Questions relating to sticking out one’s tongue can turn out to be surprisingly complicated. Its meaning in babies and children may be quite different from adults who do the same thing. Nuances abound: Is the tongue sticking straight out? To the left? Right? Hanging down? Or might it actually be curled? What’s the accompanying facial expression and context in which it occurs? To add to the question’s complexity, tongue protrusion can signify one thing in one culture and the opposite in another.
This body language quirk is fascinating because of how variable its connotations can be. Exploring the subject on the Internet, I could find no definitive explanation of it. That is, no scholar appears to have covered tongue protrusion systematically, comprehensively, and cross-culturally. So at this point it’s safe to say that no ultimate, authoritative source yet exists to account for the phenomenon. And frankly, to do so would be no easy task, for—despite its universality—it's extremely relative.
Many writers have noted some fascinating cross-cultural diversities. For example, in Tibet, sticking your tongue out functions both as a greeting and a sign of respect. In sharp contrast, as noted by Laurie Patsalides and others, the Maori People of New Zealand have historically used this gesture as part of a war chant preceding battle. Contrived to intimidate the enemy, it signifies strength and ferocity (see, e.g., “Non-Verbal Gestures: Don’t Stick Your Tongue Out at Me!” in brighthubeducation.com, 01/28/15).
Within a particular culture—that is, our culture—the meaning of this facial gesture can, depending on context and tongue position, vary enormously. Still, while its import is undeniably subject to interpretation, very few of us would struggle to grasp what a tongue protrusion was meant to convey. As research in this area has repeatedly shown, the great majority of us are primed, as part of our basic social intelligence, to accurately identify facial expressions. Unless we’re autistic, such a “gift” seems hard-wired into our highly evolved brains. And why would this not be so? For the native capacity to understand others’ non-verbal motives and intentions has obvious survival value.
To be honest, my initial desire to write something illuminating about tongue protrusion originated from the circumstance that, in adults at least, I’ve typically found such such “displays” to be silly, immature, and offensive. Or, in a word, obnoxious. While to others they might seem playful or childlike, too often they've appeared to me to have a certain defiant “f*** you” quality to them.
In examining the literature on the subject, I first came upon a post by a Dr. Eowyn entitled “The Meaning of Miley Cyrus’ Tongue” (from fellowshipoftheminds.com, 11/23/13), who also became curious about the meaning of this phenomenon. In her case it was linked specifically to Miley Cyrus’ famously—or infamously—“performing” it on TV. Locating a 2005 New York Times article on the subject, this author cites University of San Francisco psychology professor, Maureen O’Sullivan, who reflected:
“The gesture of sticking out one’s tongue can have multiple meanings. It can be an act of rudeness, disgust, playfulness, or outright sexual provocation. . . . It’s like the eyes. An eye gaze can be aggressive to an enemy, but eye gaze can also be the height of intimacy.’”
Doubtless, Cyrus’ exhibitionist act is nothing if not flirtatious and erotically provocative. Nor is there any questioning its intentionality—though whether it’s meant simply to titillate us, or to taunt us with its cock-teasing suggestions of totally unabashed sexual (or bluntly, oral) availability, is perhaps a tad ambiguous.
Returning to Laurie Patsalides’ post, besides distinguishing between the meaning of tongue protrusion among Tibetan people vs. a kindred gesture in Maori warriors, she also discusses:
1. Emoticons, as they’ve been used in the past (anybody remember typewriters?) and today on computers—as in :-P or =)~ —noting that this emblem can be intended as “silly, flirting, or [lighthearted] teasing.” Or, sharply contrasting to this, “mocking: . . . like saying ‘pfft’—I don't want to hear what you have to say" [cf, “blowing a raspberry” or making a “Bronx Cheer"]. The author’s inevitable conclusion? “Without seeing body language and hearing the tone of voice on the computer, it is easily interpreted wrongly,” advising readers “to be careful and use the rules of netiquette”;
2. The use of tongue protrusion in rock ’n roll, citing its well-known—even iconic—presentation in The Rolling Stones, and later by Gene Simmons in the band KISS;
3. Its being “developmentally and socially appropriate” in babies, since they’re learning how to imitate others’ communication and manipulate their mouths (and in such instances it’s typically regarded as “cute”); and
4. Einstein’s “trademark” of teasingly sticking out his tongue when photographed, which he himself whimsically (and wittedly) described as “reflect[ing] his political views” (!).
I’d like to focus on what lay people (with their own “wired-in” expertise on the subject) have had to say about this most curious of facial phenomena. My source derives from several online forums centering on the manifold interpretations this gesture is subject to. Invited to weigh in on their thoughts and feelings about this anomalous, but always attention-grabbing, non-verbal display, here—adapted—are some of their responses. They’re either quoted verbatim or paraphrased, along with occasional commentary of my own:
It’s used to connote that one has just made a joke. And, speaking of jokes, here’s an unusually scatological one—to me, at once absolutely repulsive and utterly hilarious. Offered comically by a forum respondent, he recalls: “When we were little kids and someone stuck their tongue out, we would say, “No, thanks—I use toilet paper.” [!!!]
Though it’s probably not necessary to add this, by way of qualification I might note that on occasion sticking out one’s tongue represents nothing symbolic at all—as in, complying with the directive of your physician during an exam, or extending your tongue outward simply to clean something off your lips (e.g., peanut butter or spaghetti sauce). Additionally, tongue extensions in French kissing plainly link to erotic arousal. A common act in sexual foreplay, it’s far too expressively “overt” to require any metaphorical interpretation.
Much earlier I mentioned the flagrantly erotic nature of Miley Cyrus’s tongue displays (as well as the sexual overtones linked to such tongue use in The Rolling Stones and KISS). Beyond all the sexual innuendo already described, I’ll end this tongue-protrusion “catalog” with some additional postings “intimately” connecting the gesture to sexual enticement:
And finally—to conclude this, I hope, informative and entertaining “organ review”—one respondent had this to say about tongue protrusion:
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© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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