Body Language Secrets of the Neck
What the neck can reveal about feelings, thoughts, even deception.
Posted Nov 22, 2009
Those of you familiar with What Every Body Is Saying, or my previous Psychology Today posts, know that when we are under stress, our brain requires a certain amount of hand-to-body touching (hand wringing, forehead rubbing, temple massaging, lip touching, etc.). These pacifiers serve to soothe the individual when there is negative limbic arousal. Pacifiers are with us all day long, and they increase or are magnified when we are very stressed. However, when circumstances are not only stressful but threaten us, the brain prompts certain behaviors involving the neck that are protective, pacifying, and as you will read, totally unique.
I first observed the significance of neck behaviors early in my life. Most noticeably when my grandmother was almost hit by a car in Miami Beach. At that instant, she immediately covered her neck with her hand. I was surprised that her hand went to her neck and not towards the car. Later that night, as she retold to my mother what had happened, once more she protectively covered her neck. Here was a behavior I would see time and time again in others.
At the university, I saw this same behavior in anatomy class as we examined eviscerated animals. Both men and women would cover their necks as they peered down at the smelly animals for the first time. But I also noticed that men and women did it differently. Men tended to grab their necks more robustly, or even massage their necks. Women conversely would do it more delicately, using their fingers to cover a very specific area, the neck dimple just at the front of the neck where it meets the upper chest, more precisely termed the suprasternal notch.
Aware that when people are insecure, troubled, scared, concerned, worried, or nervous, they covered or touched their neck, I never appreciated the potential use of this very telling behavior until I joined the FBI as a Special Agent.
In 1979, while working in Yuma, Arizona, my partner and I went to talk to the mother of wanted fugitive who was considered “armed and dangerous.” When we knocked on her door, she seemed tense, but allowed us in anyway. I asked her numerous questions about her son—she knew he was wanted—and she answered all of them without hesitation.
However, when I inquired, “Is your son in the house?” for the first time during that interview, she put her hand to her suprasternal notch (neck dimple) and said, “No, he’s not.” I noted her behavior, and we continued with other questions about her son’s acquaintances. After a few minutes I asked, “Is it possible that while you were at work, your son could have sneaked into the house?” Once again, she put her hand up to her neck dimple and replied, “No, I’d know that.” At that point, I was convinced that her son was in the house or had been to the house recently.
To make absolutely sure my assumption was correct, we continued to speak with her a while longer. As we prepared to leave, I made one last inquiry: “Just so I can finalize my report, you’re positive he’s not in the house, right now?” For a third time, her hand went to her neck as she affirmed her earlier answers that he was not home. Certain from her behavior that she was threatened by my specific question, I asked for permission to search the house. Sure enough, her son was hiding in a closet under some blankets and stuffed animals—unwisely sitting on a gun.
Her body was speaking to me more honestly than her words. The words “son” and “house” together were a threat to her and she touched her neck in the same way my grandmother had done 14 years earlier when threatened by a car. That early lesson taught me to pay attention to the neck, because few people do. Over the past 35 years, while studying human behavior, I have accumulated further evidence of the significance of the neck in communicating our sentiments that I will share with you.
Neck touching and/or stroking is one of the most significant and frequent pacifying behaviors we use in responding to stress. Some people rub or massage the back of their neck with their fingers; others stroke the sides of their neck or just under the chin above the Adam’s apple, tugging at the fleshy area of the neck. This area is rich with nerve endings that, when stroked, reduce blood pressure, lower the heart rate, and calm the individual down.
Typically, men are more robust in their pacifying behaviors, grasping or cupping the front of their neck (under the chin) with their hand, thereby stimulating the nerves (specifically, the vagus nerves or the carotid sinus) of the neck, which in turn slows the heart rate down and has a calming effect. Sometimes men will stroke the sides or the back of the neck with their fingers or adjust their tie knot or shirt collar to soothe the stress. Think of Rodney Dangerfield getting no respect.
Women pacify differently. For example, when women pacify using the neck, they will sometimes touch, twist, or otherwise manipulate a necklace, if they are wearing one. As previously mentioned, the other major way women neck-pacify is by covering their suprasternal notch with their hand or lightly touching the side of the neck. Women touch their hand to this part of their neck and/or cover it when they feel stressed, insecure, threatened, fearful, uncomfortable, or anxious. Interestingly, when a woman is pregnant, I have observed that her hand will initially move toward her neck but at the last moment will divert to her belly, as if to cover the fetus.
In courtship or dating behavior you see a lot of neck touching at first, as couples are learning about each other. If the woman begins to play with her necklace, most likely she is a little nervous or timid. The man may do the same thing by touching his neck or adjusting his collar. As these individuals grow more comfortable around each other, you will see more head tilt and therefore more exposure of the neck. In fact, both may sit mesmerized looking into each other’s eyes, head tilted, necks exposed. But the minute there is discomfort, the necks will straighten, and there will be more neck touching.
We not only touch our necks or massage our necks when there is an “issue,” we also do other interesting behaviors that communicate our discomfort or insecurity. Men will ventilate their shirts at the neck or sometimes by pulling at the ends of their collar. Women ventilate by stroking the back of the neck, lifting up their hair. In both cases, it means the same thing. Obviously, you may see these behaviors on a hot day, but when someone is dealing with something stressful or they are asked a question that is bothersome, you may see this behavior as a reaction.
You may also see the neck disappear if someone lacks confidence or they are troubled by something. I used to see it in interviews, where the shoulders would rise towards the ears, causing the neck to seemingly “disappear.” This is a very good indicator of distress, anxiety, lack of confidence, or concern. You often see this with deceptive people—the shoulders rise and hold towards the ears as the lie is being told, making the neck seem shorter.
So add the neck to those things you can focus on to tell you what others are thinking or feeling.