Derren Brown's guide to overcoming awkward situations

Boing Boing reader tw1515tw mentioned this essay by mentalist Derren Brown on how to overcome awkward situations. Most of Brown's strategies involve behaving irrationally to disarm the other person.

Here's one of Brown's tips:

How to handle aggressive situations

This is simply about not engaging with your aggressor at the level they expect. I was coming back from a hotel at about 3am one night and there was a guy in the street with his girlfriend. He was really drunk, clearly looking for a fight and he started kicking off at me. I had a routine ready in my head for this sort of situation and it worked a treat on this occasion. He asked me that typical aggressive rhetorical question — “Do you want a fight?” You can’t say “yes” or “no” — you’ll get hit either way. So, I responded with, “The wall outside my house is four-feet high.”

I didn’t engage at the level he was expecting me to, so immediately he was on the back foot. He came back with, “What?” and I repeated my bizarre response. I delivered the line in a completely matter-of-fact tone, as if he was the one who was missing something here. Suddenly, he was confused. All his adrenaline had dropped away, because I’d pulled the rug from under him. It’s the verbal version of a martial-arts technique called an ‘adrenaline dump’, whereby you get the person to relax before you hit them. A punch will have much greater impact if the recipient’s guard is down. I stuck to this surreal conversational thread with my assailant, saying things like, “I lived in Spain for a while and the walls are really huge, but in this country they’re tiny.” After a few of these exchanges, he just went, “Oh f*ck!” and broke down in tears. The guy had all this adrenaline and was on the point of really laying into me — I was seeing myself beaten to a bloody pulp — but these non-threatening nonsense statements broke that aggression down and he genuinely started crying. I ended up sitting next to him on the kerb, comforting him. It’s the same with guys that come up and ask to “have a look at your phone”, and you end up handing over your stuff and hating yourself for doing it — you can use the same approach. My PA had some stuff nicked in a Tube station recently, and I said to him, “If you’d just starting singing, they would have left you alone.”

Derren Brown's guide to overcoming awkward situations



  1. I’ve had luck with this strategy too. I always called it “acting crazy.” When guys would start to pick a fight with me, I would say ridiculous, non-threatening but bizarre, and they would shake their head and walk away.

    1. Another version of “acting crazy”  is, as soon as someone starts acting aggressive, don’t even hesitate, and immediately up the ante on them.  It only works if you can convincingly come off like more of a crazy asshole than the other guy though.  Darren’s version seems like a much better idea.   I ought to try something like that on the flocks of scammers that seem to materialize around me whenever I travel outside of developed countries.

  2. I like it. A martial arts teacher of mine liked to use Bugs Bunny as a perfect example of how to throw off an aggressor: Just when he was about to get attacked, Bugs would lay a big, wet kiss on his lips, giving him enough time to get away while they tried to figure out what the heck was going on.

  3. when his album “nothing like the sun” came out, sting told the story that he responded to drunks in the street by quoting shakespeare at them, eg. “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, he believed they would leave him alone because they concluded he was crazier than them.

  4. Can’t quite remember if it was one of Anthony Burgess’ characters in a novel (Earthly Powers?), or George Melly who, upon being approached by hostile forces in dark alleys, would recite Dadaist poetry, perhaps by Tristan Tzara. (Is that enough names dropped?)

      1. There’s still the idea, though, that if I were to attempt this myself they’d beat me up anyway, just for being weird.

        So I’d avoid experimental engineering of such situations.

        1.  Once, when walking through a really bad neighborhood, I came across a couple of guys who definitely did not look friendly, In fact I noticed they were watching me all the way while walking in “their street”, So i came up to them and asked them the time. They were pretty friendly after that. So I don’t think you have to go crazy, just catch them off their guard.

    1. Quentin Crisp did this trick once. Started declaiming (IIRC) Baudelaire at a bunch of homophobic thugs in NY. They left the crazy old man in make-up to it…

  5. The best way to overcome uncomfortable situations is to accept it and focus on it so that your focus is off the unbearable part

  6. “Hey man, I’m trying to get seven more cents so I can get this hamburger.”
    [still walking] “Oh, thanks man, I’m good.” [smile, wave him off]
    “No, *I* need seven cents.”
    “Nah, I’m good, yo.  I just had a hamburger.”
    works like a charm.

    or when you see a panhandler sizing you up, pre-emptively ask him for a quarter.  you feel bad when they actually give it to you, though.

      1. The “7 cents more so I can get a burger” is rarely about food.

        Watch them work, the amount in question will usually never change even if they get handed a dollar.

        I commented once about this as a guy worked a bus stop, someone handed him some change but his story never varied and when I pointed this out to the others, he cursed me out and stormed off to the bar across the street. which had obviously been his goal the whole time.

      2. you’ve missed my point entirely.  i’ll spell it out for you:  YOU PRETEND TO HEAR HIM *OFFERING* ALL THE STUFF HE’S ACTUALLY *ASKING* FOR.  confusion=they leave you alone.  and 7 cents is a psychological trick that results in suckers like you giving him a dollar (see Mr. Penrose, below.)  but thanks for the concern troll.

  7. Completely off topic, but that’s me getting a second post onto BoingBoing in three years. Yippee :)

  8. George Melly did a similar thing with Dadaist poetry “threatened with a glassing by some thugs, his first thought was to start reciting a Kurt Schwitters sound poem, and the scallies were so freaked out that they promptly legged it.”

  9. A woman I knew was walking home late one night, and became aware that she was being followed by a man. She slowed down, and then when he was close enough to hear, she turned to a nearby trashcan and said loudly “Hello, Mr Trashcan, how are you tonight? Are you having a good time?”

    Her would-be rapist or mugger was so startled by the sight of his intended victim having a loud, friendly conversation with a trash can that he turned around and walked away.

  10. Shane Claiborn talks about this strategy in his 2006 book Irresistible Revolution. He tells a story about how he was jumped by a gang and he danced around like a chicken until they left.

  11. The first one sounds like it might be a good idea.  And a few of the others.

    But a couple.. not quite so much, either because they’re very dependent on your own status and social abilities, or because they’re potentially more onerous than what you’re trying to avoid.

    For example, “if somebody asks you to see your phone, start singing”.  Yeah, if I had the confidence to just start singing in public, I’d probably have the confidence to just put my phone somewhere inaccessible and tell him no.

    Or “if you don’t want somebody to sit next to you on the bus, pat the seat and smile invitingly.”

    That would probably work for me.  If, that is, I wanted to avoid the oh-so-onerous horror of somebody sitting next to me on the bus more than I wanted to avoid looking like a creepy loon.  Which I almost always don’t.  But if I did, it would probably work for me.

    I don’t know that it would work for everybody.  I know if a strange woman patted the seat next to her and smiled invitingly, I’d… well, to be honest, I’d assume she was looking at and inviting somebody she knows and walk on past.  But some guys would take that as a come-on.  That could get dicey.

  12. had some success a few years ago when i lived in a cheap apartment in a big city. plenty of noisy kids hanging around the parking lot playing loud music and be generally noisy. i would just go out to “hang out” and join them! as a 30-something guy of a different ethnicity, i did not fit into their (teenage) idea of a stranger that belonged in their group dynamic and so they would disperse

  13. Penn Jillette tells a somewhat similar story in How To Play With Your Food, of avoiding being attacked by pouring a milkshake over his own head when he was being threatened.

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