Danger Signs

“Be aware of your surroundings.” It’s the first thing taught in every self-defense class I’ve ever attended. One of the most common pieces of advice dished out to those looking to protect themselves. And it’s good advice, so far as it goes.

What’s missing, though, from the all-too-frequent repetition of this advice, is any guidance about what we should be aware of. Without knowing what we should be watching for, what behaviors should trigger our Condition Red awareness, knowing that we need to “be aware” is empty advice. It sounds good, but standing alone, it helps us not at all.

I certainly learned this lesson in spades during my own encounters with violent predators. Operating without the benefit of any understanding of criminal behavior and victimology, I equated “be aware” with the sort of reflexive “stranger danger!” conditioning that was so popular when I was growing up, back in a time before society fully realized that the most likely threats were people we knew. But the predators that found me weren’t strangers, and I didn’t realize until much too late the dangerous hole in my knowledge.

So, what should we be watching out for? What kinds of behaviors do criminals exhibit that might give us that advance warning that a threat has entered our radar? Here are a few examples of these “pre-assault indicators” that should put us on red alert:

  • Getting inside our bubble. One of the first pre-assault behaviors many criminals exhibit is getting too close to us, inside our personal space. There are at least two reasons for this: It’s easier to slip past our defenses and attack when you’re close to your victim, and whether (and how) she responds to an invasion of her personal boundaries can reveal how compliant she’s likely to be to an attacker. If you tolerate the invasion of your personal space without challenge, without responding or moving away, you may be telling the criminal he’s found a victim willing to be passive and compliant. This is what he wants.
  • Synchronized movements. When someone matches his movements to yours – falling into step behind you, for example, or deliberately walking on a convergent course – they may be telegraphing that they’ve targeted you. An even bigger indicator of trouble comes when two people seem to be converging on you or moving in concert. Criminals often run in packs, so watch for this behavior and be prepared to respond appropriately.
  • Boundary testing. Criminals often engage in sophisticated evaluations or “interviews” of their prospective victims. As I mentioned above, they often try to get inside our personal boundaries, to see how we react to being made deliberately uncomfortable. Other forms of boundary testing – an unsolicited offer to help you with your bags, a request for money or for the time, and the like – are also common criminal tactics. The bad guys are looking for submissive, compliant victims. They want victims who can be pushed, bit by bit, outside their comfort zone, and who won’t respond for fear of “being rude”. Don’t be fooled. As Gavin de Becker says, “nice” is a behavior, not a character trait. To a criminal, “nice” means submissive and compliant, unlikely to fight back. This is the kind of victim they want. An unsolicited offer of help you didn’t ask for, in particular, is cause for caution.
  • Hidden hands.  People who are taking pains to conceal their hands should trigger an internal alarm. The reason why handshakes and hugs – two gestures of welcome, of respect,of affection – came into being is that both require the parties to reveal their hands to each other. A hand that is hidden could well be carrying a weapon. A hand that is balled up into a fist telegraphs aggression or anger. If someone is hiding their hands, be wary.
  • Studied casualness. It turns out that looking casual and relaxed only works when you actually are relaxed and casual. When you’re merely trying to look relaxed and casual, your movements take on a choppy, forced quality that your subconscious mind will notice. Watch for people who are working too hard at appearing casual, because they’re probably faking it for a reason.
  • Out-of-place people and things. I hesitate to include this one because, as I mentioned before, violence – especially asocial violence committed against women, such as rape – usually comes from people you know, people who belong where they are. A guy driving a beat-up Yugo in Beverly Hills will stick out like a sore thumb, and will be noticed. Criminals usually try not to be noticed. All that said, camouflage isn’t perfect, and the bad guy you run into might not be a sophisticated predator. So, be aware of people or things that look out of place in their surroundings. If you can’t figure out why that guy is in that place doing that thing at that time, caution is probably in order.

These “tells” signify trouble if we recognize them consciously. But remember one more thing: Your subconscious mind is always watching, always evaluating your surroundings, and always operates with your best interests in mind. When you get that prickle on the back of your neck that says “something’s wrong!”, respond to get out of immediate harm, and then stop and analyze what triggered your intuition. It might not be responding to correct stimulus, but it never responds to nothing, and might have noticed some of these pre-assault indicators which slipped past your conscious mind.

The adage to “be aware of our surroundings” is good advice. But if we’re going to look around our surroundings, we have to know what we’re looking for. Not all criminals will display all of these signs, of course, but hopefully this list will help you focus your attention and awareness.


  1. Excellent! Great advice for everyone, but women especially.

    Just my usual two cents worth here. 🙂

    First, paying attention to your surroundings is impossible if you are concentrating on something else… a cell phone, or other electronic device, for instance. I’ve seen far, FAR too many women walking blindly through a store or parking lot, busy talking or texting, and occasionally even running into people or objects because they were not paying attention to where they were going. They would be perfect targets for criminals.

    Second, in order to really see things that are out of place, you first have to know pretty well what is normal and ordinary. This involves conscious observation of your surroundings daily to imprint it on your mind.

    Just as a little test for yourself, sitting right where you are… can you describe your neighbor’s cars, trucks and other vehicles that normally are parked in your area? Even just the colors? Would you notice a “strange” vehicle at all? Can you recall the images, even vaguely, of the usual people who walk in your neighborhood, maybe the children and dogs too? What do you remember about the normal activity and residents of your street?

    Just think about what “might” trigger that spidey sense, and give some thought to cultivating it. Could make a world of difference some day.

  2. Vogeler says:

    Excellent info!

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