I recently went to Paris and before my departure, more than one friend warned me to be careful while in Europe. When I arrived in Paris, my French friends expressed concern over the shootings at schools in the U.S. It seems that danger is to a degree a matter of perspective. Our perspective is most likely to change when we gain knowledge from direct experience that counters what we thought we knew.
Traveling abroad whether for business or pleasure involves dealing with the unfamiliar and the unknown, both of which can be a source of anxiety. Perhaps you’ll be driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, certainly dealing with unfamiliar currency, language and custom. In order to minimize the anxiety and also enjoy a safer experience, it’s useful to examine the perception that informs our opinions about travel and our traveling behavior.
Our perception of the dangers or risks associated with travel derive from many different sources. Not all of these sources are rational or accurate. From movies and books we get a picture of what life might be like in a given place. From media reports – whose intention nowadays seems often to be to scintillate and provoke fear – we get another picture. Nobody writes about how safe a given city is or how there were no attacks or lower crime there lately. It’s almost as though the more we read about threat, the less we really know about threat.
In Australia, one can encounter any number of lethal creatures including bull sharks, crocodiles and eastern brown snakes. Yet tourists continue to travel DownUnder and most return home unscathed. In the U.S., the news would have you believe that everyone carries a gun and there is a shooting every day at the local shops. Both Australia and the U.S. are geographically big countries and their ‘reputations’ do not reflect daily life as it really is, in any given city.
We also tend to put the most recent attack or topic on our radar. If we very, very conservatively estimate worldwide terror events, the number of people killed by terror is a minuscule fraction. Further regarding risk, the likelihood of being involved in a terror attack versus being hit by a car or a victim of theft, is also very low. The mission of terrorists is to get us worrying about it. Let’s rather worry about things we can prevent.
Locals are a great source of travel and safety information. They have first-hand knowledge of what is really going on in their town. They understand the social, cultural and historic issues at work. They have the tools to decipher body language and attire that non-locals cannot. Maybe there’s a hot spot area with some gang activity that should be avoided. Or an area popular with pickpockets. Generally, too, they are also less likely to be politically correct where political correctness is an obstacle to knowing the truth about a situation. When traveling, tap into locals.
By the way they dress, move and speak, many of us if asked to could spot a tourist. Criminals make it their business to be able to identify tourists and especially, vulnerable ones. In advance of travel, learn as much as you can about local customs. Keep your public profile neutral and subdued. No need to broadcast by yelling in your native language, wearing your favorite Cubs baseball hat or prominently displaying maps and guides. Be aware of your surroundings, keep your valuables secure and hidden, and follow the adage ‘When in Rome…’