I got on the bus and stood beside a white lady. She seemed to be uncomfortable. She was busy securing her belongings and [stood like a coiled centipede] as if she was scared I would snatch away her handbag.

What is the appropriate word/phrase/idiom to describe this situation?

  • You can use the expression: be “on the defensive” - If someone is on the defensive, they are trying to protect themselves or their interests because they feel unsure or threatened. (Collins).
    – user 66974
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 11:27
  • She was paranoid. She had a chip on her shoulder. If there was a racial difference, you could say that she appeared to be afraid of non-whites or people of color. Or maybe she was just afraid of you -- are you scary looking? Sadly, "coiled centipede" doesn't work in English -- but some people will be adventurous enough to appreciate it. Commented Jul 17, 2022 at 1:09
  • I suggest there is no particularly appropriate word/phrase/idiom for that, nor anything closer to it than your own 'stood like a coiled centipede'. Why would you doubt that? Either way, in my view word, phrase, expression and idiom requests should be promoted to their own specialised community, perhaps named 'Vocabulary.' Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 21:20

3 Answers 3


She shrank back/away or recoiled.


If you shrink away from someone or something, you move away from them because you are frightened, shocked, or disgusted by them.

  • One child shrinks away from me when I try to talk to him. (Collins)


to move back because of fear or disgust (= dislike or disapproval) (Cambridge)


You could call her wary, defined by Merriam-Webster as:

having or showing a close attentiveness to avoiding danger or trouble

Or as watchful, defined by Merriam-Webster as:

paying close attention usually for the purpose of anticipating approaching danger or opportunity


She stiffened.

stiffen [verb]

1 [intransitive]: to suddenly hold your body in a stiff way, often because you become nervous, worried, angry, or unfriendly

  • She stiffened as the footsteps came closer and closer.


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