and laws that dictate human behavior. People who live there abide by these rules or they pay the cost. While in the circles of modern Rome repercussions for violations can be slow and subtle, not so in other territories. Cross a barbarian in his own territory and the repercussions will be swift and brutal.

This can turn a fun and exciting jaunt of 'slumming' into a nightmare.

Furthermore, this situation is made worse by the fact that while the Roman youths have disregarded the obvious Roman laws, they fail to realize that they are assuming the subtle, secondary laws are still in effect. This creates a dangerous paradox, namely while they are breaking Roman law, they are at the same time still relying on it to protect them.

Many both honestly (and drunkenly) believe that they can still talk down to a barbarian who offends them a'la Roman customs. These young Romans fail to recognize the power and status displays of the person they are offending. Then they are surprised when they end up in the hospital.

Another way that young Romans can find themselves in trouble is when they decide to get together and act like barbarians. (Think of a toga party in reverse). Here too the assumption is that you can break the obvious rules (e.g. excessive and under-aged drinking) while still the secondary rules will still apply (e.g. that if a young woman passes out drunk she won't be sexually molested).

In many ways, young modern Romans are worse than the barbarians when they misbehave in this fashion. This is because unlike their less than civilized counterparts, they believe for them there are no rules while having fun. There is a deep seated and core belief that they can say or do anything they want with impunity and immunity from repercussions. Or if there are repercussions they will be according to upper class Roman standards.

Another assumption is that while there are no rules for them, there still are rules for everyone else. Specifically, the assumption that there is a 'rule' that goes like this: I am a modern Roman and therefore my body is sacrosanct, and no matter what I do, you cannot touch me. When stated out loud, this assumption doesn't just reveal itself to be ridiculous, but a rather skewed and self-serving and rationalization. However, inside the young and intoxicated mind of the young modern Roman, it makes perfect sense.

Now if all of this sounds like hyperbole, we have only three words for you ... Frat House Party.

Hopefully this section will have enlightened the modern Roman matrons and patrons to realize a important lessons to pass onto their sons and daughters. Namely, that no matter where you are, there are still rules and in order to be safe and successful, you must know them and function without violating them.

We'd like to make this final point. High risk behavior IS FUN. And that is one of the reasons why so many youths engage in it. Speaking truthfully, there is no real way to stop this behavior At the same time, while you cannot prevent youth from running out and playing. You can prevent them from acting in ignorance about the fact that just because they are breaking the rules, that doesn't mean there are no rules.

Return to top

1) A very good movie representation of this concept is the movie "The 13th Warrior" with Antonio Banderas. Banderas' character is a Persian poet who travels north among the Vikings. (Which actually did happen). Initially the Vikings are portrayed as disgusting savages. (In fact, you might want to fast forward past the 'morning after the wake' scene that occurs early in the movie.) However, as the film progresses, it quickly becomes evident that the Vikings are subtle and sophisticated warriors. They are incredibly well adapted to functioning in their environment. It is the poet who is at a loss and with the disadvantages. Although he adapts, by the end of  the movie, the poet is pretty 'Viking.' What's more is he would not have survived had the 'barbarians' not been around. Return to Text

2) The truth of the matter is, it doesn't exactly work there either. What few people realize is how fast a manager will materialize to 'handle' such a problem. This allows the person who is being upbraided to withdraw from the situation before he feels he is now obligated to do something (like break your jaw) for the insults you are heaping on him. Remember, he's here to make money by providing a service, as long as he has a face saving exit his 'customs' can remain back home. The manager serves as a peacekeeper between the irate customer and the worker. Return to Text

3) Contrary to what advocates and politically correct thinking would have you believe most groups engage in self-segregation. That is to say that they choose to live among those who share their own ways. As such, they consider the areas to be 'theirs' and often do not look kindly to interlopers. In order to function there, you must understand and abide by these rules. Return to Text

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