Louder than words: Former FBI agent decodes our body language

Often a self-protective reflex, body language reflects our true emotional responses. Helen O’Callaghan talks to a former FBI agent about how to decipher what’s really being said.

Our eyes may be our most expressive body part but our feet are the most honest. This is according to retired FBI agent and specialist in non-verbal communications Joe Navarro, whose new book The Dictionary of Body Language (HarperCollins, €14) explains the hidden meanings behind the many conscious and sub-conscious things we do with our bodies.

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Body language, he says, is about survival. If our ancestors had to consciously think about freezing when they met a tiger or snake, the delay in action would mean certain death.

Our limbic system reacts to the world to protect us. Our bodies evolved these shortcuts – when faced with a threat, we freeze without thinking

So what about those honest feet? Navarro says when we’re comfortable in someone’s company our brain allows us to cross our legs, so we’re basically off balance. “The very minute someone says something to make us feel threatened, our brain immediately forces us to put both feet down so we’re not off balance.”

Navarro has seen feet tell the truth in scenarios like school reunions. Someone – meeting someone they had a bad experience with, even decades ago – may wear a social face, a social smile, but their feet will be turned away. “The brain shifts the feet away – it doesn’t permit us to go unhesitatingly towards something dangerous.”

As a FBI agent, Florida-based Navarro saw a lot of perception management.

We have to be careful with non-verbals because some people will use it to manipulate. Actors manipulate body language all the time of course and so do children [for example, child having tantrum to get what he wants]. And then there are the adults who pretend to be your friend or that they’re enjoying your company

Niceness is not goodness, is one of Navarro’s favourite maxims, and his book has a body language pointer for distinguishing false smiles from true. “With a false smile, sometimes only one side of the face is involved or the smile goes toward the ear rather than the eyes. It looks contrived. A true smile engages the eyes and the facial muscles smoothly on both sides of the face.”

Describing non-verbal communication as “powerful stuff”, he says it’s the principal way we communicate with babies, choose our mates (“we don’t ask them to write a thesis”) and assess for danger.

Of course, there are cultural differences in bodily cues. “The custom of shaking hands isn’t universal – in some cultures a bow or kiss on the cheek might be more appropriate,” says Navarro, adding that eye contact is governed by cultural norms too. “In some cultures, it’s permissible to look at someone for three to four seconds, while in others anything beyond two seconds is considered rude.

Culture also determines who can look at whom. For instance, many African American and Hispanic children are taught to look down when addressed by elders, as a form of respect

But non-verbal communication is hardwired into us. “It has been our universal language. When the seamen sailed the seas in the old days, they used non-verbals. In the Mediterranean area between Carthage and Rome, there must have been 100 different languages,” he says, adding that in such a scenario body language was essential.

Use body language to read what’s really going on personally, professionally and socially.

Date’s going well

It’s a good sign if your date leans forward when you do. Mirroring suggests agreement in conversation, mood or temperament. Watch for wrist behaviours too, says Navarro – these can be a window into the mind. “Holding a drink or cigarette, a woman will expose the inner wrist if she’s interested in [her date] or comfortable. The minute she isn’t, she’ll rotate the wrist and only expose the outside. A woman might also play with her hair, palm out.”

Other bodily cues that romance is in the air include pupil dilation – eyes trying to soak up as much light as possible – and increased blink rate, which can indicate arousal. Watch out too for armpit exposure (e.g. scratching back of head while exposing the armpit directly toward a person of interest) and cheek framing – resting jaw on an extended thumb and placing index finger up along side of the cheek shows interest from a distance.

Under stress

Neck touching is a big indicator of insecurities, apprehension, anxiety, worries or issues, says Navarro. “It’s often overlooked – yet it’s one of the most accurate when it comes to revealing that something’s bothering us.” He recalls a social occasion with a group of professors and their wives. Someone said: ‘Hopefully, we can do this again in another six months.’ Navarro noted a wife nearby clutching at her necklace and making a fist of her hand.

“Touching or covering the indented area of the neck below the Adam’s apple and just above the upper chest indicates concern, insecurities or fear. Men tend to grab their neck or throat robustly or cover this area with their full hand as they adjust their tie or grab their collar. Women touch this area more frequently than men and they tend to do so more lightly, with their fingertips. Whether done delicately or strongly, covering the weakest point of the body signifies something’s at issue,” says Navarro, adding that a few months later the wife in question served her husband with divorce papers.

Ventilating hair is another way people self-pacify when stressed. “Women lift up the hair at the back of their neck quickly when concerned, upset, stressed or flustered. Men tend to ventilate on the top of the head by running their fingers through the hair.”

What we’re doing with our chin can be another stress giveaway.

Sometimes the chin reflects emotional turmoil even before the eyes. When we’re worried or anxious, we instinctively move our chin as close to the neck as possible – an excellent indicator of insecurity, doubt, even fear

I’m managing your perception of me

Sneaking a pacifying touch by slightly rubbing the nose with the index finger indicates tension that’s being masked and the need to convey the perception that everything’s fine, says Navarro, who suggests looking for it in professionals accustomed to being in control but who are under stress.

On the other hand, when people are pleased with themselves but are trying not to show it, they often hold their arms against their body and lift their hands at the wrist so the wrist’s almost at a 90-degree angle, with palms facing down. It’s also used when someone’s trying to control their excitement and don’t want to be noticed.

In charge

Interlacing of the fingers behind the head with elbows out makes the person seem bigger. It’s a territorial display we do when comfortable and in charge – the interlaced fingers behind the head are comforting and soothing, while elbows out projects confidence.

Shoulder widening and arm spreading (spreading arms over several chairs or a couch) and elbows spreading out (across a table or desk) demonstrate confidence through a territorial display. This is often sub-conscious and the person may be unaware they’re exhibiting self-assuredness.


“There’s no Pinocchio effect, no single behaviour indicative of deception,” says Navarro. “When someone’s asked a question, they may show anxiety, dislike or concern but you don’t know why they’re doing that. A person displaying discomfort isn’t necessarily lying – they may just not appreciate being asked the question.”

Reactions to being asked a question that show psychological discomfort include avoiding eye contact, looking down and lip biting – again not necessarily signs of deception. Keep your eyes open when someone’s looking for acceptance though.

“When individuals lack confidence or lie, they tend to scrutinise their audience to see if they’re being believed. This isn’t necessarily demonstrative of deception, only of seeking acceptance for what is said. A rule of thumb: the truth-teller merely conveys, while the liar often tries to convince,” says Navarro, though he notes this has to be assessed under very neutral conditions. “If I tell you the truth but you look at me very quizzically, you may be compelled to try to convince me.

Researchers [also] tell us that when people suddenly begin to lie, they engage in fewer hand gestures—and with less emphasis. If the hands suddenly become passive or restrained, it’s likely the person is losing confidence in what he’s saying, for whatever reason

Strong greetings

Go for a good handshake, good eye contact, a smile if appropriate, and the arm extended with a slight bend at the elbow. “The fingers approach the other person’s hand pointing downward, the hands clasp with equal pressure, engulfing each other, which allows for release of the hormone oxytocin (furthers social bonding) and after a second or so the hands are released,” says Navarro. Which of course means Trump-like crushing or lengthy retention of the hand is a definite no-no.

Also, a happy eyebrow flash (arching of eyebrows) can be immensely powerful. “It conveys excitement or the recognition of something pleasing. We arch our brows in less than one-fifth of a second. It’s a gravity-defying behaviour – it’s performed in an upward direction, and [like] most gravity-defying behaviours, it signifies something positive,” explains Navarro, who says the Irish are particularly good at eyebrow flashing.

“Last time I was in Limerick, I was being introduced to people in a pub. Everybody said ‘hi Joe’ and they all lit up and arched their eyebrows. It’s very welcoming.”

Confident or not

The hand steeple – place fingertips of both hands together, spread them and then arch hands so the tips of the fingers look like a church steeple – is a universal display of confidence often used by those in a leadership position. Think German chancellor Angela Merkel. A close cousin of this one is modified steeple – interlace all of the fingers, with the exception of the index fingers, which are erect and touching at the fingertips. “It looks more contrite than a regular hand steeple – nonetheless, it still signifies assurance and confidence,” says Navarro.

Bodily signals that someone lacks confidence, on the other hand, include raising and keeping both shoulders high towards the ears, sudden covering of the eyes with a hand or fingers, the chin suddenly pointing downward in response to a question or finger holding – holding our own fingers lightly in front of us. “It’s a very tactile, self-soothing behaviour. Prince Harry is famous for this,” says Navarro adding that many people tend to do it when speaking to someone they haven’t met before.

I want to win you over

Neck exposure – tilting the head to the side, exposing the side of the neck, is one of the most effective ways to win others over, especially when coupled with a smile, says Navarro. “We instinctively tilt our head when we hold or even see a newborn baby. As we get older, the head tilt features in courtship behaviour, as we stare into a lover’s eyes with our head canted to the side, exposing our vulnerable neck. In personal and professional relationships this behaviour also signifies a person is listening and interested. It’s a powerfully disarming behaviour, extremely useful during confrontation.”

Convince me

Eyebrow asymmetry – one eyebrow arches high while the other remains in the normal position or sinks lower – signals the person’s questioning or doubting what’s being said. “The actor Jack Nicholson is famous for questioning what others say by this method [whether he’s on or off-screen].” Navarro also associates earlobe rubbing with doubt, hesitation or weighing of options.

“Actor Humphrey Bogart was notorious for playing with his earlobe as he pondered questions.” Watch too what someone’s chin is telling you – moving the chin left to right against the palm of the hand is a subconscious expression of disagreement. “I’ve seen people sitting around a conference table show silent displeasure by shifting their chin while resting on the palm of their hand.”

I don’t like you

Our ventral or tummy side is one of the most vulnerable places on the body. Navarro says we turn our tummy side away from others when we don’t like them, they make us uneasy or we don’t like what they say. This he calls ventral denial. “[When you] meet someone you don’t care for, your facial greeting might be friendly but your belly will subconsciously shift away, [essentially] denying that person your most vulnerable side. This can even take place among friends if something disagreeable is said.”

He points to Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. “Over the last year of their [marriage], I can’t remember a time when they were belly to belly. Always turning your [tummy] away is a true reflection of the limbic system saying ‘there’s antipathy here’.”

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