How do you know someone is dodgy? Reading intentions.

My first piece for 2017, much more to come…

I’ve written at length about recognising behaviour and reading it based on many factors, body language being the key factor along with what people say and their immediate actions. Body language says almost everything you need to know to recognise what a person’s behaviour means.

I’ve discussed being able to tell whether a relationship is new or old, whether or not someone has spatial awareness, what mood someone is in and so on. One factor that has come up often in both life and work is figuring out how to tell if someone is dodgy. What I mean by dodgy could be anything from pick pocket or other thief, rapist, mugger, someone looking for a fight, or someone just generally looking to take advantage. For the people I have worked with learning disabilities and Autism is recognising this factor, being able to tell that a person is going to steal off them, or convince them to commit a crime or sell them something they don’t want. Importantly it’s not just criminals in the obvious sense but also salespeople who will up-sell or give you “add on’s”[1] to purchases you don’t want or need.

People with disabilities and particularly those with Autism struggle to recognise behaviours full stop, they struggle to see body language or what lies behind a person’s words or eyes, reading between the lines is very challenging and people often lack the filters that most of us have before we allow someone into our lives or homes or to sell us something.

The art of selling is just that, an art. There are very gifted individuals who can convince you to buy any old shit you don’t need “selling snow to eskimo’s” is the cliché. This is just another form of behaviour manipulation, used for the wrong reasons, acting like a friend, acting caring and interested, convincing you that you NEED this new TV.

It’s been well publicised how frequently elderly people have been convinced to give away bank details, or let a contractor replace their boiler at an inflated price, or any number of variations on taking advantage. The same goes for people with disabilities, who are in fact 4 times more likely to be victims of fraud than the non-disabled members of society.

As you read this you’re probably trying to remember if someone has taken advantage of you, I’d bet that most people have been ripped off at least once in their lives, but you learn from it and hopefully don’t make that mistake again. Many corner shops will short change if they can, in media it’s usually the real estate agent or the car salesman but it can be anyone. The con artist or grifter is almost like an American movie cliché from the 50’s but there are many people out there right now doing that all over the world. Very skilled people who if they used their abilities for good could really do wonders but for some reason they feel it is better to make a living via dishonesty.

That one time in that corner shop that you walked out with half the change you should have, you will remember, you bought a Snickers Bar and  pint of milk, you go home emptied your pocket and realised you’d been short changed. Either you just decide to never go back, or even better you decide to go down there and demand your change, if you do the shopkeeper probably either says you are lying, or apologises and pretends like it was an honest mistake (which does happen once in a while…) either way you probably don’t take into account his actual behaviour and what to look out for in the future. You took it in subconsciously so next time around your automatic filter does the work, but it’s unlikely that you could actually explain why that person is dodgy.

“I go in that shop every day, he seems very nice to me!”

Your friend says defensively.

“I know, I know, there’s just something about that guy!

But what?


You know he’s dodgy, a rip-off artist, a thief but you can’t explain why. Just the same as you can tell someone is nice, or friendly or interested in you by just looking at them.

I’ve told this story before in another context but its relevant here too. Many years ago I was supporting a young man, and I was introducing a new support worker in what we call shadowing. The young man liked to go to Covent Garden, which is in central London and one of the busiest tourist destinations in the city, which means public transport to get there is also extremely busy. We were on a jammed tube train and couldn’t really move, I noticed that the other workers back pack was unzipped exposing the contents. Just as I notice I look up the carriage and see a man stalking his way through the crowd towards the middle where we are. He is looking at people’s bags, what they are carrying and more importantly how they are carrying them, I immediately know what he is doing, he’s a pickpocket. I thought he was rather unsubtle but no one else seemed to notice. Just as a make this assumption I see him lock his eyes upon my colleagues bag and starts hurriedly making his way through the crowd, people are annoyed at him shoving but take little notice of him. Before he makes it to the middle our stop rolls up and we get off, I tell my colleague what I just saw he had no idea and no idea his bag was open. We go to the exit of the station and report to the guards, they make note casually but don’t hesitate to say there’s little they can do. And I didn’t actually see him take anything.

“Thieves operate in this area”

“Beware of your belongings”

These signs are all over London and particularly in high risk areas, like Covent Garden. So locals are aware, I’ve seen people with their wallet sticking out of their pocket and someone will inform them to be careful. Once I was waiting at a cash machine on Kentish Town High Street to get some money out, in front of me was an elderly man taking a long time, he eventually turned to me and asked for help. He explained he had just got his first bank card and didn’t know how to use the machine, I helped him and made sure not to look at his PIN and told him to be careful. Worst of all he wanted £200 which I wouldn’t be keen on carrying and I can defend myself, I asked him several times if he was sure he wanted that much and he was affirmative about it. I helped him I let him go and worried about it, knowing that he could ask the wrong person. The big question I asked myself was why did he trust me? There’s no chance I would take advantage, did he know that but just looking or was he desperate and not even thinking about it, just a trusting old man?

Some years later I was supporting two young women with Autism, we had just gone to look at a new flat for them and on the way back on the tube we were discussing their limited options, I noticed a man paying close attention to our conversation and he noticed me notice him. These two young ladies, twins had the same struggles as many others with Autism in recognising people’s intentions by their behaviour, but due to that they were suspicious of everyone, which was more often than not a good thing for them as they look very vulnerable (they look and dress much younger than they are, which makes them a target for predators)  we get off the train and leave the station, I am saying my good byes to them when the man from the train comes up to us, I had seen him cross the street, but he returned. He gave the girls £100 in cash.

“I heard your conversation, I hope this helps”

He was a Good Samaritan who wanted to do something nice. I was amazed, thanked him, but the twins questioned it.

“What’s that for, what does he want?” thinking he was a dodgy character.

I explained he was the opposite but they still weren’t sure. I told them to accept the money and do something good with it. The man didn’t know that they in fact didn’t have any financial issues but his gesture was welcome all the same. I have some faith in people.

We all see behaviour differently, we sometimes know or don’t know if someone is good or bad. Context matters, random acts of kindness are just as confusing as random acts of dodginess.

In London and most cities people tend to be guarded about strangers out of this fear of wanting something off us and very likely being willing to take it by any means.

I was teaching a group of young people with disabilities about money and looking after themselves, staying safe, with money and in other ways. One young man said he had been mugged. I told him very clearly why, he looked like a victim, I told him about standing up straight, owning his environment and walking confidently. He was hunched over and looked shy and innocent, he was a very nice, genuine young man and predators could see that a mile away.

We know how to not look like a victim, we know sometimes people are nice and we don’t realise, we also know that some dodgy characters are obvious by their actions, but those are not the ones that worry me, it’s the ones you don’t noticed. I asked my students that question.

“How do you know if someone is dodgy?”

Naturally they struggled but all being born and raised Londoners they made some good points.

“People staring at you”

“People standing too close, and looking at your stuff”

“People who are too friendly”

So I asked “What is too friendly?”

“People you don’t know asking too many questions”

“Good answer”

All good points, definitely not the guy in a fedora and an overcoat. Something I have thought about recently has been this very thing, how people dress and how it’s perceived. In the UK particularly, there has long been a fear of the “Hoody” a young man, which monochromatic attire, hoody up and over his head, most likely hanging out with a few other young men dressed exactly the same. This was largely due to an increase in gang violence, and this uniform of the teenagers of impoverished London was an identifier for someone who was potentially going to stab you. Someone who was likely to stab you, probably was dressed like that, but most teenagers in the UK own a hoody, I wear them too, it’s just a meaningless piece of clothing, but the troubled youth wear them. I see young men who fit this description every day around my local area, I live in Tottenham which has a bad reputation for gang violence.

The problem is the young men of London complain about being thought be criminals purely because of the way they dress, young men who were students and professionals or simply young men, dressed in tack suits were getting searched by police every day even though they may not have ever committed a crime or been involved in any kind of gang related activity.

What they didn’t realise, and still don’t is that it’s not just the attire, it’s the behaviour. I don’t assume a young man in a hoody is a thug, but when I am walking towards a group of 4 or 5 sitting on a wall, or blocking a walkway all dressed in hoodies, all with the hoods up obscuring their faces, all staring at me, what should I assume? What would you assume? I will be ready for something, because that is what they project. It feels like self-fulfilling prophecy, they assume I will think they are thugs, so they act like thugs in response to that assumption, which makes people make that assumption… If they acted casually, or simply stood aside, I wouldn’t make that assumption at all. Why are they all standing in that dark alleyway, when they could be at home, or in a pub or at least a well-lit street?

“We stand here so the cops won’t bother us”

“They bother you because standing in a dark alley looks dodgy”

That is quite a generalisation on my behalf, but I see these interactions every day. People seem oblivious to why people view them a certain way. I’m acutely aware of the things about me that make people stare or react, not everyone is and many people (including many of those young men) purposefully cultivate an image to give an impression even if not indicative of their nature, maybe to fit in, maybe due to fashion or peer pressure, maybe to stand out depending on the choice. Regardless, it’s no mystery why people react to people’s appearance.

This from a recent article in Time magazine adds somewhat to the more intuitive nature of recognising a person’s nature. Considering psychopathy, the article discusses the higher amount of psychopaths in normal society, not the serial killer type of the movies but every day you encounter them[2] However, the study mentioned below suggests we quite simply know.

“In a recent study, researchers J. Reid Meloy and M. J. Meloy studied the reactions of mental health and criminal justice professionals concerning their “physical reactions” while interviewing psychopathic offenders or patients. The reactions were varied and included sensations and feelings that were gastrointestinal (queasy stomach, feeling of illness), muscular (shaky feeling, weakness), cardiovascular (pounding heart), pulmonary (shortness of breath.) The authors suggested that their findings could be interpreted as suggestive evidence of a primitive, autonomic, and fearful response to a predator. They described the psychopath as an intraspecies predator.”

In communication we use micro-expressions, these are tiny almost unnoticeable facial gestures that we don’t consciously recognise. If you were to watch an interaction between two people you probably wouldn’t see the micro-expressions, but we do register them and have reactions to them. Every person has them and it’s a way we see intentions behind people’s words and actions even if we can’t explain it.

People can look shifty, even if they aren’t. People can be dodgy even if they don’t look like they are. I am more suspicious of a man in a nice suit selling me stuff than a teenager in a hoody sifting aimlessly. I am wary of people who are “too nice” or too “interested” in me. But how do you explain that look in someone’s eyes that shadiness, it’s real, it’s not just something from cinema, people do look shady and it’s almost impossible to explain, but I do think it’s best to trust that instinct, but also don’t hide away from it, just make sure those people don’t win, they don’t get an advantage. Next time you have an immediate reaction to someone, good or bad trust your instincts. We do get it wrong sometimes, and sometimes people change for whatever reason. I certainly know a few people who I once trusted and no longer do, they may do something you perceive as “out of character” but accept that it in fact is part of their character, but for some reason they have changed or you haven’t seen that aspect before. There is always a reason a person behaves a certain way, and changes in a person’s “normal” behaviour should be a point of concern as it may be due to trauma, abuse, substance abuse anything at all.

Some of us are better at recognising meaning behind a behaviour instinctively, others can learn to see these things and some seem oblivious to people’s intentions. You probably all know someone who always seems to have people around them you don’t like, people you think are a bad influence or quite simply “dodgy” and you wonder why your friend constantly hangs out with them, it may be they don’t see or can’t process the micro-expressions, that maybe they don’t have the skills to read behaviour.

We all should try to be aware of how our actions appear to others, don’t be surprised when someone gets it wrong, misunderstands what you are saying or doing, and also trust your instinct and don’t worry too much about analysing it, you’re probably right.

[1] For only £30 you can get a set of headphones with this new TV!! And so on. Always sounds like a good deal.

[2] read it here

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