assertive communication, envision festival, empowerment self-defense
Teaching Empowerment Self-Defense & Assertive Communication at Envision Festival, March 2023.
Photo Credit: Hestia Photo Experience.

Originally published on Roofnest.

How to set boundaries and utilize assertive communication tools in any culture and any situation

Stories of harassment and stalking for solo female travelers are a dime a dozen. At home as much as on the road, a woman’s body, space, and boundaries are liable to be disrespected on a daily basis. Assertive communication can make a world of difference—wherever you want to go in the world.

Harassment is an unforgivably common part of the female experience, and it has become unremarkable in its ubiquity. However, just because we have normalized this behavior, that does not mean it is in any way acceptable. 

Particularly for women traveling alone, harassment can be a serious issue, causing feelings of insecurity, potentially leading to serious danger, and almost always turning an epic adventure into a battle for basic respect. The good news? It is entirely possible—and necessary!—to communicate and enforce boundaries with grounded assertiveness whenever you feel unsafe or at risk. 

It may feel uncomfortable at first. That’s okay. It gets easier. You’ll probably even start to enjoy your newfound no-nonsense communication style after a while. 

You have a right to move through the world without the socially mandated protection of a travel companion or partner. You have a right to define and defend your boundaries, regardless of who is traveling beside you—if anyone.

As women, as travelers, and as human beings, we have an opportunity to practice setting and standing up for our boundaries in small ways every single day. As a self-defense instructor, I believe it is imperative that we do so.

In this blog I will share my top three strategies for boundary setting and assertive communication. These are my favorite verbal techniques to teach in my self-defense workshops, and I believe they are critical skills to practice in daily life—whether in your home territory, out on the road, or on the other side of the world.

Note: While it is good to push beyond your comfort zone and engage with an unfamiliar culture as much as possible, a hard no is still a hard no. Cultural differences are real, and may impact norms around communication, personal space and physical affection. Nonetheless, you are in charge of your body and your space, and ultimately you decide what is okay for you, and what isn’t.

3 Fundamental Boundary Setting Techniques for Solo Female Travelers:

  1. Say No. As a solo traveler, you should quickly get comfortable with saying no: “No, I don’t need a taxi.” “No, I don’t want a guide.” “No, thank you, that’s beautiful, but I don’t want to buy it.” It can be a “no” with a smile, or a “no, but thank you so much.” However, if the message isn’t getting across with gentle, polite communication, sometimes you have to be more assertive: “I said no,” on repeat, with an even, low tone of voice and confident posture, usually gets results.

    Unfortunately, just about anywhere you go in the world, a woman’s “no” doesn’t receive the same immediate respect as a man’s. Nevertheless, “no” is a complete sentence, requiring neither apology nor explanation. Do not fall into the trap of negotiating over your no, or you will end up spending time, money, and energy on conversations, things, and people you don’t actually want. Of course you can apologize or explain if you want to. The point, as I am constantly reminding students in my self-defense classes, is that it is a choice, not an obligation.
  2. Be a Broken Record. When dealing with harassment—unwanted touch, flirtation, or other behavior—a similar technique works well. Choose one line (e.g. “I don’t want to talk right now.” “Do not touch me.” “Leave me alone.”) and stick with it. It is hard to argue or manipulate past stolid repetition. Be a broken record, repeating your one, assertive line until the person gets the message. There is no need to shout or get defensive unless the harasser becomes more threatening.

    A low, even tone, confident body language, and a refusal to enter into any negotiations (but why? Come on… I’m just being nice, etc.) can put a stop to a lot of unwanted behaviors.
  3. Name and Change It. An alternative strategy involves “naming” the behavior we want to change or stop. This is one of my favorite techniques. 

    We first name the behavior (e.g. “Your hand is on my leg.” “You’re staring at me.” “You’re following me.”) without questions or qualifications. Questions invite response, denial, or negotiation. In a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, we don’t want to start a conversation or argue over the facts; we just want to make the necessary changes to feel safe. 

    After naming the behavior, we demand the change we wish to see (e.g. “Stop touching me.” “Leave me alone.”) without feeling obliged to ask nicely or say please. If once is not enough, we can return to repetition until the message lands.

    I love this technique for several reasons. First, it leaves no room for doubt; we both know what’s going on here, and we’re not going to argue over that. Second, it alerts any bystanders to the situation. Finally, it clearly states a boundary: “You’re doing this. I don’t want you to. Stop.” If the behavior persists, we then know a person does not respect our boundaries or care about our needs.

    If the situation calls for it, you may also want to turn up the volume. Yelling has been shown to prevent as many as 50% of assaults against women. The voice is a powerful self-defense tool. To yell effectively, be sure to use your belly—singers, actors, and public speakers will already know how to do that—to protect your vocal chords and bring more power and resonance to your voice. I encourage trying this at home! Tell your neighbors you’re taking an acting class (this explains everything), grab a few friends, blast some music, and practice shouting “NO!” as loud as you can. Remember to yell from your center; it can be helpful to keep your hands on your belly as a tactile reminder when practicing.

    People who attack, assault, or harass other people are not superhumans. They are vulnerable to someone shouting in their face, the shame of being called out publicly, or the human discomfort of being confronted directly with their bad behavior. While it should never, ever be anyone’s responsibility to avoid assault or harassment—and a victim is never, ever to blame—these are real risks, especially for women, everywhere in the world. Whether close to home or abroad, we should all feel prepared to take our safety into our own hands.

    Solo travelers, what are your go-to strategies for setting boundaries and keeping your communication clear and assertive? Share your wisdom in the comments!

    Want to learn more solo travel safety tips? Check out these 5 Essential Safety Strategies for Solo Travel.