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A Framework for Understanding

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As we approach the end of the twentieth century, we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of social scientist-the non-verbalist. Just as the birdwatcher delights in watching birds and their behaviour, so the non-verbalist delights in watching the non-verbal cues and signals of human beings. He watches them at social functions, at beaches, on television, at the office or anywhere that people interact. He is a student of behaviour who wants to learn about the actions of his fellow humans so that he may ultimately learn more about himself and how he can improve his relationships with others.

It seems almost incredible that, over the million or more years of man’s evolution, the non-verbal aspects of communication have been actively studied on any scale only since the 1960s and that the public has become aware of their existence only since Julius Fast published a book about body language in 1970. This was a summary of the work done by behavioural scientists on nonverbal communication up until that time, and even today, most people are still ignorant of the existence of body language, let alone its importance in their lives.

Charlie Chaplin and many other silent movie actors were the pioneers of non-verbal communication skills; they were the only means of communication available on the screen. Each actor was classed as good or bad by the extent to which he could use gestures  and  other  body  signals  to  communicate  effectively.  When  talking  films became popular and less emphasis was placed on the non-verbal aspects of acting, many silent movie actors faded into obscurity and those with good verbal skills prevailed.

As far as the technical study of body language goes, perhaps the most influential pre-twentieth-century work was Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872. This spawned the modern studies of facial expres- sions and body language and many of Darwin’s ideas and observations have since been validated by modern researchers around the world. Since that time, researchers have noted and recorded almost one million nonverbal cues and signals. Albert Mehrabian found that the total impact of a message is about 7 per cent verbal (words only) and 38 per cent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection and other sounds) and 55 per cent non-verbal. Professor Birdwhistell made some similar estimates of the amount of non-verbal communication that takes place amongst humans. He estimated that the average person actually speaks words for a total of about ten or eleven minutes a day and that the average sentence takes only about 2.5 seconds. Like Mehrabian, he found that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35 per cent and that over 65 per cent of communication is done non-verbally.

Most researchers generally agree that the verbal channel is used primarily for conveying  information,  while  the  non-verbal  channel  is  used  for  negotiating interpersonal attitudes, and in some cases is used as a substitute for verbal messages. For example, a woman can give a man a ‘look to kill’; she will convey a very clear message to him without opening her mouth.

Regardless   of   culture,   words   and   movements   occur   together   with   such predictability that Birdwhistell says that a well-trained person should be able to tell what movement a man is making by listening to his voice. In like manner, Birdwhistell learned how to tell what language a person was speaking, simply by watching his gestures.

Many people find difficulty in accepting that humans are still biologically animals. Homo sapiens is a species of primate, a hairless ape that has learned to walk on two limbs and has a clever, advanced brain. Like any other species, we are dominated by biological rules that control our actions, reactions, body language and gestures. The fascinating thing is that the human animal is rarely aware of his postures, movements and gestures that can tell one story while his voice may be telling another.


From  a  technical  point  of  view,  whenever  we  call  someone  ‘perceptive’  or

‘intuitive’, we are referring to his or her ability to read another person’s non-verbal cues and to compare these cues with verbal signals. In other words, when we say that we have a ‘hunch’ or ‘gut feeling’ that someone has told us a lie, we really mean that their body language and their spoken words do not agree. This is also what speakers call audience awareness, or relating to a group. For example, if the audience were sitting back in their seats with chins down and arms crossed on their chest, a ‘perceptive’ speaker would get a hunch or feeling that his delivery was not going across. He would become aware that he needed to take a different approach to gain audience involvement. Likewise, a speaker who was not ‘perceptive’ would blunder on regardless.

Women are generally more perceptive than men, and this fact has given rise to what is commonly referred to as ‘women’s intuition’. Women have an innate ability to pick up and decipher non-verbal signals, as well as having an accurate eye for small details. This is why few husbands can lie to their wives and get away with it and why, conversely, most women can pull the wool over a man’s eyes without his realising it. This female intuition is particularly evident in women who have brought up young children. For the first few years, the mother relies solely on the non-verbal channel to communicate with the child and this is believed to be the reason why women often

become more perceptive negotiators than men.


Much research and debate has been done to discover whether non-verbal signals are inborn, learned, genetically transferred or acquired in some other way. Evidence was collected from observation of blind and/or deaf people who could not have learned non- verbal signals through the auditory or visual channels, from observing the gestural be- haviour of many different cultures around the world and from studying the behaviour of our nearest anthropological relatives, the apes and monkeys.

The conclusions of this research indicate that some gestures fall into each category. For example, most primate children are  born with the immediate ability to suck, indicating that this is either inborn or genetic. The German scientist Eibl-Eibesfeldt found that the smiling expressions of children born deaf and blind occur independently of learning or copying, which means that these must also be inborn gestures. Ekman, Friesen  and  Sorenson  supported  some  of  Darwin’s  original  beliefs  about  inborn gestures when they studied the facial expressions of people from five widely different

cultures. They found that each culture used the same basic facial gestures to show emotion, which led them to the conclusion that these gestures must be inborn.

When you cross your arms on your chest, do you cross left over right or right over left? Most people cannot confidently describe which way they do this until they try it. Where one way feels comfortable, the other feels completely wrong. Evidence suggests that this may well be a genetic gesture that cannot be changed.

Debate still exists as to whether some gestures are culturally learned and become habitual, or are genetic. For example, most men put on a coat right arm first; most women put it on left arm first. When a man passes a woman in a crowded street, he usually turns his body towards her as he passes; she usually turns her body away from him. Does she instinctively do this to protect her breasts? Is this an inborn female reaction or has she learned to do this by unconsciously watching other females?

Much of our basic non-verbal behaviour is learned and the meaning of many movements and gestures is culturally determined. Let us now look at these aspects of body language.


Most of the basic communication gestures are the same all over the world. When people are happy they smile; when they are sad or angry they frown or scowl. Nodding the head is almost universally used to indicate ‘yes’ or affirmation. It appears to be a form of head lowering and is probably an inborn gesture, as it is also used by deaf and blind people. Shaking the head from side to side to indicate ‘no’ or negation is also universal and may well be a gesture that is learned in infancy. When a baby has had enough milk, he turns his head from side to side to reject his mother’s breast. When the young child has had enough to eat, he shakes his head from side to side to stop his parent’s attempt to spoon feed him and in this way he quickly learns to use the head shaking  gesture  to  show  disagreement  or  a

negative attitude.

The evolutionary origin of some gestures can be traced to our primitive animal past. Baring the teeth is derived from the act of attacking and is still used by modern man in the  form  of  a  sneer  and  other  such  hostile gestures, even though he will not attack with his  teeth.  Smiling  was  originally  a  threat gesture, but today it is done in conjunction with    non-threatening    gestures    to    show pleasure.

The shoulder shrug is also a good example of a universal gesture that is used to show that a person does not know or understand what you are talking about. It is a multiple gesture that  has  three  main  parts:  exposed  palms, hunched shoulders and raised brow.

Just as verbal language differs from culture to culture, so the non-verbal language may also differ. Whereas one gesture may be common in a particular culture and have a clear interpretation, it may be meaningless in another culture or even have a completely

opposite meaning. Take, for example, the cultural interpretations and implications of three common hand gestures, the ring gesture, the thumb-up and V sign.

The Ring or ‘OK’ Gesture

This gesture was popularised in the USA  during the early nineteenth century, apparently by the newspapers that, at the time, were starting a craze of using initials to shorten common phrases. There’ are many different views about what the initials ‘OK’ stand for, some believing it stood for ‘all correct’ which may have been misspelled as

‘oll korrect’, while others say that it means the opposite of ‘knock-out’ that is, K.O. Another popular theory is that it is an abbreviation of ‘Old Kinderhook’, from the birthplace of a nineteenth century American president who used the initials as a campaign slogan. Which theory is the correct one we may never know, but it seems that the ring itself represents the letter ‘O’ in the ‘OK’ signal. The-,’OK’ meaning is common to all English-speaking countries and, although its meaning is fast spreading across Europe and Asia, it has other origins and meanings in certain places. For example, in France it also means ‘zero’ or ‘nothing’; in Japan it can mean ‘money’; in some Mediterranean countries it is an orifice signal, often used to infer that a man is homosexual.

For overseas travellers, the safest rule to obey is, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. This can help avoid any possible embarrassing circumstances.

The Thumb-Up Gesture

In Britain, Australia and New Zealand the thumb-up gesture has three meanings; it is commonly used by hitch-hikers who are thumbing a lift, it is an OK signal, and when the thumb is jerked sharply upwards it becomes an insult signal, meaning ‘up yours’ or

‘sit on this’. In some countries, such as Greece, its main meaning is ‘get stuffed’, so you can imagine the dilemma of the Australian hitch-hiker using this gesture in that country! When Italians count from one to five, they use this gesture to mean ‘one’ and the index finger then becomes ‘two’, whereas most Australians, Americans and English people count ‘one’ on the index finger and two on the middle finger. In this case the thumb will represent the number ‘five’.

The thumb is also used, in combination with other gestures, as a power and superiority signal or in situations where people try to get us ‘under their thumb’. A later chapter takes a closer look at the use of the thumb in these particular contexts.

The V Sign

This      sign      is      popular throughout      Australia,      New Zealand  and  Great  Britain  and carries       an       ‘up       yours’ interpretation. Winston Churchill popularised the V for victory sign during  World  War  II,  but  his two-fingered  version  was  done with the palm facing out, whereas the   palm  faces        towards        the speaker  for  the  obscene   insult version. In most parts of Europe, however,   the   palm   facing   in version  still  means  ‘victory’  so that an Englishman who uses it to tell a European to ‘get stuffed’

could leave the European wondering about what victory the Englishman meant. This signal also means the number two in many parts of Europe, and if the insulted European were a bartender, his response could be to give an Englishman or an Australian two mugs of beer.

These  examples  show  that  cultural  misinterpretation  of  gestures  can  produce embarrassing  results  and  that  a  person’s  cultural  background  should  always  be considered before jumping to conclusions about his or her body language or gestures. Therefore, unless otherwise specified, our discussion should be considered culturally specific, that is, generally pertaining to adult, white middle class people raised in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, North America and other places where English is the primary language.


One of the most serious mistakes a novice in body language can make is to interpret a solitary gesture in isolation of other gestures or other circumstances. For example, scratching the head can mean a number of things -dandruff, fleas, sweating, uncertainty, forgetfulness or lying, depending on the other gestures that occur at the same time, so we must always look at gesture clusters for a correct reading.

Like  any  other  language,  body  language  consists  of  words,  sentences  and punctuation. Each gesture is like a single word and a word may have several different meanings. It is only when you put the word into a sentence with other words that you can fully understand its meaning. Gestures come in ‘sentences’ and invariably tell the truth about a person’s feelings or attitudes. The ‘perceptive’ person is one who can read the  non-verbal  sentences  and  accurately  match  them  against  the  person’s  verbal sentences.

Figure 5 shows a common critical evaluation gesture cluster. The main one is the hand-to-face gesture, with the index finger pointing up the cheek while another finger covers the mouth and the thumb supports the chin. Further evidence that this listener is critical of the speaker is seen by the fact that the legs are tightly crossed and the arm crosses  the  body  (defensive)  while  the  head  and  chin  are  down  (hostility).  This non-verbal ‘sentence’ says something like, ‘I don’t like what you are saying and I disagree with you.’


If you, as the speaker, were to ask the listener shown in Figure 5 to give his opinion of what you have just said and he said that he disagreed with you, his non-verbal signals would  be  congruent  with  his  verbal  sentences,  that  is,  they  would  match  or  be consistent. If, however, he said he was enjoying what you had to say, he would be lying because his words and gestures would be incongruent. Research shows that non-verbal signals carry about five times as much impact as the verbal channel and that, when the two are incongruent, people rely on the non-verbal message; the verbal content may be disregarded.

We often see a high ranking politician standing behind a lectern with his arms tightly folded across his chest (defensive) and chin down (critical or hostile), while telling his audience how receptive and open he is to the ideas of young people. He may attempt to convince the audience of his warm, humane approach while giving short, sharp karate chops to the lectern. Sigmund Freud once noted that while a patient was verbally expressing happiness with her marriage, she was unconsciously slipping her wedding ring on and off her finger. Freud  was aware of the significance of this unconscious gesture and was not surprised when marriage problems began to surface.

Observation  of  gesture  clusters  and  congruence  of  the  verbal  and  non-verbal channels are the keys to accurate interpretation of body language.

Gestures in Context

In addition to looking for gesture clusters and congruence of speech and body movement, all gestures should be considered in the context in which they occur. If, for example, someone was sitting at a bus terminal with arms and legs tightly crossed and chin down and it was a chilly winter’s day, it would most likely mean that he or she was cold, not defensive. If, however, the person used the same gestures while you were sitting across a table from him trying to sell him an idea, product or service, they could be correctly interpreted as meaning that the person was negative or defensive about the situation.

Throughout this book all gestures will be considered in context and, where possible, gesture clusters will be examined.

Other Factors Affecting Interpretation

A man who has a ‘dead fish’ hand shake is likely to be accused of having a weak character and the chapter on hand shake techniques will explore the reason for this popular theory. But if a man has arthritis in his hands, it is likely that he will use a ‘dead fish’ hand shake to avoid the pain of a strong one. Similarly, artists, musicians, surgeons and those in vocations whose work is delicate and involves use of their hands generally prefer not to shake hands, but, if they are forced to do so, they may use a

‘dead fish’ to protect them.

Someone who wears ill-fitting or tight clothing may  be unable to use certain gestures, and this can affect use of body language. This applies to a minority of people, but it is important to consider what effect a person’s physical restrictions or disabilities may have on his or her body movement.

Status and Power

Research in the field of linguistics has  shown that there is  a direct relationship between the amount of status, power or prestige a person commands and that person’s range of vocabulary. In other words, the higher up the social or management ladder a person is, the better able he is to communicate in words and phrases. Non-verbal research has revealed a correlation between a person’s command of the spoken word and the amount of gesticulation that that person uses to communicate his or her message. This means that a person’s status, power or prestige is also directly related to the number of gestures or body movements he uses. The person at the top end of the social or management scale can use his range of words to communicate his meaning, whereas the less educated or unskilled person will rely more on gestures than words to communicate.

Throughout this book, most of the examples given refer to white, middle-class people but, as a general rule the higher the person on the socio-economic scale, the less gesticulation and body movement he uses.

The speed of some gestures and how obvious they look to others is also related to the age of the individual. For example, if a five-year-old child tells a lie to his or her parent, the mouth will be deliberately covered with one or both hands immediately afterwards (Figure 6). The gesture of covering the mouth alerts the parent to the lie and this gesture continues to be used throughout the individual’s lifetime, usually varying only in the speed at which it is done. When the teenager tells a lie, the hand is brought to

the mouth like that of a five-year-old, but instead of the obvious hand slapping gesture over the mouth, the fingers rub lightly around it (Figure 7).

This mouth-covering gesture becomes even more refined in adulthood. When the adult tells a lie, his brain instructs his hand to cover his mouth in an attempt to block the deceitful words, just as it does for the five-year-old and the teenager, but at the last moment the hand is pulled away from the face and a nose touch gesture results (Figure

8).  This  gesture  is  nothing  more  than  the  adult’s  sophisticated  version  of  the mouth-covering gesture that was used in childhood. This is an example of the fact that, as an individual gets older, many of his gestures become sophisticated and less obvious, which is why it is often more difficult to read the gestures of a fifty year-old than those of a much younger person.


A commonly asked question is, ‘Is it possible to fake your own body language?’ The general answer to this question is ‘no’ because of the lack of congruence that is likely to occur in the use of the main gestures, the body’s microsignals and the spoken

words. For example, open palms are associated with honesty but when the faker holds his palms out and smiles at you as he tells a lie, his microgestures give him away. His pupils may contract, one eyebrow may lift or the comer of his mouth may twitch, and these signals contradict the open palm gesture and the sincere smile. The result is that the receiver tends not to believe what he hears.

The human mind seems to possess a fail-safe mechanism that registers ‘tilt’ when it receives a series of incongruent non-verbal messages. There are, however, some cases in which body language is deliberately faked to gain certain advantages. Take, for example, the Miss World or Miss Universe contest, in which each contestant uses studiously learned body movements to give the impression of warmth and sincerity. To the extent that each contestant can convey these signals, she will score points from the judges, but even the experts can only fake body language for a short period of time and eventually the body will emit signals that are independent of conscious actions. Many politicians are experts in faking body language in order to get the voters to believe what they  are  saying  and  the  politician  who  can  successfully  do  this  is  said  to  have


The face is used more often than any other part of the body to cover up lies. We use smiles, nods and winks in an attempt to cover up, but unfortunately for us, our body signals tell the truth and there is a lack of congruence between our body gestures and facial signals. The study of facial signals is an art in itself. Little space is devoted to it in this book and for more information about it I recommend Face Language by Robert L. Whiteside.

In summary, it is difficult to fake body language for a long period of time but, as we shall discuss, it is good to learn and to use positive open gestures to communicate with others and to eliminate gestures that may give negative signals. This can make it more comfortable to be with people and can make you more acceptable to them.

How To Tell Lies Successfully

The difficulty with lying is that the subconscious mind acts automatically and independently of our verbal lie, so our body language gives us away. This is why people who rarely tell lies are easily caught, regardless of how convincing they may sound. The moment they begin to lie, the body sends out contradictory signals, and these  give  us  our  feeling  that  they  are  not  telling  the  truth.  During  the  lie,  the subconscious  mind  sends  out  nervous  energy  that  appears  as  a  gesture  that  can contradict what the person said. Some people whose jobs involve lying, such as politicians, lawyers, actors and television announcers, have refined their body gestures to the point where it is difficult to ‘see’ the lie, and people fall for it, hook, line and sinker.

They refine their gestures in one of two ways. First, they practise what ‘feel’ like the right gestures when they tell the lie, but this is only successful when they have practised telling numerous lies over long periods of time. Second, they can eliminate most gestures so that they do’ not use any positive or negative gestures while lying, but this is also very difficult to do.

Try this simple test when an occasion presents itself. Tell a  deliberate lie to an acquaintance and make a conscious effort to suppress all body gestures while your body is in full view of the other person. Even when your major body gestures are consciously suppressed, numerous microgestures will still be transmitted. These include facial

muscular twitching, expansion and contraction of pupils, sweating at the brow, flushing of the cheeks, increased rate of eye blinking and numerous other minute gestures that signal deceit. Research using slow motion cameras shows that these microgestures can occur within a split second and it is only people such as professional interviewers, sales people and those whom we call perceptive who can consciously see them during a conversation or negotiation. The best interviewers and sales people are those who have developed  the  unconscious  ability  to  read  the  microgestures  during  face-to-face encounters.

It is obvious, then, that to be able to lie successfully, you must have your body hidden or out of sight. This is why police interrogation involves placing the suspect on a chair in the open or placing him under lights with his  body in full view of the interrogators; his lies are much easier to  see under those circumstances. Naturally, telling lies is easier if you are sitting behind a desk where your body is partially hidden, or while peering over a fence or behind a closed door. The best way to lie is over the telephone!


Set aside at least fifteen minutes a day to study and read the gestures of other people, as well as acquiring a conscious awareness of your own gestures. A good reading ground is anywhere that people meet and interact. An airport is a particularly good place for observing the entire spectrum of human gestures, aspeople openly express eagerness, anger, sorrow, happiness, impatience and many other emotions through gestures. Social functions, business meetings and parties are also excellent. Having studied the art of body language, you can go to a party, sit alone in a corner all evening like a wallflower and have an exciting time just watching other people’s body language rituals! Television also offers an excellent way of learning nonverbal communication. Turn down the sound and try to understand what is happening by first watching the picture. By turning the sound up every five minutes, you will be able to check how accurate your non-verbal readings are and before long it will be possible to watch an entire program without any  sound and understand what is  happening, just as deaf people do.

Territories and Zones

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Thousands of books and articles have been written about the staking out and guarding of territories by animals, birds, fish and primates, but only in recent years has it  been  discovered  that  man  also  has  territories.  When  this  is  learned  and  the implications understood, not only can enormous insights into one’s own behaviour and that of others be gained but the face-to-face reactions of others can be predicted. American anthropologist Edward T. Hall was one of the pioneers in the study of man’s spatial needs and in the early 1960s he coined the word ‘proxemics’ (from ‘proximity’ or nearness). His research into this field has led to new understanding about our relationships with our fellow humans.

Every country is a territory staked out by clearly defined boundaries and sometimes protected by armed guards. Within each country are usually smaller territories in the form of states and counties. Within these are even smaller territories called cities, within which are suburbs, containing many streets that, in themselves, represent a closed territory to those who live there.  The inhabitants of each territory share an intangible allegiance to it and have been known to turn to savagery and killing in order to protect it.

A territory is also an area or space that a person claims as his own, as if it were an extension of his body. Each person has his own personal territory which includes the area that exists around his possessions, such as his home which is bounded by fences, the inside of his motor vehicle, his own bedroom or personal chair and, as Dr Hall discovered, a defined air space around his body.

This chapter will deal mainly with the implications of this air space and how people react when it is invaded.


Most animals have a certain air space around their bodies that they claim as their personal space. How far the space extends is mainly dependent on how crowded were the conditions in which the animal was raised. A lion raised in the remote regions of Africa may have a territorial  air space with a radius of fifty kilometres or more, depending on the density of the lion population in that area, and it marks its territorial boundaries by urinating or defecating around them. On the other hand, a lion raised in captivity with other lions may have a personal space of only several metres, the direct result of crowded conditions.

Like the other animals, man has his own personal portable ‘air bubble’ that he carries around with him and its size is dependent on the density of the population in the place where he grew up. This personal zone distance is therefore culturally determined. Where some cultures, such as the Japanese, are accustomed to crowding, others prefer the ‘wide open spaces’ and like to keep their distance. However, we are mainly concerned with the territorial behaviour of people raised in Western cultures.

Status can also have an effect on the distance at which a person stands in relation to others and this will be discussed in a later chapter.

Zone Distances

The radius of the air bubble around suburban middle class white people living in Australia, New Zealand, England, North America and Canada is generally the same. It can be broken down into four distinct zone distances.

1. Intimate Zone (between 15 and 45 centimetres or 6 to 18 inches)

Of all the zone distances, this is by far the most important as it is this zone that a person guards as if it were his own property. Only those who are emotionally close to that person are permitted to enter it. This includes lovers, parents, spouse, children, close friends and relatives. There is a sub-zone that extends up to 15 centimetres (6 inches) from the body that can be entered only during physical contact. This is the close intimate zone.

2. Personal Zone (between 46 centimetres and 1.22 metres or 18 to 48 inches)

This is the distance that we stand from others at cocktail parties, office parties, social functions and friendly gatherings.

3. Social Zone (between 1.22 and 3.6 metres or 4 to 12 feet)

We stand at this distance from strangers, the plumber or carpenter doing repairs around our home, the postman, the local shopkeeper, the new employee at work and people whom we do not know very well.

4. Public Zone (over 3.6 metres or 12 feet)

Whenever we address a large group of people, this is the comfortable distance at which we choose to stand.

Practical Applications of Zone Distances

Our intimate zone is normally entered by another person for one of two reasons. First, the intruder is a close relative or friend, or he  or she may be making sexual advances. Second, the intruder is hostile and may be about to attack. While we will tolerate strangers moving within our personal and social  zones, the intrusion of a stranger into our intimate zone causes physiological changes to take place within our bodies. The heart pumps faster, adrenalin pours into the bloodstream and blood is pumped to the brain and the muscles as physical preparations for a possible fight or flight situation are made.

This means that putting your arm in a friendly way on or around someone you have just met may result in that person’s feeling negative towards you, even though he or she may smile and appear to enjoy it so as not to offend you. If you want people to feel comfortable in your company, the golden rule is ‘keep your distance’. The more intimate our relationship is with other people, the closer we are permitted to move within their zones. For example, a new employee may initially feel that the other staff members are cold towards him, but they are only keeping him at the social zone distance  until  they  know  him  better.  As  he  becomes  better  known  to  the  other employees, the territorial distance between him and them decreases until eventually he is permitted to move within their personal  zones and, in some cases, their intimate zones.

The distance that two people who are kissing keep their hips apart can tell you something about the relationship that exists between them. Lovers press their torsos hard against each other and move within each other’s close intimate zones. This differs from the kiss received from a stranger on New Year’s Eve or from your best friend’s spouse, both of whom keep their pelvic area at least 15 centimetres away from yours. One of the exceptions to the distance/ intimacy rule occurs where the spatial distance is based on the person’s social standing. For example, the managing director of a company may be the weekend fishing buddy of one of his subordinates and when they go fishing each may move within the other’s personal or intimate zone. At the office, however, the managing director keeps his  fishing buddy at the social distance to

maintain the unwritten social strata rules.

Crowding at concerts, cinemas, in elevators, trains or buses results in unavoidable intrusion  into  other  people’s  intimate  zones,  and  reactions  to  this  invasion  are interesting to observe. There is a list of unwritten rules that people in Western cultures follow rigidly when faced with a crowded situation such as a packed lift or public transport. These rules include:

1. You are not permitted to speak to anyone, including a person you know.

2. You must avoid eye contact with others at all times.

3. You are to maintain a ‘poker face’ - no emotion is permitted to be displayed.

4. If you have a book or newspaper, you must appear to be deeply engrossed in it.

5. The bigger the crowd, the less the body movement you are permitted to make.

6. In elevators, you are compelled to watch the floor numbers above your head.

We often hear words like ‘miserable’, ‘unhappy’ and ‘despondent’ used to describe people who travel to work in the rush hour on public transport. These labels are used because of the blank, expressionless look on the faces of the travellers, but they are mis- judgments on the part of the observer. What the observer sees, in fact, is a group of people adhering to the rules that apply to the unavoidable invasion of their intimate zones in a crowded public place.

If you doubt this, notice how you behave next time you go alone to a crowded cinema. As the usher directs you to your seat which is surrounded by a sea of unknown faces, notice how you will, like a pre-programmed robot, begin to obey the unwritten rules of behaviour in crowded public places. As you begin to compete for territorial rights to the armrest with the unknown person beside you, you will begin to realise why

those who go to a crowded cinema alone often do not take their seats until the cinema lights are extinguished and the movie actually begins. Whether we are in a crowded elevator, cinema or bus, people around us become non-persons - that is, they do not exist, as far as we are concerned and so we do not respond as if we were being attacked should someone inadvertently encroach upon our intimate territory.

An angry mob or group of protesters fighting for a mutual purpose does not react in the same way as do individuals when their territory is invaded; in fact, something quite different occurs. As the density of the  crowd increases, each individual has less personal space and takes a hostile stand, which is why, as the size of the mob increases, it becomes angrier and uglier and fighting may begin to take place. This information is used by the police, who will try to break up the crowd so that each person can regain his own personal space and so become calmer.

Only in recent years have governments and town planners given any credence to the effect that high-density housing projects have in depriving individuals of their personal territory. The consequences of high-density living and overcrowding were seen in a recent study of the deer population on James Island, an island about two kilometres off the coast of Maryland in Chesapeake Bay in the United States. Many of the deer were dying in large numbers, despite the fact that at the time there was plenty of food, predators were not in evidence and infection was not present. Similar studies in earlier years with rats and rabbits revealed the same trend and further investigation showed that the deer had died as a result of overactive adrenal glands, resulting from the stress caused by the deprivation of each deer’s personal territory as the population increased. The adrenal glands play an important part in the regulation of growth, reproduction and the level of the body’s defences. Thus overpopulation caused a physiological reaction to the stress; not other factors such as starvation, infection or aggression from others.

In view of this it is easy to see why areas that have the highest density of human population also have the highest crime and violence rates.

Police interrogators use territorial invasion techniques to break down the resistance of criminals being questioned. They seat the criminal on an armless, fixed chair in an open area of the room and encroach into his intimate and close intimate zones when asking questions, remaining there until he answers. It often takes only a short while for this territorial harassment to break down the criminal’s resistance.

Management people can use this same approach to extract information from sub- ordinates who may be withholding it, but a sales person would be foolish to use this type of approach when dealing with customers.

Spacing Rituals

When a person claims a space or an area among strangers, such as a seat at the cinema, a place at the conference table or a towel hook at the squash court, he does it in a very predictable manner. He usually looks for the widest space available between two others and claims the area in the centre. At the cinema he will choose a seat that is halfway between the end of a row and where the nearest person is sitting. At the squash courts, he chooses the towel hook that is in the largest available space, midway between two other towels or midway between the nearest towel and the end of the towel rack. The purpose of this ritual is not to offend the other people by being either too close or too far away from them.

At the cinema, if you choose a seat more than halfway between the end of the row and the nearest other person, that other person may feel offended if you are too far away from him or he may feel intimidated if you sit too close, so the main purpose of this spacing ritual is to maintain harmony.

An exception to this rule is the spacing that occurs in public toilet blocks. Research shows that people choose the end toilets about 90 per cent of the time and, if they are occupied, the midway principle is used.

Cultural Factors Affecting Zone Distances

A young couple who recently migrated from Denmark to live in Sydney were invited to join the local branch of the Jaycees. Some weeks after their admission to the club, several female members complained that the Danish man was making advances towards them, so that they felt uncomfortable in his presence and the male members of the club felt that the Danish woman had been indicating non-verbally that she would be sexually available to them.

This situation illustrates the fact that many Europeans have an intimate distance of only 20 to 30 centimetres (9 or 10 inches) and in some cultures it is even less. The Danish  couple  felt  quite  at  ease  and  relaxed  when  standing  at  a  distance  of  25 centimetres from the Australians, being totally unaware of their intrusion into the

46-centimetre intimate zone. The Danes also used eye gaze more frequently than the

Australians, which gave rise to further misjudgments against them.

Moving into the intimate territory of someone of the opposite sex is a method that people use to show interest in that person and is commonly called an ‘advance’. If the advance into the intimate zone is rejected, the other person will step backwards to maintain the zone distance. If the advance is accepted, the other person holds his or her ground and allows the intruder to remain within the intimate zone. What seemed to the Danish couple to be a normal social encounter was being interpreted by the Australians as a sexual advance. The  Danes thought the Australians were cold and unfriendly because they kept moving away to maintain the distance at which they felt comfortable. At a recent conference in the USA, I noticed that when the American attendees met and conversed, they stood at an acceptable 46 to 122 centimetres from each other and remained standing in the same place while talking. However, when a Japanese attendee spoke with an American, the two slowly began to move around the room, the American moving backwards away from the Japanese and the Japanese gradually moving towards the American. This was an attempt by both the American and Japanese to adjust to a culturally comfortable distance from each other. The Japanese, with his smaller 25- centimetre intimate zone, continually stepped forward to adjust to his spatial need, but by doing so he invaded the American’s intimate space; causing him to step backwards to make his own spatial adjustment. Video recordings of this phenomenon replayed at high speed give the impression that both men are dancing around the conference room with the Japanese leading. It is therefore obvious why, when negotiating business, Asians and Europeans or Americans look upon each other with some suspicion, the Europeans or Americans referring to the Asians as ‘pushy’ and ‘familiar’ and Asians referring to the Europeans or Americans as ‘cold’, ‘stand-offish’ and ‘cool’. The lack of awareness of the distance variation of the intimate zones in different cultures can easily

lead to misconceptions and inaccurate assumptions about one culture by another.

Country v City Spatial Zones

As previously mentioned, the amount of personal space required by an individual is related to the population density of the area in which he was brought up. Those who were brought up in sparsely populated rural areas require more personal space than those raised in densely populated capital cities. Watching how fax a person extends his arm to shake hands can give a clue to whether he is from a major city or from a remote country area. City dwellers have their private 46-centimetre bubble’; this is also the

measured distance between wrist and torso when they reach to shake hands (Figure 12). This allows the hand to meet the other person’s on neutral territory. People brought up in a country town, where the population is far less dense, may have a territorial ‘bubble’ of up to 100 centimetres or more and this is the average measured distance from the wrist to the body when the person from the country is shaking hands (Figure 13).

Country people have a tendency to stand  with their feet firmly planted on the ground and to lean forward as far as they can to meet your handshake, whereas a city dweller will step forward to greet you. People raised in remote or sparsely populated areas usually have a large personal space requirement which may be as wide as 6 metres. These people prefer not to shake hands but would rather stand at a distance and wave

(Figure 14).

City sales people find this sort of information particularly useful for calling on farmers in sparse rural areas to sell farming equipment. Considering that the farmer may have a ‘bubble’ of 100 to 200 centimetres or more, a handshake could be a territorial intrusion, causing the farmer to react negatively and be on the defensive. Successful country sales people state almost unanimously that the best negotiating conditions exist when they greet the country town dweller with an extended handshake and the farmer in an isolated area with a distant wave.


Property owned by a person or a place regularly used by him constitutes a private territory and, like personal air space, he will fight to protect it. Such things as a person’s home, office and motor car represent a territory, each having clearly marked boundaries in the form of walls, gates, fences and doors. Each territory may have several sub- territories. For example, in a home a woman’s private territory may be her kitchen and laundry  and  she  objects  to  anyone  invading  that  space  when  she  is  using  it,  a businessman has his favourite place at the conference table, diners have their favourite seat in the canteen and father has his favourite chair at home. These areas are usually marked either by leaving personal possessions on or around the area, or by frequent use of it. The canteen diner may even go so far as to carve his initials into ‘his’ place at the table and the businessman marks his -territory at the conference table with such items as an ashtray, pens, books and clothing spread around his 46centimetre intimate zone border. Dr Desmond Morris noted that studies carried out into seating positions in libraries show that leaving a book or personal object on a library desk reserved that place for an average of seventy-seven minutes; leaving a jacket over a chair reserved it for two hours. At home a family member  might mark his or her favourite chair by leaving a personal object, such as a pipe or magazine, on or near it to show his or her claim and ownership of the space.

If the head of the house asks a sales person to be seated and the sales person quite innocently sits in ‘his’ chair, the prospective buyer can become inadvertently agitated about this invasion of his territory and thus be put on the defensive. A simple question such as, ‘Which chair is yours?’, can avoid the negative results of making such a territorial error.

Motor Vehicles

Psychologists have noted that people driving a motor car react in a manner that is often completely unlike their normal social  behaviour as regards their territories. It seems that a motor vehicle sometimes has a magnifying effect on the size of a person’s personal space. In some cases, their territory is magnified by up to ten times the normal size, so the driver feels that he has a claim to an area of 9 to 10 metres in front of and behind his motor car. When another driver cuts in front of him, even if no danger is involved, the driver may go through a physiological change, becoming angry and even attacking the other driver. Compare this to the situation that occurs when the same man is stepping into a lift and another person steps in front of him, invading his personal territory. His reaction in those circumstances is normally apologetic and he allows the other man to go first; remarkably different from what happens when another driver cuts in front of him on the open road.

For some people, the car becomes a protective cocoon in which they can hide from the outside world. As they drive slowly beside the kerb, almost in the gutter, they can be as big a hazard on the road as the driver with the expanded personal space.

In summary, others will invite or reject  you,  depending  on  the  respect that you have for their personal space. This is why the happy-go-lucky person who slaps everyone he meets on the back  or  continually  touches  people during   a   conversation   is   secretly disliked by everyone. As a number of factors can affect the spatial distance a person takes in relation to others, it is wise to consider every criterion before making a judgment about why a person is keeping a certain distance.

From Figure 15, it is now possible to  make  any  one  of  the  following assumptions.

1. Both the man and woman are city dwellers and the man is making an intimate approach to the woman.

2. The man has a narrower intimate zone than the woman and is innocently invading hers.

3. The man is from a culture with a narrow intimate zone and the woman was brought up in a rural area.

A few simple questions and further observation of the couple can reveal the correct answer  and  can  help  you  avoid  an  embarrassing  situation  by  making  incorrect assumptions.

Palm Gestures

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Throughout  history,  the  open  palm  has  been  associated  with  truth,  honesty, allegiance and submission. Many oaths are taken with the palm of the hand over the heart, and the palm is held in the air when somebody is giving evidence in a court of law; the Bible is held in the left hand and the right palm held up for the members of the court to view.

In day-to-day encounters, people use two basic palm positions. The first has the palm facing upwards and is characteristic of the beggar asking for money or food. The second has the palm facing down as if it is holding down or restraining.

One of the most valuable ways of discovering whether someone is being open and honest or not is to look for palm displays. Just as a dog will expose its throat to show submission or surrender to the victor, so the human animal uses his or her palms to display the same attitude or emotion. For example, when people wish to be totally open or honest they will hold one or both palms out to the other person and say something like, ‘Let me be completely open with you’ (Figure 16). When someone begins to open up or be truthful, he will expose all or part of his palms to another person. Like most body language, this is a completely unconscious gesture, one that gives you a feeling or hunch that the other person is telling the truth. When a child is lying or concealing something, his palms are hidden behind his back. Similarly, a husband who wants to conceal his whereabouts after a night out with the boys will often hide his palms in his

pockets or in an arm fold position when he tries to explain where he was. Thus the hidden palms may give his wife a hunch that he is holding back the truth.

Sales people are often taught to look for the customer’s exposed palms when he gives reasons why he cannot buy the product, because only valid reasons are given with exposed palms.


The reader may ask, ‘Do you mean that if I tell lies with my palms visible, people will believe me?’ The answer to this is yes - and no. If you tell an outright lie with your palms exposed, you may still appear insincere to your listeners because many of the other gestures that should also be visible when displaying honesty will be absent and the negative gestures used when lying will be visible and therefore inconsistent with the open palms. As already noted, con men and professional liars are people who have developed the special art of making their nonverbal signals complement their verbal lies. The more effectively the professional con man can use the non-verbal gestures of honesty when telling a lie, the better he is at his vocation.

It is possible, however, to make yourself appear more credible by practising open palm gestures when communicating with others; conversely, as the open palm gestures become habitual, the tendency to tell untruths lessens. Interestingly, most people find it difficult to lie with their palms exposed and the use of palm signals can in fact help to suppress some of the false information others may give. It also encourages them to be open with you.

Palm Power

One of the least noticed but most powerful non-verbal signals is given by the human palm. When used correctly, palm power invests its user with a degree of authority and the power of silent command over others.

There are three main palm command gestures: the palm-up position, the palm-down position and the palm-closed-finger-pointed position. The differences of the three

positions are shown in this example: let’s say that you ask someone to pick up a box and carry it to another location in the same room. We assume that you use the same tone of voice, the same words and facial expressions, and change only the position of your palm.

The palm facing up is used as a submissive, non-threatening gesture, reminiscent of the pleading gesture of a street beggar. The person being asked to move the box will not feel that the request is given with pressure and, in  a normal superior/subordinate situation, will not feel threatened by the request.

When the palm is turned to face downwards, you will have immediate authority. The person to whom you have directed the request feels that he has been given an order to  remove  the  box  and  may  feel  antagonistic  towards  you,  depending  on  your relationship with him. For example, if the person to whom you gave the request was a co-worker of equal status, he could reject your palm-down request and would be more likely to carry out your wish if you had used the palm-up position. If the person to whom you give the request is your subordinate, the palm-down gesture is acceptable, as you have the authority to use it.

In Figure 19, the palm is closed into a fist and the pointed finger becomes a symbolic club with which the speaker figuratively beats his listener into submission. The pointed finger is one of the most irritating gestures that a person can use while speaking, particularly when it beats time to the speaker’s words. If you are an habitual finger-pointer, try practising the palm-up and palm-down positions and you will find that you create a more relaxed attitude and have a more positive effect on other people.


Shaking hands is a relic of the caveman era. Whenever cavemen met, they would hold their arms in the air with their palms exposed to show that no weapons were being held or concealed. This palms-in-air gesture became modified over the centuries and such gestures as the palm raised in the air, the palm over the heart and numerous other variations developed. The modern form of this ancient greeting ritual is the interlocking and shaking of the palms which, in most English-speaking countries, is performed both on initial greeting and on departure. The  hands are normally pumped five to seven times.

Dominant and Submissive Handshakes

Considering what has already been said about the impact of a command given in both the palm-up and palm-down positions, let us explore the relevance of these two palm positions in hand shaking.

Assume that you have just met someone for the first time and you greet each other with a customary handshake. One of three basic attitudes is transmitted through the handshake. These are dominance: ‘This person is trying to dominate me. I’d better be cautious’, submission: ‘I can dominate this person. He will do as I wish’, and equality:

‘I like this person. We will get on well together’.

These attitudes are transmitted unconsciously and, with practice and conscious application, the following hand shaking techniques can have an immediate effect on the outcome of a face-to-face encounter with  another person. The information in this chapter represents one of the few documented studies of handshake control techniques. Dominance is transmitted by turning your hand (dark shirt sleeve) so that your palm faces down in the handshake (Figure 20). Your palm need not be facing the floor directly, but should be facing downwards in relation to the other person’s palm and this tells him that you wish to take control in the encounter that follows. Studies of fifty-four successful senior management people have revealed that not only did forty-two initiate

the handshake, but they also used dominant handshake control.

Just as the dog shows submission by rolling on its back and exposing its throat to the victor, so the human uses the palm-up gesture to show submission to others. The reverse of the dominant handshake is to offer your hand with your palm facing upwards

(Figure 21). This is particularly effective when you want to give the other person control or allow him to feel that he is in command of the situation.

However, though the palm-up handshake can show a submissive attitude, there may be mitigating circumstances to consider. For example, a person who has arthritis in the hands will be forced to give you a limp handshake because of his condition and this makes it easy to turn his palm into, the submissive position. People who use their hands in their profession, such as surgeons, artists and musicians, may also give a limp handshake purely to protect their hands. The gestures that follow the handshake will give further clues for your assessment of that person – the submissive person will use submissive gestures and the dominant person will use more aggressive gestures.

When two dominant people shake hands, a symbolic struggle takes place as each person tries to turn the other’s palm into the submissive position. The result is a vice-like hand shake with both palms remaining in the vertical position as each person transmits a feeling of respect and rapport to the other (Figure 22). This vice-like vertical

palm grip is the handshake that a father teaches his son when he shows him how to

‘shake hands like a man’.

When  you  receive  a  dominant  handshake from another person, it is not only difficult to force his palm back over into the submissive position, but it becomes very obvious when you do it. There is a simple technique for disarming the dominant hand shaker that, in addition to giving you back the control, can enable you to intimidate  the  other  person  by  invading  his personal  space.  To  perfect  this  disarmament technique you need to practise stepping forward with your left foot as you reach to shake hands

(Figure 24). Next, bring your right leg forward, moving left in front of the person and into his personal space (Figure 25). Now bring your left leg  across  to  your  right  leg  to  complete  the manoeuvre, then shake the person’s hand. This tactic  allows  you  to  straighten  the  handshake position or to turn the other person’s hand into the submissive position. It also allows you to

take control by invading the other person’s intimate zone.

Analyse your own approach to shaking hands to determine whether you step forward on your left or right foot when you extend your arm to shake hands. Most people are right-footed and are therefore at a great disadvantage when they receive a dominant handshake, asthey have little flexibility or room to move within the confines of the handshake and it allows the other person to take the control. Practise stepping

into a handshake with your left foot and you will find that it is quite simple to neutralise a dominant handshake and take the control.

Who Reaches First?

Although it is a generally accepted custom to shake hands when meeting a person for the first time, there are some circumstances in which it may be unwise for you to initiate the handshake. Considering that a  hand shake is a sign of welcome, it is important to ask yourself several questions before you initiate one: Am I welcome? Is this person glad to meet me? Sales trainees are taught that, if they initiate the handshake

with a buyer on whom they call unannounced and uninvited, it can produce a negative result as the buyer may not want to welcome them and is forced to do something that he may not want to do.

Again, such people as arthritics and those whose hands are their profession may become defensive if they are forced to shake hands. Under these circumstances, sales trainees are told that it is better to wait for the other person to initiate the handshake and, if it is not forthcoming, to nod as a sign of greeting.

Hand Shake Styles

The palm-down thrust is certainly the most aggressive handshake style as it gives the receiver little chance of establishing an equal relationship. This handshake is typical of the aggressive, dominant male who always initiates it, and the stiff arm with palm facing directly downwards forces the

receiver  into  the  submissive  position because he has to respond with his palm facing up.

Several    ways    to    counter    the palm-down thrust have been developed. You   can   use   the   step-to-the-right technique   (Figures   23   to   25),   but sometimes this is difficult to use as the initiator’s arm is often tense and stiff to prevent    such    tactics.    A    simple manoeuvre  is  to  grasp  the  person’s hand on top and then shake it (Figure

27). With this approach, you become the dominant party, as you not only have control of the other person’s hand, but yours is in the superior position on top of his with your palm facing down. As this can be embarrassing to the aggressor, we suggest that it be used with caution and discretion.

The glove handshake is sometimes called the politician’s handshake. The initiator tries to give the receiver the impression that he is trustworthy and honest, but when this technique is used on a person he has just met, it has the reverse effect. The receiver feels suspicious and cautious about the initiator’s intentions. The glove should only be used with people to whom the initiator is well-known.

Few greeting gestures are as uninviting as  the dead fish handshake, particularly when the hand is cold or clammy. The soft, placid feel of the dead fish makes it universally unpopular and most people relate it to weak character, mainly because of the ease with which the palm can be turned up. Surprisingly, many people who use the dead fish are unaware that they do so, and it is wise to ask your friends to comment on your own handshake delivery before deciding which style you will use in future.

The  knuckle  grinder  is  the  trademark  of  the  aggressive  ‘tough  guy’  type. Unfortunately, there are no effective ways to counter it, apart from verbal abuse or physical action such as a punch on the nose!

Like the palm-down thrust, the stiff-arm thrust tends to be used by aggressive types and its main purpose is to keep you at a distance and out of the initiator’s intimate zone. It is also used by people brought up in country areas who have a larger intimate zone to

protect their personal territory. With country folk, however, there is a tendency to lean forward or even balance on one foot when delivering the stiff-arm thrust.

The finger-tip grab is like the stiff-arm thrust that has missed the mark; the user mistakenly grabs the other person’s fingers. Even though the initiator may appear to have a keen and enthusiastic attitude toward the receiver, in fact he lacks confidence in himself. Like the stiff-arm thrust, the main aim of the finger-tip grab is to keep the receiver at a comfortable spatial distance.

Pulling the receiver into the initiator’s territory can mean one of two things: first, the initiator is an insecure type who feels safe only within his own personal space or second, the initiator is from a culture that has a small intimate zone and he is behaving normally.

The intention of the double-handed handshake is to show sincerity, trust or depth of feeling towards the receiver. Two significant elements should be noticed. Firstly, the

left hand is used to communicate the extra feeling that the initiator wishes to transmit and its extent is related to the distance that the initiator’s left hand is moved up the receiver’s right arm. The elbow grasp, for example (Figure 35), transmits more feeling than the wrist hold (Figure 34), and the shoulder hold, (Figure 37) transmits more than the  upper-arm  grip  (Figure  36).  Secondly,  the  initiator’s  left  hand  represents  an invasion of the receiver’s intimate and close intimate zones. In general, the wrist hold and the elbow grasp are acceptable only between close friends or relatives and in these cases, the initiator’s left hand penetrates only the receiver’s intimate zone. The shoulder hold (Figure 37) and the upper arm grip (Figure 36) enter the receiver’s close intimate zone and may involve actual body contact. They should be used only between people who experience a close emotional bond at the time of the handshake. Unless the extra feeling is mutual or the initiator does not have a good reason for using a double-handed handshake, the receiver will become suspicious and mistrust the initiator’s intentions. It is quite common to see politicians greeting voters and sales people meeting their new customers with a double-handed hand shake without realising that this can be social suicide, putting the receiver off-side.

Hand and Arm Gestures

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Rubbing the palms together

Recently a personal friend of ours visited my wife and me at our home to discuss the details of a forthcoming skiing holiday. In the course of the conversation our friend suddenly sat back in her chair, smiled broadly, rubbed her palms together and exclaimed, ‘I can hardly wait to go!’ Non-verbally she had told us that she expected the trip to be a big success.

clip_image002[4]Rubbing the palms together is a way in which people non-verbally communicate positive expectation. The dice thrower rubs the dice between his palms as a sign of his positive expectancy of winning, the master of ceremonies rubs his palms together and says to his audience, ‘We have long looked forward to hearing our next speaker’, and the excited sales person struts into the sales manager’s office, rubs his palms together and says excitedly, ‘We’ve just got a big order, boss!’ However, the waiter who comes to your table at the end of the evening rubbing his palms together and asking,

‘Anything else, sir?’ is non-verbally telling you that he is expecting a tip.

The speed at which a person rubs his palms together signals whom he thinks will receive the positive results that are expected.

Say, for example, you want to buy a home and you go to see a real estate agent. After describing the property you are seeking, the agent rubs his palms together quickly and says, ‘I’ve got just the right place for you!’ The agent has signalled that he expects the results to be to your benefit. But how would you feel if he rubbed his palms together very slowly as he told you that he had the ideal property? He would then appear to be crafty or devious and would give you the feeling that the expected results would be to his advantage rather than yours. Sales people are taught that if they use the palm rub gesture when describing products or services to prospective buyers, they should be certain to use a fast hand action to avoid putting the buyer on the defensive. When the buyer rubs his palms together and says to the sales person, ‘Let’s see what you have to offer!’ it is a signal that the buyer is expecting to be shown something. good and is likely to make a purchase.

A word of warning: a person who is standing at a bus terminal in freezing winter conditions and who rubs his palms together briskly may not necessarily be doing this because he is expecting a bus. He does it because his hands are cold!


Thumb and Finger Rub

Rubbing the thumb against the fingertips or against the index finger is commonly used as a money expectancy gesture. It is often used by sales people who rub their fingertips and thumb together and say to their customers ‘I can save you 40 per cent’, or the person who rubs his index finger and thumb together and says to his friend, ‘Lend me ten dollars’. This is obviously a gesture that should be avoided at all times by a professional person when dealing with his clients.

clip_image005[4]Hands Clenched Together

At first this seems to be a confidence gesture as some people who use it are often smiling and sound happy. However, on one particular occasion, we saw a sales person describing the sale he had just lost. As he went further and further into his story, we noticed that not only had he taken the hands-clenched position, but his fingers were beginning to turn white and they looked as though they were welding together. This was therefore a gesture showing a frustrated or hostile attitude.

Research by Nierenberg and Calero on the hands-clenched position brought them to the conclusion that this was a frustration gesture,

signalling that the person was holding back a negative attitude. The gesture has three main positions; hands clenched in front of the face, (Figure 39), hands resting on the desk (Figure 40) or on the lap when seated and placed in front of the crotch when standing (Figure 41).

There also appears to be a correlation between the height at which the hands are held and the strength of the person’s negative mood; that is, the person would be more difficult to handle when the hands are held high as in Figure 39 than he would be with

clip_image007[4]clip_image009[4]the Figure 40 position. Like all negative gestures, some action needs to be taken to unlock the person’s fingers to expose the palms and the front of the body, or the hostile attitude will remain.

Steepling Hands

I stated at the beginning of this book that gestures come in clusters, like words in a sentence, and that they must be interpreted in the context in which they are observed.

‘Steepling’, as Birdwhistell called it, can be an exception to these rules, as it is often used in isolation of other gestures. In fact, people who are confident, superior types or who use minimal or restricted body gestures often use this gesture, and, by doing so, they signal their confident attitude.

My observation and research into this fascinating gesture show that it is frequently used in superior/subordinate interaction and that it can be an isolated gesture which indicates a confident or ‘know-it-all’ attitude. Managers often use this gesture position

when giving instructions or advice to subordinates and it is particularly common among accountants, lawyers, managers and the like.

The gesture has two versions; the raised steeple (Figure 42), the position normally taken when the steepler is giving his opinions or ideas and is doing the talking. The lowered steeple gesture (Figure 43) is normally used when the steepler is listening rather than speaking. Nierenberg and Calero noted that women tend to use the lowered steeple position more often than the raised steeple position. When the raised steeple position is taken with the head tilted back, the person assumes an air of smugness or arrogance.

clip_image011[4]clip_image013[4]Although the steeple gesture is a positive signal, it can be used in either positive or negative circumstances and may be misinterpreted. For example, a salesman presenting his product to a potential buyer may have observed several positive gestures given by the buyer during the interview. These could include open palms, leaning forward, head up and so on. Let’s say that towards the end of the sales presentation the customer takes one of the steeple positions.

If the steeple follows a series of other positive gestures, appearing when the sales- man shows the buyer the solution to his problem, the salesman has been given a cue to close the sale, ask for the order and expect to get it. On the other hand, if the steeple gesture follows a series of negative gestures such as arm folding, leg crossing, looking away and numerous hand-to-face gestures, and if the buyer takes the steeple position towards the close of the sales presentation, the buyer may be confident that he will not buy or that he can get rid of the salesman. In both these cases the steeple gesture means confidence, but one has positive results and the other negative consequences for the salesman. The movements preceding the steeple gesture are the key to the outcome.


Several prominent male members of the British Royal Family are noted for their habit of walking with their head up, chin out and one palm gripping the other hand behind the back. Not only does British Royalty use this gesture; it is common among Royalty of many countries. On the local scene, the gesture is used by the policeman patrolling his beat, the headmaster of the local school when he is walking through the school yard, senior military personnel and others in a position of authority.

clip_image015[4]clip_image017[4]clip_image019[4]This is therefore a superiority/confidence gesture position. It also allows the person to expose his vulnerable stomach, heart and throat regions to others in an unconscious act of fearlessness. Our own experience shows

that, if you take this position when you are in a high stress situation, such as being inter- viewed by newspaper reporters or simply waiting outside a dentist’s surgery, you will feel quite relaxed, confident and even authoritative.

Our observation of Australian police officers has shown that the officers who do not wear firearms use this gesture frequently and often rock back and forth on the balls of the feet. However, the police officers who do wear firearms seldom display this gesture, using the hands-on-hips aggressive gesture instead (Figure 98). It seems that the firearm itself has sufficient authority for its wearer so that the palm-in-palm gesture becomes unnecessary as a display of authority.

The palm-in-palm gesture should not be confused with the hand-gripping-wrist gesture (Figure 45) which is a signal of frustration and an attempt at self-control. In this case one hand grips the other wrist or arm very tightly as if it is an attempt by one arm to prevent the other from striking out.

Interestingly, the further the hand is moved up the back, the more angry the person has become. The man in Figure 46, for example, is showing a greater attempt at self-control than the man in Figure 45 because the hand in Figure 46 is gripping the upper arm, not just the wrist. It is this type of gesture that has given rise to such expressions as, ‘Get a good grip on yourself’. This gesture is often used by sales people who have called on a potential buyer and have been asked to wait in the buyer’s reception area. It is a poor attempt by the salesman to disguise his nervousness and an astute buyer is likely to sense this. If a self-control gesture is changed to the palm-in-palm position, a calming and confident feeling results.


In palmistry, the thumbs denote strength of character and ego and the non-verbal use of thumbs agrees with this. They are used to display dominance, superiority or even aggression; thumb gestures are secondary gestures, a supportive part of a gesture cluster. Thumb displays are positive signals, often used in the typical pose of the ‘cool’ manager who uses them in the presence of subordinates. A courting man uses them in the presence of a potential female partner and they are common among people who wear high-status or prestige clothing. People wearing new, attractive clothing use thumb displays more frequently than those who wear older, outdated clothing.

The thumbs, which display superiority, become most obvious when a person gives a contradictory verbal message. Take, for example, the lawyer who turns to the jury and in a soft, low voice says, ‘In my humble opinion, ladies and gentlemen of the jury …’ while displaying dominant thumb gestures and tilting back his head to ‘look down his nose’ (Figure 48). This has the effect of making the jury feel that the lawyer is insincere, even pompous. If the lawyer wished to appear humble, he should have approached the jury with one foot toward them, his coat open, an open palm display and stooping forward a little to show humility, or even subordination to the jury.


Thumbs most often protrude from people’s pockets, sometimes from the back pockets (Figure 49) in a secretive manner to try to hide the person’s dominant attitude. Dominant or aggressive women also use this gesture; the women’s movement has allowed them to adopt many male gestures and positions (Figure 50). In addition to all this, thumb thrusters will often rock on the balls of their feet to give the impression of extra height.


Arms folded with thumbs pointing upwards is another popular thumb gesture position. This is a double signal, being that of a defensive or negative attitude, (folded arms) plus a superior attitude (displayed by the thumbs). The person using this double gesture usually gesticulates with his or her thumbs, and rocking on the balls of the feet when standing is common.


The thumb can also be used as a signal of ridicule or disrespect when it is used to point at another person. For example, the husband who leans across to his friend, points toward his wife with a closed fist thumb gesture and says, ‘Women are all the same, you know’, is inviting an argument with his wife. In this case the shaking thumb is used as a pointer to ridicule the unfortunate woman. Consequently, thumb-pointing is irritating to most women, particularly when a man does it. The shaking thumb is less common among women, although they sometimes use the gesture at their husbands or at people they do not like.

Hand-to-Face Gestures

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How can you tell when someone is lying? Recognition of the non-verbal deceit gestures can be one of the most important observation skills one can acquire. So what deceit signals can give people away?

One of the most commonly used symbols of deceit is that of the three wise monkeys who hear, speak and see no evil. The hand-to-face actions depicted form the basis of the human deceit gestures (Figure 53). In other words, when we see, speak and hear untruths or deceit, we often attempt to cover our mouth, eyes or ears with our hands. We have already mentioned that children use these obvious deceit gestures quite openly. If the young child tells a lie, he will often cover his mouth with his hands in an attempt to stop the deceitful words from coming out. If he does not wish to listen to a reprimanding parent, he simply covers his ears with his hands. When he sees something he doesn’t wish to look at, he covers his eyes with his hands or arms. As a person becomes older, the hand-to-face gestures become more refined and less obvious but they still occur when a person is lying, covering up or witnessing deceit; deceit can also mean doubt, uncertainty, lying or exaggeration.

When someone uses a hand-to-face gesture, it does not always mean that he or she is lying. It does, however, indicate that the person may be deceiving you and further observation of his other gesture clusters can confirm your suspicions. It is important that you do not interpret hand-to-face gestures in isolation.

Dr Desmond Morris noted that American researchers tested nurses who were instructed to lie to their patients about their health in a role-play situation. The nurses who lied showed a greater frequency of hand-to-face gestures than those who told the

truth to the patients. This chapter looks at the variations in hand-to-face gestures and discusses how and when they occur.

The Mouth Guard

The mouth guard is one of the few adult gestures that is as obvious as a child’s. The hand covers the mouth and the thumb is pressed against the cheek as the brain sub- consciously instructs it to try and suppress the deceitful words that are being said. Sometimes this gesture may only be several fingers over the mouth or even a closed fist, but its meaning remains the same.

The mouth guard is not to be confused with evaluation gestures, which will be covered later in this chapter.

Many people try to disguise the mouth guard gesture by giving a fake cough. When playing the role of a gangster or criminal, the late Humphrey Bogart often used this gesture when discussing criminal activities with other gangsters or when being interrogated by the police to show non-verbally that he was being dishonest.

If the person who is speaking uses this gesture, it indicates that he is telling a lie. If, however, he covers his mouth while you are speaking, it indicates that he feels you are lying! One of the most unsettling sights a public speaker can see is his audience all using this gesture whilst he is speaking. In a small audience or a one-to-one situation, it is wise to stop the presentation or delivery and ask, ‘Would someone care to comment on what I’ve just said?’ This allows the audience’s objections to be brought out into the open, giving you the opportunity to qualify your statements and to answer questions.


Nose Touching

In essence, the nose touch gesture is a sophisticated, disguised version of the mouth guard gesture. It may consist of several light rubs below the nose or it may be one quick, almost imperceptible touch. Some women perform this gesture with small discreet strokes to avoid smudging their make-up.

One explanation of the origin of the nose touch gesture is that, as the negative thought enters the mind, the subconscious instructs the hand to cover the mouth, but, at the last moment, in an attempt to appear less obvious, the hand pulls away from the face

and a quick nose touch gesture is the result. Another explanation is that lying causes the delicate nerve endings in the nose to tingle, and the rubbing action takes place to satisfy this feeling. ‘But what if the person only has an itchy nose?’ is frequently asked. The itch in a person’s nose is normally satisfied by a very deliberate rubbing or scratching action, as opposed to the light strokes of the nose touch gesture. Like the mouth guard gesture, it can be used both by the speaker to disguise his own deceit and by the listener who doubts the speaker’s words.


The Eye Rub

‘See no evil’ says the wise monkey, and this gesture is the brain’s attempt to block out the deceit, doubt or lie that it sees or to avoid having to look at the face of the person to whom he is telling the lie. Men usually rub their eyes vigorously and if the lie is a big one they will often look away, normally towards the floor. Women use a small, gentle rubbing motion just below the eye, either because they have been brought up to avoid making robust gestures, or to avoid smudging make-up. They also avoid a listener’s gaze by looking at the ceiling.

‘Lying through your teeth’ is a common phrase. It refers to a gesture cluster of clenched teeth and a false smile, combined with the eye rub gesture and an averted gaze. This gesture is used by movie actors to portray insincerity, but is rarely seen in real life.

The Ear Rub

This is, in effect, an attempt by the listener to ‘hear no evil’ in trying to block the words by putting the hand around or over the ear. This is the sophisticated adult version of the handsover-both-ears gesture used by the young child who wants to block out his parent’s reprimands. Other variations of the ear rub gesture include rubbing the back of the ear, the finger drill (where the fingertip is screwed back and forth inside the ear), pulling at the earlobe or bending the entire ear forward to cover the earhole. This last gesture is a signal that the person has heard enough or may want to speak.


The Neck Scratch

In this case, the index finger of the writing hand scratches below the earlobe, or may even scratch the side of the neck. Our observation of this gesture .reveals an interesting point: the person scratches about five times. Rarely is the number of scratches less than five and seldom more than five. This gesture is a signal of doubt or uncertainty and is characteristic of the person who says, ‘I’m not sure I agree.’ It is very noticeable when the verbal language contradicts it, for example, when the person says something like, ‘I can understand how you feel.’

The Collar Pull

Desmond Morris noted that research into the gestures of those who tell lies revealed that the telling of a lie caused a tingling sensation in the delicate facial and neck tissues and a rub or scratch was required to satisfy it. This seems to be a reasonable explanation of why some people use the collar pull gesture when they tell a lie and suspect that they have been caught out. It is almost as if the lie causes a slight trickle of sweat to form on the neck when the deceiver feels that you suspect he is lying. It is also used when a person is feeling angry or frustrated and needs to pull the collar away from his neck in an attempt to let the cool air circulate around it. When you see someone use this gesture, a question like, ‘Would you repeat that, please?’ or, ‘Could you clarify that point, please?’ can cause the would-be deceiver to give the game away.

clip_image010clip_image012Fingers in the Mouth

Morris’s explanation of this gesture is that the fingers are placed in the mouth when a person is under pressure. It is an unconscious attempt by the person to revert to the security of the child sucking on his mother’s breast. The young child substitutes his thumb for the breast and as an adult, he not only puts his fingers to his mouth but inserts such things as cigarettes, pipes, pens and the like into it. Whereas most hand-to-mouth gestures involve lying or deception, the fingers-in-mouth gesture is an outward manifestation of an inner need for reassurance. Giving the person guarantees and assurances is appropriate when this gesture appears (Figure 60).


The ability to accurately interpret hand-to-face gestures in a given set of circumstances takes considerable time and observation to acquire. We can confidently assume that, when a person uses one of the hand-to-face gestures just mentioned, a negative thought has entered his mind. The question is, what is the negative? It could be doubt, deceit, uncertainty, exaggeration, apprehension or outright lying. The real skill of interpretation is the ability to pick which of the negatives mentioned is the correct one. This can best be done by an analysis of the gestures preceding the hand-to-face gesture and interpreting it in context.

For example, a friend of mine with whom I play chess often rubs his ear or touches his nose during the game, but only when he is unsure of his next move. Recently I noticed some of his other gestures that I can interpret and use to my advantage. I have discovered that when I signal my intention to move a chess piece by touching it, he immediately uses gesture clusters that signal what he thinks about my proposed move. If he sits back in the chair and uses a steepling gesture (confidence), I can assume that he has anticipated my move and may already have thought of a counter move. If, as I touch my chess piece, he covers his mouth or rubs his nose or ear, it means that he is uncertain about my move, his next move or both. This means that the more moves I can make after he has reacted with a negative hand-to-face gesture, the greater my chances of winning.

I recently interviewed a young man who had arrived from overseas for a position in our company. Throughout the interview he kept his arms and legs crossed, used critical evaluation clusters, had very little palm exposure and his gaze met mine less than one-third of the time. Something was obviously worrying him, but at that point in the interview I did not have sufficient information for an accurate assessment of his negative gestures. I asked him some questions about his previous employers in his native country. His answers were accompanied by a series of eye-rubbing and nose-touching gestures and he continued to avoid my gaze. This continued throughout the rest of the interview and eventually I decided not to hire him, based on what is commonly called ‘gut feeling’. Being curious about his deceit gestures, I decided to check his overseas referees and discovered that he had given me false information about his past. He probably assumed that a potential employer in another country would not bother to check overseas references and, had I not been aware of non-verbal cues and signals, I might well have made the mistake of hiring him.

During a videotape role play of an interview scene at a management seminar, the interviewee suddenly covered his mouth and rubbed his nose after he had been asked a question by the interviewer. Up to that point in the role-play, the interviewee had kept an open posture with open coat, palms visible and leaning forward when answering questions, so at first we thought it might have been an isolated series of gestures. He displayed the mouth guard gesture for several seconds before giving his answer, then returned to his open pose. We questioned him about the hand-to-mouth gesture at the end of the role play and he said that, when he had been asked the particular question, he could have responded in two ways; one negative, one positive. As he thought about the negative answer and of how the interviewer might react to it, the mouth guard gesture occurred. When he thought of the positive answer, however, his hand dropped away from his mouth and he resumed his open posture. His uncertainty about the audience’s possible reaction to the negative reply had caused the sudden mouth guard gesture to occur.

These examples illustrate how easy it can be to misinterpret a hand-to-face gesture and to jump to wrong conclusions. It is only by constant study and observation of these gestures and by having regard to the context in which they occur that one can eventually learn to reach an accurate assessment of someone’s thoughts.


A good speaker is said to be one who ‘instinctively’ knows when his audience is interested in what he says and when his hearers have had enough. A good sales person senses when he is hitting his client’s ‘hot buttons’, that is, finding out where the buyer’s

interest lies. Every sales person knows the empty feeling that results when he or she is giving a sales presentation to a potential buyer who says very little and just sits there watching. Fortunately a number of hand-to-cheek and hand-to-chin gestures can tell the sales person how well he is doing.


When the listener begins to use his hand to support his head, it is a signal that boredom has set in and his supporting hand is an attempt to hold his head up to stop himself from falling asleep. The degree of the listener’s boredom is related to the extent to which his arm and hand are supporting his head. Extreme boredom and lack of interest are shown when the head is fully supported by the hand (Figure 61) and the ultimate boredom signal occurs when the head is on the desk or table and the person is snoring!

Drumming the fingers on the table and continual tapping of the feet on the floor are often misinterpreted by professional speakers as boredom signals, but in fact they signal impatience. When you as a speaker notice these signals, a strategic move must be made to get the finger drummer or foot tapper involved in your lecture, thus avoiding his negative effect on the other members of the audience. The audience who displays boredom and impatience signals together is telling the speaker that it is time for him to end the speech. It is worth noting that the speed of the finger tap or foot tap is related to the extent of the person’s impatience – the faster the taps, the more impatient the listener is becoming.



Evaluation is shown by a closed hand resting on the cheek, often with the index finger pointing upwards (Figure 62). Should the person begin to lose interest but wish to appear interested, for courtesy’s sake, the position will alter slightly so that the heel of the palm supports the head, as shown in Figure 61. I have attended numerous management meetings where the young up-andcoming managers have used this interest gesture to show respect to the company president who is giving a boxing speech. Unfortunately for them, however, as soon as he hand supports the head in any way, it

gives the game away and the president is likely to feel that some of the young managers are insincere or are using false flattery.

Genuine interest is shown when the hand is on the cheek, not used as a head support. An easy way for the president to gain their individual attention would be to say something like, ‘I’m glad that you are paying attention because in a moment I’m going to ask questions!’ This rivets his listeners’ attention to his speech because of the fear that they will not be able to answer the questions.

clip_image017clip_image019When the index finger points vertically up the cheek and the thumb supports the chin, the listener is having negative or critical thoughts about the speaker or his subject. Often the index finger may rub or pull at the eye as the negative thoughts continue. Because a gesture position affects a person’s attitude, the longer a person holds the gesture, the longer the critical attitude will remain. This gesture is a signal that immediate action is required by the speaker, either by involving the listener in what he is saying or by ending the speech. A simple move, such as handing something to the listener to alter his pose, can cause a change in his attitude. This gesture is often mistaken as a signal of interest, but the supporting thumb tells the truth about the critical attitude (Figure 63).

Chin Stroking

The next time you have the opportunity to present an idea to a group of people, watch them carefully as you give your idea and you will notice something fascinating. Most, if not all the members of your audience will bring one hand up to their faces and begin to use evaluation gestures. As you come to the conclusion of your presentation and ask for the group to give opinions or suggestions about the idea, the evaluation gestures will cease. One hand will move to the chin and begin a chin-stroking gesture. This chin-stroking gesture is the signal that the listener is making a decision. When you have asked the listeners for a decision and their gestures have changed from evaluation to decision-making, the following movements will indicate whether their decision is negative or positive. A sales person would be foolish to interrupt or to speak when a buyer begins the chin-stroking gesture after he has been asked for a decision to purchase. His best strategy would be a careful observation of the buyer’s next gestures, which will indicate the decision he has reached. If, for example, the chin-stroking

gesture is followed by crossed arms and legs and the buyer sits back in his chair, the sales person has been non-verbally told, ‘No’. He would be wise to review the main points of the presentation immediately before the buyer verbalises his negative answer and the sale may be lost.

If the chin-stroking gesture is followed by the readiness gesture (Figure 100) the sales person only needs to ask how the buyer would prefer to pay for the product and the buyer will proceed to make his purchase.


Variations of Decision-Making Gestures

Someone who wears glasses often follows evaluation clusters by removing them and putting one arm of the frame in his mouth instead of using the chin-stroking gesture when making a decision. A pipe-smoker will put his pipe in his mouth. When a person places an object such as a pen or a finger in his mouth after having been asked for a decision, it is a signal that he is unsure and reassurance is needed because the object in his mouth allows him to stall making an immediate decision. As it is bad manners to speak with your mouth full, the buyer feels justified in not giving an immediate decision.

Combination Hand-to-Face Clusters

Occasionally the boredom, evaluation and decision-making gestures come in combinations, each showing an element of the person’s attitude.

Figure 66 shows the evaluation gesture moved to the chin, and the hand may also be stroking the chin. The person is evaluating the proposition, while making decisions at the same time. When the listener begins to lose interest in the speaker, the head begins to rest on the hand. Figure 67 shows evaluation with the head supported by the thumb as the listener becomes uninterested.



An exaggerated version of the collar pull gesture is the palm rubbing the back of the neck in what Calero called the ‘pain-in-the-neck’ gesture. A person who uses this when lying usually avoids your gaze and looks down. This gesture is also used as a signal of frustration or anger and, when this is the case, the hand slaps the back of the neck first and then begins to rub the neck. Let us assume, for example, that you asked a subordinate to complete a certain task for you and that the subordinate had forgotten to do it within the time required. When you ask him for the results, he non-verbally signals his forgetfulness by slapping his head, either on the forehead or the back of the neck, as if he were symbolically hitting himself. Although slapping of the head communicates forgetfulness, the person signals how he feels about you or the situation by the position used when he slaps his hand on his head, either the forehead or the neck. If he slaps his forehead (Figure 69) he signals that he is not intimidated by your having mentioned his forgetfulness, but when he slaps the back of his neck (Figure 68) he non-verbally tells you that you are literally a ‘pain-in-the-neck’ for pointing out his error. Those who habitually rub the backs of their necks have a tendency to be negative or critical, whereas those who habitually rub their foreheads to non-verbalise an error tend to be more open, easy-going people.


Arm Barriers

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Hiding behind a barrier is a normal human response that we learn at an early age to protect ourselves. As children, we hid behind solid objects such as tables, chairs, furniture and mother’s skirts whenever we found ourselves in a threatening situation. As we grew older, this hiding behaviour became more sophisticated and by the age of about six, when it was unacceptable behaviour to hide behind solid objects, we learned to fold our arms tightly across our chests whenever a threatening situation arose. During our teens, we learned to make this crossed-arms gesture a little less obvious by relaxing our arms a little and combining the gesture with crossed legs.

As we grow older, we develop the arm crossing gesture to the point where it has become less obvious to others. By folding one or both arms across the chest, a barrier is formed that is, in essence, at attempt to block out the impending threat or undesirable circumstances. One thing is certain; when a person has a nervous, negative or defensive attitude, he will fold his arms firmly on his chest, a strong signal that he feels threatened.

Research conducted into the folded arm position in the United States has shown some interesting results. A group of students was asked to attend a series of lectures and each student was instructed to keep his legs uncrossed, arms unfolded and to take a casual, relaxed sitting position. At the end of the lectures each student was tested on his retention and knowledge of the subject matter and his attitude toward the lecturer was recorded. A second group of students was put through the same process, but these students were instructed to keep their arms tightly folded across their chests throughout the lectures. The results showed that the group with the folded arms had learned and retained 38 per cent less than the group who kept its arms unfolded. The second group also had a more critical opinion of the lectures and of the lecturer.

These tests reveal that, when the listener folds his arms, not only has he more negative thoughts about the speaker, but he is also paying less attention to what is being said. It is for this reason that training centres should have chairs with arms to allow the attendees to leave their arms uncrossed.

Many people claim that they habitually take the arms folded position because it is comfortable. Any gesture will feel comfortable when you have the corresponding attitude; that is, if you have a negative, defensive or nervous attitude, the folded arms position will feel good.

Remember that in non-verbal communication, the meaning of the message is also in the receiver, not only the sender. You may feel ‘comfortable’ with your arms crossed or your back and neck stiffened, but studies have shown that the reception of these gestures is negative.

Standard Arm-Cross Gesture

Both arms are folded together across the chest as an attempt to ‘hide’ from an unfavourable situation. There are many arm-folding positions, but this book will discuss the three most common ones. The standard arm-cross gesture (Figure 70) is a universal gesture signifying the same defensive or negative attitude almost everywhere. It is commonly seen when a person is among strangers in public meetings, queues, cafeterias, elevators or anywhere that people feel uncertain or insecure.

During a recent lecture tour in the United States, I opened one particular meeting by deliberately defaming the character of several highly respected men who were well-known to the seminar audience and who were attending the conference. Immediately following the verbal attack, the members of the audience were asked to hold the positions and gestures they had taken. They were all quite amused when I pointed out that about 90 per cent of them had taken the folded arms position immediately after my verbal attack began. This clearly shows that most people will take an arms folded position when they disagree with what they are hearing. Many public speakers have failed to communicate their message to the audience because they have not seen the folded arms gestures of their listeners. Experienced speakers know that this gesture demonstrates the necessity of using a good ‘ice breaker’ to move the audience into a more receptive posture that will alter the listeners’ attitude towards the speaker. When you see the arm-cross gesture occur during a face-to-face encounter, it is reasonable to assume that you may have said something with which the other person disagrees, so it may be pointless continuing your line of argument even though the other person may be verbally agreeing with you. The fact is that the non-verbal medium does not lie -the verbal medium does. Your objective at this point should be to try to discover the cause of the arms-folded gesture and to move the person into a more receptive position. Remember: as long as the arms-folded gesture remains, the negative attitude will remain. The attitude causes the gestures to occur and prolonging the gesture forces

the attitude to remain.


A simple but effective method of breaking the folded-arms position is to hand the person a pen, a book or something that forces him to unfold his arms to reach forward.

This moves him into a more open posture and attitude. Asking the person to lean forward to look at a visual presentation can also be an effective means of opening the folded-arms position. Another useful method is to lean forward with your palms facing up and say, ‘I can see you have a question, what would you like to know?’ or, ‘What do you think?’ and then sit back to indicate that it is the other person’s turn to speak. By leaving your palms visible you non-verbally tell the other person that you would like an open, honest answer. As a salesman, I would never proceed with the presentation of my product until I had uncovered the prospective buyer’s reason for suddenly folding his arms. More often than not, I discovered that the buyer had a hidden objection that most other sales people might never have discovered because they missed seeing the buyer’s non-verbal signal that he was negative about some aspect of the sales presentation.

Reinforced Arm-Cross

If as well as the full arm-cross gesture the person has clenched fists, it indicates a hostile and defensive attitude. This cluster is often combined with clenched teeth and red face, in which case a verbal or physical attack may be imminent. A submissive palms-up approach is needed to discover what caused the hostile gestures if the reason is not already apparent. The person using this gesture cluster has an attacking attitude, as opposed to the person in Figure 70, who has taken a defending armcross position.


Arm Gripping Gesture

You will notice that this arm-cross gesture is characterised by the hands tightly gripping the upper arms to reinforce the position and to stop any attempt to unfold the arms and expose the body. The arms can often be gripped so tight that the fingers and knuckles turn white as the blood circulation is cut off. This arm-fold style is common to people sitting in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting-rooms, or first-time air travellers who are waiting for the plane to lift off. It shows a negative restrained attitude.

In a lawyer’s office the prosecutor may be seen using a fists-clenched arm-cross while the defence may have taken the arm-gripping position.

Status can influence arm-folding gestures. A superior type can make his superiority felt in the presence of persons he has just met by not folding his arms. Say, for example, that at a company social function, the general manager is introduced to several new employees whom he has not met. Having greeted them with a dominant handshake, he stands at the social distance from the new employees with his hands by his side, behind his back in the superior palm-in-palm position (see Figure 44), or with one hand in his pocket. He rarely folds his arms to show the slightest hint of nervousness. Conversely, after shaking hands with the boss, the new employees take full or partial arm-fold gestures because of their apprehension about being in the presence of the company’s top man. Both the general manager and the new employees feel comfortable with their respective gestures as each, is signalling his status relative to the other. But what happens when the general manager meets a young, up-and-coming executive who is also a superior type and who may even feel that he is as important as the general manager? The likely outcome is that after the two give each other a dominant handshake, the young executive will take an arm-fold gesture with both thumbs pointing vertically upwards (Figure 73). This gesture is the defensive version of both arms being held horizontally in front of the body with both thumbs up to show that the user is ‘cool’, a gesture characterised by Henry Winkler who played the Fonz in the television series Happy Days. The thumbs-up gesture is our way of showing that we have a self-confident attitude and the folded arms give a feeling of protection.


Sales people need to analyse why a buyer may have taken this gesture to know whether their approach is effective. If the thumbs-up gesture has come towards the end of the sales presentation and is combined with many other positive gestures used by the buyer, the sales person can move comfortably into closing the sale and asking for the order. If, on the other hand, at the close of the sale the buyer moves into the fist-clenched arm cross position (Figure 71) and has a poker face, the sales person can be inviting disastrous consequences by attempting to ask for the order. Instead it is better if he quickly goes back to his sales presentation and asks more questions to try to

discover the buyer’s objection. In selling, if the buyer verbalises, ‘No’, it can become difficult to change his decision. The ability to read body language allows you to see the negative decision before it is verbalised and gives you time to take an alternative course of action.

People who carry weapons or wear armour rarely use defensive arm-fold gestures because their weapon or armour provides sufficient body protection. Police officers who wear guns, for example, rarely fold their arms unless they are standing guard and they normally use the fist-clenched position to show quite clearly that nobody is permitted to pass where they stand.


The full arm-cross gesture is sometimes too obvious to use around others because it tells them that we are fearful. Occasionally we substitute a subtler version - the partial arm cross, in which one arm swings across the body to hold or touch the other arm to form the barrier, as shown in Figure 75.


The partial arm barrier is often seen at meetings where a person may be a stranger to the group or is lacking in self-confidence. Another popular version of a partial arm barrier is holding hands with oneself (Figure 74), a gesture commonly used by people who stand before a crowd to receive an award or give a speech. Desmond Morris says that this gesture allows a person to relive the emotional security that he experienced as a child when his parent held his hand under fearful circumstances.



Disguised arm-cross gestures are highly sophisticated gestures used by people who are continually exposed to others. This group includes politicians, sales people, television personalities and the like who do not want their audience to detect that they are unsure of themselves or nervous. Like all arm-cross gestures, one arm swings across in front of the body to grasp the other arm but instead of the arms folding, one hand touches a handbag, bracelet, watch, shirt cuff or other object on or near the other arm

(Figure 76). Once again the barrier is formed and the secure feeling is achieved. When cufflinks were popular, men were often seen adjusting them as they crossed a room or dance floor where they were in full view of others. As cufflinks lost their popularity, a man would adjust the band on his watch, check the contents of his wallet, clasp or rub his hands together, play with a button on his cuff or use any other gesture that would allow the arms to cross in front of the body. To the trained observer, however, these gestures are a dead giveaway because they achieve no real purpose except as an attempt

to disguise nervousness. A good place to observe these gestures is anywhere that people walk past a group of onlookers, such as a young man who crosses the dance floor to ask an attractive young lady to dance with him or someone crossing an open room to receive a trophy.

Women are less obvious than men in their use of disguised arm barrier gestures because they can grasp such things as handbags or purses when they become unsure of themselves (Figure 77). One of the most common versions of this is holding a glass of beer or wine with two hands. Did it ever occur to you that you need only one hand to hold a glass of wine? The use of two hands allows the nervous person to form an almost undetectable arm barrier. Having observed people using disguised arm barrier signals on many occasions, we have found that these gestures are used by almost everyone. Many well-known figures in society also use disguised barrier signals in tense situations and are usually completely unaware that they are doing so (Figure 78).

Leg Barriers

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Like arm barrier gestures, crossed legs are a signal that a negative or defensive attitude may exist. The purpose of crossing the arms on the chest was originally to defend the heart and upper body region and crossing the legs is an attempt to shield the genital area. Crossed arms also indicate a more negative attitude than do crossed legs, and the arms gesture is more obvious. Care should be taken when interpreting crossed leg gestures with women as many have been taught that this is how to ‘sit like a lady’. Unfortunately for them, however, the gesture can make them seem defensive.

There are two basic crossed leg-sitting conditions, the standard leg cross and the figure 4 leg lock.

The Standard Leg-Cross Position

One leg is crossed neatly over the other, usually the right over the left. This is the normal crossed-leg position used by European, British, Australian and New Zealand cultures and may be used to show a nervous, reserved or defensive attitude. However, this is usually a supportive gesture that occurs with other negative gestures and should not be interpreted in isolation or out of context. For example, people often sit like this during lectures or if they are on uncomfortable chairs for long periods. It is also common to see this gesture in cold weather. When the crossed legs gesture is combined with crossed arms (Figure 80), the person has withdrawn from the conversation. A sales person would be very foolish even to attempt to ask for a decision from a buyer when he has taken this pose, and the sales person should ask probing questions to uncover his objection. This pose is popular among women in most countries, particularly to show their displeasure with a husband or boyfriend.

clip_image002clip_image004The American Figure 4 Leg Lock Position

This leg cross indicates that an argumentative or competitive attitude exists. It is the sitting position used by many American males who have a competitive nature. This being the case, it is difficult to interpret the attitude of an American during a conversation, but it is quite obvious when this gesture is used by a British citizen.

I recently addressed a series of meetings in New Zealand where the audience comprised about 100 managers and 500 sales people. A highly controversial issue was being discussed - the treatment of sales people by corporations. A salesman who was well-known to the audience and who had a reputation as a stirrer was asked to address the group. As he took the stage, the managers, almost without exception, took the defensive pose shown in Figure 80, which showed that they felt threatened by what they thought the salesman was going to say. Their fears were well founded. The salesman

raged about the poor quality of management in most corporations in that industry and said he felt that this was a contributing factor to the industry’s staffing problems. Throughout his speech the sales people in the audience were leaning forward showing interest, many using evaluation gestures, but the managers held their defensive positions. The salesman then changed his address to discuss what he believed the manager’s role should be in relation to the sales people. Almost as if they were players in an orchestra who had been given a command by the orchestra leader, the managers shifted to the competitive/argumentative position (Figure 81). It was obvious that they were mentally debating the salesman’s point of view and many later confirmed that this had been the case. I noticed, however, that several managers had not taken this pose. After the meeting I asked them why, and, although most said they had also disagreed with the salesman’s views, they were unable to sit in the figure 4 leg lock position for such reasons as obesity and arthritis.

In a selling situation it would be unwise to attempt to close the sale and ask for the order when the buyer takes this position. The sales person would need to use an open appeal, leaning forward with palms up and saying, ‘I can see you have some ideas on this. I’d be interested in your opinion’, and then sit back to signify that it is the buyer’s turn to speak. This gives the buyer an opportunity to tell you his opinion. Women who wear trousers or jeans are also observed sitting in the figure 4 position on occasions.

clip_image006clip_image008Figure 4 Leg Clamp

The person who has a hard and fast attitude in an argument or debate will often lock the figure 4 into place with one or both hands, using them as a clamp. This is a sign of the tough-minded, stubborn individual who may need a special approach to break through his resistance.

Standing Leg Cross Gestures

The next time you attend a meeting or function, you will notice small groups of people all standing with their arms and legs crossed (Figure 83). Observation will also reveal that they are standing at a greater distance from each other than the customary one, and that, if they are wearing coats or jackets, they are usually buttoned. If you were to question these people, you would find that one or all of them are strangers to the others in the group. This is how must people stand when they are among people whom they do not know well.

Now you notice another small group in which the people are standing with arms unfolded, palms exposed, coats unbuttoned, relaxed appearance, leaning on one foot with the other pointing towards other members of the group and moving in and out of each other’s intimate zones. Close investigation reveals that these people are friends or are known personally to each other. Interestingly, the people using the closed arms and legs stance may have relaxed facial expressions and conversation that sounds free and easy, but the folded arms and legs tell us that they are not relaxed or confident.

The next time you join a group of people who are standing in the open friendly stance but among whom you know no-one, stand with your arms and legs tightly crossed. One by one the other group members will cross their arms and legs and remain in that position until you leave them. Then walk away and watch how, one by one, the members of the group assume their original open pose once again!

The ‘Opening-Up’ Procedure

As people begin to feel comfortable in a group and get to know others in it, they move through an unwritten code of movements taking them from the defensive crossed arms and legs position to the relaxed open position. Studies of people in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America reveal that the standing ‘opening-up’ procedure is the same in each of these countries.

Stage l: Defensive position, arms and legs crossed (Figure 84).

Stage 2: Legs uncrossed and feet placed together in a neutral position.

Stage 3: The arm folded on top in the arm cross comes out and the palm is flashed when speaking but is not tucked back into the arm cross position. It holds the outside of the other arm.

Stage 4: Arms unfold and one arm gesticulates or may be placed on the hip or in the pocket.

clip_image010Stage 5: One person leans back on one leg and pushes the other forward to point at the person whom he finds the most interesting

(Figure 85).

Alcohol can speed up this process or eliminate some of the stages.

Defensive or Cold?

Many people claim that they are not defensive but cross their arms or legs because they feel cold. This is often a cover-up and it is interesting to note the difference between a defensive stance and the way a person stands when he or she feels cold. First of all, when someone wants to warm his hands he normally thrusts them into the

armpits rather than tucking them under the elbows, as is the case with a defensive arm-cross. Secondly, when a -person feels cold he may fold his arms in a type of body hug and when the legs are crossed they are usually straight, stiff and pressed hard against each other (Figure 86), as opposed to the more relaxed leg posture of the defensive stance or position.

clip_image012clip_image014People who habitually take a crossed arms or legs position prefer to say that they are cold or comfortable rather than to admit that they could be nervous, shy or defensive.

The Ankle-Lock Gesture

Crossing or folding the arms or legs suggests that a negative or defensive attitude exists, and this is also the case with the ankle lock gesture. The male version of the

ankle lock is often combined with clenched fists resting on the knees or with the hands tightly gripping the arms of the chair (Figure 87). The female version varies slightly; the knees are held together, the feet may be to one side and the hands rest side by side or one on top of the other resting on the upper legs (Figure 88).

During more than a decade of interviewing and selling to people, our observation has revealed that, when the interviewee locks his ankles, he is mentally ‘biting his lip’. The gesture is one of holding back a negative attitude, emotion, nervousness or fear. For example, a lawyer friend of mine told me that he had often noticed that, just prior to a court hearing, the people who were involved in the case nearly always sat with their ankles tightly locked together. He also found that they had been waiting to say something or had been trying to control their emotional state.

clip_image016clip_image018When interviewing prospective employees, we noted that most interviewees locked their ankles at some point during the interview, indicating that they were holding back an emotion or attitude. In the initial stages of our research with this gesture, we found that asking questions about the interviewee’s feelings was often unsuccessful in unlocking his ankles and thus his mind. We soon discovered, however, that if the interviewer walked around to the interviewee’s side of the desk and sat beside him, removing the desk barrier, the interviewee’s ankles would often unlock and the conversation took on an open, more personal atmosphere.

clip_image020We were recently advising a company on the effective use of the telephone to contact customers when we met a young man who had the unenviable job of calling customers who had not paid their accounts. We watched him make a number of calls and, although he sounded relaxed, we noticed that his ankles were locked together beneath his chair. I asked,

‘How do you enjoy this job?’ He replied, ‘Fine! It’s a lot of fun.’ This verbal statement was however, inconsistent with his non-verbal signals, although he did sound quite convincing.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked. He paused for a moment, unlocked his ankles, turned towards me with open palms and said, ‘Well, actually, it drives me crazy!’ He then told me that he had received several calls from customers who had been rude to him and he had been holding back his feelings so as not to transmit them to the other customers. Interestingly, we have noticed that sales people who do not enjoy using the telephone sit in the locked ankles position.

Leaders in the field of negotiating tech- niques, Nierenberg and Calero, found that

whenever one party locked his ankles during a negotiation it often meant that he was holding back a valuable concession. They found that, by using questioning techniques, they could often encourage him to unlock his ankles and reveal the concession.

There are always people who claim that they habitually sit in the ankle lock position, or for that matter, any of the negative arm and leg clusters, because they feel comfort- able. If you are one of these people, remember that any arm or leg position will feel comfortable when you have a defensive, negative or reserved attitude. Considering that a negative gesture can increase or prolong a negative attitude, and that other people interpret you as being defensive or negative, you would be well advised to practise using positive and open gestures to improve your self-confidence and relationships with others.

Women who were teenagers during the mini-skirt era crossed their legs and ankles for obvious, necessary reasons. Through habit, many of these women still sit in this position, which may make others misinterpret them; people may react toward these women with caution. It is important to take female fashion trends into consideration, particularly how these may affect the woman’s leg positions, before jumping to conclusions.

The Foot Lock

This gesture is almost exclusively used by women. The top of one foot locks around the other leg to reinforce a defensive attitude and, when this gesture appears, you can be sure that the woman has become a mental recluse or has retreated like a tortoise into her shell.


A warm, friendly, low-key approach is needed if you eventually hope to open this clam. This position is common to shy or timid women.

I recall an interview in which a new salesman was trying to sell insurance to a young married couple. The sale was unsuccessful and the new salesman could not understand why he had lost it, because he had followed the sales track perfectly. I pointed out that he had failed to notice that the woman was sitting with a tight foot lock position throughout the interview. Had the salesman understood the significance of this gesture, he could have involved her in the sales presentation, and might have achieved a better result.

Straddling a Chair

Centuries ago, men used shields to protect themselves from the spears and clubs of the enemy, and today, civilised man uses whatever he has at his disposal to symbolise this same protective behaviour when he is under physical or verbal attack. This includes standing behind a gate, doorway, fence, desk, the open door of his motor vehicle and straddling a chair (Figure 91). The back of the chair provides a shield to protect his body and can transform him into an aggressive, dominant warrior. Most chair straddlers are dominant individuals who will try to take control of other people or groups when they become bored with the conversation, and the back of the chair serves as good protection from any ‘attack’ by other members of the group. He is often discreet and can slip into the straddle position almost unnoticed.

The easiest way to disarm the straddler is to stand or sit behind him, making him feel vulnerable to attack and forcing him to change his position, becoming less aggressive. This can work well in groups because the straddler will have his back exposed; this forces him to change position.


But how do you handle a one-to-one confrontation with a straddler on a swivel chair? It is pointless to try to reason with him, particularly when he is on a swivelling merry- go-round, so the best defence is non-verbal attack. Conduct your conversation standing above and looking down upon the straddler and move within his personal territory. This

is very disconcerting to him and he may even fall backwards off his chair in an attempt to avoid being forced to change position.

If you have a straddler coming to visit you and his aggressive attitude annoys you, be sure to seat him on a fixed chair that has arms to stop him from taking his favourite position.

Picking Imaginary Lint

When a person disapproves of the opinions or attitudes of others but feels constrained in giving his point of view, the non-verbal gestures that occur are known as displacement gestures, that is, they result from a withheld opinion. Picking imaginary pieces of lint from the clothing is one such gesture. The lintpicker usually looks away from the other people towards the floor while performing this minor, irrelevant action. This is one of the most common signals of disapproval and when the listener continually picks imaginary pieces of lint off his clothing it is a good indication that he does not like what is being said, even though he may be verbally agreeing with everything.

Open your palms and say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ or, ‘I can see you have some thoughts on this. Would you mind telling me what they are?’ Sit back, arms apart, palms visible, and wait for the answer. If the person says he is in agreement with you but continues to pick the imaginary lint, you may need to take an even more direct approach to discover his hidden objection.


This book would not be complete without a discussion of the basic head movements, the two most widely used being the head nod and the head shake. The head nod is a positive gesture used in most cultures to signify, ‘Yes’, or affirmation. Research conducted with people who have been deaf, dumb and blind from birth shows that they also use this gesture to signify the affirmative, which has given rise to the theory that this may be an inborn gesture. The headshake, usually meaning ‘No’, is also claimed by some to be an inborn action; however, others have theorised that it is the first gesture a human being learns. They believe that when the newborn baby has had enough milk, he shakes his head from side to side to reject his mother’s breast. Similarly, the young child who has had enough to eat uses the head shake to reject his parent’s attempt to spoonfeed him.

One of the easiest ways to uncover a disguised objection when dealing with others is to watch if the person uses the headshake gesture while verbalising his agreement with you. Take, for example, the person who verbalises, ‘Yes, I can see your point of view’, or, ‘I really enjoy working here’, or, ‘We’ll definitely do business after Christmas’, whilst shaking his head from side to side. Even though this may sound convincing, the head shake gesture signals that a negative attitude exists and you would be well advised to reject what the person has said and to question him further.

Basic Head Positions

There are three basic head positions. The first is with the head up (Figure 93) and is the position taken by the person who has a neutral attitude about what he is hearing. The head usually remains still and may occasionally give small nods. Hand-to-cheek evaluation gestures are often used with this position.

When the head tilts to one side it shows that interest has developed (Figure 94). Charles Darwin was one of the first to note that humans, as well as animals, tilt their heads to one side when they become interested in something. If you are giving a sales presentation or delivering a speech, always make a point of looking for this gesture among your audience. When you see them tilt their heads and lean forward using hand-to-chin evaluation gestures, you are getting the point across. Women use this head position to show interest in an attractive male. When others are speaking to you, all you need do is use the head-tilted position and head nods to make the listener feel warm towards you.

When the head is down, it signals that the attitude is negative and even judgmental

(Figure 95). Critical evaluation clusters are normally made with the head down and, unless you can get the person’s head up or tilted, you may have a communication problem. As a public speaker, you will often be confronted by an audience whose members are all seated with head down and arms folded on the chest. Professional speakers and trainers usually do something that involves audience participation before they begin their address. This is intended to get the audience’s heads up and to get them involved. If the speaker’s ploy is successful, the audience’s next head position will be the head tilted.


Both Hands Behind Head

This gesture is typical of such professionals as accountants, lawyers, sales managers, bank managers or people who are feeling confident, dominant, or superior about something. If we could read the person’s mind, he would be saying something like, ‘I have all the answers’ or, ‘Maybe one day you’ll be as smart as I am’, or even

‘Everything’s under control’. It is also a gesture used by the ‘know-it-all’ individual and many people find it irritating when someone does it to them. Lawyers habitually use this with their peers as a non-verbal demonstration of how knowledgeable they are. It can also be used as a territorial sign to show that the person has staked a claim to that

particular area. The man in Figure 96 has also taken a figure 4 leg lock position which shows that he not only feels superior but is also likely to want to argue.

There are several ways to handle this gesture, depending on the circumstances in which it occurs. If you want to discover the reason for the person’s superior attitude, lean forward with palms up and say, ‘I can see that you know about this. Would you care to comment?’ Then sit back, palms still visible, and wait for an answer. Another method is to force the man to change his position, which will in turn change his attitude. This can be accomplished by placing something just out of his reach and asking, ‘Have you seen this?’, forcing him to lean forward. Copying the gesture is another good way to handle it. If you want to show that you agree with the other person, all you need do is copy his gestures.

clip_image008clip_image010On the other hand, if the person using the hands-behind-head gesture is reprimanding you, you will non-verbally intimidate him by copying this gesture. For example, two lawyers will use the gesture in each other’s presence (Figure 97) to show equality and agreement, but the mischievous schoolboy would infuriate the school principal if he used it in his office.

The origin of this gesture is uncertain, but it is likely that the hands are used as an imaginary armchair in which the person lies back and relaxes.

Research into this gesture showed that in one particular insurance company, twenty-seven out of thirty sales managers used it regularly in the presence of their sales people or subordinates but seldom in the presence of their superiors. When they were with their superiors, the same managers used submissive and defensive gesture clusters.



Which gesture is used in the following situations: the young child arguing with his parent, the athlete waiting for his event to begin and the boxer in the dressing-room waiting for the bout to start?

In each instance, the individual is seen standing with the hands-on-hips pose, for this is one of the most common gestures used by man to communicate an aggressive attitude.

Some observers have labelled this gesture ‘readiness’ which in the right context is correct, but the basic meaning is aggression. It has also been called the achiever stance, related to the goal-directed individual who uses this position when he is ready to tackle his objectives. These observations are correct because in both cases the person is ready to take action about something, but it still remains an aggressive, forward-moving gesture. Men often use this gesture in the presence of women to show an aggressive, dominant male attitude.

It is interesting to note that birds fluff their feathers to make themselves appear bigger when they are fighting or courting; humans use the hands-on-hips gesture for the same purpose, that is, to make themselves appear bigger. Males will use it as a non-verbal challenge to other males who enter their territory.

It is also important to consider the circumstances and gestures immediately preceding the hands-on-hips pose to make a correct assessment of the person’s attitude. Several other gestures can further support your conclusion. For example, is the coat

open and pushed back on to the hips, or is it buttoned when the aggressive pose is taken? Closed coat readiness shows aggressive frustration, whereas coat open and pushed back

(Figure 98) is a directly aggressive pose because the person is openly exposing his heart and throat in a non-verbal display of fearlessness. This position can be further reinforced by placing the - feet evenly apart on the ground or by adding clenched fists to the gesture cluster.

clip_image013clip_image015The aggressive-readiness clusters are used by professional models to give the impression that their clothing is for the modem, aggressive, forward-thinking woman. Occasionally the gesture may be done with only one hand on the hip and the other

displaying another gesture (Figure 99). Critical evaluation gestures are often seen with the hands-on-hips pose.

Seated Readiness

One of the most valuable gestures that a negotiator can learn to recognise is seated readiness. In the selling situation, for example, if the potential buyer were to take this gesture at the end of the sales presentation and the interview had progressed success- fully up to that point, the sales person could ask for the order and expect to get it. Video replays of insurance sales people interviewing potential buyers revealed that, whenever the seated readiness gesture followed the chinstroking gesture (decision-making), the client bought the policy. In contrast to this, if, during the close of the sale, the client took the arms-crossed position immediately following the chin-stroking gesture, the sale was usually unsuccessful. Unfortunately, most sales courses teach sales people always to ask for the order with little regard for the client’s body position and gestures. Learning to recognise such gestures as readiness not only helps make more sales but helps to keep many more people in the selling profession. The seated readiness gesture is also taken by the angry person who is ready for something else - to throw you out. The preceding gesture clusters give the correct assessment of the person’s intentions.



The Starter’s Position

The readiness gestures that signal a desire to end a conversation or encounter are leaning forward with both hands on both knees, Figure 101) or leaning forward with both hands gripping the chair (Figure 102). Should either of these occur during a conversation it would he wise for you to take the lead and terminate it. This allows you to maintain a psychological advantage and to keep the control.

Sexual Aggressiveness

Thumbs tucked into the belt or the tops of the pockets is the gesture display used to show a sexually aggressive attitude. It is one of the most common gestures used in television Westerns to show viewers the virility of their favourite gunslinger (Figure

103). The arms take the readiness position and the hands serve as central indicators, highlighting the genital region. Men use this gesture to stake their territory or to show other men that they are unafraid. When it is used in the presence of females, the gesture can be interpreted as, ‘I am virile, I can dominate you’.


This gesture, combined with expanded pupils and one foot pointing toward a female, is easily decoded by most women. It is this gesture that non-verbally gives the game away for most men, as they unwittingly tell the woman what is on their mind. This cluster has always been predominantly male, but the fact that women wear jeans and trousers has allowed them to use the same cluster (Figure 104), although they usually only do it when wearing pants or trousers. When wearing dresses or the like, the sexually aggressive female displays one thumb tucked into a belt or pocket (Figure


Male-Male Aggression

Figure 105 shows two men sizing each other up, using the characteristic hands-on-hips and thumbs-in-belt gestures. Considering that they are both turned at an angle away from each other and the lower halves of their bodies are relaxed, it would be reasonable to assume that these two males are unconsciously evaluating each other and that an attack is unlikely. Their conversation may be casual or friendly but a completely relaxed atmosphere will not exist until their hands-on-hips gestures cease and open palm gestures are used.

If these two men had been directly facing each other with their feet planted firmly on the ground, a fight would be likely to occur (Figure 106).



Eye Signals

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Throughout history, we have been preoccupied with the eye and its effect on human behaviour. We have all used such phrases as ‘She looked daggers at him’, ‘She has big baby eyes’, ‘He has shifty eyes’, ‘She has inviting eyes’, ‘He had that gleam in his eye’ or ‘He gave me the Evil Eye’. When we use these phrases we unwittingly refer to the size of the person’s pupils and to his or her gaze behaviour. In his book The Tell-Tale Eye, Hess says that the eyes may well give the most revealing and accurate of all human communication signals because they are a focal point on the body and the pupils work independently.

In given light conditions, the pupils will dilate or contract as the person’s attitude and mood change from positive to negative and vice versa. When someone becomes excited, his pupils can dilate up to four times their normal size. Conversely, an angry, negative mood causes the pupils to contract to what are commonly known as ‘beady little eyes’ or ‘snake eyes’. The eyes are used a lot in courtship; women use eye make-up to emphasise their eye display. If a woman loves a man, she will dilate her

pupils at him and he will decode this signal correctly, without knowing he does so. For this reason, romantic encounters are often arranged in dimly lit places that cause the pupils to dilate.


Young lovers who look deeply into each other’s eyes unknowingly look for pupil dilation; each becomes excited by the dilation of the other’s pupils. Research has shown that when pornographic films showing men and women in sexual positions are shown to men, their pupils can dilate to almost three times the normal size. When the same films are shown to women their pupil dilation is even greater than that recorded by the men, which raises some doubt about the statement that women are less stimulated by pornography than men.

Young babies and children have larger pupils than adults and their pupils constantly dilate when adults are present in an attempt to look as appealing as possible and thus receive constant attention.

Tests conducted with expert card players show that fewer games were won by the experts when their opponents wore dark glasses. For example, if an opponent were dealt four aces in a game of poker, his rapid pupil dilation would be unconsciously de- tected by the expert, who would get a feeling that he should not bet on the next hand. Dark glasses worn bythe opponents eliminated pupil signals and as a result the experts won fewer games than usual.

Pupil watching was used by the ancient Chinese gem traders who watched for the pupil dilation of their buyers when negotiating prices. Centuries ago, prostitutes put drops of belladonna in their eyes to dilate their pupils and to make themselves appear more desirable. The late Aristotle Onassis was noted for wearing dark glasses when negotiating business deals so that his eyes would not reveal his thoughts.

An old cliché says, ‘Look a person in the eye when you talk to him.’ When you are communicating or negotiating with others, practise ‘looking them in the pupil’ and let the pupils tell you their real feelings.


It is only when you see ‘eye to eye’ with another person that a real basis for communication can be established. While some people can make us feel quite comfortable when they converse with us, others can make us feel ill-at-ease and some seem untrustworthy. This has to do primarily with the length of time that they look at us or hold our gaze as they speak. When a person is being dishonest or holding back information, his eyes meet ours less than one-third of the time. When a person’s gaze meets yours for more than twothirds of the time, it can mean one of two things; first, he or she finds you very interesting or appealing, in which case the gaze will be associated with dilated pupils; secondly, he or she is hostile towards you and may be issuing a non-verbal challenge, in which case the pupils will become constricted. Argyle reported that he found that when person A likes person B, he will look at him a lot. This

causes B to think that A likes him, so B will like A in return. In other words, to build a good rapport with another person, your gaze should meet his about 60 to 70 per cent of the time. This will also make him begin to like you. It is not surprising, therefore, that the nervous, timid person who meets your gaze less than one-third. of the time is rarely trusted.. In negotiation, dark tinted glasses should be avoided at all times as they make others feel that you are staring at them.

Like most body language and gestures, the length of time that one person gazes at another is culturally determined. Southern Europeans have a high frequency of gaze that may be offensive to others and the Japanese gaze at the neck rather than at the face when conversing. Always be sure to consider cultural circumstances before jumping to conclusions.

Not only is the length of the gaze significant; just as important is the geographical area of the person’s face and body at which you direct your gaze, as this also affects the outcome of a negotiation. These signals are transmitted and received non-verbally and are accurately interpreted by the receiver.

It takes about thirty days of conscious practice before the following eye techniques can be effectively used to improve your communication skills.

The Business Gaze (Figure 109)

When having discussions on a business level, imagine that there is a triangle on the other person’s forehead. By keeping your gaze directed at this area, you create a serious atmosphere and the other person senses that you mean business. Provided that your gaze does not drop below the level of the other person’s eyes, you are able to maintain control of the interaction.

clip_image006clip_image008The Social Gaze (Figure 110)

When the gaze drops below the other person’s eye level, a social atmosphere develops. Experiments into gazing reveal that during social encounters the gazer’s eyes also look in a triangular area on the other person’s face, in this case between the eyes and the mouth.

The Intimate Gaze (Figure 111)

The gaze is across the eyes and below the chin to other parts of the person’s body. In close encounters it is the triangular area between the eyes and the chest or breasts and for distant gazing from the eyes to the crotch. Men and women use this gaze to show interest in each other and those who are interested will return the gaze.

clip_image010clip_image012Sideways Glance

The sideways glance is used to communicate either interest or hostility. When it is combined with slightly raised eyebrows or a smile, it communicates interest and is frequently used as a courtship signal. If it is combined with down-turned eyebrows, furrowed brow or the corners of the mouth down-turned, it signals a suspicious, hostile or critical attitude.


The area of the other person’s body upon which you direct your gaze can have a powerful effect on the outcome of any face-to-face encounter. If you were a manager who was going to reprimand a lazy employee, which gaze would you use? If you used the social gaze, the employee would take less heed of your words, regardless of how loud or threatening you sounded. The social gaze would take the sting out of your

words and the intimate gaze would either intimidate or embarrass the employee. The business gaze is the appropriate one to use, as it has a powerful effect on the receiver and tells him that you are serious.

What men describe as the ‘come-on’ look that women use relates to a sideways glance and an intimate gaze. If a man or woman wants to play hard to get, he or she needs only avoid using the intimate gaze and instead use the social gaze. To use the business gaze during courting would cause a man or woman to be labelled as cold or unfriendly. The point is that when you use the intimate gaze on a potential sex partner, you give the game away. Women are expert at sending and receiving this type of gaze but unfortunately, most men are not. Men are usually obvious when they use the intimate gaze and they are generally unaware of having been given an intimate gaze, much to the frustration of the woman who has transmitted it.

Eye Block Gesture

Some of the most irritating people with whom we deal are those who use the eye - block gesture as they speak. This gesture occurs unconsciously and is an attempt by the person to block you from his sight because he has become bored or uninterested in you or feels that he is superior to you. Compared to the normal rate of six to eight blinks per minute during conversation, the eyelids close and remain closed for a second or longer as the person momentarily wipes you from his mind. The ultimate blockout is to leave the eyes closed and to fall asleep, but this rarely happens during one-to-one encounters. If a person feels superior to you, the eye block gesture is combined with the head tilted backwards to give you a long look, commonly known as ‘looking down one’s nose’. When you see an eye block gesture during a conversation, it is a signal that the approach you are using may be causing a negative reaction and that a new tack is

needed if effective communication is to take place (Figure 112).


It is worth discussing at this point how to control a person’s gaze when you are giving him a visual presentation using books, charts, graphs and so on. Research shows that of the information relayed to a person’s brain, 87 per cent comes via the eyes, 9 per cent via the ears, and 4 per cent via the other senses. If, for example, the person is looking at your visual aid as you are speaking, he will absorb as little as 9 per cent of your message if the message is not directly related to what he sees. If the message is related to the visual aid, he will absorb only 25 to 30 per cent of your message if he is looking at the visual aid. To maintain maximum control of his gaze, use a pen or pointer to point to the visual aid and at the same time verbalise what he sees (Figure 113). Next, lift the pen from the visual aid and hold it between his eyes and your own eyes (Figure

114). This has the magnetic effect of lifting his head so that he is looking at your eyes and now he sees and hears what you are saying, thus achieving maximum absorption of your message. Be sure that the palm of your other hand is visible when you are speaking.


Courtship Gestures and Signals

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I have a friend named Graham who has developed an art that most males would love to acquire. Whenever he attends a social function he can quickly ‘psych out’ the available women, make his choice and, in almost record-breaking time (sometimes as little as ten minutes), he may be seen heading towards the exit with the woman, escorting her to his car and drilling back to his apartment. I have even seen him return to the party within an hour and repeat this amazing process two or three times in the same evening. He seems to have built-in radar for finding the right girl at the right time and getting her to go with him. Many people wonder: what is the key to his success? Per- haps you know someone like Graham and have asked yourself the same question.

Research into animal courtship behaviour conducted by zoologists and behavioural scientists reveals that male and female animals use a series of intricate courtship gestures, some quite obvious and others extremely subtle, and that most are done subconsciously. In the animal world, courtship behaviour in each species follows specific and predetermined patterns. For example, in several species of bird, the male struts around the female giving a vocal display, puffing up his feathers and performing many intricate body movements to gain her attention, while the female appears to display little or no interest. This ritual is similar to that performed by the human animal when courtship begins.

Graham’s technique was to display male courtship gestures to the prospective females and those who were interested would respond with the appropriate female courtship signals, giving Graham the non-verbal green light to proceed with a more intimate approach.

The success that people have in sexual encounters with members of the opposite sex is directly related to their ability to send courtship signals and to recognise those being sent back. Women are aware of the courtship gestures, as they are aware of most other body gestures, but men are far less perceptive, often being totally blind to them.

It was interesting to note that women described Graham as ‘sexy’, ‘masculine’ and

‘someone who makes you feel feminine’; their reactions to his constant array of court- ship signals. Men, on the other hand, described him as ‘aggressive’, ‘insincere’, and

‘arrogant’; their reaction to the aggressive competition that Graham represented. Consequently he had very few male friends, and the reasons for this should be obvious

- no male likes a rival for the attentions of his female.

‘What gestures and body movements do people use to communicate desire for in- volvement?’ is frequently asked. We will now list the signals used by both sexes to attract potential sexual partners. You will note that more space is devoted to female courtship signals than to male signals; this is because women have a greater range of courtship signals than men.


While some courtship signals are studied and deliberate, others are given completely unconsciously. How we learn these signals is difficult to explain and a popular theory is that they may be inborn.

Dr Albert Scheflen, in his article ‘Quasicourtship behaviour in psychotherapy’, noted that, when a person enters the company of a member of the opposite sex, certain physiological changes take place. He found that high muscle tone became evident in preparation for a possible sexual encounter, ‘bagging’ around the face and eyes decreased, body sagging disappeared, the chest protruded, the stomach was automatically pulled in, pot-bellied slumping disappeared, the body assumed an erect posture and the person appeared to become more youthful in appearance. The ideal place to observe these changes is on a beach when a man and woman approach each other from a distance. The changes take place when the man and woman are close enough to meet each other’s gaze and continue until after they have passed each other, at which time the original posture returns (Figures 115 to 117).


Like most animal species, the human male displays preening behaviour as the female approaches. In addition to the automatic physiological reactions already mentioned, he will reach for his throat and straighten his tie. If he is not wearing a tie, he may smooth his collar or brush imaginary dust from his shoulder and rearrange

cufflinks, shirt, coat and other clothing. He may also preen himself by smoothing his hair.

The most aggressive sexual display he can make towards the female is the aggressive thumbs-in-belt gesture that highlights his genital region (see Figure 103). He may also turn his body towards her and point his foot at her. He uses the intimate gaze (Figure 111) and holds her gaze for a split second longer than normal. If he is really keen his pupils will be dilated. He often stands with his hands on hips (Figure 98) to accentuate his physical size and show his readiness to be involved with the female. When seated or leaning against a wall, he may also spread his legs to give a crotch display.

When it comes to courtship rituals, most men are about as effective as someone standing in a river trying to catch fish by hitting them on the head with a big stick. Women, as we shall see, have more lures and fishing skills to land their fish than any male could ever hope to acquire.


Women use most of the same basic preening gestures as men, including touching the hair, smoothing the clothing, one or both hands on hips, foot and body pointing towards the male, extended intimate gaze and increasing eye contact. They also adopt the thumbs-in-belt gesture which, although it is a male aggression gesture, is used with feminine subtlety; only one thumb tucked into a belt or protruding from a handbag or pocket is displayed.

Excited interest also causes pupil dilation and a flushed appearance in the cheeks. Other female courtship signals follow.

The Head Toss

The head is flicked to toss the hair back over the shoulders or away from the face. Even women with short hair may use this gesture.

Exposed Wrists

An interested female will gradually expose the smooth soft skin of her wrists to the potential male partner. The wrist area has long been considered one of the highly erotic areas of the body. The palms are also made visible to the male while she is speaking. Women who smoke cigarettes find this tantalising wrist/palm exposure quite simple to perform while smoking. The exposed wrist and head toss gestures are often mimicked by homosexual males who want to take on a feminine appearance.

Open Legs

The legs are opened wider than they would normally have been if the male had not arrived on the scene. This occurs whether the woman is sitting or standing and contrasts with the sexually defensive female who keeps her legs crossed and together at all times.

Rolling Hips

The hips have an accentuated roll when walking to highlight the pelvic region. Some of the more subtle female courtship gestures that follow have been used for

centuries in advertising to sell goods and services.

Sideways Glance

With partially dropped eyelids, the woman holds the man’s gaze just long enough for him to notice, then she quickly looks away. This has the tantalising feeling of peeping and being peeped at and can light the fires of most normal men.

Mouth Slightly Open, Wet Lips

Dr Desmond Morris describes this as ‘selfmimicry’ as it is intended to symbolise the female genital region. The lips can be made to appear wet either by the use of saliva or cosmetics. Both give the woman the appearance of sexual invitation.


When a woman becomes sexually aroused her lips, breasts and genitals become larger and redder as they fill with blood. The use of lipstick is a technique thousands of years old that is intended to mimic the reddened genitals of the sexually aroused female.


Fondling a Cylindrical Object

Fondling cigarettes, the stem of a wine glass, a finger or any long, thin object is an unconscious indication of what may be in the mind.

Sideways Glance Over Raised Shoulder

This is self-mimicry of the rounded female breasts. Figure 119 also makes use of dilated pupils, the head toss, exposed wrists, sideways glance, artificially extended gaze, wet lips, head up and fondling a cylindrical object, all of which are intended to generate desire for a particular brand of cigar.

Female Leg Cross Gestures

Men often sit with their legs apart in an aggressive crotch display, whereas women use leg crossing as protection for their delicate genital area. Women use three basic positions to communicate a courting attitude.

With the knee point (Figure 121), one leg is tucked under the other and points to the person whom she finds interesting. This is a very relaxed position which takes the formality out of a conversation and gives the opportunity for a fleeting exposure of the thighs.

The shoe fondle (Figure 122) also indicates a relaxed attitude and has the phallic effect of thrusting the foot in and out of the shoe, which can drive some men wild.

Most men agree that the leg twine (Figure 123) is the most appealing sitting position a woman can take. It is a gesture that women consciously use to attract attention. Dr Scheflen states that one leg is pressed firmly against the other to give the appearance of high muscle tone which, as previously mentioned, is a condition that the body takes when a person is ready for sexual performance.


Other signals used by women include crossing and uncrossing the legs slowly in front of the man and gently stroking the thighs with her hand, indicating a desire to be touched. This is often accompanied by speaking in a low voice.



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