This is where things go wrong.
You’ve got a visitor,- a guest, a patron, one of the reasons you got into interpretation – in your face and becoming unhinged. You might know what the trigger was, you might not. You’re trying to respond calmly while assessing the need for security intervention. Emotionally, you may be at odds with yourself. You want to shout back. You want to walk away. You want to assure the watching bystanders that everything is ok. You want to engage the visitor in some productive way that will turn this situation around. You want to ease their minds. You want to punch them in the face.
The first thing to bring up is that, yes, if there is any chance that this aggressive visitor is threatening or putting you or others in danger, call in security. Err on the side of caution any way you go and use your very best judgement. Be aware of your site’s policies and emergency procedures. Have a plan in place before this situation happens so you don’t have to scramble for what to do in the moment. Confer with your bosses on it. Make sure your coworkers are also prepared. The realities of working in any sort of public setting makes this an absolute necessity. It sounds obvious, but I remember several times where seasonal staff or volunteers weren’t kept up to speed on these rare situations in the midst of other pressing needs.
That done, let’s talk about the non-violent aggressive visitor. During an NAI workshop on facilitated dialogue, one interpreter related a situation where he was screamed at by a visitor and found himself freezing up, unable to think at that moment what his next steps should be. This was after the tragic deaths of several firefighters in Arizona, and the visitor was demanding to know what the government was going to do to punish whoever was accountable and prevent this from happening again. The event being held had nothing to do with firefighting or the people involved in the deaths, but this visitor appeared to have attended just to get into it with someone over the subject. He was literally screaming in the interpreter’s face and not stopping for a response. Months later we were asked what he could have, should have done. It’s a difficult situation to manage: was this visitor actually looking for answers and didn’t know a better way to go about getting them? Was it more about the need to grieve and vent painful emotions? Was he angry about something else – a parking ticket, and argument with his kids – and redirected his anger toward the nearest target? Was he an attention-seeker looking purely to make a scene? The ability to deduce your aggressive visitor’s motivations can be difficult, if not impossible, but if there are any clues in their actions or words, you’ll be in a much better state to pick up on them if you’re not feeling unprepared and panicked.
I personally don’t enjoy role-play training, but this is one area where it is possibly the best tool to use. It gives interpreters a chance to walk through a variety of experiences of being aggressively engaged, while a supportive group of peers and superiors offer advice and feedback. Aside from being able to cache some set responses, it removes the newness of the experience and makes most folks less likely to freeze in the face of it. Emotion is a part of the human experience, and has its place. If you can respond calmly and positively, you can very often turn the situation around. Maintain yourself as someone there to help, acknowledge what they say while politely addressing inconsistencies and bringing things back around to your program or mission. If they’re looking for answers, offer them resources and suggestions. Offer to discuss this further with them after your program. If they’re looking for attention or an argument, maintaining calm and controlled, logical, empathetic focus can derail that train and keep the other visitors feeling a sense of stability and relevance. Note that I’m saying “can”. There are times when none of this will work, and you will have to say, “I’ve listened to you, I’ve heard what you have to say, and you need to stop yelling at me now or I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” but being able to tell when a situation is workable vs not can prevent removal from being your knee-jerk response. Remember what you’re there to accomplish as an interpreter, and remember that you’ve gone over these possibilities beforehand.
On the flip side, one of my favorite memories is actually of an aggressive visitor I had as an educator at a Native American museum in Connecticut. A very elderly gentleman with an “Irish” baseball cap and a cane came charging toward my supervisor and me, and began very loudly holding forth on how “Indians are all prejudiced and I saw that movie Last of the Mohicans and all the Mohicans died, so how could there be a tribe of them with a casino, and we Irish were mistreated in the US, too, and you never heard us complain!” He punctuated each statement with a jab of his cane in my general direction. I watched my supervisor silently teleport to the other side of the museum, and I was on my own to explain that the movie was fiction, the tribe over here is Mohegan, not Mohican, and that, in fact the Irish that came to America did end up quite vocal over the treatment they received. I also had time to realize that A) he must have paid entrance to a tribal museum for a reason, so I’m going to assume that reason is to engage and learn, and B) he was enjoying himself hugely. We went back and forth for over twenty minutes until he suddenly stops and says, “Oh, there’s my wife! I wondered where she’d gotten to.” He wanders off toward a woman who, I swear, was hiding behind an exhibit, and I hid behind the cornstalks of our farmstead exhibit until I felt energized enough to go back out, engage more visitors, and plot revenge on my supervisor.