NonVerbal Cues — Self-Defense Through Avoidance By: Kat Ainsworth

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A pair of cowboys face one another about 20 yards apart They’re, standing with their shoulders tense and fierce expressions on their faces. Single action revolvers are visible at their hips, and each has a hand ready and waiting to draw. It’s high noon, and we all know what’s about to happen: a duel.

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Sometimes the imminence of a fight is obvious, but that’s not always the case. There are times that the signals of a brewing fight are more subtle. While you would probably recognize a cowboy-style duel in the making, will you know when someone on the street poses a threat? Today we’re talking about nonverbal cues and pre-fight indicators worth knowing.

two men in fighting stance on street about to engage in a fist fight
A fight is clearly about to start here, but could it have been avoided if the taller man had watched for nonverbal cues? (Photo credit: Iowa City BJJ via YouTube)

What are nonverbal cues?

Nonverbal cues are unspoken signs of a person’s emotions and potential actions. If you pay attention, people give off these cues all the time; you simply have to watch for them. Those silent cues might be as simple as a person expressing a desire to leave or as critical as a person making a mental choice to attack. Learning to watch the body language of the people around you is a good way to avoid trouble altogether, or at least to have a few brief moments to prepare.

man sitting in chair
Some body language is clear and easy to read while some can be confusing or easy to miss. (Photo credit: mind.com)

What is body language?

Body language is often thought of as being the exact same thing as a non-verbal cue. In some ways, that’s accurate, because body language could be defined, as a whole, as non-verbal cues. However, if you go deeper into the topic, you’ll learn there are some nuances that differentiate the two.

man exhibiting bullying poster over another man
Threatening or bullying posture is often fairly obvious, but sometimes it’s subtle. (Photo credit: HCA Mag Australia)

The things you think of as being part of body language—posture, expressions, touching someone or something—are also nonverbal (of course). A lot of body language is subconscious, but it can also be conscious.

As for nonverbal cues, they’re usually defined or described as including a person’s physical actions. Basically, body language is one facet of the things that make up non-verbal cues. It’s over-simplifying things, but you could generalize and say that body language is more about the physical signs that don’t involve much movement but non-verbal communication includes a larger set of actions.

Woverine exhibiting nonverbal cues of anger and imminent attack
Pretty clear Wolverine is mad and coming at you, isn’t it? It isn’t always that blatant. (Photo credit: Wallpaper Flare)

Let’s take this a step further and break down nonverbal cues by their various types. According to psychologists, you can separate non-verbal communication into different sub-categories:

  • Body language
  • Proxemics (the study of people’s needs for personal space and what it means)
  • Facial expressions (might be subtle or could be dramatic)
  • Gestures (which vary in meaning by culture)
  • Paralinguistics (the study and meaning of vocal cues, which counts as a non-verbal factor because it’s not about the words, it’s about things like tone)
  • Eyes (can include eye contact, looking away, rolling eyes, etc.)
  • Haptics (touch language, meaning the use of physical touch to communicate rather than using spoken words)
  • Overall appearance (includes things like hairstyle, clothing choices, etc.)
  • Artifacts (inanimate objects or items that communicate something specific, including weapons, uniforms, gang-affiliated articles of clothing or tattoos, etc.)
woman expressing nonverbal cues of discomfort in response to unwanted hand on shoulder - haptics - touch communication
Touch communication is a significant part of non-verbal communication. (Photo credit: Body Language Central)

What are nonverbal pre-fight indicators?

Some signs that someone is about to attack you are universal while others vary by culture. It’s important to note that when we mention these cultural differences, we’re referring more to differences between, say, specific street or gang culture versus a standard middle-class American expectation of behavior.

Yes, there are all kinds of cultural differences right here in America, and many people don’t understand that. For example, making eye contact might be seen as friendly and non-threatening while you’re in Whole Foods, but direct eye contact with a stranger on the street could be perceived by that stranger as a threat, or even as a sign of disrespect. Respect means different things in various subsets of American culture.

butcher knife in hand behind back of an aggressor
If you can’t see someone’s hands, it’s a possible indicator they’re hiding or reaching for a weapon. (Photo credit: Vista Create)

There are a lot of nonverbal pre-fight indicators, so we’ve narrowed it down to a handful:

  • Hands out of sight (can indicate reaching for a weapon)
  • Hand in sight with a potential weapon in them (remember, almost anything can be used as a weapon)
  • Clenching fists
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increasing or rapid breathing
  • Pacing
  • Toes pointed directly at you rather than, say, angled away at an exit
  • Removing a shirt or other articles of clothing or jewelry
  • Tense, raised shoulders
  • Micro-expressions (gritting or baring teeth, tightening jaw, narrowing eyes)
character from supernatural displays nonverbal cues in facial micro-expression of self-defense
Interested in micro-expressions? Oddly enough, Supernatural is a TV show where there’s plenty of opportunities to see examples. (Photo credit: tumgif)
  • Targeted glancing (brief looks at your purse, backpack, or a specific part of your body that’s out of context with the situation)
  • Clenching muscles as if bracing to do something (like attack)
  • Blading (typically means the person angles their body in clear readiness to attack, often with a weapon)
  • Sweating
  • Blank, flat stare
  • Rapid eye movement
  • Triangulating (bringing a third person into the scenario whether to attempt to overwhelm or flank you, or to increase intimidation in general)
  • Deliberately intercepting your path, even if it means changing their own course significantly
  • Looking “through” you
  • Invading your space in ways that don’t make sense for the scenario

As you can see, there are a lot of pre-fight indicators that have nothing to do with speech. Learning about tiny indicators and becoming accustomed to watching for them is a great way to avoid a fight.

fist fight
If you pay attention to what’s going on around you, you’ll be far more able to avoid trouble. (Photo credit: Filmsupply.com)

How do nonverbal cues work in real life?

Here’s an example to illustrate how we can make decisions based on the nonverbal cues we observe in others.

We’re all familiar with the receipt checkers stationed at the door of Walmart. Although it seems most of them simply give a receipt a cursory glance, some do seem to analyze them a lot more carefully. And while the general rule at stores is normally not to engage shoplifters—whether intentional or accidental shoplifters—it seems like Walmart revels in the idea of a battle.

On one occasion, at a Walmart in North Texas, the receipt checker on the door was a rather large man. He was over six feet tall and bulky enough to look intimidating. His head was bald but he had a goatee, and his overall posture was—and always is—authoritative. This can be threatening for many people, and understandably so, but unlike some large men, this particular one didn’t seem to care.

Enter irate customer.

A woman and her friends paused to have a receipt checked. Apparently, the employee checking receipts felt something had not been paid for. The woman insisted it had. This is where body language and non-verbal cues set off all kinds of red flags for observers. The woman tensed up, clenching her hands and leaning forward; the employee reacted in kind, using his extra height to intimidate while tensing his shoulders. They both raised their voices, and in no time, the customer was yelling.

Walmart employee about to check customer receipts
Potential threats and dangerous moments can appear at any time. (Photo credit: The Millenial Man)

From the outside looking in, this appeared to be as simple as the employee missing the fact that the item was, indeed, on the receipt. But it was escalated by both people, although it was the employee who should have been working at de-escalation. So, of course, security quickly got involved, which involved another large man with a look of disgust on his face and arms crossed over his chest. Although the women may have been in the wrong, the way it was handled was extraordinarily bad. This all took place in a matter of seconds.

What did I do? I left. It was immediately clear we were one wrong move from a physical fight where classic weapons may or may not be involved and random objects that could be used as weapons were all over.

You might be thinking that’s a poor example because the threat wasn’t directed at the observer, but considering the observer—me—was also going to get a receipt checked, it was a real threat. You can be well within the dangerous reach of a fight without being a direct participant. Making the choice to get out rather than wait and see what happens tends to be the smart thing to do. In this case, the primary body language of both participants was an instant warning sign.

Not all threats will start out aimed at you but some threats will be directed at you, and it’s up to you to pay enough attention to non-verbal cues to protect yourself. You won’t always be able to avoid trouble, but it’s a solid plan to go out of your way to avoid it whenever possible. Remember: Any fight you avoid or walk away from is a fight won.