Most people easily recognize when someone is upset or stressed by looking at the face. Even to the untrained eye, very fast gestures (erroneously called micro-expressions even though they are not small at all) are easy to pick up. But seeing a gesture and knowing its meaning are two different things.
For three years now I have been writing about body language and its interpretation for Psychology Today. Some of the articles, such as "The Key To Understanding Body Language," have been read by over 130,000 viewers around the world, so I know there is an interest in the subject. These articles explored things such as what the eyes really tell us, what the lips say, what neck behaviors can reveal, even behaviors of the feet. There seems to be a genuine interest in these matters because in the end, nonverbal communications are still the primary means by which we communicate with each other.
And while many expressions or cues are familiar, some are not. Not because we haven't seen them, but because often time they are merely disregarded. As many of you know I write about nonverbals that are universal. They are universal because they are derived from our limbic brain which is primarily responsible for our survival and safety. Our limbic brain is also responsible for our emotions and as such, our bodies universally reflect what we feel or think, fear, desire, even intend. And while culture may influence limbic behaviors, it does not significantly alter them.
INTENTIONS & DESIRE
For example, when it comes to intentions and desires, we see very similar behaviors around the globe. The child straining mightily to leave the dinner table demonstrates his desire to go play outside with facial contortions indicative of chaffing or discomfort or more importantly, with feet which twist and point toward the door where fun awaits. This is no different from the behavior of the young wife who leans eagerly toward the display window housing the most exquisite necklace, her gaze transfixed. One does not have to be a researcher to notice these behaviors in Belize, Brazil or Belgium. That is the beauty of the limbic system: all behaviors derived from that part of the brain are universal, instant, and more importantly authentic.
Behaviors of desire draw us toward individuals as well as objects. Two nurses may be standing on opposite sides of the hallway but their forward lean and smiling relaxed faces lets us know that they care about each other even though professionalism says stand apart. It is hard to undo millions of years of evolution and nonverbal communications. When it comes to courtship nonverbals may account for more than 90% of interpersonal communications. As my friend and author David Givens well noted in Love Signals, everything from physical appeal, to posture, to voice tone, to eye gaze, to body chemistry, contribute to courtship behaviors and what we call love.
Desires and intentions sometimes mesh together and our behavior reflects those thoughts. In 1967 the United States Supreme Court heard a case which made nonverbal communications a recognizable form of communications which can presage thoughts and intentions. Known as Terry v. Ohio, the court concurred with the actions of the officer who based a search on the behaviors of three men. For a significant period of time, he observed three individuals repeatedly walk by the front of a store, look inside, walk away, talk to each other in whispers, all the while looking about furtively. When the officer approached, fearing that they were going to rob the store, he detected a gun in the pocket of Mr. Terry. Terry argued that he had done nothing wrong. To this trained officer, the behavior of the three men clearly indicated this is how criminals "case" a business before robbing it. The court agreed citing the fact that the officer observed with "particularity" their behavior which was telegraphing what they were intending.
Likewise, we display signs of intentions, perhaps not as obviously or as dramatically as in the Terry case. When we are talking to a best friend we demonstrate a need to leave by suddenly pointing a foot in the direction in which we need to exit. This is done thousands of times - always subconsciously, always very accurately. It is an intention cue that lets others know "I have to leave" (for whatever the reason) and which, if ignored, can be very irritating.
COMFORT / DISCOMFORT
Similarly, we have behaviors we reserve for when we are uncomfortable with or feel threatened by others. These behaviors are not associated with the face although that is where most people first look.
In What Every Body is Saying, I introduced two terms which sadly had been missing from the literature: ventral fronting and ventral denial - two behaviors which are authentic and which truthfully reveal how we feel or what we are thinking.
As I stated earlier, when we like things we turn or lean towards those things. Babies just a few hours old will turn towards the breast and warmth of the mother. Three years later that same baby will now, as a young child, run towards her mother to seek comfort. Conversely that same child may turn 180 degrees at the mere mention that they have to "go home now." With startling speed that child will turn away from that very same mother and tensely cross her arms, chin down, in a show of disapproval and defiance.
When we care for others, feel comfortable around them, or yearn for them, we turn our ventral (belly) side toward them (ventral fronting). The minute we feel uncomfortable around someone or even a topic they bring up, we turn our belly away. A quick way to remember this is "Belly away, don't want you to stay. Belly away, don't like what you say." You often see this with troubled couples who may look at each other but will not turn their ventral (belly) side toward each other. Ventral fronting is one of the primary ways we communicate: I trust you, I care for you, I like you.
And it is not just couples. Jurors often will turn their belly side away from witnesses or attorneys they don't like even while making eye contact. Why is ventral denial and fronting so accurate? Once more the limbic system assures us that we protect our relatively weak abdominal side by turning away reflexively, even if there is no major threat - disagreeable statements will have the same effect. The limbic brain does the same with our feet. As I noted in a previous article, because our feet are responsible for our survival through escape and evasion, our limbic brain says distance yourself from anything that could endanger you. Which is why people don't run to the edge of a cliff but rather approach incrementally.
In addition to intention cues and ventral displays, there are also displays of reluctance. Reluctance or hesitation cues are usually seen in the legs or the hands. They involve grasping or holding on to things at the last minute which communicates how the person really feels. Years ago a young woman was telling me how on the day of her wedding she found herself grasping the doorjamb before entering the chapel. Her father had to say out loud, "Let go." Part of her was saying don't do it which, as it turns out, would have been the right move.
More than thirty years ago I first noticed reluctance behaviors when I would hand a suspect a printed version of the Miranda warnings. As the suspect reached for the paper with one hand the other would grasp the table or the chair. Over the years I have seen this in other settings such as when couples are finalizing their divorce papers or having to sell their dream home because they can no longer afford the taxes. The reluctance to accept what is about to transpire forces them to grasp on to things.
At the White House recently (May 20, 2011) the president met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting was obviously filled with tension. At the end, before both parties turned and ventrally denied each other, President Obama reached to shake hands and as he did so his left hand grabbed the chair's arm rest. Many missed this behavior and it was cropped out later by the White House photographer but here was an authentic behavior that truly spoke to how these two felt at that moment; reluctant to shake hands but obliged to do so for the sake of international harmony.
At home, look for children or even grown adults to grab onto things such as clothing as they start out an activity (shaking hands, painting, cooking), in which they are hesitant or reluctant to engage. It gives us insight into the mind and can assist us in being more empathetic and understanding.
Reluctance cues don't always require us to hang on to something. For example, when you ask someone to do something and they answer back, "Yes, I'll take care of it," but as they do so they turn their face away from you drawing the chin towards their shoulder, they are in effect saying, I will do it reluctantly. This is always good to know because it gives us insight into hidden issues.
So there you have it. Limbic behaviors may not be often recognized, yet are very accurate in revealing what others are thinking, feeling, desiring, or intending.
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 plese contact him through www.jnforensics.com or follow on twitter: @navarrotells. Copyright (c) 2011 Joe Navarro.