The signals that do not necessarily precede an aggression

Self-defense and signals of imminent aggression: how to recognize the false positives

The body language betrays the intentions (ours and the ones of our potential aggressors). Who is able to read it, gains an incredibly big advantage (both before, both during the combat).

Even if every person is different from the others, we all reflect a big part of the common human’s instincts / behavior and each one of them has a precise meaning:

  • There are a lot of signals that are neutral
  • There are a lot of signals that identify an imminent threat
  • There are a lot of signals that identify an escalation (but not directly a threat)

The first type we want to discuss are the ones that may appear to be decisive but that are not.

A note by Master Kongling – In terms of self-preservation, prevention is always the best field to invest in (study, preparation, etc. read Personal defense: the S.A.F.E. method): it is for this reason that we focus so much on these topics. By themselves, none of the signals we are going to see (in this article and in the next ones) really have value but combined together and correctly contextualized, they can give us a fairly high reliability rate (let’s imagine something near the 90%).

From a quarrel to physical aggression: the signals that are not decisive

The generic scenario we want to analyze is the one where 2 (or more) normal people have already started a verbal quarrel (read Self defense: 10 correct attitudes during a quarrel): it is the classic sequence of a discussion that leads to an aggression (read for example Self-defense: brawl in front of a grocery store).

As everyone knows (whether there are precedents or not), the escalation from a verbal to physical contact, often starts from silly happenings like:

  • An insistent look
  • Strong words
  • A wrong taunt

What we want to describe are the dynamics that not necessarily identify imminent aggression.

The signals

Important – The scenario we are going to describe is related to normal people. Some of these attitudes are less recognizable and / or altered in the case of an experienced fighter. Even if he doesn’t know anything about body communication, his reactions are trained to be more tactical; this does not mean that they are not identifiable but that they are different (read The signals that identify an attacker who practices martial arts).

Let’s see some of the contextual instinctive cues that are “preparatory” but that do not uniquely identify imminent aggression (from our NLP applied to self-defense course, write to [email protected] if you are interested in).

The upper part of the body:

  • Chest out – It is a proud, imposing gesture, to convey superiority; it is made to scare us (and this means that he would prefer to avoid the fight)
  • Arms back – Combined with the chest out, it is a courage demonstration; it says something like “hit me, I do not need to protect me” (but it means at the same time that he is not ready to attack us)
  • Chin¬†pointing upwards – It is a trying of appearing taller and more imposing; again it is only a deterrent


  • Walk with legs apart – It is only a sign of bravado; it exposes a delicate part like the genitals and is unconsciously connected to the demonstration of being able to maintain a better balance and express greater power (lowering the center of gravity and enlarging the posture, read Kung Fu rooting: the pyramid concept)
  • The stand up without walking in our direction (when the potential attacker is sitting) – Again, it is a deterrent, it says “I noticed you, I’m ready to come” (but if he does not come, he is probably scared and he is not willing to attack)
  • Walking backward – The same thing, no matter what he says, if he appears furious, if he uses strong words, if he flaps his arms, he is scared by us


  • Gestures of intimidation or invitation to confrontation (by average distance) – It would be a demonstration of courage but in reality, who is in front of us hopes to not really have to fight
  • Hands resting on the hips – It’s a gesture to appear bigger; it is often used to provoke; this time we are slightly more near to the violence, he is imposing his determination and this means that he is willing to fight); in this case a big difference is made by the direction of the neck (leaning forward is more aggressive, backward or lateral means “I want to go away”)
  • Hands completely opened and rigid – It is a sign of a rapid increase of anger, fear or tension; the open hands are ready to catch something and this can be at the same time an imminent aggression alarm or a defensive attitude


  • Strong words – Screams and heavy phrases, often indicate loss of control but being the result of a complex action, which is the elaboration of complete sentences, they are not a signal that unequivocally presages an assault (until someone talks with more than singles insults, he will not attack us)
  • Rhetorical questions and / or the prolong of the conversation – Who talks do not fight, who continue to talk is (more or less) unconsciously searching a dignified way to avoid the fight (or even win the contrast, read for example Self-defense: aggression in front of a supermarket)
  • Attempts to justify verbal aggression (in presence of others) – Again, who talks do not want to fight, his mind is lucid enough to visualize the legal and physical risks (read also Best martial arts for self-defense)

Final notes

A few conclusive thoughts and tips:

  • This type of signals (especially if not in a group and if not combined with a close-range) should not be underestimated but at the same time, should not make us excessively worry
  • The wise practitioner do not wait to be in a dangerous situation to test if his knowledge works or not, he always makes experiments and tests in controlled conditions
  • Each signal must be contextualized to the type of scenario and people we are facing
  • The more we become attentive to body language details in normal life, the more our capability to interpret them in a stressful context will be viable (read /// Subscribe (it's free!) or Login to see this content ///)

In the next article of this series, we will see some of the “unequivocal” contextual cues to an aggression (read The signals that identify an imminent aggression).

In-depth articles


Reply in the comments and share your experience:

  • Have you ever recognized (or applied) similar gestures?

Author: Master Kongling

Founder of 6 Dragons Kung Fu.

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