The No-Fun Public Challenge From Strangers

One of my business writing clients is a company headed by twin brothers. Big twin brothers who have worked hands-on construction for almost forty years. On the business side, they’re great clients. On the personal interaction side, they are a great deal of fun. After a recent business lunch that included talk of martial arts, the few-minutes-younger brother asked if I thought I’d “be able to take” the few-minutes-older brother if he tried to attack me. I looked the older brother up and down and smiled. “Sure! My thumb will still fit in his eye socket.”100_2182

There was a moment of surprised silence before the laughter and nodding. It was one of those good-natured exchanges based more on fun curiosity and comfortable friendship than the need to challenge.

But friendship and curiosity aren’t always elements in those conversations, and when they’re absent…

Every now and then, the mention of martial arts in a group conversation results in an edged challenge from a stranger who—apparently threatened by the very thought of martial arts—wants to cut down that threat right away, with words or with fists. Most do come from men (though I did have a fearsome experience with a woman who claimed she had top-secret CIA training she wanted to demonstrate…).

While some challenges are set out with overt hostility, most are made in a mocking tone that quickly becomes, “What’s your problem? I was just joking!” if the conversation doesn’t go their way and the need to save face arises. In that way, it’s similar to the “I’m just awkward” creepiness seeking to cover its rear when exposed.

Depending on the setting and company, these challenges range from a middling annoyance to a heart-racing adrenaline trigger. Every martial arts student will have different reactions and different methods to deal with the challenges, depending on a combination of personality, experience, and training philosophies. Every instructor will have different advice, based on the same. This is mine.


Uninvited challenges are thrown down with comments like, “Are you going to beat me up?” and “Why don’t you show me!” and “So what are you going to do if I punch you right now?” and the more rare “Everyone wants to see what you can do.”

You can imagine the tone yourself, certainly.

These challenges have two things in common. First, it’s an insecure person’s response to something considered frightening. Just as there are folks who are really-o truly-o socially awkward and prone to social gaffes, there are folks who really-o truly-o respond to the notion of fight-training with inappropriate comments meant to offload their own discomfort. Your understanding of that truth does not confer an obligation to excuse it, though; empathy isn’t an obligation of vulnerability. Besides, insecure people in a volatile situation can be just as dangerous as over-confident ones.

The second commonality is the desire to make the challenge in front of witnesses, because the challenger believes his status will be improved by publicly overcoming—verbally or physically—a person who claims any measure of self-determination and strength. It’s also an incredibly easy hook for the challenger to set because nearly everyone makes conscious and subconscious social calculations every moment we’re interacting with others. Tapping into the “everyone is watching and judging” awareness has the potential to side-step your good sense and training.

So if you’re part of a casual discussion group, and someone comes up with a challenge, you have three choices: ignore it, diffuse it, or meet it. The decision depends on the setting, your available backup, and your read of the person’s willingness to turn conversation into physical confrontation.

(Do note I don’t mention your perceived skill level. That’s because it really doesn’t matter. I’m not speaking to folks looking for physical fights they can win in public. This is self-defense. Save the other for sparring and “fighting.”)

Giving the challenge the Ignore—or the Almost-Ignore of a slight smile and a no-thank-you—is not only perfectly acceptable, it is preferable. Stepping into a fight with a stranger falls firmly into the “not recommended” category. You lack knowledge of the stranger’s skill and intent, and you might lack knowledge of the legal parameters of self-defense in the jurisdiction you’re currently in. A great convention experience could become quite the life-altering experience if it ends with charges of assault and battery, even if the case is eventually settled in your favor.

Besides, the Ignore allows those who have simply and unknowingly overstepped polite boundaries to get the message and be done with it without escalation or great embarrassment. These are the ones who drop the subject, who might duck their head a little, who might fade out of the conversation for a bit. You’ve done a good thing here, delivering a small social lesson without inflicting harm. Don’t mention it again, unless the person brings it up. A person willing to learn from subtle direction should always be allowed the social space to do so.

For the folks who just wanted to confirm you’re “too scared to fight,” the Ignore gives the opening for both of you to walk away without escalation. Sure, they might do so with a swagger, thinking their challenge ended in a win proving you too unskilled or cowardly to chomp the social-expectation bait. That’s fine. Their assessment of your bravery doesn’t much matter. Yeah, there are few cases in which this is not also a win for you, when the person will later take up the challenge again, but it’s rare. Most times, the opinion of someone you don’t care about doesn’t count.

Of course Ignoring doesn’t always work, but it’s not only the moral high road, it’s the safety-based high road, too. And if it doesn’t work, it provides the first step to the next option.

Diffusing a situation is the most common response, and the most flexible. Diffusing acknowledges the challenge, acknowledges the person making it, and offers an unexpected way to answer it. It can go like this:

Challenger: (some variation of…) “Are you going to beat me up now?” or “Show us what you can do!”

Possible diffusers include:

  • “What style of martial arts do you study?”
  • “Oh, no! What gave you that idea?”
  • “What made you ask?”
  • “Do we know the same katas?”

Notice all these diffusers require more than a yes or no answer. They instead invite discussion, and can easily be shifted to include other folks who’ve been part of the conversation. Requiring the person to think through an answer is a non-confrontational challenge that results in a pause without physical escalation. It signals a level of interest and respect that has nothing to do with physical winning and losing. If those possible diffusers don’t sound easy and comfortable to you, come up with your own—a single question that requires more than yes/no, that asks the other person to reveal fact or reason, and keeps the challenge in the realm of words.

If you’re in a group, Diffusing gives those around you a chance to cognitively catch up. A challenge will make most folks uncomfortable, but not everyone will be able to process that input, internalize the fact there’s a possible threat, and choose a constructive way to respond. Folks without any fight experience—and even many who have some—need a bit to process both threat and response. But given sixty seconds to think it through, people in the group will often support changing the subject and moving the conversation to a less volatile topic.

More than once, I’ve diffused a situation by offering to demonstrate a very simple technique like a low-impact hold escape. Honestly, though, I don’t know if this works for me because I immediately take on Competent Teacher persona—which might be a product of both experience and age—or because it would work for others, too. Thus I won’t go into it much here unless someone requests it.

Meeting the challenge is the last option on the list, but there are some verbal responses that fall between Diffuse and Meet, so let’s talk about that middle ground first. (Rachel Manija, also a martial artist, and I exchanged a couple comments about this here.) Again, the Challenger might toss out something like, “Are you going to beat me up now?” or “Let me see what you can do!” This time, the comments will Diffuse or Meet the challenge, depending on your demeanor and tone:

  • “Did you do something you should be beaten up for?”
  • “Are you feeling guilty about something?”
  • “I won’t do a thing unless you’re planning to hurt someone here.”
  • “I’ll show you only if you know how to fall hard without getting hurt.”

Y’see, these lines are totally delivery-dependent. If I say them with a bit of a smile and a non-judgmental brush-off, they can diffuse the situation. If I say them with drawn-back shoulders and cold tone, they can escalate the situation into the Meet the Challenge stage. And if I close the space between myself and the other person—even if all I do is lean forward—I’ve crossed the line into escalating the challenge by behaving as if I’ve accepted the need to prove my superiority through physical contact.

I far, far prefer the former, simply because I never want to count on a stranger’s willingness to see my readiness to fight as reason enough to back down, especially if that stranger might see backing down as equal to losing face. And because I truly don’t have a need to prove my ass is badder than yours. It’s likely just bigger. I’m good with that. 🙂

But Meeting the challenge still doesn’t mean we’ll end up in a physical fight. Most of those who want to play at the challenge game will indeed back down and laugh it off when confronted with a confident response and steady bearing, much like those folks who respond well and quickly to a diffuser, which is why I recommend a diffuser first in most situations.

If you’re a person very concerned with how strong others perceive you to be, know the comments residing on the Diffuse/Meet border are most likely to elevate your standing with some folks. If you choose to deliver a cold comment that intimates assumed superiority, and the other person believes the intimation behind your delivery, some people will consider that supremely cool and powerful. If you choose instead to diffuse the situation, most people won’t notice the confrontation even happened.

I do feel the need to point out that, in my opinion, the greatest personal satisfaction and internal confirmation of skill comes from solving the problem before anyone else know it exists.

On the other hand!

There are those very few who want to walk right into a fight, and if you choose to Meet rather than Diffuse, that’s your decision. How you face it will depend upon your training and confidence. That’s not something I can help you with from here, alas. You’ll have to settle that with your own instructor, and with your own internal expectations.

And of course there are those Meet situations that’ll happen even if you’ve done everything “right” to avoid the confrontation. (I don’t subscribe to the “If you’re in a fight, you’ve done something wrong” bullshit, darlings.) Sometimes you can say all the reasonable things, be surrounded by all the greatly supportive people, always be aware of one’s situation and setting, and still end up in a fight. This is because there are jerks in the world who do not respond in expected ways to the usual social norms. This is something beyond your control, something that has nothing to do with how you’ve carried or presented yourself. It has everything to do with the jerk looking for a target.

Because I don’t know your training, your experience, and your moral interpretations of violence, I can’t exactly give you advice. But I can indeed share with you what I tell my own students: If someone gets aggressive with you, you respond with just a notch more of aggression. If a stranger takes a swing at your jaw, you aim for their nose. If they aim for your nose, you take out their knee. If they go for the knee, you throw them on their back.

Talk all you want about sparring and fighting being “fair.” We’re discussing self-defense here, and the sole guidelines of self-defense is, “ending the confrontation with as little harm to you and innocent bystanders as possible.”

Yes, I know at this point there are those who are martial artists and/or have no training but are interested in martial arts who are right now wanting to know how to approach others without triggering the “Oh, it’s another annoying challenge!” switch.

That’s coming next time!


Much of this information is great for martial arts students, but it’s also good for writers to understand how, why, and when their fighting characters might respond to a challenge. Fighters and non-fighters make decisions based on different rubrics, and different fighters define the same rubric terms and weigh their consequences quite differently. As I mentioned in this article, writing action scenes is no different, foundationally, than writing any other subset of story. But understanding the character, the fighter, before the fight scene comes along with fundamentally alter how that scene unfolds.


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2 thoughts on “The No-Fun Public Challenge From Strangers”

  1. Interesting post. My younger son has a black belt in karate, but doesn’t like to talk about it. This might be one reason why.

    And yes, as I was reading, I was thinking this is a great resource for different ways to handle confrontations that come up in stories!

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