A little while ago, I almost knocked somebody out for being stupid. I’m going to tell that story in a bit as it’s what triggered this post but first something else:
Peyton Quinn has some excellent advice on how to avoid fight (or to avoid getting beaten to a pulp; you’re not always going to win…) In a nutshell, he isolates a couple of practical tips that are easy to understand. He says that whenever you face somebody who is getting aggressive with you or there’s a potential for violence:
- Don’t insult him.
- Don’t challenge him or accept his challenge.
- Leave him a face-saving exit.
- Show (preferably non-verbally) that you know what they’re doing and give them no fear but a relaxed focus in return.
This is some of the best advice you’ll find out there but it’s also not always as easy to pull off. There are several reasons for this:
- Lack of experience. For the most part, people don’t have enough experience handling these kinds of situations. So they don’t know how to handle the adrenal stress, can’t come up with a good solution or get the timing wrong.
- The lizard brain takes over. You default to some primitive reactions, once again because you lack the experience to control them or perhaps because you don’t understand that another part of your brain is now in the driver’s seat. You think you’re thinking and acting rationally but reason and common sense already checked out and are only coming back once you calm down after it is all over.
- Ego takes over. How dare he challenge/insult/threaten you like that! You’re not gonna stand for that, you’re gonna give him a piece of your mind. At which point fists start flying… You have to want to de-escalate a hostile situation. If you’re spoiling for a fight, you’re bound to get one.
- It’s a bad day. Sometimes, Mr. Murphy comes along and you are faced with potential violence at the worst possible time: you’re tired, you’re sick, you weren’t paying attention, etc. For all sorts of reasons, you’re not on top of your game and fail to manage the situation correctly. Not because you don’t know how but because for some reason, other factors made it more difficult than on any other day. And that’s all it takes for things to go haywire.
We’re all only human and prone to make mistakes but if at all possible, you should always try to avoid getting into a fight. Simply because there is so little to gain and a lot to lose. Granted, sometimes you have no other option but to fight but in the vast majority of situations, you can manage to avoid trouble when it comes your way. So it’s with that in mind that I’d like to add some additional practical tips to those Peyton already gave.
- Don’t raise your voice or shout. Right up front, I have to tell you that there are exceptions to this guideline but in many cases, raising your voice or starting to shout at the person who is in your face will only escalate things. Shouting and speaking loudly is an excellent way to trigger an adrenal response and if somebody is already getting agitated, this may be the last little push he needed to swing at you. Remember the last time somebody was yelling at you? How did it make you feel? Calm and relaxed? Wanting to buy him/her dinner? Not very likely… So consider the volume at which you speak when things start going sideways. Louder isn’t always better.
- Don’t get too close. One of the best ways to set off an explosive situation is to step into somebody’s personal space. It feels threatening to the person you do it to and if he’s already looking for an excuse to punch you, that will do the trick. What’s more, you are moving into a distance where you’re very much at risk of getting knocked out. More on this in my “How not to block a punch” post.
- Don’t touch him. I have a very simple rule, nobody but my girlfriend gets to touch me at will. Anybody else needs to earn that privilege. If I don’t know you and you touch me, then I’ll act on it. What happens next depends on how you made contact and the context we’re in, but there will be an action on my part. With thugs and criminals, a touch is often used as a test to see if you’ll defend your boundaries or as a setup for an attack. Either way, the result of me allowing that touch is something bad for me, so I prefer to act on it. This doesn’t mean you have to go ninja-commando on somebody tapping your shoulder to give you back the wallet you just dropped… Part of self-defense training is learning to react appropriately to situations and scaling your reactions up or down is a skill you should focus on. That said, no matter how much you want to poke your finger in somebody’s chest or make contact in any other way, don’t. It is a surefire way to start a fight as it will invariably trigger a response along the lines of “Don’t you fucking touch me!” and then it all escalates from there.
- Don’t test him. When you meet somebody who obviously has some experience with violence, you might feel inclined to test him a little bit to see if he really knows his stuff. It’s beyond me but I’ve seen this happen too many times to discount it as anything but a very real issue for some people. My guess is it comes from a place of insecurity: they aren’t sure they can “take him” so they decide to test the waters. If you meet a capable person on a bad day, he might decide to take you up on it in the blink of an eye. If not, you just pissed somebody off, somebody who’s good at breaking people like you. So don’t move into people’s blind spots to see how they react. Don’t pretend to go for a weapon to later claim you went for your wallet. And especially don’t throw a couple of “playful” punches at them to see how fast they are. You might not like what happens next.
In many ways, these tips are just common sense. It’s not rocket science, nor am I saying anything revolutionary. But it might serve as a reminder to those who, for whatever reason, are a little out of tune with the realities of violence and how fights actually happen.
Now as promised, the story about what triggered this post:
I went to a birthday dinner at a Spanish restaurant in Antwerp and arrived on time for our reservations. They still made us wait for an hour and by that time I was hungry (hadn’t eaten since noon) and tired (worked all day). The restaurant was very loud (for a large part because the owner was yelling all the time) and crowded. A final negative is that the red light district is nearby and some questionable people were in the crowd. Not really an ideal setting for me to be relaxed…
As I often do, I bring up the rear while we walk over to our table and when we get there, I wait for everybody to take his place. Suddenly, I feel somebody grab my upper arm. The movement is too fast and the grip too hard to be innocent. Instinctively, I step away, start spinning to face the threat and work on breaking the grip while launching a counter strike. The only thing that stops my punch is the look on the guy’s face: big eyes of confusion and sudden fear.
Turns out it was the owner of the restaurant who wanted to stick the menus underneath my armpit so he wouldn’t have to come over anymore. Which is perhaps the dumbest and most client-unfriendly thing I’ve ever had happen to me in a restaurant, but I digress.
Here’s the thing: I was tired, hungry and starting to get into a bad mood. While part of my brain acted on instinct, another part recognized in time that he was not a threat and stopped me from throwing that punch. But as soon as that happened, another part started screaming “Hit him! Hit the bastard for pulling this crap on you!” This only goes to show that I’m just as human as everybody else (which I already knew by the way…)
After the adrenal dump wore off, I started thinking about what happened: The owner violated all of the tips I just gave you:
- He was shouting when there was no need for it and I’d already been enduring that for an hour while waiting for our table.
- He was standing way too close to me, which I found out when I spun to strike him.
- He touched a patron, which is a big no-no. What’s worse, his grip had the level of strength you put into taking a drunk outside. That was way too much force if his goal was just to give me the menus.
- This leads me to the final conclusion that we wanted to test me. What gave it away was his “apology” of how a strong guy like me can carry those menus easily.
No blood, no foul as a friend of mine likes to say and the owner probably thinks I’m an asshole. Which is fine by me as I’ll never set foot in his restaurant again.
Wrapping things up, I’d just like to point out that there are many more tips you could use to avoid a fight but they aren’t always as practical because they need a long explanation. With this post here, I wanted to keep it short while also showing how they apply to my incident with the restaurant owner.
If you have other tips you’d like to share, write a comment here below. Looking forward to reading those.
UPDATE: Peyton left an answer in the comments here below and it’s filled with great information. I used it as the basis for Four practical tips to avoid a fight, Part Two