Situational awareness is an important tool in your survival arsenal. Most of the time, simply seeing the danger that lies ahead can give you a leg up on most people who drift through life oblivious of any dangers. The key to situational awareness is keen observation – observation of situations, things and even people. And it’s the people subset of situational awareness that comprises the study of body language – the study of those around you.

Body language is something we all give off, mostly unconsciously. It manifests itself in subconscious postures, facial expressions and hand positions. The way we carry ourselves speaks volumes to those who can discern what the signs mean; most amateurs look only at the face, but there is much more to observe. Before we delve into what to look for, a fundamental question must be answered: why even bother observing body language? There are three primary reasons:

  • Body language gives us advance warning about the actions that a person or group of people are about to undertake.
  • Body language gives us a window into the person’s mind, telling us what their current emotional state is.
  • Body language is an early warning device built into every single human being.

In short, the way a person carries themselves at a particular instant in time gives us a valuable insight as to whether they represent a threat to us or not. Here’s what to look for:

1. The Face: The face is on one hand the most expressive body part we posses, and on the other hand, the most easily manipulated. Experts are able to meticulously control their facial expressions so as to be unreadable (eg. the poker face) while amateurs will crack nervous grins and will sport numerous facial twitches. Ignore the signs that can be controlled and thus manipulated, and focus on those that cannot:

  • Pupil dilation: The human fight or flight reaction is something few people can control; the brain signals the body to dump adrenaline into the bloodstream raising the heart rate and dilating the pupils (making them larger). As the pupils dilate, the peripheral vision narrows – it is a mechanism designed to have us face the threat directly. People about to act aggressively or perform a violent act will usually have their pupils dilated the size of pie plates.
  • Pulse: As aggression or impulse builds, the heart rate increases as does blood pressure. The net result of this is a pounding pulse which is visible in the neck and temples. Again, this is difficult or impossible for most people to control.
  • Sweat: An increased heart rate causes involuntary perspiration, which again, not even professionals can adequately control.
  • Mouth: Besides obvious expressions, an open mouth often occurs when a person can’t get enough air from just their nose and is breathing rapidly.

2. Upper Torso: The upper torso reveals two important clues to those keen enough to observe them. The first clue is the shoulders – are the shoulders hanging naturally in a relaxed pose, or are they tight and raised? A person who is about to strike or move will often telegraph this intention by the way he carries his shoulders. The second clue is the upper chest area, where it pertains to respiration. Normally, men are stomach breathers while women are chest breathers, but when the action amps up, both sexes tend to breathe in a shallow manner from their chest. Look for the rapid rise and fall of the chest as evidence of breathing hard.

3. Hands and Arms: As one astute police officer said – feet never killed anyone. The reference was to the fact that overwhelmingly, hands hovering around the waistband represent a threat. At any moment, the person could produce a weapon, and so it’s important to watch the hands closely at all times. While things like balled fists are an obvious sign of aggression, keep in mind that many attacks come from the position of crossed arms, or hands in pockets.

4. Legs and Feet: Primarily, what we are looking for here is stance. As often happens subconsciously, people will tend to blade themselves towards a perceived threat. Blading refers to a combat style stance, where the dominant foot is behind the non-dominant foot and about shoulder width apart. Blading also serves as a dual clue – most people carrying a concealed weapon will subconsciously blade the weapon side away from the threat, both to protect it and to conceal it.

5. The Whole Package: Lastly, look for movement warning signs, nervous twitches that signal that the person is about to act. Two common signs of impending action are pacing and standing on the balls of their feet. Many attacks begin with a person pacing back and forth and then launching an attack at about the midpoint; many flights or escapes begin with the person getting up on the balls of their feet, much as a runner would before the starting gun goes off.

Your ability to recognize the above early warning signs could give you valuable seconds in which to act, potentially saving yourself or averting disaster.