When I drove across the country last year, whenever I would stop at a motel, half the time the proprietors would treat me as if I were a con man looking to rip them off. If I approached people on the street to ask for directions, they would shrink back and give me a look indicating that they couldn't decide whether I was a rapist, a mugger, or just a panhandler.
It's all understandable; I was a man traveling alone. I have a vaguely ethnic look that tends to arouse people's suspicions. And (I should probably be happy that) I still look young enough to appear dangerous.
Somehow it all adds up to having "serial killer" written all over me.
But during my cross-country trip, I also stopped every other day to take a swim somewhere. And whenever I would start swimming in some lap pool, and it became apparent that I was a swimmer, people would inevitably be friendly. If I asked a question, they would respond in a friendly manner, and maybe even ask where I was from.
The lifeguards (even the female ones) smile at me approvingly, and people would sometimes even allow me my own lane if I swam butterfly.
In Kansas, I even started a conversation with an 18-year-old boy, also a swimmer, who was in the next lane. We chatted for a while, and even did a set together. I can pretty much guarantee you that had I tried to start a conversation with him a mere 40 yards away -- in the locker room -- I would not have gotten nearly as friendly a response.
I suppose it has something to do with the fact that if you're a swimmer, especially at a relatively advanced age, it gives you a certain innocence.
If someone has obviously spent a lot of time swimming, it means he has not spent his energy in more destructive pursuits (like crime). It means he has a passion for a sport (which is far preferable to, say, a passion for prepubescent girls, or for hard drugs). It means he grew up middle class and had parents who cared for him enough to cart him back and forth to practice. It means he's still solvent, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to keep up with the sport.
It means, essentially, that he's basically kept his nose clean his entire life.
People of course don't analyze it in that much detail, but it must all somehow register in the back of their minds, which causes a little light to go off: he's harmless.
In a way it reminds me of the kind of skills that upper class families used to teach their daughters, and the underlying social motive for doing so. My mother came from a well to do family in Japan, and as a girl she was taught calligraphy and also piano. These are of course utterly useless survival skills, and that may be the point. It's a way of advertising that you're upper class, because it means you had the leisure time to learn these "refined" things, since you didn't have to be in the fields working in the hot sun. (In Japan, pallor is also considered a desirable trait, probably for the same reason.)
Being able to swim up and down a pool rapidly has to go in the same category as an utterly useless skill. Everybody should learn to swim, of course, to keep from drowning. But beyond that, learning the different strokes and practicing enough to be able to do them with good form is the mark of someone with time to waste.
In any case, being a swimmer has always given me a certain low-level entree.
It's just unfortunate I can't figure out a way to show off this useless skill to people on the street from whom I need directions.
(The only other way I've found to defuse suspicion from strangers is to wear a suit and tie; but I foreswore nooses long ago.)