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Being able to detect threats is imperative, especially during a major disaster. Whether you’re defending your family after a disaster or simply trying to feel safe going to the gas station at night, you need to be able to identify people with hostile intentions.
While your brain can sometimes be tricked into judging someone as a threat who is harmless (i.e. a ragged-looking person in a corner or someone with sinister-looking features), typically those split-second judgments are more or less correct.
The subconscious part of the human brain is very good at recognizing threats, and has been for millennia. Honing those recognition skills will help you navigate tricky situations in a dangerous world.
Here are 9 threatening signs to look for.
1. Eye Contact
Eye contact is one of the biggest indicators of someone’s intentions. Unless they’re very shy, peaceful people will make normal eye contact. They will look you in the eye—but not too intently—and freely glance at an object you point to during a discussion. Someone who intends to harm you may look at you in one of two ways, and it will feel very different from regular eye contact.
The first eye contact red flag you should notice is if someone seems to be looking through you instead of at you, like he or she is staring at an object in the distance. This indicates the person is about to make a move, either in fight or flight (and to be safe, always assume the person will fight).
A lack of response often accompanies this eye contact since the person is focused on their next move more than in holding a conversation.
The second eye contact red flag you should notice is if someone seems to be staring intently at you. This can be an act of aggression or posturing, displaying a challenge to fight. Anyone staring intently at you without ever breaking eye contact should be treated as a threat. They have shut off their peripheral senses and are completely focused on you, which is not a good sign.
Also be aware of someone breaking eye contact with quick, darting glances. This is usually a sign that this person is either targeting an escape route (and again, assume he or she will fight before they run away) or targeting a part of your body to strike. This is also an indication of nervousness, and if something escalates that person’s stress level, he or she may snap.
Observing how people stand and carry themselves is also an easy-to-spot sign of their intentions. In typical, non-threatening conversation, most people stand squarely facing each other, their feet even with their shoulders. This is a neutral position.
Someone who is ready to attack you typically will have his or her feet set in an aggressive stance, with one foot back and the other foot forward, typically at a 45-degree angle. This position places an attacker’s strong side back to prepare for a strike or quick motion.
This is called a front stance, strong stance, blading, a boxer’s stance, or a weaver stance. Also, keep in mind that an attacker will often move back the part of their body concealing a weapon.
A person’s arms and hands can be another clear indication of whether they’re threatening or not. Relaxed people
tend to have their arms by their sides, and assuming the power grid stays on, they may have one or both hands clutching a smartphone.
People who are tense or nervous, however, may have their arms crossed or shoved in their pockets, even when they’re walking. In addition, open hands tend to send a peaceful signal, while clenched hands (or clenching and unclenching) tend to telegraph violent intentions.
Someone intending harm may also be concealing a weapon in his or her hands, hiding them from view in an unnatural way that can be easy to spot.
A person’s mouth—and any facial expression for that matter—often moves to mirror that person’s feelings. This usually happens unbeknownst to the person, but it can be a huge advantage to anyone paying attention.
When people become angry and begin losing control of their emotions, this is usually reflected in a snarl or a clenched jaw. You can spot this warning sign a mile off and prepare to deescalate the situation, fight, or run away.
5. Pupil Dilation
Master manipulators and experienced people of violence can sometimes get to the point where they don’t telegraph their emotions and intentions on their faces, but even the best concealers can’t hide involuntary muscle movements like pupil dilation.
When someone is in a stimulating situation, their body’s sympathetic nervous system reacts by dilating the pupils to receive the maximum amount of information possible. If someone’s pupils are dilated in broad daylight, this could be an indication they are about to snap into action.
In addition, pupil dilation is an evident symptom of drug usage, and while it may not be fair to assume all drug users are about to cause you harm, it may shed some light onto your situation.
Another indication that most attackers won’t be able to mask is their pulse. In anticipation of some sort of fight or flight response, most people’s heart rate will increase rapidly, and this quickening in pulse can oftentimes be seen on someone’s neck and temples. It is also a key sign of someone’s anger quickly becoming uncontrollable.
The body produces sweat when it gets overheated, but it also turns on the waterworks in high-pressure scenarios. Someone who looks unnaturally sweaty may be nervous about some sort of confrontation about to go down.
The position of someone’s shoulders goes hand-in-hand with their stance. A person about to attack or run typically has their upper body poised forward, balanced over the toes, while a relaxed person may have their weight shifted back on his or her heals.
In addition to a fast pulse and sweating, heavy breathing or quick, rapid breathing is a clear sign that all is not well in the neighborhood. In contrast, people often hold their breath in tense situations. Anything out of the norm should be treated as potentially hostile.
Now before you go out and start checking everyone for signs that they’re about to attack, keep in mind that if someone is truly a threat, you’ll likely see several of the signs on this list, not just one or two.
If someone is constantly averting their eyes, maybe they’re just anxious in social settings. If someone is repeatedly clenching their fists and jaw, maybe they’re just having a bad day. And if someone is breathing heavily and sweating, maybe they’re just out of shape and walking around public places wears them out.
The point is, almost anyone can be viewed as a threat if you look for just one body language cue. But if someone is truly a threat, you’ll likely see three or more signs that they’re about to attack. So when you see one sign, start looking for others.