Let me tell you a story…it might or might not end with a punch in the face.

You should read this post if you are:

  • A frequent bar and night club goer
  • An athlete who plays full contact sports
  • A woman who wants to protect yourself
  • Have a face people just want to punch:

On to the story:

Last Saturday night I was at a pool bar with a few friends. One of my friends (let’s call him Dumbo) was shooting pool and really savoring the game—even though there were a few people waiting their turn for a table.

This big biker guy (let’s call him Biker) was really getting annoyed that Dumbo was taking his sweet time. Biker was hovering over the table and started to snort (loudly) every time Dumbo missed a shot.

Then there was a moment–a moment when Biker’s patience ran out. His body language tightened, there was a crackling in the air and I knew it was not going to end well. I walked over to my friend Dumbo and whispered to him, “Dumbo, I’m pretty sure if you don’t wrap this game up quickly, you are going to get punched in the face.”

He looked at me and laughed, waved me off and said I was ‘over-reacting’ and my ‘body language instincts’ were WAY off.

Dumbo was being pretty obnoxious so I decided to let it go, a punch in the face might do him some good. Not even 2 minutes later, Dumbo called to the biker, “Want to get me a drink Dude? I think it’ll be a few more minutes.” Predictably, Biker put down his beer, walked right up to Dumbo and popped him one in the nose.

Don’t worry, only Dumbo’s face and ego got a little black and blue. While icing the next day he asked me, “How did you know that guy was going to punch me?”

And that brings me to this post.

  • How do you know if someone is going to punch you in the face?
  • How can you predict a bar fight?
  • What is the body language of violence?

Whether you’re dealing with a drunken bar mate, playing an intense sport or dating a stranger, you have to know how to recognize the nonverbal behavior of “this does not look good.”

This post is all about the nonverbal behavior of aggression and what to look out for to protect yourself and your dumb friends.

(And Dumbo, you know who you are. This is for you).

Let’s take a quick tour of the creepy, violent and aggressive behaviors you should watch out for:

1. Jaw Thrust

Also known as a chin jut or a jaw clench, this is when someone grits their teeth and then shoves their jaw out in your direction. When we are feeling angry we naturally grit our teeth—sometimes to control an emotional outburst and sometimes out of pure frustration. This is also a territorial gesture. When someone chin juts at you they are threatening your space with theirs. It’s a nonverbal way of saying, “Back up!” Another reason the jaw thrust is confrontational is because it forces the person to look down their nose at you which is a very standoffish gesture. Look at these three pictures:

Body Language of Aggression

The 1st one is neutral.

The 2nd one with the chin jut is the one that should irritate you the most. Don’t I look kinda bitchy? You can’t help but feel that way when someone sneers down their nose at you.

The 3rd one, looking up at you should be the most seductive. Even though I am not trying to be, anytime a woman looks up at someone through her lashes she looks more engaging and curious.

De-Escalation: Don’t mirror their behavior. Keep your jaw relaxed and take one step back to show that you are giving them physical and emotional space.

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2. Nostril Flaring

A nostril flare is when we fan out the outer lobes of our nose so they are as wide as possible. It’s sometimes called ‘wing dilation’. Flaring our nostrils before a fight is a very important survival mechanism, because when we open up our nostrils we are able to take in more oxygen. This fills up our lungs and loads our blood with oxygen so we have the energy to fight. It is possible our nostrils flare before a fight to take in more of the opponent’s smell as some experts think we can subconsciously smell adrenaline and pheromones. Before a fight it is good to know as much about your opponent as possible.

Context is important here: nostril flaring can also happen during arousal and attraction. So if it’s happening during bow-chic-a-wow-wow, I wouldn’t worry about your partner punching you in the face.

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3. Chest Puff

Before getting into a fight our bodies want to get as big as possible. This happens for 2 reasons. First, when we are bigger we look more imposing to our opponent—and could possibly scare them off. Second, the more space our bodies take up, the more testosterone we produce. According to Amy Cuddy at Harvard Business School, testosterone (for both men and women) is the strength hormone. It not only makes us perform better and think faster, but it also makes us feel more confident—essential for winning a fight. So someone who is about to act out with violence will often puff out their chest and hold their head high to look as big as possible.

De-escalation: Don’t cower. While you don’t want to puff up like them (this challenges them), you don’t want to cower either. This will not only make you feel worse, but it might encourage them to see you as a weak opponent. You are much better off standing your ground and holding your hands out and open with your palms up. This is the universal ‘non-threatening’ gesture and signals to them you don’t want to fight.

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4. Pupil Dilation

This is a hard one to catch, but I wanted to point it out. When we are under stress our brain goes into fight, flight or freeze mode where it needs to assess the environment incredibly quickly to decide what to do next. If someone is feeling threatened and is considering getting violent with you, their pupils expand to take in as much of the surroundings as possible—do you have friends with you, could you be carrying a weapon, what’s the escape route? This might even be happening totally subconsciously, but you can be aware of this subtle change to predict aggression.

Yet again, pupil dilation also happens during arousal. Specifically when men see a naked woman or when either sex is in orgasm. Why? Our eyes want to take in as much of a good thing as possible. Again if you take off your clothes in front of a man and his pupils dilate, it’s a good thing. More body language of attraction here.

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5. Blading

Blading is when you turn your body away from the threat so less of your torso is visible to them. In other words, instead of facing someone front on, you pull your leg and shoulder back so the opponent can only see and access the side of the body. Notice in this fight how both men are in the blading position where their dominant legs move back before the fight actually begins:

fighting body language

Blading happens for multiple reasons:

  • When you blade, less of your vital organs are exposed. Your shoulder and arm can take harder hits than your stomach or eyes.
  • When you blade in preparation for violence, typically your dominant leg steps back. When the non-dominant leg steps back you are more solid on your feet (it’s harder to get pushed back).
  • When you blade you can punch with more power.

If you see someone step back with their dominant leg and bring their arms up, it’s time for you to get the heck out of dodge.

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6. Tightening

When someone is preparing for a physical altercation the brain wants to protect vital organs. The way the body does this is by creating a muscular armor around soft tissue. Have you ever seen those videos of magicians getting punched in the stomach? They are able to do this by clenching their stomach muscles which protect the sensitive intestines. When someone’s entire body tenses up they are protecting their vitals and getting increased blood flow to their limbs in order to fight or flight faster.

Special Note: Clenching fists is another type of tightening that happens around anger. When we are angry we often grip our hands tightly into tough fists. If you are speaking with someone and notice they have just tightened their grip, tread carefully.

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7. Ocular Orbital Tension

The ocular orbital muscles are right around your eyes. When people are suspicious (or at best intensely curious) their ocular orbitals will tighten. You might think of this as a glare or ‘narrowing your eyes’ at someone. This is the best one to prevent escalation, because when suspicion or dislike is addressed early, it can prevent a fight.

De-escalation: If you say something and see the other person narrow their eyes at you, go right into clarification and explanation mode. Figure out exactly what they are hung up on and how to address it.

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8. Rattling

You know how a Rattlesnake shakes its tail at you to warn you not to step any closer? Humans can sometimes do this to test their limits. This video shows a lot of rattling behavior with tons of touching and shoving:

Video Not Safe for Work or Children

Before getting violent, perpetrators will sometimes do the following to mess with your space and get you rattled:

  • Any kind of interaction with your belongings. They push aside your beer. They jangle the strap on your purse. They nudge your backpack with their foot. They take a sip of your drink. This is a way that they get in your space and invade your limits.
  • Any kind of non-welcome physical touch. They flick the side of your lapel. They fluff your hair. They give you a shove on the shoulder or a non-friendly pat on the back. This is meant to be invasive and to see how you will respond.
  • Special Note: The human form of rattling could also be the growl. Growling (yes, it happens with humans) is a very primal instinct when responding to a threat. If you hear (especially a man’s) voice getting really low and gravely, watch out!

Hopefully, you will never be exposed to these yourself or see them aimed at a friend. But knowing the predictors of violence are extremely helpful tools to have in your skills-set for whatever situation you may find yourself in.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

11 replies on “Aggressive Body Language: Telltale Signs and How to Deescalate”

  1. Carl

    Pecking order. We’re all animals. Great write up. Facial and body language are very interesting and especially their primal roots. Many today are trained to be altrustic while others prey on the altruistic. Their capacity for consideration and compassion is the kindness being mistaken for weakness. Be strong and be knowledgable.

  2. S.H.

    Hi Vanessa, nice article. As I was reading it, a question arose about the 3rd face in the Jaw Trust picture. Since I enrolled your Body Language of Love and Dating course, I am kind of in the middle of practice stage to identify a “good sign”. As you mentioned in the above article, it looks seductive. If a women keeps looking at you like this, could it be a good sign showing her interests? Thanks.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hello, gary! Thanks for stopping by. Vanessa and I welcome you to the Science of People Community!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

  3. Jürg

    Vanessa, I have a question here: Why would it be a good thing if I were to take my cloth off in front of another man (i.e. in a dressing room) and his pupils dilate?


    1. Danielle McRae

      Hello! If his pupils dilate, he may be attracted to you. That could be a good or bad thing depending on what you’re into!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

  4. Great article and spot on! I teach self-defense and these are all indicators I teach my students to look for. We also practice them in training to help students recognize them. Another one you might add is checking surroundings for witnesses. This can also happen subconciously with a short eye flick in either direction, though isn’t particularly useful in a bar fight…since it’s obvious there are other people. It’s more common in in non-emotional attacks (kidnappings, muggings, etc), but it can tip you off in time to run before distance is closed.

    One thing I wanted to comment on is that blading isn’t that common in people who aren’t trained fighters. As you point out, dominant foot back is a traditional boxing or aggressive stance. If you see someone blading, it’s a sign they have some experience, though in the video, I could tell that the older man only “thought” he knew what he was doing by blading, but his stance was very obviously untrained, meant to give the impression he knew what he was doing, and was also a little uncertain. Maybe he’d taken one class or just seen trained fighters, but had never been in a real fight.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hi there, Khaled. Thank you so much for your insightful comment! It’s so interesting to hear your thoughts as a self-defense teacher. Vanessa and I appreciate your feedback on this!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hi, Salman! You are absolutely right. And for people who just want to avoid getting punched in the face. 😉 Thanks for reading!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

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