Survival Signals

Gavin de Becker’s goal in writing “The Gift of Fear” was to help readers identify the very real signs of danger their “intuition” is picking up on. de Becker’s argument is that “intuition” is really logic, but processed much faster than conscious reason. He argues that intuition is based on background information we regularly tune out. For example, on an airplane, you will likely notice if the person sitting next to you begins reading over your shoulder. Why is that, de Becker asks? Because we are constantly noticing our environments on a quasi-conscious level, and when something changes we notice that, too. Just as we learn to sleep through passing trains and old houses’ creaks but wake up when we hear “a strange noise”,  our “intuition” or gut instincts about people are really an amalgamation of what we’ve learned to discern as consistent or “strange” behavior.

de Becker says that intuition:

1) is always in response to something, and

2) always has your best interests at heart.

He also acknowledges that trauma can teach people to override it. Many survivors often ask how to recognize warning signs of potentially abusive people.  Below is a list of signs inspired by lists from de Becker’s  chapter “Survival Signals”.

People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning… we live in an age of anonymous encounters, and many people have become experts at the art of fast persuasion. Trust, formerly earned through actions, is now purchased with sleight of hand, and sleight of words.

~ Gavin de Becker

Here are several signs someone is trying to con you into trusting them:

  1. Forced teaming: An effective way to establish premature trust because a “we’re in the same boat” attitude is hard to rebuff without feeling rude. [Forced teaming] is not about coincidence; it is intentional and directed, and it is one of the most sophisticated manipulations. The detectable signal of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none exists: “Both of us”; “We’re some team”; “How are we going to handle this?”; “Now we’ve done it,” etc.
  1. Charm and niceness:
  • Think of charm as a verb, not a trait… [It] is almost always a directed instrument, which, like rapport building, has motive. To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction. If you tell yourself “this person is trying to charm me”, as opposed to “this person is charming,” you’ll be able to see around it. Most often, when you see what’s behind charm, it won’t be sinister, but other times you’ll be glad you looked.
  • Remember “niceness” is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.
  1. Typecasting: Someone labels you in a slightly critical way, hoping you’ll feel compelled to prove their opinion inaccurate. “You’re probably too good to talk to the likes of me,” a man might say to a woman, and the woman will cast off the mantle of “snob” by talking to him. Typecasting always involves a slight insult, and usually one that is easy to refute. But since it is the response itself the typecaster seeks, the defense is silence, acting as if the words weren’t even spoken.
  1. Loan Sharking: The more traditional loan shark gladly lends one amount but cruelly collects much more. Likewise, the predatory criminal generously offers assistance but is always calculating the debt. The defense is to bring two rarely remembered facts into consciousness: [they] approached me, and I didn’t ask for help. (Another example of this is “I paid for dinner/gave you an expensive or thoughtful gift, so you owe me sex.” Remember, there are certain things you never owe anyone, and your body is included among those. Likewise, your time and attention are yours to share when you want, where you want. You have a right to set boundaries.)
  1. The Unsolicited Promise: Always be suspicious of the unsolicited promise. Promises are used to convince us of an intention, but they are not guarantees. Aside from meeting all unsolicited promises with skepticism (whether or not they are about safety), it’s useful to ask yourself: Why does this person need to convince me? Usually you’ll find it’s because they see you doubt them. For example, when someone says “I’m a nice guy! I promise,” say to yourself, “You’re right, I am hesitant about trusting you, and maybe with good reason. Thank you for pointing it out.”
  1. Discounting the word “no”: The most universally significant signal of all is someone’s discounting of the word “no”. “No” is a word that must never be negotiated, because the person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you. (Do not offer justifications or excuses in order to appease your listener, as these offer leeway for them to begin “negotiating” with you/pressuring you to change your answer. You can’t argue with a simple “no”.) Declining to hear “no” is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it. When someone ignores that word, ask yourself: Why is this person seeking to control me? What do they want? It is best to get away from the person altogether, but if that’s not possible you can a) try the “broken record” technique of repeating your “no” until it is accepted or b) dramatically raise your insistence, skipping several levels of politeness.  If a male listener reacts badly to your “no”, it is possibly because of what de Becker argues is a (possibly willful) ignorance of the reality of rape culture and disparities of safety: “at core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”

And a list of de Becker’s “messengers of intuition”:

  • Nagging feelings
  • Persistent thoughts
  • Humor
  • Wonder
  • Anxiety
  • Curiosity
  • Hunches
  • Gut feelings
  • Doubt
  • Hesitation
  • Suspicion
  • Apprehension
  • Fear