When a character is in a situation that's just about to explode into a fight — probably in a physical sense, but a severe verbal confrontation would count too — but manages to deflate the aggression and tension through communication and to avert the unpleasantness. Communication is, of course, most obviously verbal, but these kind of situations are usually a good example of how important nonverbal aspects are as well, so the trope is not limited to talking.
Ways in which this can be achieved include but are not limited to confusing the aggressive party with something completely unexpected, Non Sequitur
or otherwise, which tends to deflate the aggression; or calmly persuading them to look at the situation from an objective point of view and make them realise starting the fight is not in their interests. The important thing is not to continue in the normal track that would lead to confrontation, but to turn its course around to a different direction. Note that though "Judo" in the name specifically implies a "soft" self-defence approach, being meek in face of aggression isn't automatically Verbal Judo — in some cases, showing fear may only provoke further. And techniques used for Verbal Judo as here defined can involve a certain degree of controlled aggressive assertiveness, as long as it comes from a surprising angle that leaves the other party off-balance rather than stoking their own aggression.
This doesn't so much apply when someone is deliberately about to attack rather than becoming heedlessly aggressive. That is not what is meant by a "volatile" situation above. Of course, a completely strict line between the types of situations is impossible to draw.
The trope name comes from the Real Life
technique and book by George Thompson, which are basically about how to achieve this trope. Thompson contrasted it with "verbal karate", where you respond to hostility with hostility and only escalate the situation — this being the way people are more often naturally inclined to react. "Verbal Judo" or "verbal self-defence"
is defined more broadly in real-life usage, but the trope is defined only as stated above.
Compare Talking the Monster to Death
. Has only a little in common with Politeness Judo
. Contrast Break Them by Talking
, a less nice technique, though it could
theoretically overlap with this. Situations where this might be needed could involve Hair-Trigger Temper
or Berserk Button
; if it involves a Powder Keg Crowd
or other mob, it's probably also an instance of Shaming the Mob
. This makes a good technique for the Badass Pacifist
Anime & Manga
- In Black Lagoon, Rock and Revy are in negotiations with the Rip-Off Church, who are trying to get a discount on Lagoon Company services. Revy is ready to start shooting, when Rock engages Sister Yolanda in pleasant conversation about tea, linking it to the importance of trust between companies and their customers. When that fails to sway Yolanda, he moves on to subtly implying that the Church is behind the unauthorised drug-running that Hotel Moscow is trying to stamp out, and that he could still be convinced to keep quiet about it. At this, Yolanda concedes.
- Commissar Ciaphas Cain in For the Emperor:
- At the beginning, when Cain has been assigned to a regiment with considerable internal tension, he soon finds himself facing a violent fight bordering on riot among the soldiers. When they start fighting the provosts sent to quell the fight as well, he's about to sneak out, but someone shouts out to him and attracts everyone's attention to him. Knowing trying to flee now would only get him killed, he suddenly starts giving orders for the troopers to clean the mess, making them pause in surprise and realise how out of hand the situation has got, and giving a perfect example of the confusion strategy. A That's an Order later, Cain having successfully asserted authority, the situation becomes easy to deal with.
- Later, Cain is present at a party where the Tau ambassador is suddenly assassinated, causing everyone to draw weapons, including one of the Tau group, whose aggressiveness could cause the whole situation to erupt into a bloodbath. Cain manages to calm the situation largely by addressing the Tau with one of their own phrases that he had happened to pick up a while earlier: "This does not advance the greater good." On a larger scale, he prevents the conflict someone was trying to bring about by the assassination and other actions, by protecting the rest of the Tau diplomats and avoiding a fight between their side and Imperial Guard.
- On the Discworld, Carrot's charisma allows him to do this kind of thing naturally with straightforwardness that would never work for others, and Sam Vimes is also canny and experienced enough to have pulled it off a couple of times.
- In Night Watch, Vimes finds himself in Ankh-Morpork of the past and commanding a Watch house at a time when there's widespread dissent and angry mobs are starting to coalesce around all Watch houses. Knowing a riot is just waiting to happen, he tells his men to not carry weapons but instead visibly do ordinary harmless things in the yard to avoid their looking to the surrounding people like Faceless Goons. When he himself confronts the mob, it's calmly and while lighting a smoke, and he makes sure that when a drunken troublemaker tries to break a bottle in his hand and only ends up hurting himself, the scene everyone sees is Vimes harmlessly standing at a distance with his hands occupied, with no possibility for even a mob to mistake him as having attacked. Then he takes the man in to be treated for the wound. His Watch house ends up being the only one that doesn't suffer a riot that night.
- In Snuff, Vimes does this after deliberately accepting the challenge to a fight from an aggressive local blacksmith in the countryside who's taking issue with his noble status. Even before the fight starts, he makes the man uncertain about whether he's getting in over his head, and once it does start, he only needs to show his street fighting skills with a few moves before quietly suggesting they stop the fight there before it gets real so that the other can at least save his face... both socially and literally.
- Vetinari, of course, has been known to defuse wars with Verbal Judo.
- In Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub, Judy Marshall's husband tells a story about her that involves her having prevented a fight between two strangers after a car accident. The driver of one car is aggressively bearing down on the other, who is only provoking him by backing off. Marshall gets so angry at the aggressive man for his being about get into a fight he'll regret that she walks up to him and berates him about it, surprising him and ultimately calming him down.
- In Kim, Kim defends himself and the Red Lama by making fun of potential aggressors.
- One of Jeeves' many superpowers. Just when things look blackest, he'll often settle everything by coming out of nowhere and politely making a brilliant suggestion or giving everyone the wrong impression.
- At the climax of American Gods, Shadow diffuses an imminent war between the old and new gods with a short but effective speech laying out how it was all part of Odin's conspiracy to get themselves to kill each other in his name.
- An absolutely awesome example in Criminal Minds. Reid and Hotch are trapped in the interview room with a villain, and the guards aren't going to be there for ten minutes. Hotch challenges the guy to an knockdown drag-out fight. Yes, Hotch. He's going through some stuff. Reid, horrified, promptly stupefies the killer with science babble, launching into a rambling speech about all the possible biological/chemical/Freudian Excuse he could have. Cut to ten minutes later, Reid is still talking about how the killer never had a chance, the killer is sitting down, Hotch hasn't raised a fist, and the guards have arrived. On the way out, the guy asks if he really never had a chance, or if Reid was just stalling.
- Delia of In Plain Sight pulls off one of these brilliantly when a Neo-Nazi potential witness tries to pick a fight with her.
Delia: You don't have to sign a thing. You can rant, and spew your hate, take a swing at me for all I care. I'd like that, actually. I'd like to see this entire office pin your cheek to the cold, hard floor and before you can get up from under my shoe, your deal's blown, and you're locked up where no one can protect your sorry ass. (steps closer) So, please, Ms. Owens, I'm begging you: don't sign.
- In Justified, Donovan storms into Duffy's trailer and threatens to kill Quarles for murdering his friend Brady. Quarles talks down Donovan by telling him about how his father forced him into prostitution as a young man, and how Theo Tonin adopted him. Donovan lowers his gun, and a tearful Quarles embraces him as he starts crying. Unfortunately, we see Donovan bound and gagged in Quarles' bathroom at the end of the episode, suggesting that Quarles plans to torture and kill him just as he did Brady.
- In an episode of New Tricks, Sandra Pullman is faced with a biker gang member in the back seat of her car threatening to shoot her in retaliation for what his gang did to him for talking to the police. Spurred by something he says, she starts thinking out loud about the current case. After buying some time that way, she comes to some conclusions that cause the other to break down and lower the gun — as the case was his father's murder — and then punches him out irritably in passing while he's angsting.
- Beetle Bailey has lots of tricks for avoiding Sarge's incoming rage. Usually this involves distracting him, especially by making him think of food, but also invoking other things such as John Wayne. He's also confused him by shouting back to him as if to an inferior or at most an equal, which he can't handle since it's so much out of the norm. That said, Beetle ends up being beaten into a pulp more often than not, sometimes in spite of an attempt at Verbal Judo.
- Calvin and Hobbes: Calvin does it accidentally when taking Hobbes to confront his bully Moe. Calvin thinks Moe's scared away by facing a real tiger, but from others' point of view, he just acts so confidently that Moe suspects a trap with the teacher watching or something and doesn't dare to do anything.
- In the Dungeons & Dragons module The Apocalypse Stone, there is a scene where the player characters, being secretly tested, are faced with a group of vemics and a group of centaurs about to go to war. Both sides try to bribe them to join their side. The idea is that the right option is to just walk away as opposed to joining in out of greed, the assumption being that the two sides can't be persuaded not to fight... but the text also says that if the characters somehow do manage to broker peace, that will be counted as an extra good result. In other words, the Verbal Judo isn't described, but the Dungeon Master is told to take the possibility of it into account.
- Occurs a number of times in the Mass Effect series, usually Paragon/Renegade checks. In one case, it's possible to do this when Wrex gets angry about your plan that will lead to the extinction of his species, if you have high enough stats in Charisma/Intimidate. There's also the confrontation with Ethan Jeong on Feros, the corrupt guards right at the start in Lorik's office on Noveria, and others.
- For a fun variation, at least one confrontation with a hostile Krogan is diffused by head-butting them. They're more than tough enough to take the damage in stride, and their culture places a lot of stock in social dominance and boldness. Not to mention the confusion with which they tend to respond to a human even trying such a thing.
- In Fallout 3, a character with high Charisma and Speech skills will have a lot of opportunities to do this, from breaking up a fight over a water supply to convincing the Big Bad to abandon his plan and self-destruct with just a few lines of dialogue.
- In The Walking Dead, if you pick the right options you can use Verbal Judo to defuse fights or stop them from turning physical, whether the conflict is between two other characters or between Lee and another character.
- Fluttershy from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
- In "Elements of Harmony", she does a nonverbal version, calming down an angry manticore by walking right up to him and making friendly gestures. It turns out he's just angry because of a thorn in his paw.
- An almost completely different example in "Dragonshy": Rainbow Dash pulls a Leeroy Jenkins on the giant dragon and provokes him to attack the ponies. Fluttershy, finally forgetting her own fear of dragons when she sees her friends being attacked, flies right up to his face and starts telling him off for it, instantly changing the anger to shocked surprise. Combining the surprise effect with that of her Death Glare and absolutely steely assertiveness, she eventually has him crying and then leaving peacefully.
- This is a key tactic of Bugs Bunny's. Just when his pursuer has him cornered, he changes the subject and tricks his foe into dropping his guard long enough for Bugs to escape or retaliate.
- Mentalist Derren Brown, being a professional in manipulating people's reactions and perceptions, mentions some techniques that he believes could be used in such a situation in his book Tricks of the Mind. He also recounts his own experience where he applied them almost by accident: Accosted by an aggressive drunk on the street, he decided to try to use suggestion on him by first confusing him to make him susceptible and then suddenly stating that his feet were stuck on the ground to make him really briefly believe so so that he could just walk away. To do the first part, he started relaxedly talking something completely Non Sequitur about the height of fences in different countries. It turned out that that was enough, as after being so confused, the drunk broke down and started opening up to him about the reasons he was in such a foul mood.
- Tim Allen claims to have gotten into comedy because of this. When he was in prison for drug dealing, he ended up running afoul of a big angry guy who was just shy of beating the snot out of Tim. Tim's reaction? He started doing P-P-P-Porky Pig impersonations, causing the guy to drop him and start laughing. He figured out that being the guy who could make people laugh went far for making his stay in prison better than it could have been.
- As narrated here, Reverend Wade Watts dealt with being repeatedly hassled by the Ku Klux Klan by responding with unflappable good cheer and humour. This culminated when a group of them accosted him at a restaurant and told him they'd do to him everything he did to the chicken on his plate. He carefully picked up the chicken and kissed it, causing everyone there to laugh, even the people trying to harass him. They gave up trying after that, and the guy in the video eventually switched to his side to oppose the KKK.
- Many a Drill Sergeant Nasty has employed this technique in various ways. It helps that military training is often aimed towards getting troops to reflexively respond to commands. The Verbal Karate variant is also seen, given that the instructor is often also in a considerably stronger position than the recruit, both physically and socially, thanks to both the nature of the training environment and military hierarchy.
- In The End of Faith, Sam Harris recounts walking the streets of Prague at night and seeing some men trying to force a woman into a car against her will. Thinking on his feet, he realized that their command of English was probably poor, and that he could probably use this fact to confuse and distract them. So he told the men that he was lost, using sentences that were grammatically coherent but made little sense regardless ("I am looking for a specific building. ... It could be filled with marzipan.") The men became so confused and engrossed in discussing his case amongst themselves that they didn't even notice the woman take off. Harris thanked them and left, and no one else present probably ever had a clue the real reason that he approached them.
- However, this anecdote's purpose is actually to deconstruct Verbal Judo — the passage was under the heading "The False Choice of Pacifism". Harris goes on to say that far from being wisdom, as many would be inclined to call it, he considers what he did "an example of moral failure":
"My ethical failure, as I see it, is that I never actually opposed their actions — hence they never received any correction from the world. They were merely diverted for a time, and to only a single woman's advantage. The next woman who became the object of their predations will have little cause to thank me. Even if a frank intercession on the woman's behalf would have guaranteed my own injury, a clear message would have been sent: not all strangers will stand idly by as you beat and abduct a woman in the street. The action I took sent no such message."
- The basic idea is that certain kinds of Verbal Judo don't always address the root of the problem, thus it may only serve as a superficial band-aid with no lasting effects; on the other hand, a proper confrontation, while risky and probably unpleasant, may actually be of greater benefit in the long run.