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The Snarky Partner

It is easy — terribly easy —to shake a man’s faith in himself.

To take advantage of that to break a man’s spirit is the devil’s work.

–George Bernard Shaw

Train or talk about martial arts and self-defense long enough, and someone will invariably want to test you.  It’s usually annoying or amusing to varying degrees, depending on the person’s attitude, but it can sometimes be frightening.

I’ll talk about that frightening aspect next month.  This time, I want to talk about a specific sort of challenge most often laid down before the new student whose combination of budding knowledge and excited inexperience makes them vulnerable to emotional undermining.

It happens early on in training, usually in the first month or two.  A student who has been doing well walks into class with a little less confidence.    A little less enthusiasm.  Why?

“Sensei, my boyfriend wanted to see me do that wrist escape we learned last week, and it didn’t work!”

This sensei hates when this happens.  The disappointment and self-doubt in a student is painful to see, and even more painful for the student to feel.  All the student’s excitement over learning something new—the poise of gained confidence in one’s ability—broken down in a few minutes by someone who professes to care.

I hate it.  I hate with vim and passion.

It isn’t always a boyfriend.  It might be a husband, father, mother, sibling, or school classmate.  But no matter the role, the person sees themselves holding the same position: a superior whose station must be reinforced, and whose station is threatened by the student’s sense of consent-based self-determination.

Oh, sure, some of those folks will claim the most-est and best-est of intentions.

  • “I don’t want you to have a false sense of security.”

  • “You need to know you can’t always win.”

  • “I just want to be realistic.”

And sometimes the comments are more direct and honest.

  • “I told you that karate stuff wouldn’t work.”

  • “Don’t start thinking you’re all that special.”

  • “You’re pretty stupid, thinking you can beat me.”

But no matter the spoken reason, the underlying motivation is almost always the same:

  • “To prove myself stronger and smarter, I must prove you are weak, incapable, and less worthy.”

Yes, I hate it.


Teaching self-defense as a years-long curriculum accessible to students of diverse ages and abilities requires deliberation and forethought on a different scale than a weekend empowerment workshop.  (Not better or lesser, mind you.  Just different.)  So one of the first things I teach students under the “self-defense” topic is a collection of basic hold escapes—what to do if someone grabs your wrist, elbow, shoulder, or shirt front.

The simple techniques teach a skill, certainly, but also the rules and expectations of working with a partner.  Students also learn the principles of leverage and torque, grounding and balance, general body awareness, and the connection between the decision to take action and the resulting consequences.

Hold escapes are a very big deal.

I and my more senior students are always the students’ first partners.  Once the basic maneuvers of a escape are taught sans contact, we start grabbing students. We start off with the tight grip and quick release meant to build competence and confidence.  The better the students’ technique, the more difficult we make it to escape, and we adjust it for each student.  The goal is to encourage, and require, progressive improvement.

We set and enforce standards, and most importantly, tell students to not only respect their boundaries, but to enforce their boundaries with calm skill.

It’s called “teaching.”

Then comes the moment the student, excited and confident, goes home to a person who isn’t all that excited, let alone passing supportive of the student’s martial arts training.  That person listens to the student talk about the cool wrist escape she learned just an hour or so ago.  And that person sees the opportunity to prove their own superior strength.

So that person offers to be a “partner,” and grabs the student’s wrist with as much force as possible (and usually with a grip or angle the particular wrist escape isn’t designed to counter).  The student struggles.  The student, who has known the technique for all of a couple hours, and practiced the technique a couple dozen times at the most, fails to break the full-power, all-strength hold of their supposedly supportive partner.

That “partner” happily reinforces the student’s sense of failure and weakness.

The student feels like a failure.

The other person feels fantastic, having confirmed their superiority.

I.  Hate. This.

Truly, the person who feels the need to subjugate a person they supposedly love and care for is, in my eyes, the weak and frightened one.  It’s the person who’d mock a teenager for learning the difference between the gas and brake pedal before speeding onto an ice-covered highway.  It’s the person who thinks it’s funny to drop someone into a warzone before they’ve learned how to load a rifle.  It’s the jerk who believes proof of strength lies in how well they can beat up someone in handcuffs.

It’s punching down.

It’s weakness.

It’s pathetic.

So… after a year or so of teaching, and seeing this drama play out over and over, I made a couple alterations to the lessons.

Yes, I still teach hold escapes.  Yes, I teach them with the same limitations.

Then I tell the students the truth:  “Someone is going to test you.  Someone will want to see if you can really, truly, escape.  And someone will want to prove you can’t do anything at all.  If you try the hold escape, and it doesn’t work, it isn’t because you failed.  It’s because the person holding you thinks they have to beat you.  And that person thinks your fear of hurting them is greater than your fear of being hurt by them.”

Really, that’s the truth of it.  I’ve seen it in the smirks and eyerolls these “supportive” partners give when the student explains to me the hold escape didn’t work.

The Snarky Partner depends on your passivity.  She wants you to hesitate.  He wants you to be afraid of trying.  She wants you to let a loud-mouthed person prove his superiority. He wants to demonstrate his strength is really oh-wow cool.  She wants to make certain you doubt your strength and courage.  He wants to demonstrate how unworthy and incapable you are of determining consent.  The Snarky Partner wants, above all else, to undermine a person’s confidence in self-direction, self-defense, self-determination.

And it doesn’t matter if the Snarky Partner doesn’t actually, deep-down wish you harm.  Because all those things the Snarky Partner wants to prove are the same the attacker wants you to believe: you’re weak, you’re unsure, you’re not worth your own fight.


It isn’t unusual for the Snarky Partner to be the one who accompanies the student to the dojo.  In my experience, the Snarky Partner sometimes goes to great lengths to ensure they’re in attendance because they want to watch the class—to see what the students are taught, how the students are taught, and to find out “tricks” that can be used to encourage a student’s failure.

Whenever possible, I hold my Snarky Partner speech right in front of the watching family and friends.  (Once, I even took the empty center seat in the front row of the observation area because one parent had, week after week, demonstrated his inability to understand by yanking his small son around and laughing at him.) I’ll talk specifically and thoroughly about the Snarky Partner, how to counter that person, and—most importantly—how to either dismiss them as irrelevant or use them as a self-teaching opportunity.

That’s usually enough to end the home-based Snarkers.

But out in real life, where it’s possible you’ll encounter a person who needs to bolster their own ego at another’s expense, chit-chats from Sensei don’t much work.

If my students are children, I must tread a bit carefully for numerous reasons.   They might have abusive parents I haven’t yet sussed out (and I’ve sussed out more than a handful, my darlings), so I must keep in mind the consequences a child might face if they resist a parent.  They might face a challenge at school, where defending one’s self against physical attacks is considered horrifyingly dangerous and grounds for suspension or expulsion.  They might lack the support of a backbone-empowered adult (like the father who let his son be beaten up, day after day and year after year, because he was afraid they’d be sued if his son fought back).

So I tell them this:  “Karate is something to be proud of, but not something to brag about.  If you tell people you know karate, some bad person will try to prove you don’t.  It’s better if you keep your knowledge here, at the dojo, and don’t try to show off to others.  But if you are ever afraid, and if you ever have questions, you come talk to me, and I promise to keep what you tell me safe.  And if you have to use your karate to really, truly defend yourself, I will back you up.  Just remember that the longer you’re here, the more you’ll learn, and every person who is a sensei wants to help you because we were all white belts, too.”

If my students are all adults, I tell them something with a bit more… oomph.

I tell them about Snarky Partners and their usual motives.  As you might guess, I almost always have at least one adult student who’d like to explain why a Snarky Partner doesn’t really mean to be snarky.

“Could they see you were upset?” I ask.

“Well, yes.  But it was just a joke!”

“Were you laughing?”

“Well… no…”

“Then smack ’em upside the head to make them stop!”

There is often some awkward laughter at this point—mostly over the idea of inflicting a small amount of physical discomfort on someone.

So I add this: “The Snarky Partner is hurting you and shaming you.  There is nothing morally wrong with making them stop.  And if that person thinks it’s all right when they hurt you, and not all right when you stop them, you need to think about what that means to you and your children.”

Yes, I do indeed say that—flat out, without mumble-speak censoring.

Because it is true.   Because I hate seeing folks who ought to be supported and encouraged have to instead explain away the overbearing snickering of someone who is being mean.

Some Snarky Partners really don’t understand what they’re doing to their partner/child/spouse.  They do indeed think dragging a weaker person around is just plain funny.  And a subset of these folks take well to being told and will change their behavior.  I’ve even had a boyfriend approach me to ask the best way to help!

Those are the easy ones.  The tough cases require a bit more of a direct approach.  So I go on to explain one of the foundational concepts of successful self-defense: you don’t have to make an attacker let go.  You can instead motivate them to let go.

Ram the heel of your hand—the hand they’re not holding—right between their eyebrows or under their chin.  Or grind your knuckles into the back of the hand holding you.  Or set your foot on the side of their knee and say you’ll kick if they don’t let go.  Or just give them an open hand slap across the mouth.   Yank on an ear.  Poke them in the armpit.  Spit.

No, the Snarky Partner will not be expecting any of those things.

They might try to tell you that as a way of excusing the fact they let go, to make you feel bad for making them stop their bad behavior.  They might even fall back on, “That’s not fair!”

Which…  Oh, ye gads.

Really, my darlings, I cannot even force myself to write about that piece of ridiculousness.

Y’see, self-defense isn’t about being stronger and tougher than an attacker, or even working some clever technique against an attacker.  It’s about doing what the attacker doesn’t expect and gaining the few precious seconds you need to escape.  But most importantly, it’s knowing—deep down and without a doubt—that you are worth defending.  That you’re worth your own defending, and you don’t need someone else to defend you in order to understand your own value.

The Snarky Partner doesn’t like that much.

They can go on not liking it for as long as they wish.

You don’t have to go on with them.

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( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 8th, 2016 11:07 pm (UTC)
I used to get that a lot at parties and equivalents, always from men, always phrased as either a demo-as-undermine-opportunity or as "So, could you beat me up?"

I found a response that made them back off quickly, though unfortunately would not work on anyone but a stranger or acquaintance for obvious reasons:

Me: Long, cold stare.

Me: "Why are you so interested in finding out if I could really fight you off? Were you thinking of doing something to me?"

If they are being less dickish, I just say that unfortunately, my style doesn't lend itself to demos and unless they know it too, I would have to actually hurt them to show them anything. And if they persist, they get the "Why are you so interested…?"

Edited at 2016-06-08 11:09 pm (UTC)
Jun. 9th, 2016 08:23 am (UTC)
"my style doesn't lend itself to demos"

I'm curious; what style? Mine doesn't either - Iron Tiger Kung Fu, but my Master used to take all the women and girls aside, and taught us differently than he taught the menfolk - showed us techniques he didn't show them, a lot more vicious than what we learned in the regular mixed class, because he figured we would more likely need them.

He said, when men fight, it's generally challenge-fights, which are over when the loser shows throat. But when women fight, we're fighting adversaries who may easily be twice our weight and ten times our strength, who will rape and/or kill us if we lose. So losing is not an option.

What this means is that any fight with a man is presumed to be a fight to the death. He puts his hands on you without your consent ==> you get his hands off by whatever means necessary, and yourself out of his reach. If that means you irreparably break some important parts of him, so be it.

My true answer to "So, could you beat me up?" would be "Maybe, but I'd more likely kill you despite my best intentions, so please do not go there." But I'm a sweet old lady schoolteacher, so no one asks me that question any more. It's just as well.
Jun. 9th, 2016 05:04 pm (UTC)
I tend to teach the same viciousness to men as I do to women, primarily because I found some male students were more likely to bristle, puff up to a challenge, and badly hurt their opponent when all they knew were the LESS nasty things.

It comes down to societal expectations. Men know they're "expected" to know how to fight, and men who know they *don't* know how to fight well tend to be driven by the very human desire to prove themselves adequate and worthy.

Thus by teaching men and boys the no-holds-barred techniques, they gain a confidence that acts as its own brakes on overuse--especially if they're partners are women. ;-)

Jun. 9th, 2016 06:43 pm (UTC)
Shotokan. I mean, I could demo a kata, but I'd need lots of room. Otherwise, what Shotokan is good at in terms of self-defense is hitting people really hard. It works, too. But it's hard to demo, because without the really hard part, you can't prove that it works.

The one time I used it for actual self-defense, I didn't hit anyone. I did a classic side-step to evade one of the three guys who stepped suddenly out of an alley and surrounded me, then ran like hell. It worked -- when I glanced back to see if they were pursuing me, I instead saw them with near-comical expressions of "WTF just happened?!". But it wouldn't look impressive or even necessarily work in a demo. In class, I'd have followed it up with something (other than running away). In real life I didn't have to, since the element of surprise, which you don't have in class or a demo, was present and incredibly effective.

ETA: I forgot, I actually used it twice. Second time I was a lot farther along in my training, and I used distancing and nothing else. That one was a much more complicated situation in a really difficult area. I describe it here: http://rachelmanija.livejournal.com/893948.html

If people are genuinely interested in safety and self-defense, I will start with what my sensei always said, which was that true self-defense consists of never getting in a situation where you'd have to use karate. You do this by paying attention to what's going on, and, if something seems off, going away before it gets violent. Very wise advice.

I then explain why all mainstream "safety" advice given to women is stupid. Like "Always look under your car!" Who hides under a car to attack someone? How many hours are they lying there? Do they crawl out behind you so fast and silently that it's done before you're inside the car with the doors locked (impossible; try for yourself!) or just grab your ankle? Once they've grabbed your ankle, what do they do then? How exactly do they roll out from under the car without you screaming and kicking them in the face? Etc.

(If you're already in a violent situation you can't easily escape, like an abusive relationship, then karate won't help. You need to call an organization that deals with exactly that issue.)

Edited at 2016-06-09 07:11 pm (UTC)
Jun. 9th, 2016 07:43 pm (UTC)
If people are genuinely interested in safety and self-defense, I will start with what my sensei always said, which was that true self-defense consists of never getting in a situation where you'd have to use karate. You do this by paying attention to what's going on, and, if something seems off, going away before it gets violent. Very wise advice.

I understand the motivation behind that advice, but place it in the same vein as "run away": It's great when circumstances, setting, and timing align to make avoiding the situation feasible. :) It's advice that assumes a person has the ability to see and anticipate surrounding actions (despite, perhaps, helping a mobility-impaired parent), the experience to interpret body language and anticipate results, and the ability to remove themselves from the potential danger before it erupts.

Truly, reading a situation is something abuse survivors do with great skill. It took me a couple years of training and teaching to realize folks who weren't survivors didn't have that same instinctual understanding, and had to instead be taught.

But I do make it clear to my students that ending up in a physical self-defense situation isn't their fault for not paying better attention and so forth. Situations change in a heartbeat, and the student might have more to worry about than their own personal wellbeing. I myself have been in an escalating circumstance where I certainly had the choice to walk away, but would have had to leave children behind to do so.

Again, not saying it's *bad* advice to walk away when the heebie-jeebie feelings start! But I've spent too many years hearing it touted as the all-encompassing advice, and taught too many students with diverse abilities and options who believe their past assault was their fault, to let it stand on its own.

And I hope my words come across as adding to the conversation rather than shoulder-chipping. :)

Jun. 9th, 2016 11:56 pm (UTC)
I should have been more clear. That's what I say when I already know that it's appropriate to say to the people I'm talking to. If it's not, I would say something else. You're quite right that it's not appropriate for everyone. But if I'm talking to a man who thinks manliness consists of punching people and only cowards avoid fights, "My sensei [who can kick your ass] says the best way to win a fight is to not have it," that can be eye-opening.
Jun. 16th, 2016 09:14 pm (UTC)
True indeed. (And sorry for the delay in responding!)

I once had a young man who at first bragged about how he always did hours of heavy bag work with bare knuckles so he'd be able to hit someone over and over without getting hurt. My answer: "If I have to punch someone a dozen times, I need a different strategy. By the way, let me see your pinky finger." :)

(The other side of that, of course, has to do with aging in martial arts, and realizing that while the old masters thought it was great to harden one's knuckles for battle, it pretty well sucks to live with that sort of arthritis. ;-)
Jun. 9th, 2016 04:57 pm (UTC)
This is actually the topic of my next article--dealing with the challenge from strangers that happens in public. :)

In group settings, I've offered to demo something on the spot. Because there are usually more folks in a group who are curious than folks who are assholes, it often diffuses the situation. Admittedly, this might work for me because I drop into Teacher-Mode so easily, altering the "feel" of the situation.

I've used lines like, "What have you done you're feeling guilty about?" or, "Only if you know how to fall on your back without getting hurt," or, similar to yours, "Only if you plan on assaulting me or someone else here."

The tone used depends on the situation--whether my read of the person/group leans toward taking a joking hint well or assuming a challenge to strength. If the latter, a hard stance or tone can escalate the situation rather than diffuse it. :)

Jul. 18th, 2016 11:01 pm (UTC)
Fascinating threat here--you and Rachel.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 9th, 2016 05:08 pm (UTC)
I so understand what you mean. It's terribly frustrating.

It's one situation, outside of submission sparring, where joint locks can be quite handy. A simple pinky-finger hold or wrist lock is usually enough to deter a "just for fun" family member. :)
Jun. 9th, 2016 07:10 am (UTC)
This this THIS!!

"So I go on to explain one of the foundational concepts of successful self-defense: you don’t have to make an attacker let go. You can instead motivate them to let go.

I was so happy when I got down to this paragraph, because that's exactly what I was thinking. Jam your fingers up their nose; they'll let go all right. Pry up the ring-finger - it's got no grip-strength; they can either let go or the finger can break: their choice. Box their ear, or - if the point needs more emphasis - grab their larynx.

"And that person thinks your fear of hurting them is greater than your fear of being hurt by them.”

Such people need to be taught how very, very mistaken that assumption is, by the direct method of Applied Pain. And yes, this does apply to lovers and spouses if they pull this sort of shit. Act like a rapist, be treated like a rapist, because "Yes, all men." ALL men.

I started out in Shotokan, but then later in life switched to Iron Tiger Kung Fu. That's really not a style that lends itself to random sparring, because the whole point is to disable your opponent as quickly as possible by causing severe trauma to their most vulnerable points. Grabbing me is a very good way to get hurt fast, and I am not one bit apologetic about it, because that's the only way grabbers learn.

"They might even fall back on, “That’s not fair!”

Oh, wah wah - so it's fair that having been born with a Y chromosome gives a man the exact-same age, height, weight and level of fitness as me two to five times my upper-body strength? Not to mention all the men who are younger, taller, heavier and in better shape! "Fair fights" are for males vying for dominance with other males in that traditional mammalian way. Men who use their strength to dominate women have lost any claim to be treated 'fairly', and ought to count their blessings if they only get a back-fist to the nose rather than a shiv in the gut.

Side note: my first swordmaster was a cop, and he taught me to shriek like a banshee as I attacked, because the sound of a woman shrieking in rage really disorients a male opponent. (LOL, I found this does not work on other women.) So there's a lot to be said for cultivating a terrifying battle-scream as a first tactic, to sort of soften up one's opponent as one proceeds to inflict the damage.

Edited at 2016-06-09 07:19 am (UTC)
Jun. 9th, 2016 05:13 pm (UTC)
I was so happy when I got down to this paragraph, because that's exactly what I was thinking.

Yep! Hold escapes are way basic, and like I mentioned, I mostly use them to teach lots of other things. But the greatest lesson is learning that "escape" isn't a technique, but a goal. :)

Side note: my first swordmaster was a cop, and he taught me to shriek like a banshee as I attacked, because the sound of a woman shrieking in rage really disorients a male opponent. (LOL, I found this does not work on other women.)

TOTALLY!! The voice is such an important weapon. Physiologically, a shout pushed from deep within also temporarily hardens the core muscles, providing a little extra protection. :)

Jun. 9th, 2016 05:14 pm (UTC)
<3 <3 <3 <3 <3
Jun. 9th, 2016 07:53 pm (UTC)
Jun. 10th, 2016 09:02 pm (UTC)
Fascinating insight; thanks.

'Snarky' is very, very mild. I'd call that behaviour abusive: proving to someone that you can bully them is an intimidation tactic; we should call it by that name, at least among ourselves.
Jun. 16th, 2016 09:17 pm (UTC)
Snarky is indeed mild. I struggle at times with how to label this behavior in general, because I've many times had folks who do it without thinking through the consequences. I want to reach them, too, so it often feels like a balancing act.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


Blair MacGregor

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