Assertive on the Street: What Would You Do?


You are walking down the street and have a five-minute walk ahead of you to reach your destination. At some point you realize that someone is walking behind you, and you get a creepy feeling and believe that you are being followed/targeted. Before reading on, take a moment to put yourself in that position and consider how you would most likely respond in this situation.

When I set this scene for women in my trainings, the responses I get are the following:

  1. Go into a place of business or where there are other people
  2. Cross the street
  3. Run!
  4. Pull out my phone and call someone or pretend to be talking to someone
  5. Walk faster

These might all be viable solutions under ideal circumstances, but they all share a common shortcoming: the dependence on someone else and luck.

Go into a place of business

If you are in a business district and it’s during business hours, the option to get off the street and into a store is definitely a good choice. Be sure to alert the manager or salesperson that there was someone following you and that you felt concerned for your safety. If, however, you are not near a store, or the event takes place after hours (and these are things assailants consider when targeting someone), this is a worthless strategy.

Cross the street

True, you can’t be a target if you aren’t near the perpetrator. Crossing the street is a good test to see if he is really following you. If you cross and he doesn’t, chances are you are safe. However, if he crosses too, now you know you are in danger, and you’ve done nothing to stop the danger beyond hoping that the assailant is too lazy or easily discouraged to follow you back and forth across the street. Meanwhile, few assaults are prevented by zigzagging through town.

Run away

This can be a good option under three conditions: 1) You are a fast runner, 2) You don’t have far to run to get to a safe place, and 3) You are wearing shoes that are suitable for running, which may not be what you wear to work or out for dinner with friends. If you are not a proficient runner or are not wearing the proper footwear, this solution merely demonstrates to an attacker that you are afraid. More significantly, it increases your sense of fear and loss of control.

Pull out my phone and call someone (or pretend to)

The rationale here is that the perpetrator won’t mess with someone if he thinks she can warn someone about the situation. Cell phones give us a false sense of security. We may feel less alone when we’re talking to someone, but the fact remains that we are alone in a physical sense, and the person on the other end of the line is helpless to assist us if we’re in danger (all the more true if the “person” is imaginary). The reality is that you could be on the phone talking to the police, and a perpetrator could still grab your bag (or you) and be gone before anyone could arrive at the scene to help you. From his perspective, you look more distracted and less aware of what is going on around you, and that’s because you are. If you’re in danger, stay off your phone and pay attention to your surroundings!

Walk faster

This is far and away the most common response to this scenario… and the most dangerous. Merely picking up the pace communicates that you’re aware of being followed, and you’re afraid. It also communicates a poorly thought out strategy. How many statistics do we hear about people who have successfully out-walked a violent assault? The message an assailant gets from this response? She’s a good target: afraid and illogical in her state of fear.

The most effective response to this scenario comes as a surprise to most of my students: confront the individual. Turn around, put your hands up in front of you with palms open and facing out, look him in the eye and with strength and conviction in your voice, and tell him exactly what you want him to do: “Back Off!” or “Stop!” The most likely response from a perpetrator at this point is retreat. On rare occasions do people have to back up this response with a physical technique. Most often, a perpetrator recognizes that dealing with an observant, assertive, and fearless target is not going to end well, and they move on to find the woman who walks faster or pulls out her phone in response to his unwanted presence.

You might be thinking, “But what if I was just paranoid and I yelled at the wrong guy?” First off, in order to go against all of your socialization to be nice and not make a scene, you had to have a really strong creepy feeling to yell at a stranger on the street, so I’m betting that you are not wrong. If he’s a nice guy (and the world has plenty of them), he understands that you live in a world in which you fear for your safety and must take precautions. He’ll be apologetic for frightening you.

As I always say to my students: Err on the side of your safety, not someone else’s feelings. And rely on yourself—not luck or another person—for your personal safety. Visit Esteem’s website to learn about our safety programs for women, men, teens, and children.

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2 Responses to “Assertive on the Street: What Would You Do?”

  1. Janise Roselle

    I myself have (illogically) taken the “fast walker” approach to this situation and now realize how stupid that was. Thanks for breaking down our likely responses to these types of situations and helping us see that we need to rely on ourselves for safety rather than wait like damsels in distress for someone to rescue us or for an attacker to miraculously have a change of heart when we pick up the pace of our walking.

  2. Dani Clark

    As someone who was one of your students my first year in college I always think about this when I have to walk alone, particularly at night or in a new place. I recommend this approach every time someone mentions a safety concern. Thanks for sharing in a post so I can pass on the information!


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