An ex-FBI agent on deception, espionage, interrogation, and reading people.

Reserved Behaviors In The Study of Nonverbal Communications

A look at distinct behaviors that show up when things are really bad.

Readers of this blog by now are aware that nonverbals are important in letting us know what people are thinking, feeling, desiring, intending or even dreading. It also helps us to communicate more effectively or to be more empathetic. Every day, if we are observant, people are demonstrating behaviors that give us personal insight whether we are at home, at school, or at work.

Sometimes we perform behaviors that shout, “I need help,” “I am having a really tough time,” or “things are truly bad.” These behaviors go beyond the dour face or the slumped shoulders; they are more poignant perhaps than even tears or a furrowed forehead – these are behaviors indicative of high psychological distress. For the empathetic, these behaviors truly communicate, here is an opportunity to help.

These behaviors that tend to show up when things are really bad I have come to call “reserved behaviors.” I call them “reserved” behaviors because they usually only show up at those times when the person performing them is undergoing particularly high psychological discomfort or distress and he or she appears to be in need of comforting.

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Freeze Response

The freeze response is the first of the three responses that we evolved to cope with threats. I say first because for hominids and our early ancestors, it can be argued, the primary threat to survival was large felines. This incidentally remains true in parts of Africa and India today, where humans are routinely attacked.

All cats orient to physical movement, so it made no sense for us to “fight or flight (flee)” as is often said, on the African savannah against swifter more powerful predators. So we evolved to freeze first (to avoid being detected), flee (flight) or distance ourselves second, and lastly, fight if there is no recourse.  Even today, we continue to see people frozen stiff in the middle of oncoming traffic, seemingly unable to move, much as deer caught in headlights, when dangerously confronted by a car or train. Similarly, when we hear a gunshot we freeze, as videos attest, and hold still when someone walks into a room with a gun – it is all part of our evolutionary heritage.

Likewise, when someone is notified of devastating news or, as I used to see in criminal interviews, when the suspect is told there was a witness to the crime, the freeze response often kicks in. As they contemplate that they have been caught and will go to jail, they appear as if flash frozen in a chair; unmoving, rigid, their hands gripping their own legs or the armrest, as if in an ejector seat (Navarro 2007, 112).

Rocking Back and Forth

As I have noted in previous articles here in Psychology Today and elsewhere, repetitive behaviors are soothing or pacifying behaviors that help us deal with stress. From foot bouncing to finger strumming to twirling strands of hair, they help us pass the time, enjoy a moment, or deal with momentary stress or anxiety.

But the sudden onset of rocking back and forth, almost like a metronome, is reserved for extremely stressful situations – situations where terrible news has been received or a person is witness to a horrific event. In those cases, and I have seen it in adults as well as children, the person seemingly zones out, oblivious to the world or any attempts to communicate. The world is temporarily outside the realm of consciousness as the person self-soothes by rocking back and forth; sometimes for several minutes.

As the renowned author and researcher, David Givens, points out in his Nonverbal Dictionary, the rocking action back and forth or side to side (think of a mother rocking a baby to sleep), “stimulates the vestibular senses and is therefore soothing” in a very primitive, but effective. 

Fetal Position

Crushing news or an overwhelming event can cause us to momentarily assume the fetal position as if to protect our ventral side (our belly side). This behavior is usually accompanied by the individual turning away or disengaging from those around them. This behavior appears to be reassuring as well as soothing. We now know from research that whether you hear something hurtful or are physically kicked, the pain registers in the same brain areas (principally the amygdala) causing similar responses.

This explains why I have seen adults assume the fetal position as if punched in the stomach when notified of something horrific. In one case, a young mother I accompanied to the morgue to identify her daughter collapsed into the fetal position upon seeing her child’s lifeless corpse.


Interlaced Fingers (Teepee Hands)

Interlaced Fingers (Teepee Hands)

 Stiff Interlaced Fingers (Teepee Hands)

Here is a behavior that is usually reserved for when people are upset or distraught, or when they are unveiling disquieting information about themselves, about tragic things that have happened, difficulties encountered, or when couples are breaking up. The behavior is performed subconsciously, as are all reserved behaviors, by interlacing stiffened fingers (the hands look like a teepee—see included photograph) held either stationary as in the photograph or rubbed back and forth.  This is to be differentiated from the usual palm on palm hand rubbing which is a mild a pacifier; teepee hands go further than that (Navarro 2008, 62).

The interlacing of stiffened fingers, I suspect, serves two practical purposes: the stiffening of the fingers indicates a conscious awareness or arousal that there are issues, and secondly, the interlacing of fingers causes increased tactile stimulation.

I have seen this behavior many times when individuals come in to report bad news (something is broken, a car accident, intentions to quit). Clinicians I have trained confirm seeing this behavior in couples therapy just before or while patients/partners explain previously concealed infidelities, improprieties, or a desire to divorce.

Children, like adults, often perform this behavior as they gather up the strength to reveal that they did something wrong or failed to comply with a task.

One caveat here, some people do this behavior routinely, and as such we note the behavior as idiosyncratic and is not as significant as when it appears only in extraordinarily stressful situations.


Lips Sucked-In

Lips Sucked-In

Lips Sucked In

Occasionally we see a political or sports figure who has to confront the press over some unsavory episode. In these apologias, what we often see is an individual stand before the media or accusers and their lips have completely disappeared—dramatically sucked inward (see included photograph). We originally evolved the “closed mouth–tight lip” response, either pursed or otherwise, in response to spoiled or foul tasting food. Over time, we adapted the closed mouth (tight compressed lips) to deal with negative things we see or hear (this is why when we see flights being canceled at the airport, passengers stand looking at the flight-board with compressed lips). The extreme of this is the sucking in of the lips, a behavior that communicates to others, in real time, there is great distress or they are contrite.


The behaviors I have described above are a few of the most often observed “reserved behaviors.” There are likely more, such as the sudden covering of the face with both hands when we hear something tragic. But these in particular serve to tell you, whether performed by adults or children, that there is something seriously wrong, challenging, awkward, or stressful that the person is experiencing. They are communicating precisely how they feel, sometimes while overwhelmed, and are struggling with something significant. What a great opportunity to empatheticly lend an ear, ask how we may help, listen carefully, or just put our caring arms around them.


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Joe Navarro, M.A. is the author of the international bestseller 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 here at Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spycatcher – Joe can be found on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook.  Copyright  ©  2013, Joe Navarro.

Joe Navarro is a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent and is the author of What Every Body is Saying. He is an expert on nonverbal communications and body language.


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