Justin Barber
Source: Justin Barber

A couple months ago I got hustled in Istanbul, and it illuminated how much con games are like judo. 

As I walked down a quiet street between the Grand Bazaar and the Süleymaniye Mosque, a shoe polisher walking in front of me dropped a brush. I called out Sir! and picked it up and handed it to him. He thanked me and put down his kit and offered to shine my shoes. I was wearing (new) sneakers, so I declined, but he insisted, and so I let him work his craft. Meanwhile we chatted about where we were from, his three babies, and so on. His cousin came over and we all shook hands and exchanged names. During this process it slowly became apparent that I should probably tip him something, as his favor was taking more than a moment’s effort. So when he was done, instead of just walking away I foolishly asked him how much he’d normally charge for his services. He said ninety lira (about thirty dollars). I said ninety?! He said ninety. 

That was a crazy amount but it added to my obligation to pay him something. I also got the sense he wanted me to pay full price for his services—that he was not merely acting out of gratitude. I gave him a ten. He and his cousin seemed shocked. I told him that really I shouldn’t pay him anything because I thought he was repaying me for the favor, and that he hadn’t said he’d be charging me anything. And ninety was crazy. His cousin finally clarified that he’d said nineteen. I figured I’d tell him I still had another five on me and give it to him and be done with it. I accidentally pulled out a fifty. He offered several times to make change. I said no, I’d be keeping the fifty and he could have the five. He didn’t argue but stood there with his hands clasped together, silently looking down, guilting me with disappointment. Finally my anger overcame my fear of offending and I said fifteen was all he was getting, I thanked him, and I walked away. I felt like an idiot for letting him pressure me into letting him do a “favor” for me, and then for not having the gall to deny him any money. And for thanking him.

The best part: Later that night I relayed the incident to the friend in Istanbul I was visiting. He said the exact same thing happened to him. I said, He didn’t drop that brush by accident, did he? Definitely not. (I looked it up later. It’s a thing.)

These men had mastered the psychology of the hustle. First, they entrapped helpful people, those willing to pick up a dropped brush. Second, their marks, by virtue of picking up the brush, became invested in helping the polisher. The men then set up an emotional bond with personal conversation. And finally without direct confrontation they conjured the expectation of payment, by inducing a combination of gratitude and obligation. They set the perfect trap and I’d sprung it on myself—I'd even voluntarily asked how much he charges. The scam was a deft judo sequence, turning my own emotions against me.  

Okay, so I paid five dollars for shoes that looked no different from when he started. But for the lesson I learned, it was a tremendous deal. 

About the Author

Matthew Hutson

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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