MORE Skills to Build Your Street Smarts

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By the author of Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City

and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook

In Part 1, we looked at the definition, some basics, and a few general principles of street smarts. Now it’s time to get more practical and see a few tactics and ways to improve. 

It bears saying: this is not an end in itself, rather it’s a process: we gotta go out and expose ourselves, constantly. Granted, if done with intent, purpose, and method, it’s possible to advance faster. Just like any other skill.

Let’s dive right in, then.

12. Soak up your surroundings.

This phrase is often used to encourage the full enjoyment of the great wilderness. When applied to street smarts, it’s meant to foster situational awareness as a way to quickly assess the environment we’re in. And this is absolutely critical.

As we travel around town, different areas and regions will present different types and levels of challenges. We must know in advance, or even better, be able to evaluate certain aspects as-we-go, if in unknown settings or the situation is fluid (which is quite common).

street smarts

Clues for this are all around and, for the most part, not difficult to spot. All it takes is attention and knowing what to look for:

  • What’s the overall conservation and cleanliness of the streets, roads, sidewalks, landscaping, infrastructure, signage, the buildings?
  • Is the area well lit or dim? How noisy or silent is it?
  • Are the commerce, services, and the nightlife vibrant and prospering, or decadent? Too many boarded places and ‘for rent’ signs? Is there informal commerce going on?
  • How’s the traffic? The state/age of the vehicles circulating? Any odd, suspect, or abandoned one around? Trucks and buses circulating normally?
  • Then there are the people: are they gathering, going somewhere, or just passing by? What’s the mix (workers, tourists, homeless, students, etc.)? How they carry themselves, what are they wearing, how they talk and treat each other? Is there anyone consuming drugs or acting suspiciously?
  • What about the presence (or absence) of LEAs, security, and other public and private agents? Are there surveillance systems? Private and public? Old or modern?
  • Is there something or someone odd, out of context, or sticking out in a negative way somehow?

(Make sure you check out our free QUICKSTART Guide on emergency evacuations!)

These are just a few aspects. 

There are some basic characteristics common to most large towns around the world, though. Following, here are a few examples to illustrate (largely generalized – these things can vary a lot between countries, cultures, cities, and even among different regions of the same city):

  • Areas with intense commerce, lots of stores, and people circulating frantically and busy or distracted with something (smartphone zombies?) can be ripe for urban crime (robbery, larceny, pilfering, pickpocketing, etc.).
  • Likewise, dark and empty, badly conserved, and low-density regions are preferred by criminals for sexual assaults, hijacks, car jacks, and similar. Always beware of public parks, parking lots, alleys, and similar places, especially at night, and if open, deserted, and without surveillance or security. It’s obvious, really.
  • Time of the day has influence. For instance, downtown and business/commerce districts are usually packed and frenzied during working hours and deserted at night or during weekends. Streets and avenues with nightlife attractions, bars, and restaurants can be the opposite. And so on.

13. Practice interaction.

Actively engage with different people to see how they react and to improve social skills. After interacting with lots of different people in the streets for some time, we learn to “get” others quicker and more accurately. This is how we gain street smarts: by exposing ourselves to a great variety of people and situations. There are many forms of doing it:

  • Go from basic and simple (like asking for directions and information about places) to specific (using someone’s bathroom, for instance) and complex (e.g., asking for job opportunities), and so on.
  • Be creative and authentic, but pay attention to yourself and your reactions. Try to remain relaxed but “present” at the moment. Don’t think about what’s gonna happen. Just let it flow.
  • Get used to rejection, indifference, and outright hostility. Ignoring and moving on is the correct response, but reflect on it and develop strategies to overcome or overturn that. This comes with training and failure. There’s no substitute for harsh real-world human interaction.

Remember: in the streets, nothing is personal. If we leave our ego out, we’re just another stranger among a huge mass of strangers. And that’s what it is, in fact. No one is targeting anyone for personal reasons.

14. Don’t flash.

This is first-level grey man tactics: the best way to avoid unwanted attention is doing everything to not draw attention at all. Leaving wallets, money, smartphones and smartwatches, fancy earphones, bags, sneakers, brand clothes, and others exposed is a sure way to invite malfeasance.

Keep stuff guarded and locked. “Away from the eyes, away from the heart.” If delinquents can’t see anything of value, the chances of being targeted are much lower. They’ll still know it by shape (for instance, a smartphone or wallet against the fabric in a pocket, and so on).

There are some incredibly smooth ‘light hands’ out there. They can open zippers and buttons of jackets, pants, whatever, and alleviate you from your belongings, and you won’t notice until it’s too late. Don’t assume you’re safe: know it for sure. Be especially careful and keep the important stuff under watch while transiting in crowded places, like trains and buses during rush hours and such.

15. Talk a little, listen a lot.  

The more we talk, the more we give away, and the greater the chances of saying something wrong, misplaced, or compromising. This can be detrimental in some situations (it’s OK, though, if you can bullshit like Tony Lip, the charismatic and shrewd bouncer played by Vigo Mortensen in The Green Book movie).

Talk as little as necessary, but listen as much as you can. This should be a life rule in general, but it’s more important when we’re among strangers in the streets.

Sometimes it’s better to play smart. Others, to play dumb. It depends on whether you want others to see you as a threat or just an uninteresting inoffensive no-one. This is tricky, but most people have some sensibility – as long as it’s not impaired by ego or pride.

Mirroring gestures, manners, and words of people you interact with is an efficient way to create empathy. It takes time and practice as it must be done with levity and fluidity. But if done naturally, it can be very effective to deal with strangers in most situations.

16. Pay attention to distraction and misdirection.

This is big and works two ways: it’s simultaneously at the core of most criminal activities (including those perpetrated by governments) and of countering strategies.

More directly: stay watchful not to get distracted or misled by others in any circumstance. At the same time, be ready to deploy distraction and misdirection against potential threats and attackers to gain time or advantage.

How it can work against us:

Most of the time, a person – usually someone above suspicion or appearing harmless – does something to distract the victim (or slow it down) while their accomplice takes their wallet, bag, laptop, whatever.

It’s quite easy to distract people (in fact, too many walk around happily distracting themselves). It can be something as simple as asking for directions or other information, bumping into others (vehicles too), blocking views, shouting or making noises, pointing, telling you dropped something, etc.

More elaborated tactics commonly used include: faking a faint, a fall, an epileptic or heart attack, and so on. Baby or shopping carts, bicycles, and such can be used as well. The list of trickeries is quite long.

I make a point of honor to help anyone in need that crosses my path (humans and also animals). But I take all precautions so not to put myself or my stuff at risk while doing it:

  • Whatever happens, the first thing to do is scan around. Look for other people, vehicles, other dangers. Then as you start moving, check your stuff and keep everything close all the time, always on sight.
  • Keep a safe distance: stay out of range during any interaction. If someone keeps closing in on you (for whatever reason) or pushes you, tell them to back off or keep moving away if necessary. Don’t feel intimidated or shy: rather, be firm and assertive, but keep calm.
  • Always make it as difficult as possible for others to reach you or your stuff. Even when the situation is real, like a car accident or someone having a seizure or something, others can take advantage – of the victim and their helpers too. Believe me, I see it happen all the time.
  • Criminals usually act in pairs or gangs. You may be seeing just one, but always count on others around: have eyes on your back all the time.
  • Thugs acting in busy places can use various tricks to force victims into “robbing zones,” much in the way “kill zones” work. It can be done using numbers, bicycles, shopping carts, pets, old folks, debris, whatever.

How it can work for our developing street smarts

I won’t go into details or specific tips about this, as it involves a lot of variables and some serious risks (especially if you have no training or experience).

Just realize that criminals are also subject to high tension. Stress can cause an adrenaline rush, tunnel vision and brain freeze, or panic. That can increase danger – it gets easy to do something stupid and without reflection. But can also play to our advantage if we can do something to get them distracted and wrongly led.

If the situation presents itself, don’t hesitate. But if you’re going for action, be swift and decisive. Just make sure you know what you’re doing because the risks can be real. And always have an escape in advance, in case it works (that is, before attempting anything).

Finally, something to keep in mind all the time: a person’s demeanor, posture, and eyesight are foreshadowing of intentions. Stay locked.

17. Relax.

Keeping emotions under control is important, not only to hide feelings but to avoid being overtaken by adrenaline. Things are normal 99% of the time. We only have to be prepared for the remaining 1% when something happens.

And then, we must be really prepared: pay attention to your breathing, your feelings, your reactions, tone of voice, etc. Stay cool and impassive, and remember: nothing in the streets is personal. Street smarts are not about ego, but rather surviving and staying safe.

18. Study the street.  

Everyone can benefit from studying a bit about the most common swindles, shams and scams, deceits, and other crimes common in their city or region. Talk to neighbors do some research on the situation in your area.

This is urban tactics 101, there’s nothing really new under the sun. A lot of info and knowledge is out there, and if ruffians can study their trade and their victim’s profile for their misdeeds, we can do the same on them to gain an edge.

Watch videos of criminals acting in airports, restaurants, train stations, buses, and other places to see the various tactics used and how it unfolds. Pay attention to the setups, responses, and what led to each outcome.

Follow specialists for tips and insights on urban violence and safety. Ed Calderon is a reputed one (@edsmanifesto_). Fernando “Ferfal” Aguirre (@ferfal308) does some insightful footage analysis of real-life events in his TMS channels on YouTube. Also, his books on street survival contain proven, actionable tips. They (and others) talk from experience, a way to “get” some knowledge on the topic.

 19. Rehearse mentally.

The truth is, we never know exactly what can happen, how things will unfold. But playing and war-gaming some scenarios and possibilities can help avoid panic, adrenaline rush, and brain freeze when something comes up.

If you dedicate yourself to #18 above, you can use the ‘material’ to mentally rehearse situations and responses to them and become better prepared for them. I’ve already addressed this in a previous article about situational awareness here at The Organic Prepper, so refer to those if you’d like more details.

20. Learn to adjust your awareness level.  

Different places and situations require different levels of awareness. It’s impossible to remain at DEFCON1 all the time, or even for too long. As you cross different areas around town, be aware of the signals and clues to adjust the level of awareness.

I’d defend that being in the streets, even in traditionally safe and affluent areas or neighborhoods, require at the very least Level 3. Nefarious people exist everywhere, and it’s never a good idea to lower the guard too much.

Always have your stuff ready and easily accessible, so you don’t get distracted fumbling for whatever in a messy bag or looking lost searching for directions. If you’re going for the car, get the keys in advance. If answering a call or doing something on your smartphone, get inside.

Bonus #21: A street smarts shortcut (kinda) 

I said there are no shortcuts. But if really pressed to provide a time saving formula (for lack of a better term), I’d recommend practicing jiu-jitsu. The intention isn’t necessarily to become a fighter – though you do become more able to handle yourself and that’s always reassuring.

Jiu-jitsu is special in the way it provides a sharp sixth sense, good reflexes, and a “chess player” strategist mentality. Practitioners are constantly evaluating and measuring others as “opponents,” trying to “get” their sizing, capacity, and proficiency.

Doesn’t mean thinking about wrestling everyone you come across. Of course not. This turns into a natural reflex and comes naturally from training and competing. In some ways, it’s like a long-time engineer scanning the structures of the buildings he goes in.

Many other martial arts training develop those capabilities as well. But jiu-jitsu (especially BJJ) is really a mental, always-one-step-ahead, game. These abilities can be applied not only to street smart but business and many other life’s endeavors. It’s hard to explain how this connects with thee things, but easy to feel and acknowledge once you try it.

Street smarts need to be developed.

You have to understand the realities of life on the street. These are the tips that will help you to do just that. What are your thoughts on developing street smarts? Do you agree with what we have to say? Let us know in the comments below.

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. 

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

Picture of Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar

Leave a Reply

  • “Clues for this are all around and, for the most part, not difficult to spot”

    no mention of graffiti? most gangs are not subtle, they parade themselves to the(ir) world.

  • I grew up in and near the South side of Chicago in the 50s and early 60s. Some additional things to add:

    Put a 1 dollar bill on top of same-sized plain paper. Fold in half holding it with a large paper clip. If someone says “give me your money”, toss it on the ground beside your would-be assailant. When the bad guy goes for it, that is your chance to RUN.

    Purchase a cheap wallet with fake paper credit cards, put a dollar bill and same-sized blank paper in it. If bad guy says “give me your wallet”, same routine as above.

    If you still have a (deactivated) old cell phone and bad guy demands it…Same stuff as above. You get the idea.

    Make no noise as you walk. That 3 pounds of change in your pocket and big ring of keys on your belt announce your presence.

    Have no odor – Do not wear perfume, cologne,aftershave.I learned that one from a friend’s wife who is a psychiatrist in the state prison system.

    • “Have no odor – Do not wear perfume, cologne,aftershave.I learned that one from a friend’s wife who is a psychiatrist in the state prison system.”

      why/how does that play a role?

    • Thanks for the extra tips Marc. This is such a extensive and varied topic, the idea is to keep building and practicing to improve. Stay safe!

  • Thanks for sharing Part 2 Fabian.
    Situational awareness is huge and agree street smarts takes practice and needs to be developed.
    I appreciate your reference to jiu-jitsu, I believe this can be a plus in days to come.
    I’ll also check out others you’ve referenced as well.
    I want to develop my street smarts tons more and definitely see holes in mine.

    • Thanks for reading Cindy, I hope this content helps you and yours in some way. There’s a lot to be said about this topic, my goal is to spark curiosity and inspire others to keep researching and practicing. Stay safe!

        • Absolutely, Cindy. That’s why I’m here for. Some stuff is controversial, but effective. Thankfully Daisy and TOP don’t shy from controversial-yet-effective articles (lol) so I’ll be sure to write more about it in the near future.

  • Also meaning don’t be a hermit in what you deem your safe rural hidey-hole. Those who still live in the radius (radius meaning large city relative to your home) have an advantage. You know the “large” city, you know the roads in your area (good weather or bad – driving roads you’ve driven for 40+ years in the fog is a bit less stressful).
    And yeah, not bathing in Axe, Brut, Old Spice, Chanel or Shalimar doesn’t let someone know when you’re walking down the sidewalk. Dressing a step above a bag lady isn’t all bad. Shopping during not busy time is not always a good idea.

  • I’ll be attending a Krav Maga class. Its a form of self defense used to train the Israeli military. My brother in law and his wife have been taking classes the last 4 years because they go to Mexico often. It starts with the basics of teaching you how to get out of situations such as a headlock, bear hug, choke holds, strangles, hair pulls, being pinned on your back, how to disarm someone with a knife/gun, etc . It’s all about situational circumstances and awareness.

    • I did Krav Maga too.
      It is excellent form of self defense.
      The owner/instructor and I did a really neat form of wrestling (from my Jr. High, High school days) and strikes. It was a heck of a work out and really fun.
      Good training.

    • Krav maga is awesome. I can attest it’s effective for self defense. Martial arts is an awesome way to improve mind and body in conjunction: reflexes, flexibility, strength, also spatial and situational awareness, etc.

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