A common topic in law enforcement training circles is the detection of something called "pre-assaultive threat indicators". In any police contact, officers are trained to look for physical cues that serve as "early warning signals" that a person may flee or become combative. These same cues can be useful in the civilian world as well. Being able to identify body language that indicates an imminent attack can give you the opportunity to, at best, "beat feet". Or at worst, allow you to preempt the attack with a defensive measure.
Avoiding Eye Contact: When a person acts like you are not there and wont look at you it can mean a few different things, or a cluster of them. The person is avoiding engaging because he is mentally processing the situation in an agitated state and cannot multitask. He is trying to decide what to do and when, he could be looking for an escape route or psyching himself up to act. He could also be attempting to distract you for a sucker punch.
The Chest Puff: "Making the body bigger says 'I am powerful' and is a typical male action. This warns other men not to attack and may indicate that the person is thinking of attacking. It can thus be a response to a threat. If one man expands, then others have the choice of retreating or expanding also ('If you attack, I'll fight back!'). Expansion can thus indicate anger."
Rocking Motion: When people are going into "fight or flight" mode their bodies are pumping oxygen and adrenaline into their systems and if they are trying to contain that urge to fight or flee (for the moment) they will do some odd things. Pacing, bouncing up and down, rocking back and forth, helps "burn off" some of that extra O2. it is also indicative of a subconscious "warming up" for action.
Averting the Face: People on the verge of initiating an action often attempt to hide their anxiety by averting or hiding their faces. This will also be seen in facial wipes, slicking back the hair, looking up into the air, etc.
Boxers Stance: This is a solid indicator that the "fight" half or "fight or flight" is being chosen. Look for a flexing of the knees and a "nose over toes" lean that indicates a preparation to launch.
Clenching of Fists: Another indicator that "fight" is the choice. Its also another "warming up" gesture.
Thousand Yard Stare: The subject is looking "through you" instead of at you. He has that "faraway look" on his face. He is putting himself in his "angry place". He is dehumanizing you and hovering over the launch button. Gain distance.
Target Glance: The opposite of the Thousand Yard Stare. the subject is zeroing in on a target. If he's staring at your chin be ready for the sucker punch. If its your weapon, a gun grab attempt.
Facial Wipe: see Averting the Face
Now, don't go nuts just because some guy wipes his face. The secret to decoding these cues is to take the entire situation into account and look for clusters of behavior. If you are in a profession where you have to deal with people in these situations; when you see these indicators it is time to act! Put some distance between yourselves and start issuing commands for compliance. I would be getting my OC or taser limbered up and/or tightening the laces on my running shoes. If you are a civilian and you see these cues...leave...if possible. If leaving is not an option, get ready.
The attached video is a clip from a project put together by a close friend who is a martial arts instructor, a local film artist and myself. It's a project in progress. Don't be too critical of the realism of the defensive response at the end. The threat indicators were the focus of the piece and we were not willing to roll around on the hot summer pavement for a more realistic "fight".
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