Monday, 9 August 2010

Give in to your animal instincts

Raging at film crew and ("allegedly") assaulting his mother: we all know  how Christian Bale gets when he's angry but what's the betting that someone will be "surprised" next time he gets violent? They need this book....
"The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons." 
 Ralph Waldo Emerson 
I had to buy The Gift of Fear after reading numerous recommendations on the etiquettehell forum, of all places. The ladies there would occasionally ask "Was I rude to snub that guy that I found incredibly creepy?" and the answer always came "Safety trumps etiquette."

Author Gavin De Becker is a security expert who runs a consulting firm which advises on situations that might escalate to violence. In other words, if you are the President and a would-be assassin is stalking you, he can tell you the signs which point to needing a bullet proof vest or a one way ticket to Hawaii.

The premise of his book that we all have the ability to keep ourselves safe – it's called intuition. But if you're the sort who scoffs at airy-fairy "feelings," you'll be relieved to know that those hunches aren't necessarily anything mystical. Analysing gut feelings with the benefit of hindsight, you will probably discover that there were plenty of little reasons why you actually "knew" something.

He points out that phrases like "all of a sudden" and "out of the blue" are largely meaningless, a part of the "myth" that predicting human behaviour isn't possible. He points out that "to successfully navigate through morning traffic, we make amazingly accurate high-stakes predictions about the behaviour of literally thousands of people."

Also, "the human violence we abhor and fear the most, that which we call "random" and "senseless" is neither." He argues that while we prefer to think of psychopathic killers as being totally removed from humanity, it's their very humanness which is the key to understanding them. We're not so different under the surface; most people will admit that they could be pressed into violence if a loved one was threatened. Therefore we are all capable of violence – depending on the circumstances.

He complains about the stupidity of those ubiquitous media quotes such as "neighbours describe the killer as a shy man who kept to himself", which implies that apparent normalcy is actually a pre-incident indicator for abhorrent crime. (All it really means is that the neighbours had nothing helpful or relevant to say, but they got quoted anyway.)

Knowing our natural desire to be polite and see the best in people, he describes key signs to look out for in the kind of dodgy geezers that set off your creep-o-meter. Wisely, he asserts that "no animal in the wild, suddenly overcome with fear, would spend any of its mental energy thinking "It's probably nothing". We, in contrast to every other creature in nature, choose not to explore – and even to ignore – survival signals."

Among many points, he includes: 


  • Forced teaming: the kind of person who wants to make you feel "we're in the same boat".
  • Charm: ask yourself why they are trying to charm you.
  • Too many details: beware the person who talks too much and answers questions you haven't yet asked.
  • Typecasting: sometimes men will use truly pathetic lines like "you look like the kind of woman who is too snobbish to talk to me." (To which the answer of course would be "that's funny, you look like the kind of man who makes lame attempts to manipulate women into talking to you.")
  • Loan sharking: forcing you to accept a favour, eg carrying your bags.
  •  The unsolicited promise: "I'll just come in for a minute then I'll go, I promise." Why does this person need to convince you?
  • Discounting the word "No" – We've all had the person who "insists" that we accept a lift home / a second drink / the book we expressed an interest in. While most of the time, people's overbearing attitudes are harmless, they all have one thing in common; they refuse to accept the word "no."

(And if I may add one of my own – men who tell you "I'm a gentleman". Run fast, run far. It's like wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word "Sexy". If it were true, you wouldn't need to say it.)

Some of the stories actually resonated with me; a while ago I was introduced to a guy who was a friend of a friend, within a few minutes I was thinking "This guy's got "stalker" written all over him", and I avoided the exchange of phone numbers. When I bumped into him a month or so later in town, he took it upon himself to accompany me to the supermarket, where the only way I could get rid of him was stopping dead, doing a lot of "Well, this is where I get off," and refusing his offers of help to "carry your bags," until he went away. Now if I ever happen to see him (ah, the perils of living in a small town) I actually find my adrenaline starts pumping and my instinct is to run away. Reading this book made my otherwise irrational fear make sense; I don't actually believe he is dangerous, but I do believe that if I'd given him any encouragement whatsoever, I would never be able to get rid of him.

I was especially interested to see that insisting on "helping" is a common theme; saying no to help seems rude – and making people (especially women) feel guilty enough to give in is key. On the flipside of the "helping" theme, serial killer Ted Bundy wore a fake cast on his arm or leg, and would approach women and ask them for help loading something into his car. (Wouldn't you feel like a heel if you said "No" to some poor guy with a broken arm?) 


Even if the little voice in your head is screaming that something doesn't feel right, sometimes it's very hard to extricate yourself from a situation without feeling horribly rude, especially if you don't have time to think through your reaction. Better rude than dead, though.

Intuition knows more about the situation than we are consciously aware of. For instance, maybe the guy checking you out in the car park as you unpack your groceries is giving you the creeps because you noticed him (in your peripheral vision) in the shop, getting close to you just a few too many times to be coincidental.

There are slightly more boring chapters on "high-stakes predictions, " for instance, the signs that a mad gunman might go on the rampage, among them "perceived justification, alternatives, ability and consequences" (In a nutshell, if he feels like he's been wronged, has no other options, can hit the target and can live with the police on his tail.)

There are also chapters on stalkers and assassins, and why restraining orders can do more harm than good, as they engage with the stalker and possibly provide the victim with a false sense of security.

De Becker unashamedly focuses on giving advice to women, warning that "spousal homicide is the single most predictable serious crime in America". While we've all read the usual magazine fodder on signs that your boyfriend is a bad 'un, (seriously, who would think it was a good sign when a guy says "you don't need other friends, you've got me"?) Gavin has some more interesting hints, such as a man who identifies with violent people in films, news, or fiction, and dislikes change or is unable to compromise.

He also touches on violent children and describes case studies in which authority figures have held up their hands and said "How could we possibly have known?" and said that actually, the actions were predictable, if only anyone had been paying attention.

He points out that often, dark humour can be very telling. The prime example being  people who've said "Hey, I'm not opening that package, it's probably a bomb". When someone else does open it, turns out they were right. This is because humour is "a common way to communicate true concern without the risk of feeling silly afterward".

De Becker also elaborates on how Hollywood has encouraged stalking behaviour with the formula "Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn't Want Boy, Boy Persists and Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl" and points out that when women are the pursuers (think Fatal Attraction) they are seen for the loonies that they are.

He takes a tough love approach to domestic violence, saying "I believe that the first time a woman is hit, she is a victim, and the second time, she is a volunteer," and emphasises that "staying is a choice". Harsh words, but I would say that they are ultimately empowering. I have never really believed stories of men who were big old pussycats until suddenly changing overnight into violent control freaks. There has to be a first time for violence, but there WILL have been clues along the way. It's just that sometimes it's easier to ignore signs than face up to what they might come to mean.

I think it's possible that domestic violence could be reduced dramatically if this book was taught in schools. It won't change violent people, but it could help to inform potential victims about the danger signals and type of partners they should avoid.

Evidently, we're all capable of reading other people; it's what we're designed to do. We've been analysing each other and making predictions and conclusions about each other for thousands of years, we should be pretty good at it by now. By trusting your "caveman brain" you can tap into knowledge you didn't know you had.

The book can be a little dry in places; we're given a lot of detail on some historical cases and why assassins struck, and a fair bit of advice for bosses of large corporations. Whereas I think I speak for all of us when I say we want more juicy stories about would-be attackers being foiled by someone's intuition.

The website https://www.gavindebecker.com/ also has some useful and interesting info on how dangerous the world may or may not be – including a guide to de-coding the scaremongering style of news reports. 


The overall message is reassuring; trusting your intuition is the opposite of living in fear, as it eliminates all that unnecessary worry.

This book is a must read; I devoured it in a couple of days and have been recommending it to everyone. However, I must warn you that by the end of it you may feel tempted to actively seek out creepy people just so that you can yell "No is a complete sentence!" in their faces.

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