Coping With 'Chronic Terrorism,' Having Your Back to the Wall Is a Good Thing

Israeli-French study shows that boosting clients’ sense of security during periods of terrorism is also good for business

Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover
A restaurant in Tel Aviv this year.
A restaurant in Tel Aviv this year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover

Prof. Tali Seger-Gutman, head of the organizational consulting MBA program at Ruppin Academic Center, relates a story about a foreign colleague’s visit to Israel in 2016. “We went to a cafe and he sat down with his back to the door,” she says. “I heard myself telling him: ‘Move, so your back is to the wall, so you can see who’s coming in.’ He didn’t know what I was talking about, but my words caused me to think about what defenses we habitually use without being aware of them.”

Seger-Gutman turned to Prof. Shaked Gilboa, a colleague at Ruppin who specializes in customer experience. Together, they have written a series of papers that examine customers behavior under the threat of terrorism. For comparative research, they teamed up with Prof. Judith Partouche-Sebban of the Paris School of Business.

Coffee shop, work and friends.Credit: Sensvector / Getty Images/iStock

“Israel suffers from chronic terrorism, while France suffers from occasional terrorism. We thought it would be interesting to know whether these led to similar forms of behavior,” they explain.

The first paper involved in-depth interviews with 22 Israelis and 20 French of different ages. They were asked to describe what they do when they get on a bus or enter a restaurant, theater or shopping mall after a terror attack. The interviews showed that respondents who had experienced terrorist incidents directly or indirectly (such as through the media) adopted defensive habits that persisted for years after the incidents, albeit at lower levels.

So, for example, even though the biggest terror attacks in France were in 2015 and 2016, people interviewed in 2019 said they still employed the defensive habits they had adopted. Israelis said they also kept to defensive habits they had developed in response to witnessing a terror attack 10 or more years earlier.

“Traumatic memories are a critical component in our day-to-day coping with stress,” say the researchers. “They remain alive in our memory for many years and have an effect on our behavior as customers.”

Asked how he uses public transportation, a 37-year-old Frenchman reported: “I stay close to the door, so I can get off the bus immediately, and most of the time I sit in the back, so I can see who’s boarding. I do everything I can to survey the street through the window. On the train, there are times when I’ll go through all the cars and check that the train is safe.”

A 59-year-old Israeli woman said: “At restaurants, I choose the safest place I can to sit – far from the door and with my back to the wall so that no one can come from behind and surprise me. When I arrive, I look for the door I can escape through in the event I encounter someone suspicious.”

In regard to public transportation, a 26-year-old Israeli woman said: “If I see someone suspicious, I report it immediately to a security guard, and they don’t think that’s weird. I am thoughtful and alert as a matter of habit.”

A 33-year-old Frenchman said: “I live terrorism. Attacks that occur far away remind me that terrorism exists everywhere. When there is an attack, even if it’s not anywhere near me, it scares me. It could happen again.”

Four main types

The interviews revealed four principal types of behavior. The first is observational behavior, which includes surveying your destination, watching people’s eyes and monitoring security personnel (are they doing their job well?).

The second is devising an escape strategy. The interviewees spoke about how they figure out what route they would take in the event of an attack and check where the emergency exits are.

The third involves choosing exactly where to sit or hang out in a public place, including sitting facing the door, avoiding crowded places, choosing a well-lit place over a dark one and arranging chairs and tables to facilitate a faster escape.

On buses, the researchers found that people preferred to sit immediately behind the driver in order to see who is boarding, or close to a door – or in some cases as far as possible from it, on the assumption that is the place a terrorist attack is least likely to occur.

The fourth behavior pattern is complete avoidance, in other words avoiding shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants and other places with large numbers of people. If they have no choice, they spend as little time as possible at the venue.

In addition to the in-depth interviews, the researchers distributed three questionnaires to 150 Israelis and 150 French people, in order to obtain quantitative data about their behavior on public transportation and in places of entertainment after a terrorist attack. They revealed that defensive behavior was strong in the immediate aftermath but remained present years later.

People in Israel and France showed similar patterns of behavior. For example, 45 and 46 percent of Israeli and French respondents, respectively, said that they look for an escape route. Likewise, as regards sitting close to a door to enable a quick exit – 48 and 46 percent of French and Israeli respondents, respectively, reported that they did that.

However, there are defensive patterns where Israelis and the French differ. Researchers attribute this to a higher level of anxiety among the French. Thus, 41 percent of French respondents said that at a restaurant they will choose a seat that lets them see who is entering, compared with just 32 percent of Israelis. While 46 percent of French respondents reported avoiding crowded public places, only 26 percent of Israelis said they do. Among French respondents, 68 percent said they survey a place after they enter, versus 58 percent of Israelis.

Safety = satisfaction

Business owners, be aware: The level of satisfaction and confidence in a place of business that serves the public and the desire to return to it and/or recommend it to others is tens of percent higher in places that enable customers to practice their defensive habits.

The level of trust in places where respondents feel secure is 57 percent higher than in places where they feel less secure. The level of satisfaction increases by 62 percent and the willingness to return and even recommend to others is 66 percent.

In other words, a place where customers can see the door, sit with their backs to the wall and reach an emergency exit will enjoy higher levels of customer confidence Therefore, the researchers recommend business owners to make simple adjustments to make their customers feel safer, especially in periods following terror attacks.

“You should create space between furniture, place more chairs against walls, provide generous lighting and mark emergency exits with clear signs and bright lighting,” they say. “Also, it is worthwhile to expand the outdoor areas at the expense of the indoor areas.”

As regards public transportation, operators should remove curtains from windows, provide strong lighting, mark exits and prevent as much congestion as possible in stations and vehicles, they said.

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