Joe Navarro M.A.

Spycatcher

8 Ways Our Feet and Legs Reveal Our Emotions

The often-neglected information we transmit with our lower extremities.

Posted Apr 29, 2018

Dragon Images/Shutterstock
Source: Dragon Images/Shutterstock

A decade ago when What Every BODY is Saying was first published, I highlighted that our feet and legs are often neglected in the study of body language, even though they are very accurate transmitters of valuable information—often more reliable than facial tells. I shared that:

"[N]ervousness, 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.”

That is quite a lot.

Over millions of years, our limbic system made sure that our feet and legs reacted instantly to any threat or concern; their reliability has, in part, assured our survival.  Consider these examples from my latest book, The Dictionary of Body Language:

  • Someone walks up to us late at night while we are at the ATM machine and our legs tighten up, assuring a solid footing and orienting our feet toward 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 a steep precipice, so we approach hesitatingly.
  • We cross our legs when we are comfortably standing in the elevator, yet when a group of strangers enter, we immediately uncross our legs so our feet are firmly on the ground in case we need to leave quickly.
  • We are talking to a good friend but as time creeps up on us, suddenly we notice without even looking that one of his feet is pointed down the street. No need to ask: It is time to go. Our feet are transmitting "I have to leave," even before you look at your watch or announce that you have to go.
  • Want to know if two people talking in the hallway want you to join them? If their feet don’t move to welcome you and they only rotate at the hips to greet you, then no matter how warm the smile they offer, just keep on walking by. 
  • When a relationship is turning sour, there will be less and less foot contact. A couple may hold hands in public, but their feet simply avoid each other as feelings cool. 
  • Alternatively, when people like each other, there will be increasing proximity of the feet culminating eventually with touch or what is often referred to as “playing footsies”—especially during the courtship phase.
  • Speaking of courtship, women often telegraph their interest in a potential partner by how they play with their shoe, dangling it from their toes in the new person's presence. This is a high comfort display that says, I am very comfortable with you. The minute she is no longer interested in the other person or feels uncomfortable, note how quickly the foot goes back into the shoe.
  • Even poker players can benefit from keeping an eye on foot and leg behavior. Often when a player has a monster hand (“the nuts” in poker parlance) they will inadvertently give that away by demonstrating happy feet (they bounce up and down on the balls of the feet) visible to all by their shaking shirts.

What about deception, you ask? As you know by now, there is no single behavior indicative of deception. What we do know about the feet is that when we are less confident, our feet reflect that. We do fewer gravity-defying behaviors such as rising on the balls of our feet. We may, if sitting, withdraw the feet suddenly under the chair when asked a difficult or incriminating question, as if to guard them, or our feet may shake or quiver at the ankle, revealing our nervous tension or lack of confidence. Our feet can reflect anxiety as well as fear in real time, something we sometimes mask with a smile. And while we can detect nervousness or tension, what we cannot say is that it is decisively indicative of deception.

Our feet and legs allow us to walk, run, and play. They contribute to our quality of life, even to intimacy, as well as to our protection. And I hope you appreciate how useful they are in deciphering what people are thinking, fearing, desiring, or intending.