Environmental Knowledge – Marc MacYoung

When it comes to self-defense, violence and crime, the fastest way I know to

a) get your brains blown into a fine pink mist

b) spit teeth and blood onto the floor

c) park your ass on a jail bunk

is to utter four simple words before you ever find yourself in a situation. Those four words? “I know that already.”


Violence has been my life. I do not remember a time in my life when I wasn’t doing it, dealing with it, studying it, preparing for it, stopping it from happening, living with the consequences, writing about it, teaching it or testifying in court about it. I have over five decades of experience dealing with and trying to understand violence. Yet, every morning I get up and I’m nearly overwhelmed by what I don’t know about the subject. It’s that big, that deep, that wide.

So when someone looks at me and says “I know that already,” my response is “Okay, you also know e=mc2. Explain it to me. What does it mean? How does it work?”

Yeah they ‘know’ it, but they don’t understand it.

I tell you that, to prepare you for this. There are lots of so-called ‘self-defense experts’ out there who throw a term around. That term is situational awareness (SA). Every time I hear SA I want to turn it into a cereal commercial, “Situational awareness is part of a balanced tacti-kool breakfast!” That’s how much credibility the term — and most the people who use it — have lost with me. Think ‘knowing’ e=mc2 and you’re in the same neighborhood.

The reason for my disgust is situational awareness is one of those ‘everyone knows what it means’ terms. They all know it — at least the term. They claim to have it. They all use is as dire warnings (you must have situational awareness). But nobody can explain what the hell it means.

Okay if you know it, what are the components? What is the process? How do you apply it? What are you looking for and why? Most of all, what’s involved in developing it?

Important safety tip: If someone can’t answer these questions they’re talking out their ass.

Where that transitions into outright ‘full of shit’ is when the person who can’t rattle off these aspects is a teacher. If a teacher can’t fully answer, ‘What’s situational awareness and what do I need to develop it?” turn and walk out the door.

I’m not talking about vague answers or soundbite ‘rules.’ An example is an instructor saying, “Situational awareness is you never let anyone approach you closer than five feet.” Oh great. So you’re going to shoot your waiter for coming to take your order? And you’ll be stepping out of an elevator littered with broken and unconscious people who dared to move within five feet of you. You’re going to look really cool ninja’in’ your way the hallway at work.

Another example of soundbite stupidity is ‘being aware when a mugger is approaching you.’ Oh really? And may I ask — since muggers don’t tend to wear shirts that read “mugger” — how is one supposed to determine the job description, much less the intent of said approaching individual? Or again, do we just ignore this small detail and start blazing away?

There are entirely too many people who don’t have the vaguest clue about what SA is, but man, will they tell you need to have it. Magically along with situational awareness will come full and complete knowledge of when you get to pull your gun and start blasting, or unleash your deadly fighting art on someone. Man if you’re looking for ‘going to prison for defending yourself,’ I cannot think of a better way.

So let’s start with developing a functional definition of situational awareness. Try this: Having the ability to read the environment and the process of accurately assessing particular situations within an environment.

Okay kind of vague, but… but… it’s got nothing to do with danger. Funny that, because putting that spin on it we step it up to: Primarily to monitor when things are normal for that environment and therefore safe.

Normal? Safe? Situational awareness is about danger, excitement and crime! It’s about when it’s time to unleash my kung-fu awesomeness. Normal has nothing to do with it.

The hell it doesn’t…

Clint Overland made a comment about “In the Name of Self-Defense” (my recent book), “Every other book I’ve ever read about this subject presupposes the reader knows something already. This book doesn’t.” Okay… so?

I have a saying “Awareness without knowledge is paranoia.” That right there is the source of my problem with how many people use the term situational awareness. Be aware! OF WHAT?!

If you don’t know what normal is for a situation, there is no way you can tell when something is abnormal, much less dangerous. Situational awareness is more than just receiving information (looking around and being ‘aware’). It’s having a working knowledge to process that incoming data, shift through, file and pick out anomalies — especially ones commonly associated with trouble, unacceptable behavior and danger.

This brings us not to situational awareness, but one of it’s foundations, environmental knowledge. What is environmental knowledge (EK)? Well it’s kind of like a blend between cultural anthropology, psychology, data collection and reading. But most of all it’s knowing that you can know this stuff and apply it.

Let me give you an example. A big problem the US military was having was soldiers knocking Middle Easterners on their asses (or shooting them) for ‘getting up in the faces’ of the soldiers. The danger of suicide bombers aside, the beaten citizens maintained the soldiers were committing unprovoked attacks.

So how does this work with environmental knowledge? Anywhere you go, there are certain elements that must be addressed when humans live together. Knowing that is the first step in understanding EK. Among the many issues that must be worked out among the locals is acceptable distances between different people, personal space and tone of voice appropriate to the situation. These change according to the relationship and the task. There are also scripted behaviors and patterns on how you ‘handle’ different situations.

Knowing that we can add another layer. Americans tend to maintain a greater distance and a more neutral tone unless they are particularly aggravated and threatening violence. Middle Easterners tend to function closer and use different tonal qualities. Are they about to attack? No. That is the cultural norm there. But their cultural norm is interpreted by American soldiers as ‘getting up in mah face.’ BOOM! “Uhhh Sir. We have a bit of a situation…”

But we don’t have to travel around the world to apply environmental knowledge. We can start working it right here at home. I recently asked a fellow American if he could tell by just looking if someone was an American Black, an Ethiopian or a Jamaican. He said no. I told him facial features and, because of diet growing up, there are common, recognizable differences in fat distribution patterns. Ordinarily — and by that I mean you just walking past the person — this makes no difference. Yet, when you deal with the person there are differences in attitudes, values and beliefs. What are they? That is environmental knowledge. You cannot assume everyone of the same skin color thinks and behaves the same way.

What are the cultural norms? What are the socio-economic differences between places? What behavior is acceptable among the locals and for that situation? Quick what are the circumstances you expect to see a woman in a bikini? Where would the same elicit a WTF response from you?

These are things you don’t tend to consciously think about (or worse, automatically assume) that undermine your environmental knowledge. Start thinking about them.

Why? How can you tell when something is abnormal, if you can’t identify what is normal? Without the baseline of environmental knowledge, your situational awareness is meaningless.

Years ago there was a TV show called “NYPD Blue.” Detective Sipowicz is sitting in an unmarked police car with his estranged son (who has just become a cop). He tells his son there are four things a cop must know about his beat. The people, the places, what they do and the time they do them.

That’s environmental knowledge. Fictional or not, that’s a good starting point. In fact, an officer even wrote an article about it


In closing I’d like to share with you something an old guy told a young guy: You’re smart, so if you don’t understand something, it’s not because you’re incapable. It’s because you’re missing information. You need to start asking questions to fill in that missing information instead of making assumptions about what fills in the gap.

Here’s the problem with what most people ‘think’ they know about situational awareness. It’s not just that they lack environmental knowledge, it’s what they’re filling in the gaps with. Starting with in the rush to get to the tacti-kool stuff, thinking they ‘already know’ and have situational awareness.

Kind of hard to have situational awareness without having a clue about what the components are. What the process is. How you apply it. What are you looking for and why? Most of all, what’s involved in developing it?

We’ll go into what else is involved in situational awareness in another piece. For right now start working at replacing your assumptions with verifiable knowledge of the environment.


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