How to de-escalate conflict while travelling

Learning a little about recognising the signs of conflict and, crucially, how to de-escalate a potentially violent situation are crucial skills for anyone who travels frequently.

You’re walking back to your hotel late at night. 

A group of men on the other side of the road seem agitated. 

One of them crosses purposefully towards you, arm outstretched as he shouts accusingly in a language you don’t understand. His friends follow.

What do you do?

Violence can occur anywhere. But when you’re travelling in a foreign country, factors such as miscommunication, cultural sensitivities and prejudice based on your race, religion, sexuality or nationality can compound the risks you face.

In the scenario above, countless different reasons, from the way you’re dressed to a political situation completely beyond your control, could have prompted this sudden confrontation.

But what matters now is avoiding it turning violent.

Recognising the signs of a potentially violent situation

The tell-tale signs of aggression are all clues that a verbal confrontation may rapidly spiral into a physical attack. Watch out for:

  • raised voices 
  • chests being ‘puffed out’
  • intense, unbroken eye contact
  • violation of your personal space
  • adoption of a wide-legged stance

Other things to be aware of are a sudden glance around (checking the coast is clear to attack), attempting to corral you into a less visible location (for instance, an alley or doorway), the sudden clenching of fists or the picking up of an object that could be used as a weapon.

Escaping the situation safely

In the majority of cases, your priority should be seeking refuge or leaving the scene of the conflict immediately. This may mean ducking into the nearest hotel and requesting assistance from staff. Or it could be flagging down a taxi and putting considerable physical distance between yourself and the aggressors.

Other times, however, this may not be possible. At that point, you should engage in de-escalation behaviour intended to prevent a verbal attack turning into a physical one.

De-escalating conflict

If you’re not in a position to leave the scene safely, there are steps you can take which may reduce the chance of being attacked.

  • maintain a neutral facial expression
  • resist the impulse to raise your voice (unless it will assist you in getting help from others nearby)
  • adopt non-threatening body language (palms open, limited eye contact, neutral stance)
  • appeal to calmer, less aggressive members of the group

Often, an aggressor can be ‘talked down’ by other members of a community, especially those who are older or who command respect. Of course, this takes judgement in the moment and can be a risky strategy if your presence in a particular area has already inflamed tensions.

Alerting others to the risk

Sudden aggression aimed at a foreigner on the street may be just be a case of ‘wrong place, wrong time’. But it could also indicate an increased risk for other travellers due to rising political tensions. If appropriate, inform the local police, your accommodation provider, your colleagues or travelling companions and even your national embassy or consulate.