Most people know me, Jordan Harbinger, as one of the founders of The Art of Charm. We’re a company that shows guys how to hone their social skills, which for a lot of guys means meeting more women, making new friends and doing better at work. What a lot of people don’t know about me is that I have used these same social skills to get out of being kidnapped.
Yeah, you read that right. Not only have I been kidnapped twice, but I’ve also talked my way out of it both times. This was no small matter. Both times I was in very grave danger, not just for my immediate personal safety, but also for my survival. Particularly in the second situation, I have no doubt at all that if I had not been able to use keen social awareness honed over years of studying this stuff, I wouldn’t be sitting here in San Francisco enjoying what passes for sunshine here.
It’s a scary thought, to be sure and when I think about it too much I feel a bit like someone just walked over my grave. If you’ve ever been almost hit by a car or almost stepped out off of the subway platform and onto the tracks, take that feeling and multiply it by a thousand.
In fact, it’s this discomfort that’s kept me from writing about this until now. But I think there are some lessons to be learned to apply to all areas of life. I’ll break all of that down at the end, but for now humor me as I start to tell you the tale of the first time I got kidnapped.
If you’ve ever been to Mexico City, you know that while a lot of it is great, other parts of it are just not. It’s a rough city in a poor country and the good parts and the bad parts couldn’t be more different than peanut butter and bowling balls.
If you know anything about me you know that I’m an adventurous guy. I don’t avoid places because they’re “dangerous.” In fact, I’ve make it a point to go to North Korea at least once a year for the past few years and taken some friends along with me (all of whom made it out just fine, thank you). What’s more, someone once said that I had allegedly broken the U.S. embargo against Cuba more than once. Allegedly.
These are both stories for another time, but you get what I’m getting at here: No one — not even Uncle Sam — is going to tell me where I can and cannot visit.
Despite warnings from friends and family alike, I trucked on down to Mexico City. And you know what? It was great. I hung out, I worked for a useless non-profit, I learned some Spanish, I partied, I met new people some of whom I’m still hanging out with on occasion. Please let the experience I am about to describe serve as a cautionary tale of how to keep yourself safe in public places and not as a reason to avoid traveling, especially to Mexico City.
It was late at night and I was heading out for a night of carousing when I made a mistake that would almost cost me my freedom and perhaps even my life: I got a cab home. Here’s the thing — I didn’t know it was a fake cab, as it looked like all the others and was either a stolen legit cab or someone had done a decent job of making it seem authentic.
I didn’t know my way around the entire city, but I did know where my house (where I was literally sleeping on the roof) was in relationship to the city skyline. In particular, there was one large building that I used to anchor myself no matter where I was in the city. We were supposed to be headed down to the core of the city so I could go out and meet some friends. So I obviously started becoming very concerned when I noticed that my anchor in the city kept moving further and further away from this anchor rather than toward it.
In broken Spanish I asked my driver where we were going. He explained to me in broken English that the way back to my place was difficult. That we needed to go around the outer rim of the city to make our way the city center where I was meeting a friend. This struck me as strange, as I hadn’t ever had to use the outer rim of the city to get where I had planned to go; But I’m a trusting (though not completely naive) guy, so I thought “Who am I to tell this guy his own business.”
I sat back down in my seat, paying greater attention to where we were going, trying to relax myself. Still, as we moved further and further away from the landmark I used to keep myself rooted, the pit in my stomach grew larger and larger.
“We’re getting further away from where we’re supposed to be going,” I attempted to say in what little Spanish I knew.
There was an awkward, and a bit unsettling, pause. This wasn’t a man who was having trouble understanding my Spanish. This was a man who was trying to think of a way to cover his ass.
“We’ll stop and get directions.”
Society functions on a basic trust. Sociopaths, criminals and others exploit this basic trust. My cab driver and, apparently, captor, was doing just that. Part of me knew this, even at the time, but if you’re anything like me, you give people the benefit of the doubt. After all, who expects to be kidnapped by a cab driver in Mexico?
No one, but maybe we should. This is probably the first time that I ever learned how I really need to listen to my danger sense. When he pulled up in front of some crappy building with no people in sight, that’s when I decided it was time to make my move as he started to get out of the car.
“Don’t get out of the car,” I said forcefully.
“I need to ask for directions,” he replied with just a hint of fear and guilt mixed together.
“There’s no one around here.”
He made a fast one for the door and that’s where I made my move.
As I said above, there was nowhere to ask for directions near where we were. And, after all, this guy was a taxi driver — have you ever been in a cab before where the cabbie needed to ask directions to get to the center of town? I sure haven’t. The neighborhoods we were driving through just kept getting more and more sketchy.
I tried the door quietly and it didn’t open. He had disabled it. If there were any sense I still had left that I might just be paranoid, it was now gone. I had been set up. He saw me by the side of the road and I was an easy mark. Remember that in some parts of the world, no matter how modest your means are, you’re incredibly wealthy by local standards. This means that you’re a target for the type of people who commit crimes of opportunity.
So I did the only thing I could think to do — I slipped behind him and put him into a sleeper hold until he passed out. I climbed over him and out his door. But there was just one little problem — I wasn’t any safer than I was when I was in the back seat of his illegal cab.
If anything, I had gone out of the frying pan of a cab driver’s car who was kidnapping me into the fire of a dangerous neighborhood in a city where I knew basically no one. Not only did I not know where I was, I didn’t know how I was going to get where I needed to go even if I could find it; My window for just hopping on the nearest subway car had passed a long time ago. Now it was find my home by my wits… or not at all.
Walking through the Mexican barrio, I was struck by just how much we have in the United States and how little some people South of the Border have. There’s not much of a “middle class” here. You’ve either got it or you don’t and I was in a neighborhood where they definitely didn’t. I wandered around, trying to get just a glimpse of the building I used to anchor myself in this strange city.
It was nowhere to be seen. This left me with two options: First, I could wander around aimlessly hoping that I didn’t get kidnapped again or worse. Second, I could start randomly flagging down cars and hope that I got a Good Samaritan who was willing to help me.
Think of the United States if you were driving and someone tried to flag you down. You’d probably be reticent to help them. It’s not that you’re not a “good person.” It’s just that, like a lot of “good people,” you don’t want to get involved in strange and possibly dangerous scenarios. Now think about this in a country where the rule of law is sketchy at best. In America if the police showed up, that would be my saving grace. In Mexico if the police showed up, they might not even be police, or they might be just as bad as the guy who brought me here in the first place.
It wasn’t Mexican cops that saved me, though — it was a doctor and his daughter. She spoke better English than he did, so I was able to communicate mostly through her.
To be frank, he wasn’t that into helping me. It took a bit of convincing. His daughter, however, was sympathetic to my plight, so I was glad that she was the one I was more able to communicate with. Since she was the one I was most likely to make headway with, I concentrated on her.
“Please help me. I don’t know where I am and I’ve been kidnapped.”
“No, no police. I just need to go home.”
We went back and forth a few times, each time her and her father having a bit of a row over whether or not they were going to help me out. I don’t speak much Spanish, but I didn’t need to. I easily got a sense of their conversation from the tone of voice and their body language -a mixture of tense and sympathetic. What’s more, the word “no” is the same in both languages and I heard that more than a few times. Finally, and in a bit of a huff, he gave in and opened the back door.
Much like my illegal cab driver, he had no idea where I was going, but he did know the building based on my description of it — or at least his daughter’s translation thereof. When I finally made it back to my place the sun was nearly coming up and I couldn’t sleep but I laid down anyway. Fitfully, I drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming about being in some dark basement or having gun thugs take me around to every ATM in the city before blowing my brains out in the street.
It was a serious brush with the end of my life and it’s stuck with me ever since. Here’s what I learned from it:
Stay calm even when you know you’re in deep, deep trouble.
I get that this is easier said than done, but it’s a necessity if you’re going to keep your head attached to your body. This applies around the office as well as on the road — no one ever helped their situation by freaking out.
Listen to your gut checks.
I’m a huge fan of gut checks. If something seems wrong, listen to yourself and get out of there as fast as you can. Nothing that you’re experiencing is going to be worth ignoring your gut and having something go wrong. At the end of the day, you’re the one best equipped to make the right call about your situation.
Have a plan.
One of the big mistakes that I made was just wandering around without a plan. I’m all for spontaneity, but none of this would have happened if I’d not been aimlessly wandering around somewhere.
When you do a gut check and it tells you to get out of there, be assertive. I was kind of assertive, but I wish that I had been more so. Demand what you need. Make it too much trouble for your captor.
Make a personal connection.
I was able to get out of this situation because I was able to make a personal connection with the doctor’s daughter. I did this even though we didn’t speak the same language. Needless to say, my spanish got a lot better in the months that followed.
Be what you need to be.
The important thing is to not have an ego — to be what you need to be at any given time in the moment. I didn’t want to be basically begging this guy and his daughter to drive me to safety. But I swallowed my pride and did it.
Stay tuned for what happened the second time I got kidnapped, which was about ten times scarier.
If you want to hear me tell this story in detail, check out our 200th podcast.
Jordan Harbinger is a Wall Street lawyer turned Social Dynamics expert and coach. He is the co-founder of The Art of Charm, a dating and relationships coaching company. If you’re interested in The Art of Charm residential programs,apply for a strategy call with a coach. You can also interact with Jordan on Facebook orTwitter.
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