Over the years I have written about specific parts of the human body here in Psychology Today and what they communicate nonverbally, but the one area that has escaped me so far is the skin. The catalyst behind my decision to write about the skin now is based on something I recently read while going through a college textbook on nonverbal communications. In this graduate level textbook, three renowned experts on nonverbal communications stated that the skin, “has limited communication capacity.” This jaw dropping statement could not be further from the truth. So here is my own small contribution to the literature on the topic of the skin and it’s ability to communicate nonverbally.
The skin is in fact a rich source of information – valuable information – even though it is often ignored by those who study nonverbal communications. If we define nonverbal communications as anything that communicates a message, a thought, a feeling, an idea, or information, but is not a word, then the skin is actually a very good place to look. In fact, recent research at M.I.T. has shown that these subtle skin changes can be measured and interpreted in the pursuit of better health and well being, what is going on in the mind, as well as in a forensic setting.
How does the skin communicate? You don’t have to announce you have been on vacation in the Caribbean; your skin will do that for you. Take off that wedding band and I bet you can see where it usually sits on your finger. Want to spot the truck driver? Look for the arm that is slightly more “cooked” than the other. Want to determine who is dehydrated? Simply pull up on the skin of the hand and when it doesn’t return - it is time to hydrate. Want to identify a baby? Try touching the skin - 70% of blindfolded mothers in one experiment could pick out their child just from feeling the skin of their baby. If you want to be more exact in identifying your baby – try using your nose. That’s correct, in experiments, mothers that had spent at least one hour with their baby (post partum) were able to identify the baby 100% of the time, merely by smelling the skin of the baby. Not bad, but that’s just the beginning.
It is the skin that first responders and emergency room personnel rely on to let them know how a person is doing. The color of the skin can tell us there is a lack of oxygen (cyanosis), too much carbon monoxide, that there has been trauma, or if a person has had an allergic reaction. If the skin is blistered, perhaps there has been a heat, chemical, or radiation exposure. Even before a patient can articulate it, the skin is already shouting, “there are issues here.”
Sweating of the skin is good and it tells us the environment is warm and the person needs to cool off. However, when the climate is too hot and heat exhaustion (a critical medical emergency) has set in and the skin is not sweating, then heroic efforts must be undertaken even if the person does not say something is wrong (important for camp leaders). An elevation in skin temperature lets us know there is an infection of the body that alerts us to be cautious. And the skin tells the world when we have yellow fever, chicken pox, rubella and other diseases giving us an opportunity to protect ourselves, as well as take compassionate care of the sick.
Viral eruptions on the skin, such as cold sores (Herpes Simplex 1), can also tell us of sun exposure or stress. During WWII, newsreels of the “Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, showed him sporting a huge fever blister on his upper lip for weeks. Those newsreels gave our intelligence services clues that Rommel was tired, worn out, and that his immune system had been compromised. In fact, soon after the newsreels appeared, Rommel was recalled home for rest. The skin was revealing what was concealed from the public; that this soldier was exhausted physically and mentally.
The skin responds to emotions very quickly. When we lovingly care for someone, our skin, which is very vascular, responds through vasodilation, which makes the skin feel warm, soft and pliable. Something we readily see between a loving mother and her newborn baby. The warmth of the skin can often be detected, even without touching, when we are richly comforted in close proximity to those that care for us. This is why we can tell when a kiss is different (cold, rigid) or heavenly (warm, soft, tender).
In social settings, the skin flushes when we are flummoxed, embarrassed, or when we have been caught doing something we shouldn’t. It may also flush when too much attention is given to the shy or introverted individual. Conversely, the skin can drain of color (grey, ashen, pale) when a person is in shock or suddenly receives bad news; giving us immediate insight into what is going on inside the mind, often more accurately than the spoken word.
The skin also reacts to negative emotions, threats or danger by causing vasoconstriction (the skin becomes less vascular as the blood is sent to larger muscles in case it is needed for running or fighting). This withdrawal of blood causes the skin to feel cold and it may also cause piloerection (goosebumps) that gives us the sensation of the room suddenly colder. A cold environment can cause goosebumps, but they can also arise when we fear something; a reaction not just to temperature but also a thought – something investigators often notice even at a distance.
The nerves on the skin sense the world for solid objects as well as moisture, gases, heat, and even air movement. I have been told by the blind that the skin nerves can become very accurate and precise in letting them know someone is near or that a window has been opened due to the movement of air.
As we grow older, our skin telegraphs some of our activities - from what we have been eating to what we have been abusing such as alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. The damage of the sun and or cigarettes on the skin can be dramatic and conveys a lot about the lifestyle of the person. For dermatologists, this information is critical, as many plastic surgeons will not perform surgery on patients who smoke; unfortunately many lie about their smoking habit to get around this caveat. The skin of the smoker betrays their addiction to the surgeon who must consider the fact that smoking affects the success of postoperative plastic surgery and that is why they seek to know if the patient has really quit smoking.
In a social setting, the yellow skin of a smoker’s fingers more than advertises the need for frequent nicotine breaks – something smokers will appreciate without having to ask. The scent of cigarettes, as well as other substances stay on us or are exuded through our skin. The skin of the alcoholic often smells of an alcoholic beverage, which betrays the fact that they have a problem. In my book What Every Body is Saying, I talk about coming home to my apartment and smelling a combination of stale sweat, beer, and cigarettes. At first I thought someone was possibly inside, perhaps even a burglar - the smell was so strong. As it turned out, fortunately, there was no burglar but rather the maintenance man had been in the apartment hours earlier and his skin left me an olfactory reminder.
The skin can also serve to give insight into the life of an individual. The thick, dry, rough, heavily tanned skin of the roofer is significantly different than that of the office worker. People who work with meat tenderizers often lose their fingerprint ridges and of course the skin of a sixty-year old cloistered monk can look 20 years younger than that of a farmer who is exposed daily to the sun. Stretch marks on the skin may indicate severe weight loss or a pregnancy, and scars may suggest dangerous activities or even personality disorders such as the slashing we often see associated with the Borderline Personality Disorder (APA, DSM IVTR, 706-710).
How our skin looks has been a subject of fashion and cultural influences. The parasol was invented because it was not proper for the upper classes to have tanned skin – people who worked the land had tanned skin. How things have changed! Now we flock to the beaches to get a golden tan and when we can’t do that we go to tanning booths or we have tans sprayed on. And yet, there are societies that still look down upon tanned skin and equate a tan with blue-collar work, manual labor, or lower classes. A recent article from China disclosed that a company was selling a face-mask (called a Face-kini as in bikini) for beach goers, to protect the skin so users will not be labeled as working class. Skin that has been bleached, especially of the upper torso and face, may also speak of a yearning for or social pressure to look higher status, a trend that has increases over the years in a variety of countries.
It is interesting that from the earliest times we have used the skin to communicate to others who we are or where we come from. When the “Iceman” was discovered in the Italian Alps, they found tattoos on his body which probably indicated the clan or village he came from, just as we see today, 5,700 years later, with the Maori (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tā_moko) people in the Pacific islands. Tattooing or skin adornment today allows us to personalize who we are and our allegiances by tattooing the name of girlfriends, branch of military service, as well as gang affiliations. In the last 20 years there has been an explosion of tattooing. Street gangs, rock stars, even models now have tattoos. It says a lot about them in a way, whether they are leaders or followers and how susceptible they are to the whims of fashion or peer pressure. Their very presence on the skin, communicates something about them beyond the obvious as I noted in “Louder Than Words” (Navarro 2010: 121-122).
Since recorded history oils, emollients, and creams have been applied to the skin to make it more attractive to the opposite sex. Skin is painted, waxed, stained, scarred, imbedded with charcoal, even burnt to make the person more attractive within that culture. These ritualized adornments to the skin have helped people communicate their availability, interest, or social status, and can identify who they are and where they are from just as accurately as a passport.
The skin, to a certain extent collects the bruises and scrapes of daily life attesting to where we have been and the things we have done: hiking, climbing, working in the garden, or playing football. It is all there in and on the skin – the dirt, the grease, the hematomas and the lacerations. The skin can also serve as a record of abuse, such as we see with battered spouses and children. They often cannot talk to us but their skin serves as ample testimony that something terrible has happened or is happening.
In a forensic setting, sweat communicates a lot and in interviews, it can let you know you have hit a hot spot or issue when the person begins to sweat profusely. It is not conclusive of deception but it may indicate there is guilty knowledge or worse. Similarly the person may pull clothing away from the skin (ventilators described in the book Clues to Deceit) at the neck, shoulders, or the front of the shirt, when something is bothering them and their skin suddenly becomes warm from stress due to fear, apprehension, or even guilty knowledge.
The skin, rich with nerves, helps us to understand the world through tactile touch. It also allows us to deal with the stresses and anxiety of daily living. The next time you are massaging your own hands or stroking your arms, or soothing your chin with your fingers, you are in fact employing the skin as a pacifier. We self soothe all day long, massaging our forehead and temples, or rubbing the skin around our necks, in order to calm ourselves. We do it to ourselves hundreds of times per day and it works just as well as when we are sucking on a pacifier or when we caress the shoulder of a crying child.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you the skin doesn’t communicate – it communicates a lot – if we only know what to look for.
Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through www.jnforensics.com or follow on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Joe-Navarro/236255193080893
Copyright © 2012, Joe Navarro.
American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Text rev. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Navarro, Joe. 2011. Clues to Deceit: A Practical List. Amazon Kindle.
Navarro, Joe. 2010. Louder than words: take your career from average to exceptional with the hidden power of nonverbal intelligence. New York: Harper Collins.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.