What the Feet and Legs Say About Us
Often ignored, the feet and legs offer valuable clues to deception.
Posted November 4, 2009 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Our feet and legs, often neglected in the study of body language, transmit a lot of valuable information about what we are sensing, thinking, and feeling. We pay so much attention to the face and other parts of the body, that we forget the importance of these vital appendages.
It’s a mistake most of us make, and we shouldn’t, because in many ways the feet and legs are the most accurate part of our body. They reflect our true emotions and intentions, in real time, unlike our face and other parts of the body, and they can be instrumental in the detection of deception.
Over millions of years, our limbic system made sure that our feet and legs reacted instantly to any threat or concern; their reliability has assured, in part, our survival. Someone walks up to us late at night while we are at the ATM machine and our legs tighten up, and our feet orient towards an escape route, preparing us to flee if necessary.
In the same way, our limbic brain tells our feet not to walk too close to the edge of the canyon, so we don’t. We cross our legs when we are comfortable in the elevator, yet when a group of dodgy strangers enter, we immediately uncross our legs so we are able to flee if necessary. We are talking to a good friend and suddenly we notice one of the feet is pointed down the street. No need to ask, they have to go, they are running late for an appointment. Want to know if two people talking in the hallway like you or want you to join them? If their feet don’t move to welcome you and they only rotate at the hips, just keep on walking by. When a relationship is turning sour, there will be less and less foot contact. They may hold hands in public but their feet simply avoid each other.
These are examples of limbic reactions, reflected in the feet and legs, to situations, feelings, and intentions. They are very timely and accurate.
Similarly, a child may be sitting down to eat, but if he wants to go out and play, notice how his feet sway, how they stretch to reach the floor from a high chair, even when he has not yet finished with his meal. You can try to hold him in place, but he will wiggle and his feet will turn towards the nearest desired exit—an accurate reflection of where his feet and he wants to go. This is an intention cue, and we have several that we use to reflect our needs to do something.
Because our feet and legs are so honest, I place special emphasis in what they communicate while assessing for deception. Most people focus on the face, but unfortunately, our faces are very good at deceit. From an early age we are told, “don’t make that face,” even though we hate what we are being fed. As we get older it continues, we put on a “party face” at the request of our significant other, or we smile because the culture we come from requires it. And so we fake what we feel or think with our faces (thus a “poker face”) for social harmony. We also do it to protect ourselves from being discovered when we are being dishonest. Our feet and legs, because they are necessary for survival, make no such concessions.
As I state in my book, What Every Body is Saying: “Nervousness, stress, fear, anxiety, caution, boredom, restlessness, happiness, joy, hurt, shyness, coyness, humility, awkwardness, confidence, subservience, depression, lethargy, playfulness, sensuality, and anger can all manifest through the feet and legs.” When I was doing interviews in the FBI, I focused on the feet and legs precisely because they do reveal so much information about what is in the mind and liars think about their facial displays but not their legs and feet.
In 25 years observing and cataloguing behavior for the FBI, I noticed that when people begin to lie, they often distance themselves (part of the flight-distancing response, see FBI-LEB article) by standing further away from you. Or, they point their feet away from you but turn towards you with their torso. It looks okay on first inspection, but these are distancing behaviors which reveal quite a lot about what is going on in their brain.
Liars tend not to emphasize. They know what to say, but not the emotions that go with what they are saying (see FBI-LEB article), so we see fewer gravity-defying behaviors when they speak. Truthful people tend to defy gravity by rising on the balls of their feet when they are emphasizing a point, or arching their eyebrows. Liars don’t do that, because gravity defying behaviors are limbically derived—emotional exclamations we express through our body language, which they lack.
When we are telling the truth, our feet tend to take a wider, sturdier stance. The minute we feel insecure about what we are saying or if we are lying, our feet tend to come together. Again, this is a limbic response tethered to how we feel (insecure) about what is being said. When we aren’t mentally sure, it is reflected in our legs and feet.
When lying, the deceiver is concerned about being detected and what you may observe is that concern sometimes drives what I have come to call the “Ankle Quiver.” Here, the ankle begins to twitch causing the person to rock the foot sideways back and forth (bottom side to edge of foot). A truthful person has no such need to pacify themselves by this repetitive rocking behavior, but a liar may find such “under the table” behaviors to be self-soothing.
Lastly, and these are obviously not all the foot and leg behaviors to note, look for the person who makes a statement and then does a leg cleanse. By rubbing his hands (sometimes multiple times) on the top of his legs while seated, this pacifies the individual who is deceptive or harboring guilty knowledge. This often occurs when very direct, poignant questions are asked, causing a high degree of discomfort.
For more insight into the importance of the feet and the legs in assessing for deception, Chapter three in What Every Body is Saying explains in greater detail how we can use the feet and legs to decipher human behavior. So as you ponder the behaviors of others to determine what they are thinking, feeling, or intending, remember that the feet and the legs are valuable in that quest because they don’t let us down in their accuracy.