“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Whether going out on a date, traveling through a foreign country, or interrogating a suspect in a crime, forensic psychology offers a wealth of tools to help decode people’s nonverbal behavior. These cues include gestures, vocal tones, body positioning, micro-expressions of the face, and a number of often subconscious indicators of people’s internal states. This guide offers a summary of some of the findings from well-established psychologists and legal experts. From Paul Eckman’s groundbreaking facial expression research to former FBI expert Joe Navarro’s findings about body language, this discipline can elucidate the less literal aspects of human communication.
Psychologist Dr. Paul Eckman is a legend in the world of deciphering facial expressions. Based on more than 50 years of research, Dr. Eckman has pioneered a coding system for people’s emotional displays involving hundreds of combinations of facial muscles, often scientifically correlated with distinct emotional states. He calls each observable facial movement an “action unit” or an AU, and offers a number of online tools to help people gain mastery in decoding facial movements. One of his main contributions to the research is the existence of micro-expressions, brief flashes of emotions revealed on one’s face. This training has been used by lie detection experts, actors, and Homeland Security officers, among others.
So what are some of the telltale signs?
Science of People (2013) gives an thorough, introductory summary of Dr. Eckman’s work:
Contempt or hate
Joe Navarro, a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent and an expert on body language, reports in Psychology Today (2012) that many of behaviors people typically associate with lying—avoiding eye contact, looking up to one direction, touching one’s face, clearing one’s throat—don’t actually indicate deception. He adds that even experts in the field can only tell if someone is lying roughly 60% of the time, slightly better than chance.
That said, Navarro has learned a lot from his 44-year-long career in detecting people’s inner lives from their comportment. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald (2012), Navarro reported that compressed lips is a universal sign that something is bothering someone, as is averting or blocking one’s eyes. He also pointed out some cultural nuances in widespread non-verbal cues, such as the nearly ubiquitous “nose-scrunching” as a sign of a bad smell. Some cultures such as Americans or the Japanese display only a mild scrunch, whereas people living around the Mediterranean or Caribbean may crinkle their faces to caricature-like dimensions. There are also displays that mean completely different things across groups of people. For example, giving a thumbs up may be permissible and affirmative across most North and South American countries; it would not be recommended, however, to perform the same gesture in Egypt where it’s a phallic symbol.
Navarro also notes that when the sides of the nose are dilates or in motion, this signifies that a person is about to take a physical action. He also reports that people typically touch their necks when they have something bothering them, advice that he’s given to doctors seeking to better understand their patients’ non-verbal communication.
According to Navarro, people across the world will also behave very differently depending on if they’re comfortable in an environment. When people feel relaxed, their gestures and body language tend to open up, with more instances of touching, head tilts, and obviously, smiling. He also speaks of the way to diffuse conflicts using nonverbal cues such as body positioning. As primates, we register aggression when we face another member of our species head-on. Therefore, to help conciliate an angry person, Navarro recommends standing sideways or even side-by-side.
Informed by the work of Navarro, here is a breakdown of some body language cues neatly summarized in a report in Entrepreneur (2014):
While these research-backed cues to non-verbal communication can shine a light on what people are really thinking, it’s important to consider the context as well. Those who are shy, for instance, may display signs of discomfort that can be misconstrued as other negative emotions such as disgust or anger. According to Navarro, it’s also crucial to establish trust or rapport with a person before trying to detect deception. He recommends that this baseline of more comfortable behaviors is important to establish a metric for more unusual patterns of facial expressions or body language.
For further research on the meaning of non-verbal behaviors, the books and blogs of Dr. Paul Eckman and Joe Navarro provide a comprehensive, research-backed overview, from head to toe.