“Pay attention to your surroundings” is bullshit

So just above this is a picture of your surroundings (let’s pretend you’re standing here). I want you to pay attention to this picture (your “surroundings”). Ok, now that you’ve done that are you any more enlightened as to who might mug you? Or stab you? What does a Bad Guy look like? How does a BG dress? Has “paying attention” helped your safety in any way?


Right now outside my window are some trees, some grass, a noisy goose, some neighbours, the sky. And the whole universe too I suppose. “Pay attention to your surroundings”? Exactly what part of my surroundings must I pay attention to? What we need is a focus on the “exactly” part. Actionable knowledge. Specifics. Nobody wants (or can effectively use) an ill-defined, badly explained, vague expression. While I am 100 % in favour of trusting your gut*, absolutely and always, most people have trained themselves to ignore their gut. So instead of “trusting your gut”, what we need is specific criteria that indicate danger. A checklist of behaviours, actions and giveaways that tell us in no uncertain terms that something bad is coming our way. The fact that this will make our gut’s instincts ever smarter (and help us to learn to trust them) is definitely a benefit.


Let’s start with a quick thought experiment. What are you worried about at any particular point in your day? Getting mugged or having a tree fall on you? Aquaplaning in the rain or stepping in dog shit? This is our first look at making “situational awareness” a precise set of criteria to watch for – pay attention to the cause of what worries you. So if you’re hiking up a trail, you need to watch for loose rocks and holes that can twist your ankle. Sound silly? Well, yes and no. It’s silly because “everybody knows this”, yet it took us many years of learning to walk and tripping over things to actually ingrain this habit. If you’re worried about muggings etc. then what should you watch? Why, people of course. The trees certainly won’t mug you. So we need to watch the people around us for signs of ill-intent.


Watching people isn’t the whole story though. People exist in their environments, and being people, they use or adapt these environments to help them get stuff done. Mankind figured out that using a rock was a lot easier than using your hand when trying to hammer a stick into the ground. And muggers have long since learned that hiding around corners and in dark doorways make sneaking up on people easier. So while it’s mostly watching people that we do in self defense, there’s also an aspect of environmental awareness. You don’t have to track every single lion on the plains – if you know they all use the same watering hole, then watching that watering hole will give you a lot of information. However, to begin with, we’re going to focus on the people themselves and their behaviours and actions that tell us who’s a BG and who’s likely to attack you.


Being aware that there are pretty girls and Marigolds all around you is nice (nature is a wonderful thing after all). Knowing that your gut is telling you something is wrong is better though. Knowing that the 2 guys walking up to you just split apart (and that this is a common strategy to make it easier to surround you) is even more useful. However, knowing that you’re inside a popular mall the day before Christmas, and both those guys have their hands full of shopping bags could be a deciding factor on whether you need to get ready to run/drop them or if you can relax.


Being nervous because you’re alone in a parking garage would be silly (If you’re alone then there’s no one else there to attack you). Being nervous because there was someone leaning against the only car around (your car), and now you can’t see them because they walked behind a pillar near your car and haven’t come out yet… well, this could be a good reason to be nervous. Being alert in a Fringe Area because somebody who was walking one way looked at you, then changed direction to head the same way as you, is a good idea.


Just in case I haven’t made it clear yet – telling someone an empty platitude like “pay attention to your surroundings” is somewhere between completely useless and downright harmful (if any person feels safer because they repeat that line to themselves with nothing to back it up, then “Pay attention to your surrounding” has decreased their level of safety). What we need is a checklist of behaviours, actions and circumstances against which we can compare what we observe around us. Basically we need to know the criteria that are needed in order for a Bad Guy to launch an attack on us. If those criteria don’t exist (e.g. you are alone/overcrowded with people) then you can dial back the active observation to the occasional visual sweep. If you notice more and more attack criteria being met – e.g. potential help is far away; some people are task focussed, just on you; the same people then try to close the distance; then they go into one of the attack positionings we’ll talk about – then you dial up the active observation and run through your previously planned “line in the sand” at which point your run/put them down.


So, what are the criteria to be on the lookout for? We’ll get to that in the next couple articles.


* – “Trust your gut” is another one of those vaguely defined esoteric concepts to most people. What it actually means is that your “gut” (i.e. your subconscious) is acutely aware of all the different signals that predict danger. From your peripheral vision being excellent at spotting motion (e.g. falling tree branches, moving predators or prey) to your social awareness telling you exactly when somebody is breaking a standard social script (e.g. the polite distance to stay away from someone based on your relationship – stranger > colleague > friend > close friend > family > lover). So your “gut” is really your subconscious’ personal checklist for danger.


Now go read part 2.

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