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Body Language

The Beauty of the Chin in Revealing Our Sentiments

The information revealed by our often-ignored chin.

Key points

  • We are the only primates to have a protruding chin.
  • The mentalis muscle underlies all chin behavior.
  • The chin often reveals we are about to cry.
  • The chin helps us to self-soothe when stressed.

Resting nicely below the lower lip and the mentolabeal crease is one physical attribute that makes humans stand out from other primates, and that is our chin, otherwise known as the “mental region” (from the Latin mentum, meaning chin). Rarely mentioned by researchers nor in body language books, the chin is highly revealing of our emotional states.

From the time we are born, neonates will begin to furrow their chin (thanks to the mentalis muscle and the surrounding buccolabial muscles along with levator labii) and signal they are about to cry way before you hear a sound or see a tear and even before they furrow their glabella. It is such a reliable tell.

As they grow older, the chin, innervated by the 7th cranial nerve (otherwise known as CN7, or the facial nerve) continues to reflect immediately the emotional state of the child from being uncomfortable because they are soiled to being hungry or upset.

Somewhere along the line, we tend to focus on the eyes to tell us the emotional state of others. Yet, for people like me who study human behavior for a living, the chin is so important in revealing emotions in real time.

Consider how we tuck our chin down in fear, apprehension, concern, embarrassment, or when piously showing shame or are contrite. Now, there is a behavior that can be seen at a distance, and it is performed subconsciously. Think about how many times you saw a student look at a report card with disappointment looking down or watch a losing football team walk off the field, chin down.

Conversely, look at that prideful child showing off a giant pumpkin they grew for the annual fair or the player nominated to be the team captain, and that chin rises commensurate with the honor.

But that is not all. In my decades with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), I observed hundreds of times when someone who was reluctant to cooperate or did not agree to assist investigators would often sit and shift their jaw to the side in silence—a behavior that as it turns out stimulates the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) nerves and is useful in releasing stress. The same behavior has also been seen when people have doubts or are incredulous. Some people will shift their chin back and forth repetitively, and repetitive behaviors are self-soothing behaviors that help to deal with stress.

Then there are the times I have seen, just before adults and children cry, that the chin begins to vibrate and the mentalis muscle oscillates uncontrollably up and down like a metronome as they hold back their emotions or just before they finally tear up. This is so accurate that I teach it to human resources professionals and those in the health sciences so that they can be fast in tune with the emotional state of others.

Lastly, consider how, in some cultures, the chin is used to signal a direction, such as “they went that way,” followed by pointing with the chin. I have seen it among the Native Americans living along the Colorado River and throughout the Caribbean, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. So, don’t be surprised if at the Miami International Airport (the gateway to Latin America) someone gives you directions by pointing with their chin when their hands are busy.

And speaking of busyness, note how often we take comfort in touching our chins to self-soothe or just to enjoy a moment while we are pondering something or reading. I tell students that if someone is pensively touching their chin and they don’t look up when you are nearby, leave them be—they are either enjoying a moment, deep in thought, or taking a moment for themselves.

And there you have it: a quick survey of how our chin communicates sentiments and feelings, giving us an advantage when we want to empathize and get to know others.

Copyright © 2024, Joe Navarro


Navarro, Joe. 2018. The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. New York : Harper Collins.

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