Friday, May 13, 2011

What Exactly Do We Think an Emergency Looks Like?

Usually in this space I write about people's natural, typical reactions to stressful events. Often, these are reactions that appear, at first glance, to be overreactions. We are affected by things that we think perhaps we should not be. And of course, my "moral of the story" is almost always that the ways that we are affected actually make a lot of sense. What I'd like to share today, however, is a little difference. I encountered a stressful experience during and after which I understood my own reaction, but not that of others.

I spent a few hours this morning in a local coffee shop. I should have been doing work, but honestly at the time this occurred I was playing a game on Facebook. Sue me. At any rate, I suddenly became aware of raised voices at the counter. More specifically, a man was yelling about wanting his money from the barista. The first that I "tuned in" to what was being said, he was saying something about a card being worth $500 and the barista was saying something about it being $5. My immediate, gut impression, without hearing anything more, was that the man was mentally ill in some way. I don't know where I got that, and I couldn't see him, but there was something about the interaction.

Soon, the man's words escalated. He was swearing and saying he wanted his money, and that the barista "always slips out the back door." She was asking him, calmly, to leave. Her coworker asked him to leave. I could see him now -- a well dressed but somewhat poorly groomed man in a suit and tie, about my age.

At this point you could hear what he was yelling clearly throughout the store. I had put down my computer and was watching carefully, wondering if it was my place to call 911. I had just decided that I would if he actually threatened the barista or became physically aggressive, when he said, "If I had a knife! Not a little knife! A chef's knife! I should get a chef's knife!" I reached for my phone just as the coworker picked up hers and called 911.

The man was pleased that the police had been called. He said they would settle this. He calmed down and sat in a chair for a while. I continued to watch. And I became aware that not one other person in the store had changed what they were doing at all. The woman in the next chair over from me was still talking to a friend on her cell phone, and not about this. The men having a business meeting were continuing their meeting.

I don't get it. I understand not wanting to get involved. I understand not wanting to overreact. Maybe this encounter was more disturbing to me than it needed to be. Maybe the police didn't need to be called. Those are all judgment calls. But how could you sit in the coffee shop this morning and not think that this warranted your attention. A very quiet establishment in a relatively quiet town has a man yelling about getting a knife and refusing to leave, and you don't even look up? Really?

The only thing to which I can attribute this is people's tendency to think that danger is more obvious than it ever is. For example, your kid will probably tell you they're not supposed to talk to strangers. But if a nice woman with a puppy starts chatting them up on the playground, most kids will still talk to her. She's not a stranger, she's a woman with a puppy. Similarly, I did a training for a school yesterday in which we used a scenario regarding an out-of-place backpack. There was some debate about whether that could constitute a "suspicious package." The thing is, suspicious packages don't come labeled as such.

I don't want to invoke stereotypes, and I don't know the whole story here. But it seems to me there was a man not completely in touch with reality threatening violence, and that such a person is somewhat more likely than average to carry out violence. Yes, he's wearing a suit. Yes, the chances are still on the small side. But it might be worth pricking your ears up. Deranged gunmen don't wear t-shirts that say, "Kiss me, I'm a deranged gunman."

The police took a long time coming, and the man left in the meantime. I offered to talk to the police but they said they had the information they needed. Another day on the job. Another day for most of the patrons at the coffee shop. I'm left shaking my head.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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