Once again, I’ve had a weird idea for a column. This one might be unique because I’ve never seen anything similar in print, and thus our discussion might be a World’s First. I’m going to talk about bluffing, or more pedantically: Tactical Subterfuge.
This concept is a strange idea to examine because of my foundational belief that you should never promise or infer anything you can’t instantly deliver. All the tough talk and posturing in the world are useless if your adversary isn’t impressed, and will often turn a verbal dispute into a butt-kicking contest with yourself as the guest of honor.
That’s why I’ll start this discussion by reiterating that you should never fake it, pretend, BS, posture, puff up, act tough, or otherwise try to emulate Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.
Unless it happens to work, which honestly, it often does. I know because I’m relatively sure there were several instances in my cop career where simple hollow bravado prevented the aforementioned posterior pummeling.
Yep, that’s me: a tough-talking paper tiger, shaking in my boots, hoping the other guy backs down. Fortunately, that often happened, because I’m still here and even have use of all my fingers.
This whole game of Poseur doesn’t paint a nice heroic picture, but several times it was wholly accurate. Therefore, as illustration, I’m going to walk through a few instances where pretending to be someone a lot tougher than myself worked out well.
In every instance where I used this approach, it was because I was facing long odds. My adversary might have been a behemoth of a man, or several angry men, or several behemoth angry men. In one memorable midnight traffic stop, I buffaloed six massive semi-uncooperative drunks into custody while my civilian ride-along, observing from the patrol car, suffered both a nervous breakdown and spontaneous incontinence.
He later asked, “What would you have done if they’d started fighting?” My honest answer was, “Probably end up eating all my meals through a drinking straw.” I’m not sure if his silent response was one of awe or concern that he was riding with a suicidal madman.
In this case, I simply adopted an unflappable, authoritative demeanor that appeared as if I had things completely under control. In a sense I did, because of my training, experience, equipment, and the half-dozen officers heading my way for backup.
Regardless, none of that would have mattered if just two of the six had immediately started a ruckus. I decided the best thing to do in this situation was to put on my “brave face,” figuratively cinch up my belt, and act as if facing down 1,500 pounds of intoxicated manflesh wasn’t any big deal.
A couple of the guys initially tried to intimidate me, but I just acted unfazed and even mildly annoyed. Everything was under control when backup arrived and the driver eventually went to jail, requiring two sets of handcuffs to secure his meat hooks.
Was I tough? Not so much, and I was embarrassed at being flat freaking terrified during the encounter after considering what these gorillas could have done to me. But I also understood that if they knew I was scared, things would have suddenly gone very badly. Therefore, looking at the various alternatives, I took the only path that offered a reasonable chance of success.
I freely admit that things worked out in this case because the guys were basically decent people rather than sociopaths, but regardless, I’m convinced things didn’t deteriorate because of my (wholly fake) bearing and demeanor.
Therein lies lesson number one: Don’t let them know you’re scared. If you’re not occasionally scared or even terrified when confronting adversaries, you probably need to see a shrink, but I assure you things won’t get better by cowering, negotiating, crying, or begging. So you might as well hitch up your panties and pretend you’re Chuck Norris’ younger brother.
In a few other cases, I’m semi-loath to admit, I went the whole “He’s got a screw loose” route. In one instance, I saw two gargantuan men preparing to fight outside the hospital Emergency Department. Upon confronting them, I calmly explained that they were both significantly bigger and tougher than I was, therefore I would instantaneously shoot them in the face if either laid a hand on me.
It worked. I (probably) wouldn’t have followed through on the threat, but they thought I was serious and backed off. Yes, I was trembling inside, but letting these two known career criminals see the terror rising from my gizzard would have probably made the situation much worse for Sergeant Chicken.
Lesson two: If you’re going to bluff, make it sincere and believable.
Our final reminder: Again, understand in advance that it might not work. And if it doesn’t, things will quickly go south, so be ready for The Main Event. On the other hand, the alternative often isn’t very good, so in the right circumstances, you might as well give this method a shot.
I can’t give exact guidelines for when, where, and how to bluff, because it’s a matter of judgment based on experience and self-awareness. I’m just pointing out that when facing big trouble, this is one more method that has been proven to work.
Believe me on that, because I guarantee you that I am one bad-adzed, hardcore, merciless, tough, dangerous hombre!
See how that works?
Brent T. Wheat is a former SWAT officer, canine handler, detective, and patrol supervisor who retired after a 30-year law enforcement career. Brent is the publisher of WildIndiana Magazine, a regionally focused outdoor magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.