Posted by on February 26, 2020

.There is no way to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar net of our senses Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Sound thickens the sensory stew of our lives, and we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us.  Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses.

Recently one of our students told me about a time when he was walking at night in downtown Toronto and heard rapid footsteps approaching him from behind. He turned quickly with his hands up and saw a jogger approach and pass.  The jogger wasn’t a threat but the student’s awareness and actions could have protected him against an attacker.

During Krav Maga training we always emphasize the importance of prevention. Prevention happens when we are aware, and this awareness is largely based on sensory information. Of the senses, most of us tend to focus on sight. Often neglected is sound.  

Sound, as Diane Ackerman points out, is “an onrushing, cresting, and withdrawing wave of air molecules that begins with the movement of an object, however large or small. (177) This definition clarifies the implications of self-defense. Assaults involve some form of movement– stepping, grabbing, voice, changes in breathing, that can give us important and sometimes life-saving information. 

Ka, one of our more advanced students, is blind. Along with some friends he engages in what they call “sound profiling”. They identify sounds people make and assess what they are doing. The information they gather and the accuracy of their assessments is impressive and reminds me of how little use we make of our capacity to hear.   

By exploring this topic we came up with an overview of some sounds relevant to self-defense.  

Raising/Lowering the voice. This is very overt and obvious. A shout, yell, or scream likely offers little by way of specific verbal information since people are rarely articulate when enraged. Any sign of rage, however, is a danger signal. Lowering the voice can be a means to not attract attention (of witnesses, for example), to collude with a fellow criminal, or to add menace to a message.   

The Tone of Voice. “Two dialogues,” Ackerman writes, “really take place in every conversation-one uses words, the other tone of voice. Sometimes the two match, but often they do not.” (103). Compare tone to body language and words. The stranger, for instance, with the calm voice who crowds your space and says, “I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.” 

Assailants in Motion. The sound of high heels on a sidewalk suggests a woman walking behind you. What about very rapid footsteps? At Union Station, this would be a typical sound of someone frantically trying to catch a Go train. What about these same rapid footsteps approaching in an isolated park or parking lot? Imagine watching along an isolated street and hearing a car pull up, screech to a stop, then doors suddenly opening. Another reason to walk facing traffic.  

Fabric. When someone moves fabric (denim, leather, etc.. ) make a sound. Is it a rapid movement, a reach in a pocket? This is subtle but telling.  

Breathing. Before an assault, there is a noticeable change in breathing. One assault warning is an increase in breathing as “more oxygen is needed to fuel the impending fight.” (Givens, 89)

Silence. The absence of sound. David Given notes that in a “study of assault warnings” he “learned that one of the most common danger signs is silence.” (89) It is a sign that the body is mobilizing for a fight. In essence, the assailant is gathering himself for exertion.   

Objects Being Broken/Thrown. Many years ago a man attacked me with a broken beer bottle. Before I saw him, I heard him yell and the sound of glass being broken. I stood up quickly and was able to protect myself, thanks in large part to reacting to those sounds. Broken glass can also be a breakthrough in a window. Aggressive thugs sometimes throw a garbage can and the like suggesting they might escalate to something worse.  Signals for you to avoid them.

There are more example but we wanted to offer a basic overview of hearing as an important awareness tool. There is a growing literature on profiling that includes such topics as reading the tone of voice and other audible phenomena.

In future blogs, we will explore sight, smell, and touch, and their implications for self-defense.     

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Vintage Press, 1990.

David Givens, Crime Signals: How to Spot a Criminal Before You Become a Victim. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008


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