I could feel his breath on my face. He swayed side to side as I repeated the question “is there a problem here?” The tribal-tattooed frat guy smiled and adjusted his sleeve. He looked down towards the left; pursed his lips, dropped his eyebrows down, tightening his eyelids a little.
“No problem buddy” he said as he turned to stare down the beer-slicked hallway- but his feet remained in place.
In this split second movement, I knew a punch was about to be thrown.
There is both a spoken and silent language. Just as careful reading is critical to understanding words, careful observation is vital to understanding body language.
Ex-FBI Agent, Joe Navarro, wrote the book on body language (What Every BODY Is Saying) and his techniques are used by law enforcement all over the world.
“When observing nonverbal(s), the context of the situation is vital to understand what they mean” he says.
Bodies reflect the change in how a person is processing a given situation. Humans have a conscious thinking brain and an unconscious reflexive brain. While we have been taught from an early age to sensor what we say, our unconscious movements react in real time and always remain honest. By learning to detect these signals you can reveal hidden intention.
“Gestures, body distance, facial expressions, movement, touching, and posture all send messages” says Joe.
The most important thing is to label a person’s actions as either ones that show comfort or ones that reveal discomfort. From there you are able to tell whether the person is content, uninterested, stressed, pacifying, or preparing to fight.
Most people read body language solely through facial expression, but after believing Bill Clinton when he told us that he didn’t donate any semen to the open-handed Ms. Lewinsky, I think we can assume that doesn’t work. Actually, body language should be read from the feet upwards. People bluff from their hips up, but forget that their feet initiate the freeze, fight, or flight action. Since feet are the starting position for movement they are always the most honest part of the body.
When looking at the positioning of a person’s feet, torso, arms and their facial expression, there are three key concepts you should keep in mind: direction, openness, and the amount of space their action claims. A person’s feet will shift away from you, and direct themselves to the nearest exit if they are not interested. They will cross their arms in front of their chest (and vital organs) if they are feeling defensive. They will crawl into the fetal position and take up the least amount of space possible if they are feeling insecure. Edward Hall once wrote that the more territory we demand, the more we feel self-assured.
How did I know to dodge a punch before the drunken bastard had even thrown it? First of all, he adjusted his sleeve, which is an example of a pacifying movement. As people experience threatening situations, their brain attempts to restore to “normal conditions” by getting the body to perform a comforting behavior such as stroking an arm.
You might reason, though, that he smiled all while doing this. His smile stretched to the sides rather than getting pulled upwards – a real smile comes from the eyes.
Thirdly, he dropped his chin down to protect the most vulnerable part of his body: his neck. Then he pressed his lips in a way that made them almost disappear. This is a universal sign of stress. He furrowed his brow and squinted his eyes, which pretty much spells the words “I fucking hate you”.
When it came to his verbal “No problem buddy” there was no emphasis at all. You can spot a liar easily if emphasis in their speech sounds unnatural. When it comes to speech, it is more about the non-verbal presentation of the message. If body language contradicts their verbal message then deceit is around the corner.
It was his last turn, though, that tied it all together – he bluffed with his torso but his feet told it all.
But maybe I should have realized that my own body language affects how others perceive me. Maybe I shouldn’t have splayed my legs so far out, or leaned on the bar like I owned the damn place.
“Putting people at ease is the best way to ensure an honest transaction” Joe says.
Though our body language projects messages to other people, it is interesting to note that body language also shapes how we think and feel about ourselves. Social Physiologist, Amy Cuddy, found that by taking up space and standing in high power positions, you increase your testosterone levels (the confidence hormone) and lower your cortisol levels (the stress hormone). Cuddy says that you want to use power stances in social threat situations and when it came to this spikey-haired douche, that’s exactly what I did.