It's the challenge that pretty much starts every fight in every bar you've been in.
When the challenge is directed at you it can be tricky in how you handle it because this question doesn't really have a correct answer. There's a reason that I call it a challenge rather than a question. And if you're not careful you can become trapped in a cycle in which a physical altercation is almost guaranteed.
If you are too aggressive and too emotional, you can find yourself falling into this Darwinian script that is as old as humankind. Some suggest it's actually in our DNA from our predecessors which makes it incredibly easy to fall into. In many ways young men are programmed to respond to this script which guarantees a fight.
If you are too submissive and scared, you may find yourself on the end of a fight anyway.
It's really a display of social dominance between two members of the same species. And yet if you have been on this blog for any time you can see where even this social interaction can become serious -- even deadly.
I ran into this post by Rory Miller which offers a great deep dive into the phenomenon. Miller is a noted author on martial arts and violence and he offers a concise look in to what he calls "the Monkey Dance".
The term Monkey Dance was coined in the book “Meditations on Violence” to describe the human dominance ritual. It’s a deliberately ridiculous name for a ridiculous pattern of behavior. But it is a pattern that young men are conditioned to follow.
We have all seen the script many, many times.It usually begins with a hard look, followed by a verbal challenge, often, as above, “What’re you lookin' at?” Both members play and once you get sucked into the script, your normal, logical brain is not in control. Your limbic system has been doing this dance since before humans even existed. It will hijack you.
He very articulately describes how the normal display for social dominance is relatively safe because it normally happens between men who are fairly evenly matched. Within any social group there is usually a defined hierarchy -- a "pecking order" -- of it's members. When this hierarchy is obvious, then there is no social dominance displays. If an outsider is within the group and his social position is not clear, the person in the group who is perceived to be threatened by this outsider will normally challenge the outsider.
The rules for the normal display here is after the challenge, the outsider either:
Backs down and submits to the challenger.
Stands up to the challenger to assert his own dominance.
If the outsider submits, then normally there is no further display. However, we've all seen the challenger who continues to push even if the outsider submits. He continues to challenge the outsider and moves to humiliate him. He might even continue to escalate the violent behavior. Depending on the venue and the group doing the challenging, a higher status male might step in to call off the attack, or worse, the group will gather to witness the beat down. Women trying to stop the beating will be ignored and sometimes will end up getting hit or pushed down anyway. I find this ironic because most of the social displays are supposed to enhance the males' status in front of women in the first place, but if continued in this way tend to turn off or alienate most women. Most women are attracted to males who can defend themselves, but are not attracted to men are socially violent.
In the case of number two, the outsider who stands up to the challenger falls into the normal social script of first trading verbal insults. Then comes the posturing and thrust of chests, arms splayed out, chins tilted up. Then the finger pointing, fingers to the chests in short thrusts to accentuate their words. Then comes a push followed by the initial overhand punch...annnnnndddd they're both off with a flurry of windmilling swings. This usually ends with someone clinching the other and tumbling to the floor where they roll about until it becomes obvious who is the dominant fighter. Usually they are then separated by the group or the bouncers.
That is the perfect face-saving exit: no one is injured, both have established a willingness (real or not) to engage and both have the ego-saving belief that only the people holding them back prevented an epic ass-whuppin’.
De-escalating the Social Dominance Fight
"De-escalation" is a term used by some people meaning that you took a violent situation and did something to turn it into a non-violent situation. By way of their current thinking if you ended up in a physical altercation, you must not have done everything you could to "de-escalate" it.
In the real world, de-escalating anything relies on the participation of both parties. If one party is trying to tone down the temperature of the altercation, but the other is not willing to cool off, then there is little chance of de-escalation here -- even if you are continuing to try and de-escalate.
Miller offers this advice for the normal Monkey Dance:
It can usually be avoided with a simple apology. It can be defused with submissive body language—an apology, down cast eyes.
It can also often be simply bypassed:
“What are YOU lookin’ at?”
“Huh? Oh, didn’t know. Worked all night last night I must have zoned out for a minute.”
Bypassing requires extremely relaxed body language. And a low, slow, slightly puzzled tone of voice really helps. If the guy keeps fishing, treat the follow-ups as thoughtful questions. Don’t Monkey Dance back and don’t become agitated or show anger.
If you get caught in a Monkey Dance and don’t realize it until you are a few steps down the road, apologize (a simple ‘sorry’ no explanation) put your hands up, palms out (both shows peaceful intent and makes a classic ‘fence’ which is a very good thing when things go bad) and back away. Then leave the area.
Miller does bring up a special condition when the challenge is not about social dominance.
If you have violated a social rule in a place where such things are handled by violence, that is not a Monkey Dance...Generally, this type of violence will come with instructions, e.g. “Apologize to the lady or I will kick your ass.” Apologize. No weasel words. This isn’t about dominance. It is about you showing disrespect for a way of life or a culture. To avoid corrective action you must acknowledge that there was a rule and you broke it and that you now understand: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you, ma’am.”
Author Marc MacYoung has some similar writings on certain cultural rules in fights -- one in particular is that musicians are out of play as non-combatants in any bar fight. If you were to strike one of them, the entire bar could turn on you for breaking that rule.
What Can We Add for Avoiding Social Dominance Fights?
Generally, you should show respect for everyone and continue to have a good time. Chill out.
If the temperature of the room is starting to heat up, leave. Seriously. Leave a good tip. Smile and leave.
If someone is looking at you hard you can either:
Acknowledge their look with a head tilt and then look away;
Look past them at an object behind or to the side of them so they know you are not visually challenging them.
If you are confronted with the challenge, "what are you looking at?" you can respond:
"Oh sorry man" and look to the side.
"Just keepin' it real" or another non-personal or non-judgemental phrase like "Just checking out the band".
Still, expect to be confronted. Just because you are trying to de-escalate, you cannot count on the other party to participate. If he continues his verbal challenge with "Oh yeah? You think you're pretty special?", walk away. Take all the opportunities you can to walk away and preserve your innocence if you are forced to defend yourself.
He presses. Back up, hands up, saying "Hey, I'm just trying to leave."
Ask the bouncer or the bartender for help. Out loud. "Hey, you guys, I'm trying to leave and this guy won't let me." Their reaction -- or non-reaction -- will give you a sense if you are going to be fighting now or not.
Gaze at the challenger's chest to break eye contact and so your peripheral vision can pick up any sign of movement to a weapon or for a lunging haymaker.
Get ready for the attack. Do not be surprised here. Be ready... Respond as trained.
Wait...you haven't trained for this kind of attack?
Now is the time to get training and practice for this and other common attacks. We will look at some in a self-defense blueprint in the future. But you will have to get in the actual meatspace with other practitioners to train. Reading about it is just the start.
We won't participate in the Monkey Dance. We are polite and respectful, but we will defend ourselves.
Ironically, people who have training seem to be the least likely to be challenged. I've had instruction with high-level and highly experienced practitioners who manage to convey confidence and competence while they are apologizing and backing up. Their attitude and actions seem to be a deterrent while allowing the challenger a face-saving out.
And having that attitude and aptitude is probably the best strategy we can follow.