What Every Body is Saying

Joe Navarro
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Former FBI-agent shares a collection of incredibly useful tips on reading non-verbal behaviour—a means of communicating through facial expressions, gestures, touching, physical movements, posture and tone of voice. It's almost impossible to miss these non-verbal signals once you learn to recognise them.

Nonverbal Behaviour

Observing in context is key to understanding nonverbal behavior. During a job interview, I expect applicants to be nervous initially and for that nervousness to dissipate. If it shows up again when I ask specific questions, then I have to wonder why these nervous behaviours have suddenly presented again.

Learn to recognise and decode idiosyncratic nonverbal behaviours.

Idiosyncratic nonverbal behavior — a signal that is relatively unique to a particular individual.

For example, if you note your teenager scratches his head and bites his lip when he is about to take a test, this may be a reliable idiosyncratic tell that speaks of his nervousness or lack of preparation.

When you interact with others, try to establish their baseline behaviours. By examining what’s normal, we begin to recognise and identify what’s abnormal.

Knowing how to distinguish between comfort and discomfort will help you to focus on the most important behaviours for decoding nonverbal communications.

If in doubt as to what a behavior means, ask yourself if this looks like a comfort behavior (e.g., contentment, happiness, relaxation) or if it looks like a discomfort behavior (e.g., displeasure, unhappiness, stress, anxiety, tension).

The Limbic System

Major features of the limbic brain: amygdala and hippocampus.

The way animals, including humans, react to danger occurs in the follow- ing order: freeze, flight, fight.

When we are emotionally aroused—and a good fight will do that—it affects our ability to think effectively. This happens be- cause our cognitive abilities are hijacked so that the limbic brain can have full use of all available cerebral resources.

Pacifying Behaviours

To be successful at reading nonverbal behavior, learning to recognise and decode human pacifiers is absolutely critical.

e.g., chew- ing gum, biting pencils.

When you see them, stop and ask yourself, “Why is this person pacifying?”

Feet and Legs

Your feet, along with your legs, win the honesty award.

Nervousness, stress, fear, anxiety, caution, boredom, restlessness, happiness, joy, hurt, shyness, coyness, humility, awkwardness, confidence, subservience, depression, lethargy, playful- ness, sensuality, and anger can all manifest through the feet and legs.

If they move their feet—along with their torsos—to admit you, then the welcome is full and genuine. However, if they don’t move their feet to welcome you but, instead, only swivel at the hips to say hello, then they’d rather be left alone.

If you observe a person’s feet going from being together to being spread apart, you can be fairly confident that the individual is becoming increasingly unhappy.

We usually cross our legs in such a way so that we tilt toward the person we favour.

Seated leg crosses are also revealing. When people sit side by side, the direction of their leg crosses become significant. If they are on good terms, the top leg crossed over will point toward the other per- son. If a person doesn’t like a topic his companion brings up, he will switch the position of the legs so that the thigh becomes a barrier (see figures 24 and 25).

Our Need for Space

I typically lean in, give the person a hearty handshake (depending on the appropriate cultural norms in the situation), make good eye contact, and then take a step back and see what happens next.

One of three responses is likely to take place:

  • (a) the person will remain in place, which lets me know he or she is comfortable at that distance;
  • (b) the individual will take a step back or turn slightly away, which lets me know he or she needs more space or wants to be elsewhere;
  • or (c) the person will actually take a step closer to me, which means he or she feels comfortable and/or favorable toward me.

Torso, Hips, Chest, and Shoulders

Our ventral (front) side, where our eyes, mouth, chest, breasts, genitals, etc. are located, is very sensitive to things we like and dislike. When things are good, we expose our ventral sides toward what we favour, including those people who make us feel good. When things go wrong, relationships change, or even when topics are discussed that we disfavour, we will engage in ventral denial, by shifting or turning away.

Remember, it is by gauging changes from baseline postures that we can note when uneasiness arises.


When people are truly energised and happy, their arm motions defy gravity.

When we place our arms near someone else’s, the limbic brain is demonstrating overtly that we are so comfortable, physical contact is permissible. The flip side of this behavior is that we will remove our arms from the vicinity of our companion’s arms when the relationship is changing for the worse or when the individual with whom we are seated (whether a date or a stranger) is making us feel uncomfortable.

When the hands are out of sight or less expressive, it detracts from the perceived quality and honesty of the information being transmitted.

Hands and Fingers

A person can go from steepling (high confidence) to fingers interlaced (low confidence) and back to steepling (high confidence)—reflecting the ebb and flow of assurance and doubt.

Research tells us liars tend to gesture less, touch less, and move their arms and legs less than honest people (Vrij, 2003, 65). This is consistent with limbic reactions. In the face of a threat (in this case having a lie detected), we move less or freeze so as not to attract attention.

The covering of the neck area, throat, and/or the suprasternal notch during times of stress is a universal and strong indicator that the brain is actively processing something that is threatening, objectionable, unsettling, questionable, or emotional.

Neck touching is one of those behaviours that is so reliable and accurate that it truly merits our close attention.

When the hands stop illustrating and emphasising, it is usually a clue to a change in brain activity (perhaps because of a lack of commitment) and is cause for heightened awareness and assessment. Although, as we’ve noted, hand restriction can signal deception, do not immediately jump to this conclusion. The only inference you can draw at the moment the hands go dormant is that the brain is communicating a different sentiment or thought.


Pupil constriction and dilation

Because the pupils are small and difficult to see, particularly in dark eyes, and since changes in their size occur rapidly, pupil reactions are difficult to observe.

When we become aroused, are surprised, or are suddenly confronted, our eyes open up—not only do they widen, but the pupils also quickly dilate to let in the maximum amount of available light, thus sending the maximum amount of visual information to the brain.

Once we have a moment to process the information and if it is perceived negatively (it is an unpleasant surprise or an actual threat), in a fraction of a second the pupils will constrict (Ekman, 2003, 151)

As with most other tells, the eye-blocking response is most reliable and valuable when it happens immediately after a significant event that you can identify. If an eye block occurs right after you tell a person a specific piece of information, or upon making some type of an offer, it should tell you that something is amiss and the individual is troubled. At this point, you might want to rethink how you wish to proceed if your goal is to enhance your chances of interpersonal success with this person.

Real vs. Fake Smiles

When we exhibit a social or false smile, the lip corner stretches side- ways through the use of a muscle called the risorius. When used bilaterally, these effectively pull the corners of the mouth sideways but cannot lift them upward, as is the case with a true smile

Lip Compression

Lip pursing is so accurate that it really should be given greater attention. It shows up in numerous settings and circumstances and is a very reliable indicator that a person is thinking alternatively or is completely rejecting what is being said.

The flaring of nostrils is a facial cue that signals that a person is aroused.

A person with his chin down is seen as lacking confidence and experiencing negative sentiments while a person with his chin up is perceived as being in a positive frame of mind.  

The face can reveal a great deal of information but it can also mislead. You need to look for clusters of behaviours, constantly evaluate what you see in its context, and note whether the facial expression agrees with—or is in contrast to—signals from other parts of the body


Comfort/discomfort domain: An approach to uncovering deception. I suggested that when we are telling the truth and have no worries, we tend to be more comfortable than when we are lying or concerned about getting caught because we harbour “guilty knowledge.” The model also shows how we tend to display more emphatic behaviours when we are comfortable and truthful, and when we are uncomfortable, we don’t.

Remember that the moment you become suspicious, you are affecting how a person will respond to you. If you say, “You are lying” or “I think you are not telling the truth,” or even simply look at him or her suspiciously, you will influence the person’s behaviours (Vrij, 2003, 67). The best way to proceed is just to ask for ever-more clarifying details about the matter, such as a simple “I don’t understand” or “Can you explain how that happened again?” Often merely getting someone to expand on his or her statement will suffice in eventually sorting deceit from truth.

When we are comfortable, there should be synchrony in our nonverbal behavior. The breathing rhythm of two comfortable people will be similar, as will the tone and pitch of their speech and their general demeanour.

When being questioned, a person answering in the affirmative should have congruent head movement that immediately supports what is said; it should not be delayed. Lack of synchrony is exhibited when a person states, “I did not do it,” while her head is nodding in an affirmative motion. Likewise, asynchrony is demonstrated when a man is asked, “Would you lie about this?” and his head gives a slight nod while he answers, “No.” Upon catching themselves in this faux pas, people will reverse their head movements in an attempt to do damage control.

Image credits: What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro