Let’s talk a bit about the topic of awareness.

It is often cited in discussions of self defense, but the citation is usually as deep as the discussion goes. “Be situationally aware!” It’s not bad advice, but I find that people don’t really know what they’re supposed to be aware of in the first place.

Generally paying attention to your surroundings and environment is good and necessary advice, especially since the smart phone has begun to swallow much of human existence. The other day I saw a group of college students riding down the sidewalk on “hoverboards”  with headphones in their ears, looking down at their phones the entire time…oblivious to the world around them. Oblivious to what they were telling the rest of the world about them.

You were likely taught at some point in your life that you should never judge a book by its cover. It’s a pleasant sounding platitude that’s going to trigger almost pavlovian assent from most, but when misapplied (as it often is) that pleasant platitude is dangerous and stupid. I recall once hearing someone ask a group of people I was in what you could tell about someone who has facial tattoos. The “acceptable” answer was…nothing. Only that they have facial tattoos! I disagreed, insisting that someone who has gone through the trouble of carving a swastika into their face is communicating very important information about themselves to the rest of the world and we would be damned fools to ignore it.

Hopefully you don’t have a swastika carved into your face, but you are still constantly streaming important information about yourself to the broader world even without hostile ink all over your noggin. Think about what the kids on those “hoverboards” were communicating: Oblivious to their surroundings. In possession of valuable items. Likely unprepared to resort to significant violence to defend themselves.

Awareness is really making a deliberate effort to gather the useful bits of this information that’s being streamed into the world and managing the sort of information you are sending out about yourself. This is a crucial survival skill that your ancestors mastered (Otherwise you wouldn’t be here!) but modern folks don’t seem to grasp that there’s still a need for it.

Criminals do, though. As I mentioned in one of the articles about the excellent Unthinkable class presented by William Aprill and Greg Ellifritz, criminals can glean useful information about a potential victim from something as simple as gait. In this study researchers have even found that criminals who score highest on their scale for psychopathy proved to have the most accurate judgement about the vulnerability of potential victims with nothing more to go on than footage of their gait. In other words, the higher order criminals are exceptionally good at gathering the useful bits of information streamed into the environment and managing the amount of information they are giving away about themselves.

Take a look at this brief video:


Did you note the uneven gait of the young woman in the video? How she seemed to stumble stepping down from a small curb?

Unfortunately someone noticed the young woman’s vulnerability. Hannah Graham managed to attract the attention of a violent sexual predator who authorities believe is responsible for the murder of another college student years earlier.

Violent criminal actors every bit as bad as that violent sexual predator (if not worse) are out there breathing free air, taking in that constant stream of information and managing how much they’re telling everyone else about themselves.

Luckily it is possible to make this work in your favor. If you stream the right information about yourself to the outside world you can communicate something besides vulnerability…and that alone will be sufficient to make most criminals pick a more suitable victim.

The goal of self defense is to preserve your life and the quality of it against criminal assault. While I have absolutely no moral qualms about armed robbers and would-be rapists and murderers catching a bullet from their intended victims, having to actually use lethal force to stop someone from killing or seriously injuring you is quite unpleasant and inconvenient. It’s better for the good guy if the bad guy takes a look at him/her and decides that they aren’t an appealing victim. There are a certain number of creatures in nature who bear bright colors to advertise to opportunistic predators that a mouth full of them will be a severely unpleasant, perhaps even fatal, mistake. Predators blend in to the environment and hope not to be seen until it’s too late…but a poisonous tree frog wants the predator to see him from a long way out and pick another meal.

The ability to read the environment and people around you is a skillset, meaning it is something you can cultivate and develop. You already have to do a great deal of this to get through day to day life as a human being. If you have to make a speech, you don’t do it in a Cheez-Whiz stained wifebeater with spinach in your teeth. You don’t walk into a funeral with a boom box and try to get the mourners to twerk. You already have experience managing the information you present to others and taking in information from your surroundings to govern your behavior and conduct in the moment.

It’s not alien to you. All you need to do is make a deliberate effort to apply those skills to avoiding criminal assault and your chances of being victimized drop substantially.




  1. I’ve never understood the axiom “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Other than keeping stains off the frontispiece, that is the primary purpose of a book cover: to quickly and effectively indicate what the content of the book is, and to influence potential readers.

    Otherwise, all the books in the bookstore would just have plain white covers with the title in a standardized typeface. If publishers thought they could skip paying artists and graphic designers and still sell the same number of copies, they’d do it quicker than Stephanie Meyers cashes an advance check. Not to mention the cost of embossing and glossy/metallic coatings and other eye candy treatments.

    I have no problem making snap judgements about people based on their clothing, tattoos, personal grooming and how they carry themselves. That, after all, is the “cover” that they have carefully crafted to present to the world. Just like book covers, it’s not always an accurate representation of what’s inside, and may not reflect my actual appreciation for the contents – but it’s always going to affect how I approach the story in front of me.

    1. …especially when what we are discussing is personal safety. On the street when we see a stranger (or group of them) who just doesn’t look right, it’s perfectly reasonable to react with caution. If I’m leaving a movie theater late at night with the family after having caught a show, I’m not looking to make new friends. When I use my flashlight to light up a dark area and see a dude in a hoodie with a marijuana leaf tattooed on his neck in that hiding spot, he isn’t there to tell me about Jesus.

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