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I recently encountered a situation where I felt it was important to ask a stranger what they were doing/if everything was alright or prompt them to explain themselves, however, after they acted confrontationally I lost my nerve and did not say anything. I have often thought back and wondered what would have been the best way to avoid conflict/defuse any escalating situations if I did attempt to acquire that information.

The Scenario

I was on the bus home, 3 girls and 2 boys aged 15-17 guided a young girl aged 6-8 on (whom I had noticed 30 min earlier shopping with her parents and made some idle elevator chatter to the father when he dropped some coins).

There are another 6 or so people scattered around the bus. The group sit near me, and are quite loud so I overhear parts of their conversations. Attempting to be as objective as possible, this is what I could gather. They talked about seeing the girl and her parents at the shops, they said

You know why I got so mad?

and explained it was because of how the parents were treating their daughter badly by rudely refusing some request. There were a few other mentions of some conflict at the shops. They said that their next stop were some clubs and they were going to get very drunk. Next they addressed the girl in a way that seemed to me as though they did not really know her or what to do with her.

Ooh yeah, we should probably feed the girl, lets stop by a food shop, I'm not buying. (then addressing the girl) Little girl, are you hungry?

Note: my question is NOT about about anything other than Interpersonal Skills for avoiding conflict.

Ignoring any subconscious bias I may have and although the young girl did not look distressed at all and other than being obnoxious/swearing the group had done nothing wrong, I had heard enough that I felt it was important to somehow check if everything was alright. While mulling over how to ask what was going on in a way that avoids conflict the group noticed me and said:

Stop talking, people can hear us... This weirdo (gesture at me) is staring at us.

Yes, I was staring, and obviously that wasn't the best method but I will explain it away as subconscious since I was about/attempting to engage in a conversation with them. This confrontation threw me off, I awkwardly looked away and put in headphones until eventually they left. And when I got off I promptly phoned the non-urgent police line with a description and plenty of emphasis on the fact that there was a distinct possibility that there was nothing wrong after all (there was still a good chance they were just transporting her to another relative or something).

The Question

My condition is to acquiring (or attempting to acquire) enough information so my worries for the girls safety can be put to rest. Obviously guaranteed conflict aversion won't be possible but I would like to know how to do this before they noticed me, after they noticed me and in the case where our interaction escalates, using IPS in a way that minimises the conflict.

  • Why do you think directly asking to the girl "Is everything alright?" won't work? – Vylix Nov 6 '17 at 8:48
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    Directly asking the girl shows the group that i suspect everything IS NOT alright, and that puts the group in an opposing position to me and would likely but in and say "mind your own business". I would prefer to phrase it in a way that better avoids conflict – Jesse Nov 6 '17 at 8:53
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    Also, if the girl responds with "yeah" it makes it more difficult to ask follow up questions, when there could still be an issue (she is too young to truly know what is best for her, she may be happy to run around the town with drunk strangers) – Jesse Nov 6 '17 at 8:54
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    I understand your question is about avoiding confrontation (so I won't post this as an answer), but sometimes you need to be confrontational. Avoiding conflict is not always best. When you saw the girl with a parent earlier and the group is addressing her as "little girl," not by her name, it's obvious none of them are her siblings. Demand an explanation, and if it isn't satisfactory, call the police. The safety of a child is more important than social conduct with strangers. If you don't feel physically safe confronting them, call the police, tell what you do know, and let them decide – automaton Nov 6 '17 at 15:01
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    ...so I believe you did the right thing. But I just make the point that sometimes being assertive is preferable to avoiding conflict, even when it's uncomfortable – automaton Nov 6 '17 at 15:09
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What you said in the comments is relevant for my answer:

Directly asking the girl shows the group that i suspect everything IS NOT alright, and that puts the group in an opposing position to me and would likely but in and say "mind your own business". I would prefer to phrase it in a way that better avoids conflict.

You need to understand the reason why you feel the need to address this in the first place. If you're suspecting that this girl is not in safe company, and you happen to be right, those teenagers are antagonists (to the girl), and confrontation will be impossible to avoid (I doubt five teenagers who are indeed up to no good will just roll over when a random stranger asks them a question).

Defending someone inherently means opposing those who attack or endanger that person (even if only conversationally or figuratively).

That doesn't mean that you should recklessly antagonize the teenagers (they are innocent until proven guilty), but that does justify the necessity of checking that the girl is allright.

If a cop shies away from interrogating a suspect because they might get offended by bein interrogated, then the cop is not fulfilling his duty. Investigating to see if the girl is allright makes you a "social cop" for a brief moment, so the same is true for you: do your duty (within obvious legal, moral and ethical boundaries, of course).

At worst, you will have come across as a bit of a nosy stranger. While this can be awkward, you haven't really done anything reprehensible.
At best, you've ensured the safety of a girl who could otherwise have ended up in a dangerous or scary situation.

Also, if the girl responds with "yeah" it makes it more difficult to ask follow up questions, when there could still be an issue (she is too young to truly know what is best for her, she may be happy to run around the town with drunk strangers)

If you want to follow up after she says yes (because you're still not convinced), don't ask another question. She has already given you a clear answer, and repeating the question can come across as manipulative (i.e. that you won't stop until you get the answer you're expecting).

What you can do, however, is make conversation and making innocent inferences (not implying that the teenagers are up to no good). Children generally fill in the blanks, especially since they don't know how easily they can fool a stranger. For example:

  • Little girl, are you alright?
  • Yeah.
  • Are you on the way to [the zoo] with your brothers and sisters?

You're playing the role of a kind but misguided stranger. This works even if there is no zoo in your current location. You're intentionally making a mistake, to elicit a response.

Obviously, the teenagers aren't all siblings either (which is another intentional mistake). But that's not the point of your question. You're saying something that sounds like an innocent assumption, and are waiting to see how the child corrects you.

If she's hesitant about describing what's really going on, then you can infer that something is up.
If she seems confident in her correction ("No, [he] is my brother and the others are his friends" or even "No, they're just my friends"), then you know that at the very least the child thinks that they're not doing anything wrong.

Firstly, this works because you're relying on the child's moral compass. If the child has already said "yes" to your first question, then either (1) she is actively hiding something or (2) nothing wrong is happening here.
If (1) is the case, then she will likely hesitate while explaining her situation. In such a case, keep in mind what just happened: a stranger approached her and immediately poked through to something she had been keeping hidden (i.e. being up to no good). That should at the very least elicit some hesitation in her response.
If (2) is the case, then she won't hesitate since there's nothing to hide.

Secondly, inbetween you making that wrong inference and the child correcting you, you can also observe the teenagers.
Are they worried that the child will reveal something she's not supposed to? Do they try to interrupt the conversation or speak for her? Do they look afraid of getting caught redhanded? Are they continuing their conversation or are all eyes focused on you now?
Or are they simply annoyed by your presence, without trying to hide anything?

You can never truly prove that something is amiss, but you can gauge if the kids are behaving suspiciously.


So, to summarize:

  • You're morally allowed to ask the first question because the end (potentially keeping a girl safe) justifies the means (asking a direct question to a stranger).
  • If you feel hesitant after the initial response, you can subtly gauge for suspicious behavior without provoking the group with prodding questions.

Edit - about the misdirection

In regard to IPS, I tend to avoid implicit conversation and subtle misdirections. It generally creates more problems than it truly solves.

However, this is a special case. You're trying to ascertain whether or not the teenagers are up to no good (intentionally or not, doesn't matter). If they are intentionally up to no good, then directly confronting them makes it easier for them to lie or push you out (e.g. yelling "stranger danger" to get rid of you).

By indirectly approaching the subject and not being overt about your intentions (by making a well-meaning but wrong inference), you make yourself appear like less of a threat and more just a friendly weirdo (which is how the teenagers will see you).
Essentially, you're playing the good cop ("What you're doing is normal.") and not the bad cop ("I know you're up to no good.").

  • I like this answer, but if a stranger walked up to and started talking to a young child in my care, you can be damn sure my eyes are going to be on him or her. Depending on my impression of the person, especially if I've mentally classified them as a "weirdo" or otherwise behaving strangely, I may well present an unwelcoming facade to discourage them. Admittedly, this would probably be easily distinguishable from a guilty reaction. – Derek Elkins Nov 7 '17 at 11:14
  • @DerekElkins: I agree with your comment, but the OP's case is subtly different. They have already suspected that the teenagers are not taking proper care of the child, which may result in them not interrupting a kind stranger (and would rather mock the stranger with their friends instead of engage the stranger)*. But yes, it's likely going to draw their attention regardless. If it doesn't, that is a fair indication that none of them have a guilty conscience (but may be a bit too distracted to properly care for the child, without bad intentions on their part). – Flater Nov 7 '17 at 11:29
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    From the point of view of someone with a much younger sibling, and who was multiple times in the very same situation as described, I can say this would not end up well. From my point of view: my way younger sibling is under my responsibility and a "weirdo" come asking where we are going?? Red flag! I would not have allowed the kid to answer at all, are you going to follow us, why do you try to start a conversation with a child? Just be honest and say "I saw the kid with the parents first: I'm checking if you know each other" is much better. Also I used to say something like little girl too... – rosysnake Nov 7 '17 at 12:45
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    @rosysnake: If the teenagers see this as a red flag and respond accordingly, then they are considering the girl's safety and therefore the OP's suspicion is disproven. That's the point of the exercise; to test if the teenagers are being responsible. As per my footnote, I generally suggest to drop the pretense (transparency leads to understanding, leads to no/less negative inferences), but when you're ascertaining ill intent, being open straight off the bat means that someone who is up to no good can immediately shut you down; which renders the OP's well-meaning intentions moot. – Flater Nov 7 '17 at 12:56
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    @rosysnake: IPS mainly focuses on topics where both people are being honest, yet end up communicating/implying wrong things. This case considers the possibility of the teenagers willfully lying, which creates a different dynamic and therefore the need for a different approach. – Flater Nov 7 '17 at 12:58
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I think what you're trying to do is unavoidably going to result in what you're describing as a "conflict".

You wanted to intervene to find out if the girl is OK. Well it's pretty close to impossible to do that and not have the other people pick up that you think they might be up to no good.

I think all you can do is say "Are you all right ? Do you want some help ?" to the young girl directly.

If the teenagers object just state as plainly as possible that you just want to be sure she's OK as their loud discussion make you a bit concerned.

But in any situation like this you have to be prepared to stand your ground. Backing out achieves nothing. You must also be prepared to accept the possibility that you cannot control escalation by someone else.

The only thing you can do to minimize the possibility is to be calm and adopt a reasonable and non-aggressive tone that is firm. No physical gestures, no raised voice, no bad language.

"Little girl, are you hungry?"

I am assuming they used a name, because if they didn't and actually addressed her as "little girl", then it would be a red flag immediately that something could be wrong.

Stop talking, people can hear us... This weirdo (gesture at me) is staring at us.

Yes, I was staring, and obviously that wasn't the best method but I will explain it away as subconscious since I was about/attempting to engage in a conversation with them. This confrontation threw me off, I awkwardly looked away and put in headphones until eventually they left.

That was actually the moment you should have said in a firm and confident tone "From what I've overheard I'm becoming concerned this young girl is OK with you. Where are you taking her ?" and winged it from there.

I'm afraid if you're not confident enough to assert yourself like this you should not do anything direct. You must be confident and able to remain clam and you must be willing to handle conflict. It's not a matter of simply knowing what to say - there's no script for this sort of thing. It's more a matter of being able to assert yourself and that does require self-confidence.

As it happens these were all minors. Legally you're probably better off telling the police (as you did) and letting them handle it. Taking a photo with your smart phone might have been useful. These days confrontations with minors are best left for more obvious situations - they're clearly threatening someone or being overly abusive to someone or something like that. Anything else is too ambiguous for civilians.

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    "Little girl, are you hungry?" was a direct quote, and used as an example of one of the red flags i picked up while listening – Jesse Nov 6 '17 at 15:15
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    Understood. I wondered if you'd simply censored the name. Thanks. – StephenG Nov 6 '17 at 16:54
  • Taking photos of kids might not be the best idea. – user31389 Nov 6 '17 at 21:45
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There is really no way to confront someone (That's what you're doing) without it sounding at least somewhat confrontational. In essence you want to prompt the group to explain themselves, so you're already in a confrontational position. The only question is how they reply to it.

If you feel strongly enough that something may be amiss, it's probably not a good idea to go around asking on your own, either. If there is something amiss seriously enough that you're considering intervening, then maybe you should be deferring to either the bus conductor or calling the police instead.

Otherwise, this is not your business.

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    If it wasn’t for the last line I’d up vote this. To ignore potential child abuse because it’s “not your business” is not ok. – Notts90 Nov 7 '17 at 12:49

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