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Conversational Crowbars

In this piece I’m going to examine ways in which people get us to engage with them. Of course not every stranger that talks to us has nefarious intent. However, salespeople, so-called ‘charity muggers’ (chuggers), criminals and predators use this to their advantage. As a society we are mostly taught to be polite to strangers. As children we are taught about ‘stranger danger’ - not to accept lifts, take sweets or go to look at puppies with old men wearing long trench coats. However, these are obvious examples; the criminally minded are capable of far more subtlety. They rely on your politeness and your desire to be a good person and not to offend as a way to manipulate. The logic they use is simple: “I’m being nice to you, so you have to be nice to me, otherwise you are a nasty person.”

Trust your instincts! I can’t emphasize this enough. If something seems off, then it’s because it is. As soon as you realize that things are wrong, ACT! It doesn’t matter how embarrassed you are or how committed you have become to a scenario, take control and get yourself out. You don’t need to explain yourself or apologise.

It’s not rude to say no. In fact we should do it more and not feel guilty about it! It’s been said before but ‘’No’’ is a complete sentence. Always remember this. If someone continues with their behaviour or just adapts their tactics after you’ve said no, it shows that they do not respect your boundaries. It is at this point you maybe need to re-emphasise the ‘no’ or in extreme cases things may get physical.

I’m going to look at some examples and they range from chuggers and being chatted up, to robbery and violent confrontation.

Some are more familiar and obvious than others. This list is obviously not complete as there are infinite ways to start a conversation.


BEST FRIENDS (used universally)

“Hello mate!”

“You alright buddy?”

The objective here is to stop you in your tracks and start a conversation. If this person has snuck up on you it might take a second for you to realise that you don’t actually know them. Because the greeting is friendly, society dictates that we should be friendly back.

The Lie: They are your buddy

The Truth: They are NOT your buddy

The Solution: “I don’t know you”


FALSE DICHOTOMY (usually chuggers)

“Do you want elephants hunted to extinction?”

The objective is to lure you into a conversation by asking a question that has an obvious answer. After you answer the first question you’re in a conversation.

The Lie: If you say “yes” then you’re a first class bastard who wants all elephants dead. If you say “no” then you’re on the same side.

The Truth: Any answer you give to their question will have a negative outcome for you.

The Solution: Ignore them. If you can’t, then say “I don’t want to talk to you”


THE RABBIT HOLE (universally, sales people, street thieves, attackers)

“Do you have the time?”

“Sorry, no.”

“But you have a phone, look on there.”

“It’s half past three.”

“Is that the new iPhone?”

“No it’s old.”

“Show me a sec”…

The objective for this technique varies. In the case of a salesperson it is to get you into an innocent conversation which will lead to a sales pitch. It’s fairly obvious and easy to spot. For a mugger however, you are being stopped and interviewed. You have already been selected as a potential victim. Now they want to get close to you to commit their crime, be it pick pocket, robbery or assault. The questions are a distraction to buy time or to stop you walking.

The Lie: They don’t want to know the time.

The Truth: It was never about the question. As humans we are compelled to answer questions. The first question may be innocent-sounding and straightforward to answer, but with every question you are getting deeper into conversation and in more danger

The Solution: As soon as you recognise what’s happening then end the conversation. Say, “I can’t help you” then leave.


WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER (politicians, sales people, people trying to chat you up)

Imagine the scene: You are in a pub waiting to be served when the barperson suddenly announces “Sorry we are closing early.”

A stranger is standing next to you and the following conversation ensues:

“Are they kicking US out?”

“I dunno.”

“So, what are WE going to do now?”

“Have to find somewhere else.”

“Do you know somewhere WE can go?”

The objective is to establish premature trust. You are being forced to team up with someone because you have both met the same misfortune and you both have the same objective. Because ‘we’re all in the same boat’ it seems rude to rebuff someone who, on the surface, appears to be making an effort to do what’s beneficial for both of you.

The Lie: That you are part of a Team with a common purpose to find an alternative watering-hole.

The Truth: They have just included you into their group without your permission and have done this with sinister intent.

The solution: Call them out on it. I don’t suggest “What’s this ‘we’ shit?!” but rather “No, I have other plans” then leave. If this is too subtle and the threat continues to make plans for the both of you then a clearer message may need to be sent. A clear statement such as “I don’t know you, I didn’t ask to go anywhere with you and I don’t want to” would avoid further misunderstanding


ON THE DEFENSIVE (door to door salespeople, chuggers).

You’re walking down the street and someone deliberately blocks your path (holding a clipboard) and you give them a dirty look then…

“Wow, hold on mate. Put the boxing gloves away!”

The objective is to make it seem that you’re unreasonable and aggressive and that your actions are not proportionate to what has just happened. So that you are more likely to feel awkward and listen to their spiel.

The Lie: You have been rude and aggressive and the salesperson is genuinely scared.

The Truth: You have done nothing wrong and if they were scared they wouldn’t be talking to you.

The Solution: A simple “no.”


CHARM OFFENSIVE (everyone, politicians, and salespeople)

This often starts with a smile then a “how are you?” or “I like your dog, what’s its name?”

The objective is to build rapport through niceness. They rely on the fact that they are being nice to you to force you to be nice to them.

The Lie: They are being nice to you.

The Truth: It’s bullshit. I’m a middle aged bloke, so when some pretty 20-something year-old woman approaches me, clipboard in hand to ask about my day, I know it’s rubbish. 20-something year-old women never spoke to me when I was in my 20s; I’m not suddenly more attractive now!

The Solution: Recognise that you are being deliberately flattered and say “no”


PIE CRUST PROMISES (universal, manipulative people)

“Have one drink with me, then I’ll leave you alone, I promise


“Come with me quietly and I promise I won’t hurt you.”

The objective is to get you to do something that you don’t want to do. The word “promise” only holds weight within secure relationships. In this situation though, the person is using this association to instil a certain amount of trust.

The Lie: That the words “I promise” actually hold any weight

The Truth: The “I promise” doesn’t guarantee a thing. The fact that a stranger has had to say them to convince you to do something should concern you.

The Solution: Get away now! Don’t believe it and don’t go along with it. In our second example why would a stranger want you to go with them to a secondary location? Obviously to do bad thing is private! If you were to go with them you would certainly get hurt …or worse.


LOAN SHARKS (predators)

Imagine the situation: You are at a bar and you’ve ordered a drink. You go to pay for it but you can’t find your wallet. As you frantically search all your pockets you come to the realization that you left it at home. You try and get the bar staff’s attention to explain what’s happened but they seem unconcerned and ignore you. You appear not to owe any money! Puzzled, you find a seat and sip your drink. A couple of minutes later a stranger sits down next to you. You don’t like the look of them so you get up to move. The stranger says:

“You could at least sit and have that drink with me, I did buy it for you when you didn’t have the money.”


After shopping, you are returning to your car, which is still quite far away, when one of your shopping bags breaks. A stranger asks if they can help you and you accept their kind offer. Once back at your car and have loaded your shopping you thank the stranger and bid them farewell. The stranger then asks you for your phone number. You are not interested and politely decline. The stranger then says:

“Oh come on, I’ve just spent ages carrying your shopping, the least you can do is give me your number.”

The objective is to put you into emotional debt with the other person.

The Lie: That you owe them anything.

The Truth: The predator may perceive that you owe them and you may feel obliged, but you need to understand that the situation has been engineered to make you feel this way.

The Solution: Call it what it is. “I didn’t ask you to buy me a drink. Here, you drink it, I’m going”


“I didn’t ask for your help. You offered, I want you to leave now.”


THE REASONABLE REQUEST (chuggers, salespeople)

You’re walking down the street when some doe-eyed youth with clip board in hand cuts across your path and, with a pleading voice, says:

“Can you please spare me thirty seconds of your time?”

The objective is to make a request that you could easily agree to. Half a minute isn’t that long and for you to say no would make you seem like a complete arsehole, full of your own self-importance.

The Lie: That all they want is thirty seconds of time.

The Truth: They obviously want money, to make a sale or support for their organisation or cause.

The Solution: Say “no” and keep walking.


NEGGING (sales people, predators)

“You’re probably too good looking to be seen talking to me”

“Nice hair, is it real?”

The objective is to undermine confidence so the target feels the need to get approval. This done by making some kind of back handed compliment which is easily refuted.

The Lie: That you need to respond at all. The initial statement is designed to provoke a reaction.

The Truth: You don’t have to respond.

The Solution: Ignore the statement and give it the contempt it deserves.



Most people are brought up to be polite and respectful. This is now second nature and is how we automatically act. If you deliberately walked into people walking down the street then most of them would automatically apologise to you, even though it wasn’t their fault; it’s hard wired. Being able to recognise when something is amiss, or that we are being lied to, often isn’t that difficult. The problem is we are too polite, we don’t want to upset people by accident and no one has ever taught us how to respond.

The solution, as with so many things is practice. People who get chatted up often have strategies for rejecting people. Chuggers and criminals have practiced lines also. We should have phrases in our arsenal that we can employ without having to think twice.


“I don’t know you.”

“I can’t help you.”

“I’ve got nothing for you.”

You don’t have to give an explanation, nor do you need to apologise. Indeed, if you are pursued after you’ve ended the interaction then you know you have a problem. If you get it wrong and offend a nun, then I’m sure she’ll pray for you.


Without endangering yourself or deliberately starting trouble, start saying no to people who are making polite requests. Do it firmly, politely and with conviction, but without apology or explanation. If you need real world practice then walk through any town centre and walk near someone holding a clip board. Practice your lines. I know of one instructor who would regularly practice “GET BACK, STAY BACK…C***” on innocent people raising money for donkey sanctuaries. It seems harsh but if you can’t do it to a stranger in training it won’t come out when you need it to.

In writing this piece I drew inspiration from the book ‘The Gift or Fear’ by Gavin De Becker. I have used real life experiences both own and people I know. Further research was done by the author in town centres and transport hubs.

Stay Safe

Richard Talbot

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