If you spend any amount of time around animals you will notice that they are creatures that maximise every opportunity to get a meal or gain the upper hand in most situations. Even domestic pets follow the nature over nurture path when it comes to snatching food from an unguarded plate or occupying the space in front of the fire.
In the wild, a predator will watch before attacking. He will be looking for any sign of weakness in the herd, for an old or sick animal or an inexperienced youngster. Going after the weaklings allows the predator to expend less energy and maximise the value of the next meal.
The question is, are you predator or prey?
If you spend any amount of time people watching you will start to notice the differences in behaviour that people display in the same circumstances. Making the time to people watch may not be high on your priority list but unless you determine what parameters could be considered ‘normal behaviour’ then you’ll never be able to work out what is abnormal behaviour.
This is how the lioness teaches her young, she makes sure her and her cubs are well fed (she can’t afford to scare off the wildlife if they are hungry) and then takes them out to teach them hunting. She allows them to go blundering around scaring off everything within a five mile radius, the confused cubs have no idea why they haven’t brought back the bacon or gazelle or whatever it is they were chasing. Soon though, they learn that a certain type of behaviour on their part prompts a given behaviour on the part of their prey. They watch their mother watching the herd, they watch her stealth as she creeps through the grass and provided she has homed in on the weakest animal, or can outpace the straggler, they salivate as she drags home their lunch. The lioness is situationally aware. She understands the likely behaviour of the animal she is stalking and she uses it to her and her family’s advantage.
Sticking with lions for a moment, you may or may not know that they tend to rest in the open in grasses that are similar in colour to themselves. This allows them to blend in but at the same time see as much as possible of the surrounding area, ever alert of a bigger, badder lion coming to snatch a cub, or kill their mother.
Humans do their best to blend in. It’s rare to find a businessman going to work in an Hawaiian shirt and flip flops even in the middle of summer, he wears the same or similar garb to everyone else, he doesn’t stand out, he fits in with the crowd.
Street-based sex workers, both male and female rarely dress, during their working hours, like they are going to a church barbeque, their attire is a message to others, the business card that announces their trade.
Here in the UK most schools have a uniform code, a symbol of which tribe the children belong to, something that marks them as part of a group.
Being aware of the different types of attire you expect to see in a given set of circumstances is a very gentle start to understanding situational awareness.
All forms of situational awareness requires that you mentally establish a baseline of what is normal and what is not for the area or surroundings that you are in. These baselines are not written in stone of course, but they do provide a framework for us to start with.
An example would be you seeing a uniformed police officer climbing through a house window. The usual assumption would be that there is an issue inside the home and he is gaining access. If you saw a shoddily dressed youth, hood pulled over shielding most of his face even when he looks over his shoulder every few seconds, would you make the same assumption? Most likely not. This is situational awareness at its simplest.
There are many tactics that you can practice to improve your ability to notice abnormal behaviour in groups of people, and most of those skills will also stand you in good stead if you need to move fast to get out of a deteriorating situation.
Abnormal behaviour can take many forms, someone may look uncomfortable and furtive when everyone else is relaxed and at ease. Equally it could be the other way around, one person with a subtle smile and calm demeanour, when everyone else is unhappy and stressed should be viewed as abnormal behaviour.
As far as you can you need to control where you are in crowded places. Always try and get the seat with the best view so you can maximise the area you can see. Having a solid wall behind you reduces the chance of someone creeping up behind you, taking advantage of your blind spot.
When you go into a new environment, take note of where the exits are, which exit would be easiest to get to, it’s not always the closest one. Those diagrams on the back of hotel room doors are there for a reason, have a look at them and then walk to the exit shown on it. Is there anything blocking your path, something that could make you stumble in the dark? OK there shouldn’t be, but there often is and the only way you will know is to check it out.
As mentioned with our furtively acting youth climbing through a window, the actions of people who are up to no good often give them away. Body language is something that it’s practically impossible to change on a day to day basis. You can be trained to act differently, but it’s a long process, not something that can usually be accomplished by amateur wrongdoers.
The bad guy patting the gun in his pocket is not just an invention of Hollywood, if someone has something to hide they often subconsciously touch the area it’s hidden in, assuring themselves that the weapon, drugs, cash or whatever is still there.
They also look around a lot more than would normally be expected. They are expecting trouble and checking to see if it’s creeping up on them from behind. They seem jumpy and on edge, not the behaviour that you would normally expect in Starbucks or in the queue at the grocery store.
Noticing what people are carrying in relation to their environment should also be a skill that you try to master. Did the guy with the backpack when he came in still have it when he left?
So where has all this led you? The answer is nowhere unless you have a plan in mind of how to deal with the situation should your instincts be right.
Moving out of the danger zone if a fight is brewing is a simple example. Moving away from the backpack someone walked off and left under a table is another simple one.
Being aware of your surroundings at all times is something we teach our kids from a young age:
- Stay with your friends when out at night
- Don’t accept lifts from or talk to strangers
- Stick to main routes with streetlights
- Cross the road if you are concerned about the gang of lads on the street corner.
There are obviously many more ‘rules’ that can go on our parental ‘not to do’ lists, but each and every one of them is teaching our kids the basics of situational awareness. We are passing on the rules of the game of life in an effort to keep our children safe.
As adults, we need to extend that list and practice it ourselves every day. We live in a rapidly changing world where the fair fight protocols that we grew up with no longer apply. Watching the behaviour of others, and constantly being aware of the environment we are in are two of the most important things we can do to keep one step ahead of those intent on doing harm to either us personally or to those that share the environment we happen to be in at the time.
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Contributed by Lizzie Bennett of Underground Medic.
Lizzie Bennett retired from her job as a senior operating department practitioner in the UK earlier this year. Her field was trauma and accident and emergency and she has served on major catastrophe teams around the UK. Lizzie publishes Underground Medic on the topic of preparedness.