Human societies are fascinated with strength and power. Obvious personal power especially — height, musculature, and a hair-trigger willingness to do violence or self protection are eternally impressive to us. We all desire what those attributes grant those who have them: to be respected, to inspire awe, and perhaps fear.
When we are intimidated, we feel all those things acutely — most of all the gut-snarling fear. We feel it, and we want to make others feel those things, too. Wouldn’t that feeling be a very useful thing to project?
Only if you want to have to use violence or self protection to back up your newfound badass attitude more often than you’d like.
Intimidation is like juggling 13 double-edged swords and playing with fire at the same time. For our purposes, we’re going to define “intimidation” as the antisocial process of going out of your way to make someone afraid of you. Most people take this a step further, not stopping at mere fear but going headlong into humiliation. Once they realize they’ve made someone afraid, they will typically push it and rub it in to humiliate the affected person.
As an interesting aside, it’s a common truth that people who use intimidation as a social tool will do the things that would intimidate them. They will project the behaviors that they, themselves, fear most. Intimidation is dangerous because it can get you killed, whether you fail or succeed to intimidate.
If you fail to intimidate the man, you have just escalated the situation — by saying, in effect, “Do you want me to hurt you?” — and now, unimpressed, he’s calling your bluff. If he’s the kind of guy who responds to threats with physical action, then it’s on and you’re in it for self protection. And you just called it down upon yourself because you wanted to be a badass.
Most of the time it’s not going to be a problem. If it went physical all the time, very few people would do it, right? The problem is, the people who get set off by this are the worst kind… and I hope I don’t have to tell you that choosing to escalate a screaming match to a life-or-death situation is stupid idea.
Let’s say you succeed in intimidating him. Mission accomplished, right? You put him in his place; you showed him (and everyone in earshot) who’s boss, you made him feel afraid. How could that possibly go wrong?
Yeah, I know, it’s a rhetorical question…
Let’s flip it around: He succeeded in intimidating you, and he made you feel afraid. Maybe he even made you feel afraid for your life. How do you respond? You know how to handle the physical side and the self protection; you can take it there in a blink of an eye and shut him off. Maybe you just feel socially embarrassed and walk away. Or maybe you knock him down, knee him in the face and stomp on his head until he’s non-functional. Who can say? It’s going to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
So you make him feel afraid. Most people will back down and disengage, usually while making even more noise than before. But there are some, the worst out there, who will take it as a threat and work to destroy that threat. They may go off instantaneously, or they may simmer for hours, days, even months. In the long-term case, you probably won’t have the luxury of seeing it coming. And if you truly terrified them, they’re going to want to do things to even the odds (like, say, bringing accomplices and firearms).
So, succeed or fail, intimidation can get you killed. It’s a sucker’s game.
“But,” you say, “If I’m not intimidating, then I’m prey!”
Let’s make a quick clarification here: The opposite of being intimidating is not the same as appearing meek, weak or helpless — it’s simply not registering as prey. Looking like you know what you’re doing, that you are aware, yet comfortably unconcerned, is more akin to being socially remote. That is, you’ve got the ‘No Soliciting’ sign out without being a jerk about it. Appearing unimpressed and unafraid is not the same as being intimidating.
I think of it like this:
“Go out of your way to get to the rest of your day.”
When in the social arena, be social, use your social skills, and treat everyone like people. In the asocial arena, treat everyone like meat and use your self protection skills. Don’t confuse the two.
It doesn’t mean you have to be everyone’s friend, a ‘push-over’ or smile at daily human ugliness. It can be as simple as biting your tongue instead of spitting fuel on the fire. Of course, the hard part is if you’re successful, you’ll never know it. You’ll never even be aware of the trouble you’ve dodged.
You can only ever be aware of the trouble you’ve caused.