• Yehudit Zicklin-Sidikman

Yelling “Help!” vs. Yelling “Fire!”



There are many things that we teach students to yell during an Empowerment Self Defense course. My favorite and go-to will always be a crisp, strong, and empowered “NO!”


Other things we teach are:


1. “Leave me alone!” Or, if we want to attract help, “This person won’t leave me alone” if we want to attract help.


2. “If you continue you are an attacker!”


3. “Go away now!”


To children we teach:


“This is not my Dad!” or “This is not my Mom!”


And we do teach kids “I need help!” because for them, in a scary situation with an adult, they need and DESERVE help.


In classes with adults, I personally stay away from teaching to yell “Help!” or “Help Me!” simply because it does not fit with my belief in teaching things that are empowering. That being said, if a student asks if they should yell “Help!” I will engage in a conversation about it. It is their choice.


The psychology behind “Help!” or “Fire!” is more about how those words affect the bystanders.

The psychology behind “Help!” or “Fire!” is more about how those words affect the bystanders.


While I would hope that we can become a community where the majority of people want to get involved and help in dangerous situations, it is not always the case.


“Help!” is me saying what I need from you. You may not want to get involved. You may not want to risk liability or putting yourself in danger. You may be in a rush or.....whatever.


“Help!” may not motivate you to step forward and get involved.


Decades ago, when self-defense instructors began teaching women to yell “Fire,” the thought process was that “Fire!” affects me, the bystander, too. I might be in danger because of it and therefore, it might be necessary for me to get involved.


Also, like it or not, there is some level of human attraction to the thought of watching a fire. So there's a chance that bystanders will come just to see what is going on, even if they don’t directly get involved, and their presence might be enough to get the attack to stop.


But what assumptions do yelling “Help!” and “Fire!” share? IMHO, they share an assumption that the perpetrator is a stranger and that the attack is happening where bystanders may be present.

But what assumptions do yelling “Help!” and “Fire!” share? IMHO, they share an assumption that the perpetrator is a stranger and that the attack is happening where bystanders may be present.


Unfortunately, both of these assumptions are not supported by the statistics of who and where are the majority of attacks against women perpetrated. And therefore, while it may help in some circumstances, it should not be a foundational belief of a self-defense class.


ESD practitioners understand this.