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Survival Signals That Indicate Danger: The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker

The ability to predict behaviour is what society is built on. We constantly make predictions about the behaviour of the people around us, yet many people believe that it is impossible to predict violent behaviour. Gavin De Becker says that this is a myth perpetuated by the media, and I agree with him.

How often is an act of violence described by reporters at 'senseless', 'unpredictable', and an act that 'no one could have seen coming'. De Becker says that when you do a little digging into the criminals history, their actions are usually very predictable. People often deny they could have predicted something bad because that would mean they could have done something about it. But the truth about violence is that it often comes with signals that precede it. Those signals can be picked up on if you're paying attention.

Prediction means responsibility

De Becker advocates for women to listen to their intuition, especially when it's giving them a message of fear. These days if we get a bad feeling about something, chances are we'll write it off. Our mind sets to work at once to debunk our very own survival instincts so we can tell ourselves "it's probably nothing" and carry on with our day.

It is these gut feelings that De Becker says are the most important ally in your protection. Perhaps among all the courses, the books, and the training, the ability to listen when your survival instincts speak to you may be the most important thing you can do for your own safety. To help inform that intuition, De Becker lists some of the most common signals that predators give to betray their intentions.

Forced Teaming

Forced Teaming is when someone tries to make you feel like you're in the 'same boat' as them, giving you the feeling that you should help each other. Sharing a predicament like waiting for the bus, being stuck in an elevator, or stuck in line for example. These situations seem to be coincidences when they are actually intentional and designed to elicit trust.

The detectable signal of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none really exists: saying things like "both of us"; "we're some team"; "how are we going to handle this?"; "now we're in trouble", etc.


A woman and a man are waiting for a bus that's late. It's cold, rainy, and dark. The man strikes up a conversation with the woman using phrases like "how are we going to get home now?" Eventually he calls a friend for a ride and offers to take the woman home too.

"The best cons make the victim want to participate" -Gavin De Becker

"Forced teaming is done in many contexts, but when applied by a stranger to a woman in a vulnerable situation (such as alone in a remote area), it is always inappropriate. It's not about partnership or coincidence, but establishing a rapport. Rapport building is seen as admirable when in fact is is almost always done for self serving reasons. Not everyone who seeks to establish rapport is sinister, but that doesn't mean that a woman must participate with every stranger who approaches her."

"The defense is to make a clear refusal to accept the concept of a partnership: "I didn't ask for your help and I don't want it". Like many of the best defenses, this one has the cost of appearing rude. But safety is the foremost concern of all beings, and it justifies a seemingly abrupt response from time to time." -Gavin De Becker

Charm and Niceness

"Charm is almost always a direct instrument, which like rapport-building, has a motive. Charm is an ability, not an inherent character trait. Think of charm as a verb: instead of thinking "this person is so charming", think "this person is trying to charm me."

"He was so nice" is a comment I often hear from people describing the man who, moments or months after his niceness, attacked them. We must learn to teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait."

"People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning. Nice is not a credential for good intent" -Gavin De Becker

De Becker encourages women to explicitly reject unwanted approaches.

Too Many Details

"When people are telling the truth, they don't feel doubted, so they don't feel the need for additional support in the form of details. Someone who is trying to build rapport or charm you may use an abundance of unnecessary details in his speech. The defense is to remain conscious of the context in which the details are offered."

"Context is always apparent in the start of an interaction and usually apparent at the end of one, but too many details can make us lose sight of it. Every type of con relies upon distracting us from the obvious."

"When approached by a stranger while walking some city street at night, no matter how engaging he might be, you must never lose sight of the context: He is a stranger who approached me. A good exercise is to occasionally remind yourself of where you are and what your relationship is to the people around you. Bring the context into conscious thought." -Gavin De Becker


A man labels a woman in a slightly critical way, hoping that she'll feel the need to prove that his opinion is not accurate.

"You're probably too scared to have a drink," he might say, and the woman will try to dismantle the label by accepting his drink.

"You don't look like someone who knows about politics," and she sets out to prove that she is well informed and intelligent.

"Typecasting involves a slight insult that is usually easy to refute. But since it is the response itself that the typecaster wants, the defense is silence, acting as if the words weren't even spoken. Who cares what some stranger thinks about you anyways?" -Gavin De Becker

Loan Sharking

"The traditional loan shark gladly lends out one amount, but cruelly collects much more. A predatory criminal generously offers you something but is always calculating the debt, and the fact that you believe you owe him something makes it hard to be rude or say no.

The defense is to bring two facts into consciousness: he approached me and I didn't ask for his help. Then watch for other signals.

The stranger who offers to help a woman with her groceries may just expect to have a friendly chat or to get her number, but he has something in common with the predator who approaches the woman in the same way: motive. At best, loan sharking is a manipulative dating strategy. At worst it exploits a victims sense of obligation and fairness." -Gavin De Becker

The Unsolicited Promise

An unsolicited promise is one of the most reliable signals, De Becker states, because it is nearly always of questionable motive. "Promises are used to convince us of an intention, showing nothing more than the speakers desire to convince you of something.

Treat all unsolicited promises with skepticism, and ask yourself "why does this person need to convince me?" The reason a person needs to convince you with the words "I promise" is because he can see that you are not already convinced. The great gift of the unsolicited promise is that the speaker points this out himself!"

When someone says "I promise", in your head think "you're right, I am hesitant about trusting you, probably for good reason. Thank you for pointing that out" -Gavin De Becker

Discounting The Word No

"No" is a word that must never be negotiated, because the person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you. In situations in which unsolicited offers of assistance are appropriate, like a salesman, it is simply annoying if you have to say no three times. With a stranger however, refusal to hear no can be an important survival signal."

"Declining to hear no is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it. With strangers, even those with the best intentions, never, ever relent on the issue of 'no' because it sets the stage for more efforts to control you."

"If you let someone talk you out of the word no, you might as well wear a sign on your chest that says "you are in charge" -Gavin De Becker

The worst response when someone fails to accept no is to give ever weakening refusals and then give in. Another common response that serves the criminal is to negotiate. Negotiating is about possibilities, which we do not want to open up. I also suggest that women get used to saying no without a reason. As soon as you give someone a reason or excuse for why you can't make it to their party, why you can't give them a ride, etc; you give them the ability to start arguing with you and pick apart your reasoning.

Remember that 'no' is a complete sentence -Gavin De Becker

"The criminal's process of victim selection, which I call 'the interview,' is similar to a shark's circling its prey. The predatory criminal of every variety is looking for someone, a vulnerable someone who will allow him to be in control, and just as he constantly gives signals, so too does he read them." -Gavin de Becker

Remember that predators use your concern about rudeness to their advantage. It is much preferable to come off rude to someone who had no ill intent, than it is to prolong the attention of a violent man by trying to be nice. De Becker makes an important point about the question: 'won't being rude just make a criminal more upset?' It's a question I've heard many times, similar to the belief that if a victim resists it will only make her attacker more angry and put her in more danger.

Gavin claims that rudeness is much more likely to deter a predatory criminal than niceness. Niceness, or at least the desire to appear nice by not saying no assertively, is precisely what criminals are looking for. A person who is too timid to firmly say no will be more likely to accept further impositions without resistance than the woman who can immediately turn to face the man, put her hand in the 'stop' position', and firmly say "I don't want your help", with confident body language and eye contact.

Rudeness in the form of confident boundary setting repels criminals, while niceness in the form of allowing unsolicited approaches attracts them.

It's really all about 'the interview' as de Becker puts it: criminals are constantly assessing potential targets for signs of vulnerability, which indicates the likeliness of the victim resisting, increasing the chances that they will get caught. Walking confidently, being aware of your surroundings, and being able to firmly say no and not relent are all critical signals that indicate that you will be a risky target.

"Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage than audacity" - Carl Von Clausewitz.

De Becker on the Oprah Winfrey Show

De Becker offers many more fascinating insights about different types of predatory criminals in his book, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn about self defense and protection.

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Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight.

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