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  Martial Arts

Know who you are, where you are, and what is going on around you.

By: David K. Every
(C) 1997 - All Rights Reserved

This article came from my book (student guide) on Martial Arts. It is related to self-defense, however, like "The Book of 5 Rings", or "The Art of War", the concepts can be applied to your life in a broader sense. The best Martial Artist is the one that can avoid harming others, as well as defending himself. The best way to do that is to avoid confrontation. Learning about people and how to deal with them will not only help the Martial Artist in class, but through out his life. Some of the most important lessons learned in Martial Arts are how to interact with others.

All of our communications (inputs/outputs) are based on our senses.

Since sight is our most important sense, our strongest form of communications are the visual ones. Spoken language can pass a lot more detailed information, but raw emotions or intent are often sent through body language. An example would be, someone who, though they are talking politely and softly is moving towards you in a threatening manner with "murder in his eyes". Your secondary sense is telling you he is a friend, but your primary sense is screaming "danger". Which brings us to our second sense, sound. We transmit most of our detailed information through sound and speech, both the tone of our voice and what we say. Our last form of communications are based on our "lesser" senses, smell / taste and touch. On a day to day basis these senses give us less information than our other senses, at least in the area of communications, but they have some value as well.

To communicate, you have to figure out want you want to say and then say it. Whether you are saying it with your voice, your expression, your appearance or your whole being. People are often plenty aware of their "verbal" communication -- but often ignore theirs (and others) non-verbals. To learn to communicate well, you need to transmit and receive with all forms of communication.

Sight • Non Verbal (Body Language)

There is a lot more to body language then we as a society give credit. Body Language is so important that we automatically understand it, much expression and emotion is understood through body language. We all understand "being stared down", smiles, people avoiding eye contact, scowls, slouching posture, a "cocky" walk, etc. It is the most natural form of communication, most animals use their body language as their first form of communication. Watch a cat or dog "raise their hackles" (hair on their backs), lower themselves to get ready to spring, make themselves appear larger by turning sideways, make a facial or verbal snarl. Anything that fails to recognize these warning signs deserves what it gets. This goes for humans as well. Humans have a very visual body language. Our eyes express emotions. Our posture expresses emotion and intent. Our gestures express emotion and social order (class, culture). Our appearance (dress, cleanliness, haircut, etc.) expresses social order and standing. So learning and understanding these complex signals, both in reading them and expressing them, will expand you as a human being in your ability to communicate with others.


One of our most expressive features is our eyes. This makes eye contact one of our first forms of body language. Eye contact is allowed with anyone for a couple of seconds, but more than that is "out of the ordinary". If you look at someone for longer than that, it means something, and they are going to guess at the meaning. Everyone understands that when the opposite sex makes continued (prolonged) eye contact with us that they are "interested" in us. If you just glare at someone, you are challenging them. There are other more subtle signs. If someone eyes dilate while they are looking at us, this is a strong sign of interest; either in what we are saying, or in us personally or sexually. If someone's eyes glass-over or de-focus they have lost interest in us; they are either bored, daydreaming or fantasizing. (Which is common for brief amounts of time during conversation). So you can begin to see (pun intended) how people use their eyes to communicate.

Using your eyes to convey what you want is important. If a person gives you a threatening stare, glaring and challenging, you may give many different signals. You can look down, not meet their eyes much, try to make yourself look smaller, look meek; this is submission or subservience. You can look back at them, make occasional eye contact (but not staring); this is middle ground, you are their peer, you realize they are there, and are unconcerned. You can meet the persons stare (challenge) and try to make them look away first, make frequent and intense eye contact; this is an attempt at dominance, you are superior to this person and want them to know it. Depending on the other persons motives will depend on the results. You can even try this on pets. Stare down your dog, they are often subservient and will look away. Try this on someone elses dog, in its territory, and it will often bark and get angry -- "Hey, buddy, this is MY turf". People are not so different.

Alertness is associated with eye movement. If a person stares at one object or eyes glaze over, we know he is "out of it". If a person is looking around the room occasionally, checking things out, he is alert. If a person is always looking around, eyes never remaining on one object for very long, he is nervous or scared. So we can truly learn to read a lot from the eyes. We can also learn to send messages with our eyes, by mimicking these behaviors. People do understand many of these messages, just not always at a conscious level.

Experiment by watching people. See how people react in different situations. Imitate different attitudes with your eyes, look over someone's shoulder and see how long it takes them to find out what you are looking at. It is surprising how much communication goes on with the eyes, and yet how "ignored" it is as a real form of communication.

There are many cases of a guy suddenly fighting with someone, and when asked why he replies "he looked at me wrong". This is a much more valid reason than is given credit, someone can challenge another person without saying a word. You had better know this before you start something with just your eyes.

Reading eyes can tell you a lot. When a person thinks, their eyes often glance away in a direction (and usually return). Sometimes the person is looking at something or someone, but often they are thinking of something. Neurologist have mapped what the glancing means; and if you are looking at the average (Right side dominant) person it is as the chart on the left shows. Left side dominant people (who are not always left handed) may be reversed. The horizontal direction of eye glances is divided into a creative side (used for creating or imagination) and a recollection side (used for remembering/memory). The vertical direction is divided into visual (sight), audible (sound) and tactile (taste, touch, smell). Watching a person you can learn if he is remembering something or creating something. If a person is telling you a story they are making up, they will usually glance to their creative side; if they are remembering something that has happened, they are usually glancing to the recall side. It is not 100% accurate, because you can control it and sometimes a person is recreating an old memory, or remembering an old made-up story (causing the eye-queues to be backwards). However it holds some accuracy; try asking a person questions about a song, or what something looks like, and verify the results. In some people this is very exaggerated, in others it is barely noticeable. Either way it is additional information that you can use.

Posture / Gestures

Posture is more than if you're "standing up straight". Your posture is your body carriage, your walk, your facial expressions, the tenseness of muscles, the gestures you make, etc.

If you stand up tall you are considered proud, too much so and you are "cocky", slouch and you are shy, lazy or tired. The way you walk or stand says a lot, if your head is down you are shy and distracted, if you are looking around too much you appear to be in a new place or lost. Let your arms drag when you walk and you look like you're exhausted or a Neanderthal. A light (springy) walk with your head looking around shows "energy". Watch people, figure out what type of signals their postures are giving you, and then figure out why. It will become instinctive, it already is at the subconscious level, and you will learn how to reflect them (or suppress them) in yourself.

We all understand facial expressions, they are easy for us to understand as humans. But just because you think you are giving someone a certain expression doesn't mean that they will see it that way. Stand in front of a mirror and go through different facial expressions. Does your smile look like a sneer, does your surprised look appear terrified? This is the easiest way to understand what the "other" person sees. Practice facial expressions you wish to define. If you want to be able to stare through someone, practice it in the mirror until you get it right, and it becomes reflexive. Be conscious of your expressions at all times, and you are less likely to be misunderstood.

Muscle tension lets us know how "tight" (tense) someone is, or how relaxed. If someone is moving tightly he appears tense, and in extremes "ready to blow". This person is intimidating, and, not likely to get many conversations started towards him. The person who is very relaxed and fluid is non-threatening and inviting. If you being forced into a fight, then tensing up can telegraph your "preparedness" (and escalate the confrontation), if you are too relaxed you can look like an easy mark. Know what signals you are giving off.

There is a joke "Q: How do you gag an Italian?", "A: You tie their hands behind their back.". As a stereotype, the Italians express a lot with their hands and gestures (I know, my Grandmother is from Italy, and we have a lot of Italian in our family). This is not good or bad, just something to note. Not only are hand gestures cultural, they are also effected somewhat by "class"; upper class people tend to use a lot less physical gestures (smoother or smaller gestures ). Lower class tends to be very physical when they speak. By raising or lowing the level of your gesturing you can mimic different classes, and make yourself either fit in or stick out. The speed at which you gesture can tell a person how much energy/enthusiasm you have. Flailing around while speaking can make you appear "extreme" or even fanatic (impassioned) about what you are discussing -- watch a Baptist preacher some time.


There is a lot said by your personal appearance. Cleanliness, neatness and meticulousness are signs of wealth, upper-class, and health. Dirt, untidiness and unkept are signs of the lower class, unhealthiness, and an individual that has to "get their act together". These are gross over generalizations, but they are made by our society. Not liking the judgments is one thing -- but failing to understand them is something else.

We tend to dress up for first dates, meeting someone important or job interviews. This should tell us a little about the seriousness of appearance. This cleanliness, dress, hairstyle, make-up for women and jewelry, all tell people who, and, what we are. By learning to either dress-up or dress-down we can send different messages. Be aware of these signals and what they convey. Learn to control them in yourself, and to read them at the conscious level in others. This is a tool you can use to help you throughout your life.

Sound • Verbal

Sound (hearing) is our second sense, but it is a close second. We rely on this sense for communication a lot more than sight, at least at the conscious level. We all understand "the basics" and how to make sounds, speech and language. The conscious level of communications is there, but there is more to communication that just pure speech. This, in some ways, is more important to learn about because it is less readily understood.


We also use our voices to convey more than just words, but emotions. If you are gruff, you are miffed. If you talk too soft, you are shy or meek. If you are loud, you are confident and/or extroverted. Raise your voice when you are conveying something important. Talk softer when what you are saying is less important. Inflections and volume convey meaning. Talk to public speakers or singers about the importance of voice control. Martial Arts Instructors talk and Kiai louder when they want their students to move faster or need more energy in the class, and softer when they want a more peaceful, relaxed environment. When we are in a loud room, we generally get louder and more energetic; this is one reason nightclubs have loud music. However we quickly adapt to a volume level, and if that level doesn't change we get used to it.

I dealt with the Vietnamese community in Orange County (when I lived there). The Vietnamese language (like many Asian languages) is tonal. Inflection/accents mean a lot -- changing the emphasis on a vowel (like a going up in tone versus a short cut-off tone) can totally change the word, and meaning. So the language tends to be spoken somewhat loud, in order to communicate clearly. Many other Americans felt that the Vietnamese people were always "yelling at them", because the habits the Vietnamese learned for their language was applied to ours. Volume also implies class or social standing. Loud tends to be considered crass and lower-class.

In speech it is hard to maintain a frantic intensity over too much time. If you were to talk fast, loud and intense, it would slowly become monotone, but a very loud, fast monotone. Inflection in the voice has to elevate and descend to hold people's interest. By letting you voice get quieter while talking, you give your voice room to increase intensity on the good parts. If you do this too much, or too quickly, you may sound a little "sing-song", so don't go to extremes. By using inflections, intensity and volume we can keep the interest in what we are saying, help stress what we feel are the important points of the conversation; thereby increasing the level of communication between us and others.


What we say is sometimes not as important as how we say it. Accent, dialects, vocabulary all effect how we are perceived. When we, as Americans, hear a British accent we often assume the person is an intelligent, educated person; which may or may not be true. If someone has a large vocabulary, we immediately assume they are more educated. Our choice of words also affects the way people perceive us. We can say the same thing many different ways, and different people will assume things based on which way we say it.

This level of communication is important because of what you wish to get across. If you talk too far above someone's head, or sound patronizing in what you say, they may take offense. If someone is offended, and you continue to talk over them or make them look bad (in their minds) it may lead to aggressions. To avoid this, talk at the level of the people you are around, or say less. This little piece of common sense is often ignored in both extremes, usually someone sounding (or trying to) like a rocket scientist, or the loud imbecile at a nice restaurant. If you are in a new situation with new people it is very smart to be quiet, learn where the conversation level is, and stay at that level.

Smell, Taste and Touch

The lower senses of smell, taste and touch are less important in communications, but that does not mean that they are unimportant. In the case of communication, we will consider smell and taste the same sense, they are just different extremes of the same sense. Part of the reason for the relative unimportance of smell, taste and touch as a form of communication, is due to the range required to communicate in this way. You can see someone's body language from quite a distance, you can often hear them from further, if they want to be heard. But smell, in most cases, is pretty close; and taste and touch are very close indeed. But they do mean things.

Smell tells us something about a person's diet, how clean they are, and how physical they have been in the immediate past. For the most part, there are only a few basic smell-signals; offensive, non-offensive, or good. Many cosmetic and soap companies have gotten wealthy off of making you smell your best. A person can smell terrified, but with todays deodorants and antiperspirants it is rare, unless the person has actually defecated or urinated in their clothing. Pheromones that attract us to members of the opposite sex are on a sub-conscious level, and we can't control. But we can send limited signals (or hide them) with smell -- at least clean/dirty or good/bad.

Realize there is some communication through touch. Watch someone put a hand on someone elses arm, a sign of caring or appreciation. The way you touch someone can convey friendship or anger. It is usually the last form of communication we use; with sexual intimacy being one extreme, and a bludgeoning being the other. But if you touch too gently or too roughly you can convey the wrong messages, as in shaking the hand (too hard or too soft) or patting someone on the back. So be aware of communication through touch. Also be very aware that this varies a lot by culture -- touching a child's head can be an extreme insult in some cultures, as in NOT being willing to shake someone's hand can be seen as an insult in ours.

STUDY: A test done by Dr. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA in 1967 demonstrated some effects of conflicts in communication.

A message was sent through a verbal message with body language and tone of the voice. Where there was a conflict between the messages sent, 55% of the people took the visual message (body language), 38% took the tone of the voice, and only 7% took the actual spoken content.

This illustrates how important the non-verbal forms of communication are.

Created: 12/1/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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