Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Are you looking at me? Am I looking at you? Awareness

Sue over at My Journey to Black Belt made an interesting comment on the state of awareness training, a component referenced in a variety of courses, seminars, martial arts and websites etc.  She said while the importance of awareness in self defense training is mentioned, what to actually look for is often absent.  Too soon do the topics shift the physical skills.   

Instead of paying lip service, she'd like to put some meat on the bones and asked what things, specifically, to look for to stay safe in daily life.  I'm paraphrasing of course, check her article out here. She is planning on putting together a guide on awareness and what of to look for in self defense.

Readers of this blog know that I believe awareness is the single most important part of self defense.  Read about that here and here.  I've also written about how to work on developing these skills. Read that here.  

I've also talked about some of the bad habits we get in training, assuming we'll always be aware of what's going on around us.  Read that article here.

The answer of what specifically to look for, what physical traits, movements, or actions should set off you alarm bells is a bit complex, I’m afraid.  I would like to provide a definitive list of dangers signs that apply universally, but no such list exists; there are just too many variables, not the least of which is who you are and where you are.

First and foremost, before trying to break it down, the number one way to use awareness to avoid danger in day to day life is just to pay attention.  Pure and simple.  Simply paying attention to your surroundings is the biggest part.     

You may not know exactly what to look for, but at least you’re looking.  Easy prey is prey that is clueless, lost in headphones, cell phones or electronic devices, looking down, unaware of the world around them.  Criminals are lazy by nature, so the easier the target is to surprise, the better.  They don’t want you looking at them.  More times than not, they’ll pass on the attentive person and target the one who they can easily approach undetected.

Most attacks involve an element of surprise, regardless of the circumstances.  Even alcohol induced displays of aggression and bravado that leads to bar fights usually include a ‘sucker punch’ or surprise attack.

So, in attempt to provide some insight into what to look for, here goes:

The time and environment play a huge role in awareness training.  Things to watch for in a busy city environment at midday differ significantly from things to look for in a park at night.

Let’s break it down a bit by time of day and location.

Day time/city environment:

Crowed urban areas present unique challenges for awareness training.  In big centers, we are forced into situations where our personal comfort zones regarding personal space are often compromised. 

In crowded situations, you need to look less for specific behaviours, and more for behaviour that is different from that of the masses.  Granted, in these situations, there can be a lot of different things going on, but by and large, most people are purpose driven.  They are going somewhere and doing something.  Anyone who is at odds with this may be worth watching.

The element of surprise is less prevalent in crowded situations.  You may be more likely to be pick pocketed or have a purse snatched, but it is less likely that you will experience violence during the act.

Watch for anyone who doesn’t seem to be doing anything or going anywhere.  Lacking a purpose could indicate trouble.  Could, of course, these are broad stroke generalizations and are meant as things to think about.

Assuming someone isn’t a street person, watch for anyone that is just standing or sitting around.  Watch for whom they are looking at, and what they are looking at.  Does the person’s gaze follow only one gender, are they just looking at people carrying electronics, phones, handbags etc? 

Also look for people exhibiting bizarre behaviour.  If someone is mentally unbalanced or high on drugs, they may be acting out.  Someone suffering a drug induced psychotic break may lash out at real or imagined people or events and you could be caught in the path.  Be especially careful around traffic or on subway platforms so that you aren’t pushed into the path of oncoming traffic.

Outside of the individuals, look for what I call ‘packs’, groups of people the same age, wearing similar styles of clothing, perhaps wearing the same coloured items of clothing.  These packs, usually made up of younger males, could be gang related or they could be using their numbers to intimidate others or hide some criminal acts, such as surrounding a lone person and taking their ipad or laptop or phone etc.  I don’t want to typecast, but we all know these packs when we see them.  They’re walking around, staring everyone down, and refusing to move out of the way on the sidewalk, pants halfway down.  They spit and litter and bother people going about their day.  Enough, I’ve made my point.

And remember, people who are about to commit a crime are often experiencing stress and adrenaline.  The human body gets bottled up with stress, anxiety and excess energy.  Think of it as a boiling pot with the lid down tight.  It needs to let off steam.  The way humans let this steam is through movement.  The full physiological reasons require far more explanation, but for our purposes, suffice to say we need to burn off nervous energy through movement.  Watch for those individuals that are pacing, or whose legs are tapping incessantly.  People who are working themselves up to commit a crime or attack someone will not be able to remain still.  Watch for twitchy individuals.

Also watch for anyone who continually touches one area of their clothing.  They could have a weapon and most criminals subconsciously feel a need to touch or check their weapon.  This is one of the characteristics of an armed person, this need to continually check that the weapon is still there, and accessible.  If you notice this, the area being checked will most likely be within easy reach, so think midsection.  And also look for unnatural bulges or areas that hang down.  If one pocket or a coat hangs noticeably lower than the other, they could be carrying a gun.  Of course, it could be a can or beer or soda, or a book, or any number of things.

It is normally the combination of several factors that should set you alarm bells off.  This is what awareness training is about.  Noticing odd patterns of behaviour, or in crowded situations, behaviours that are incongruous with the rest of the surroundings and the majority of people is the key.

In Part II I'll talk about night time considerations. 


  1. The Gift of Fear and other survival signals that protect us from violence by Gavin de Becker is a good book on the subject.

  2. Hi Journeyman, thanks for responding to my request for information. You raise some interesting points - looking for odd patterns of behaviour is a good tip. I may put together my own list soon, I think a female list may have one or two different things on it...

  3. John,

    Thanks, I'll check it out.


    My pleasure. I'm going to try to get the second part out tomorrow. I hope some of it helps.