The First Rule of Self-Defense (Is Not What You Think)

You’ve heard it before: Awareness is the first rule of self-defense. If you’re aware, you can better anticipate problems and avoid them. If you’re aware, you have more time in which to react to an offered threat. If you’re aware, you’ll perceive problems that others won’t and therefore be in a better position to avoid them. For these reasons, many self-defense instructors tout awareness as the first-and-foremost, most fundamental principle of self-protection.

It isn’t.

That’s not to say awareness is not incredibly important. It is. But if we order the tenets of self-defense in terms of how often the habitual, even rote application of those tenets saves the self-defense exponent from harm, we must prioritize one thing ahead of awareness. It is something that, if you make it a habit, will deescalate most confrontations. It is something that, if you do it without thinking, will prevent most problems before they begin. It is something that many of us find incredibly difficult, especially if our blood is up. But it is something you must never forget and that you must practice as the most fundamental tenet of self-defense:

Be polite.

I know, I know: it sounds like something Patrick Swayze’s character would lay on a skeptical audience in Road House. But being polite has saved me from more confrontations and potential problems than even acute awareness has preempted. And without exception, on those occasions when I have not been polite, when I have lost my temper, when I have indulged in the temptation to rage with righteous indignation and to seek to impose my will on others through belligerence and intimidation, I have regretted it.

In other words, failing to be polite has always made things worse.

Previously in The Martialist, I described an incident (and referred to one or two others) in which being rude, or trying to push people around, only made things more difficult for me. There is another incident I experienced that, had I handled it differently, might have gone better. I described this incident more than ten years ago in my book, Flashlight Fighting.

To make a long story very short, I went out at night to confront a driver who was honking his horn repeatedly outside my apartment. I yelled at him, demanding that he stop doing it. I also lit him up with my pocket torch, effectively blinding him so badly that he tried to use a CD from his visor case to deflect the light. While this illustrates the power of using light to your advantage in a self-defense situation in low light, the driver said something during that confrontation that I would contemplate in greater detail years later. He muttered that, had I simply asked him to stop honking rather than bellowing at him, he would have done so.

Whether that’s true is debatable, and fortunately that incident did not escalate. It easily could have, though. Had I politely asked him to stop, he might just have told me off and kept on honking… but would it have hurt me in any way first to try politely asking for what I wanted? There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by being polite at first.

Let me now describe a minor incident that could have gone much worse had I failed to learn from my past mistakes. I was pulling into a parking spot in a crowded shopping mall during Labor Day Weekend. As I climbed out of my car, another driver — who I saw dithering about how and when to pull in — was poised to back into the space adjacent to mine. He was having trouble with it; I think he was calculating the risks. The space was too narrow, but it was pretty clear he was going to attempt it anyway, as there were very few spots left in the lot.

I could either wait for him to figure out what he was going to do, or I could get out of my car and close the door in order to clear the way for him to do it. I chose the latter. He braked for what must have been the fifth or sixth time as I entered the path of his vehicle and, as I passed him, he rolled down his window. He was talking to someone on his bedazzled, glittery, gold-lamé phone the entire time he was executing his parking maneuver, but he took the phone away from his face briefly to address me.

“Hey, man,” he said angrily. “Why the hell you got to jump out in front of me like that? I’m trying to back up and you don’t pay attention? What’s wrong with you?”

A Terminator-style list of options appeared in my vision. It looked a lot like this:

A.) You’re talking on a hand-held cellphone while backing into a space that’s too small for your car and you’re worried about whether I’m making us less safe?

B) Who the hell gave you permission to take your teenage-girl phone from your face and push air through your face-hole at me, scumbag?

C) Go [expletive deleted] yourself, you [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted].

He had a very pompous, entitled attitude and, as I started to answer him, he went back to his phone and waved me off as if I were not important enough to listen to. It was the type of situation that is tailor made to set somebody off. A guy who drives badly, acts like a douche, and has douche-tastic accessories (I am not making up the description of his phone) presumes to tell me how to get out of my car, all while making everyone in the vicinity less safe? When I spoke, though, I opted for Option D:

D) I didn’t know you were going to back up just then. I was just getting out of my car. Thanks for looking out for me.

Had I chosen any of the first three options, the chances of him getting out of his car — and a confrontation ensuing — were high. While I’m prepared to defend myself, I’m not about to hurt or potentially kill a man over a parking space. That’s what every self-defense incident is: the potential death of a human being. People have died from a single unlucky punch before. Hit a guy in a parking lot and there are innumerable hard surfaces against which he could crack open his skull.

More importantly, if I had mouthed off to this fellow and stormed off, leaving him alone with my vehicle, I could easily have come back to a note left on my car — with his car key. I could have spent the day worrying over that or fuming about it. I could have ruined my day, my week, or my life by getting into a fight with someone over nothing. It cost me nothing to be polite as Step One of dealing with this incident. And it worked perfectly: My response was sufficient to end the interaction, with no cost to me, my ego, or my property.

Note, however, that I’m not saying to be a doormat. Had this man persisted in confronting me, I would have stood up for myself (and also moved my car to another lot once the altercation was concluded). As it was, he expressed his rude objection, I explained politely and calmly that no offense was intended, he went back to ignoring me, and I went about my business. The incident ended with my reply. That is the goal of all self-defense, after all: to preempt potential altercations before they begin, or to end altercations with a minimum of damage or difficulty incurred by you.

Be polite at first in all instances. In the eyes of witnesses to any ensuing confrontation, you will come off as the reasonable one. Should you discover that you are, in fact, in the wrong because you missed something or made some mistake of which you are not immediately aware, you’ll be damned glad you were polite to start. And should the matter escalate from there, despite your best efforts, you will lose nothing by behaving politely at first blush.

Think back to every situation in which you have ever found yourself that spiraled out of control after you lost your temper. How could it have gone differently had you simply been polite? Remember, therefore, that your initial reaction to any altercation should always be to be polite. Your manners are your first, best line of self-defense.

Use them.

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2 thoughts on “The First Rule of Self-Defense (Is Not What You Think)

  1. My wife has commented that I’m “too polite” too most of the a-holes we run into. I’ve told her that there’s a time and place to drop the smile and deal with things, but verbally disarming someone who’s just vocal by saying “oops, my bad, thanks” means they’ll have to serious (and publicly) escalate. All of which matters should it ever reach court.

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