Over the years, I’ve been the recipient of many pieces of advice as a solo female traveller. Most included, in some form or another, the caveat ‘but if you’re street smart, you’ll be fine.’
I’ve always wondered what exactly that phrase meant. What does being ‘street smart‘ actually entail, how does it relate specifically to female travellers, and what are the actionable steps one can take to become ‘street smart’ if they don’t consider themselves blessed with this skill set?
What are ‘streetsmarts’ and what does that term really mean?
Let’s begin with a recent example. Not too long ago I found myself in Munich, attending the beautiful wedding of some close friends. The bridal couple had grown up in small Austrian towns and moved to ‘the big city’ – the nearby city of Munich – to found their own tech startup. During the reception, I mentioned to the couple and a handful of other attendees that I was planning to fly to Paris after the wedding festivities concluded. This news triggered the following advice from my Munich-based friends:
“Oh Paris is lovely, but it’s become very unsafe. Are you planning to stay in Montmartre? Don’t! It’s very unsafe now. We visited not too long ago and stayed in that neighbourhood and felt very uncomfortable. We even had someone follow us for a bit and tried to steal our travel bag!’
Now I’ve been to Paris many times, and I’ve always stayed in either Pigalle or Montmartre. Sure Pigalle is a little rough (as all red-light districts tend to be) but by no means did I ever ‘unsafe’ there. And Montmartre? No way! You might get hassled at the bottom of the Sacre-Coeur steps by street sellers but that’s so common at tourist attractions I don’t even consider it a safety issue. So I was very confused by this advice. Had something changed since my last visit to Paris 2 years prior?
To make a long story short: I ended up trying a new neighbourhood (St. Germaine) recommended by friends. But I visited Montmartre and Pigalle late at night for a stroll to see if they were actually unsafe. They were not, and hadn’t changed a lick since I last set foot in them.
Which got me thinking – what is considered deeply unsafe and dangerous to one person may not phase another. This ties into ‘street smarts’ inasmuch as ‘street smarts’ is a euphemism in my estimation for the simple skill and experience of navigating a large (6+ million population) metropolitan city.
Everyone makes ‘street smarts’ out to be something that you can and should learn, like a specialized skill set. But in reality, it’s just the combined life experience of living in / navigating a large city with skill. I’ve met many people from large cities who don’t consider themselves street smart. But they are, because they are used to and commonly use all the skills one needs to exist comfortably in a dense metropolitan area. They have never had any other experience so to them they don’t really understand that ‘streetsmarts’ are something they were essentially born with and don’t really need to learn. Street smarts are generally just another name for a complex set of skills one needs to successfully exist in a large city. It’s nothing more than that.
However, people who were born or who in small towns or any city with less than a population of 1 million people are the ones that need to understand and learn ‘street smart.’ To someone from a small town, a stranger approaching to aggressively sell tourist trinkets appears as a threat. To someone from say, downtown LA, it’s nothing if not a way better experience than being approached and hustled for crack money by a homeless person (which happens at least 5 times on every block, let me tell you). It’s all about perception.
‘Streetsmarts’ are just a function of your background, your lived experience, and a comparison against your own common living standards. For my friends in Munich (a city of roughly 1 million people), who had grown up in tiny Austrian villages, Montmartre was intense, dangerous, and overwhelming. To me, it was way better than say Downtown LA or the streets of Cairo. Positively relaxing in comparison, as a matter of fact.
How ‘streetsmarts’ affect female travellers
In regards to how these skills affect female travellers in particular – as all us women know, a single female is somewhat of a target to shady people. Unfortunately, society has taught men that females are weak and vulnerable, and unfortunately, a lot of women buy into that narrative themselves and believe that being vulnerable or weak is an expression of femininity. Ladies – it’s not! Being a strong, self-sufficient woman is more feminine than being a damsel in distress and trust me, being a strong woman attracts much more worthwhile company.
Ladies, your biggest issues travelling will be:
- street harassment
- being safe going out late at night
- remaining aware at all times of your self and your belongings
Street harassment / Cat-calling
From my travels as a solo female, the biggest issue I’ve run into is men harassing me for dates, catcalling, following me, pressuring me into dates, etc. Here’s my tip to you: be aggressive! Tell them no firmly. Tell them you’re not interested / you’re taken / with your family. Whatever you have to say to express ‘no.’ If they still won’t leave you alone, bring in bystanders. Grab someone off the street and tell them you’re being harassed. Go into a local store and find a female employee and explain what’s happening and ask for them to help you out. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – many people are willing and open to assist. Never be afraid to involve the police unless you’re in a very third world destination, in which case, I wouldn’t advise it because the cops can be far worse harassers than whoever is following you. In such cases, grab any female you can find. You’ll be surprised how vicious local females will be while protecting you! They have to deal with the same harassment every day. They’re as tired of it – if not more so – as you are!
I know a lot of women are afraid to escalate things with men or get aggressive because they fear that men will become more physically aggressive in response. But don’t be afraid – as a very aggressive woman, I can 100% tell you that me being aggressive has never once resulted in men becoming physically violent. If you stand your ground and show yourself to have a backbone, most men back off. They could harass any women and a woman that talks back and is aggressive is usually too much work. They’d rather deal with a weak pushover. You must take the initiative to stand up for yourself and set the tone for interpersonal connections. If you’re a “take no shit” person, people will stop giving you shit really quick.
Being safe going out late at night and partying
According to research, the biggest indicator of a woman’s likelihood to be raped or mugged is the way she walked and carried herself. What she wore, her age, etc. didn’t matter nearly as much, if at all. Women who walked slowly, or who had passive body language were all the biggest targets. The takeaway here is this: walk with confidence. Know where you’re going. Look with purpose around you, make eye contact with people who come across your path, and always seem like you know where you’re going. Hold your shoulders back, walk with your arms by your side (not crossed, it’s a sign of passivity), and hold your head high. All of these are indicators of physical confidence and even dominance.
Whenever it’s late at night and you’re worried about walking down a dark alley alone, or at any time you’re feeling threatened, don’t respond by writing it all over your face (metaphorically speaking). Keep your guard up, keep your fears hidden, and act like you’re unfazed. This alone will prevent you from becoming a target to the vast majority of criminals because they’d rather pick a target that seems more willing to submit without a fight. Looking and acting like a badass – even if you’re not – honestly is one of the keys to staying safe.
In terms of partying again remember – do not count on anyone to have your best interests at heart. Do not assume that if you get wasted someone will look out for you. Know your limits and do not push past them. Go out, have fun and drink, but be reasonable, keep yourself in check, always look after your belongings, and depend on no one for rides, payment, housing, etc. Be self-sufficient and rely on no one, even if they seem friendly. If you’re going to hook up with someone, be sure you have an out – the number for a taxi company, a working cell phone (don’t let them take you anywhere without cell service), and a good understanding of where you are. Ideally, let friends and family know where you’re going and how to reach you. Have the numbers for the police (if not a third world country) on hand too. And always be ready to go if things get weird. Follow your instinct.
Remaining aware of yourself and your belongings at all times
This means constantly checking in with your surroundings. Gauge how they look and feel, and how your behaviour is affecting your surroundings. Are you standing out? Are people clocking you? Looking at you weirdly? Not a good situation. Leave, then think critically about what you could have done or said to avoid getting that response from people. Be aware of your body language – how you’re sitting, where you’re sitting, how your arms are folded or not folded, how you’re carrying yourself.
Making eye contact is one of those simple things you can do to appear dominant (and hence fend off unsavoury characters) but it can also be an invitation in some cultures to ‘come talk to me.’ So you need to be aware of how your behaviour is affecting those around you. And the positioning of yourself to people around you. Are you near an exit? Is someone blocking you into a corner? Do you know a quick exit strategy from the crowded bar? You should register all of these things, all the time. This is what being “on guard” means. Needing to be on guard can be overwhelming at first. But do it long enough and it becomes second nature.
In terms of belongings – don’t do something stupid like wear a backpack through a crowded train station. It’s very likely you’ll be pickpocketed. It’s easy to just unzip your backpack and grab something out of it without you even noticing. When you’re in crowded areas, flip your backpack to the front so your hands rest over the zippers and if anyone tries to open them, you’ll notice immediately. Flip your wallet from your back pocket to the front, and if you’re carrying a purse, hold it close to your body and make sure you zip it up (if it doesn’t zip, get one that does). Don’t let bags hang loosely from your body. Don’t ever leave strangers in charge of your stuff, or in charge of anything valuable. Always travel with luggage locks. Don’t leave valuable stuff in your hotel room unless it’s in a safe, and even then be careful. Bring a bicycle chain and lock and lock your suitcase to a solid item in your room if you’re staying anywhere questionable. Do not allow anyone to be responsible for your belongings except you. Be extra careful in places like train stations, metro stations, bars, clubs – anywhere where there are large groups of people.
What you can do to learn ‘streetsmarts’
In addition to developing your self-confidence and self-awareness, the best way to learn street smarts is simply to live for a while in a large city. You’ll learn very quickly how to handle yourself in all manner of situations.
If this isn’t possible, at least visiting a big city in America before visiting one overseas is recommended. Ideally, spend some time with friends you have in a large city and ask them to show you the ropes. Become comfortable in situations that arise in large cities. This way, when you travel, you won’t exude the ‘naïve newbie’ vibe.
If this isn’t an option, try visiting a part of your own town that makes you feel uncomfortable. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations and learn how to deal with it. Because a lot of travel involves slightly uncomfortable or new situations and it’s really key to learn how to deal with them with confidence and self-possession.
To quickly recap: ‘street smarts’ are really just a set of specialized skills that people develop when they live in large metropolitan cities. It’s easy to learn these skills and anyone can learn them. Women, in particular, become targets for crime – especially street and harassment and sexual assaults – because they are seen as ‘easy targets.’ To avoid all of this, be self-aware, self-sufficient, confident, and assertive. There are specific things you can do in specific situations, but a great deal of trouble will be avoided if you simply act sure of – and in control of – yourself and your belongings. It seems ridiculous, but it’s been true for me personally and it’s supported by research. Your greatest weapon against being victimized is acting like you’re not afraid of being victimized. And know your limits – listen to your instincts and do not push past them.
‘Streetsmarts’ is an accurate name – the vast majority of ‘streetsmart’ skills are mental, not physical. Remember that next time someone tells you ‘you’ll be ok if you’re streetsmart’ or ‘don’t visit unless you’re really street smart.’ What they’re essentially saying is don’t visit unless you can convincingly go without being mentally flustered. If you can walk into and out of that neighbourhood with a swagger in your step, you’ll be fine. In a way, being streetsmart is the mastery of being a confident, self-possessed, badass.
Ladies, let’s all get to learning ‘streetsmarts’ because there are loads of destinations that female travelers can travel confidently and comfortably. Plus, the world could use more well-travelled, assertive confident, and self-possessed women!
Originally from Kansas City, MO, Suzanne is now based out of Los Angeles, CA. A seasoned traveler, she’s visited 69 different countries while pursuing her goal of visiting every country on the planet (and then every planet in the solar system, technology allowing). After racking up 500+ lifetime miles flown with United, her favorite city is Hong Kong, and her favorite country to visit is India. When not traveling, she loves to write and create art, and when not studying metro maps and travel guides, she loves to read poetry, philosophy, and anything by Alejandro Jodorowsky.