Reading Social Gatherings
Although decoding facial expressions is a great starting point, the problem is, you can’t necessarily start there every time. For example, what can you pick up from the nonverbals of the person with their back to you in line at Target? In this scenario, you can’t see their face. All you can see is the back of their head, the backs of their feet, arms, legs, and torso. Where do you begin?
Start big and work your way to the smaller things. For example, are they standing still or slowly swaying back and forth? Swaying indicates boredom. What’s their posture like? Are they leaning on a shopping cart? If so, this tells us they don’t feel threatened by anything going on around them. What about their head? Is it straight up? Most often, this denotes they are paying attention. Is the head leaning to one side and back? That suggests impatience. What are their arms doing? Are they crossed? This could mean they’re cold, bored, exasperated with the situation, or just more comfortable with crossed arms.
Where are their hands? What are they doing? Are they fidgeting with something? The fidgeting denotes they are thinking about something specific. Are they holding their phone with one hand and “paddling” it between the middle finger and thumb of the opposite hand? This suggests they want things to speed up a bit. Are they holding a shopping basket in front of them with both hands while leaning back and their head is back as well? Again, this denotes boredom. If they’re holding the basket with one hand, what’s the other hand doing? Written out, you could get the impression that learning all this will take quite some time. However, you will soon be able to decode everything in this situation within a few seconds.
If you are in a much closer position and can see it, then start with the face. Are the lips pursed? That suggests disagreement with the situation. Are they pursed to the side? That indicates the person sees a different outcome to what is happening or what just happened. Have their lips disappeared by curving inward, so you can’t see them? You’ll see this when someone is stressed or when their stress level is building.
As you observe someone out in the wild, ask yourself these three questions.
- IS EVERYTHING AS IT SHOULD BE FOR THIS PARTICULAR SITUATION?
- IS THIS PERSON’S BEHAVIOR TELLING ME SOMETHING IS WRONG OR THAT THERE IS AN ISSUE?
- IS THEIR BEHAVIOR TELLING ME EVERYTHING IS OKAY?
If everything looks normal, search for small adaptors, such as massaging an arm or hand, biting a lip, pulling on or biting fingernails, or repetitive mouth movements or noises.
While searching for small adaptors, you may begin to notice that they are growing larger. For example, someone may quickly shrug their shoulders to stretch those muscles and help them relax. They may squeeze and wipe their forehead quickly or continuously rub a finger. You may hear them take a deep breath and let it out louder than normal. The adaptors a person uses, whether large or small, tell you something isn’t right for them psychologically. As ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro puts it, “You’re looking for the adjustments in comfort and discomfort.” That’s what adaptors do: aid in the transition from comfort to discomfort and vice versa
Social gatherings are fascinating, as they put every participant’s behavior on display. You can spot the shy, the nervous, and the fake. Connecting properly with these people is much easier when you know where their heads are at from a nonverbal perspective.
Approach the shy person in a quieter fashion and compliment them on something they’re wearing or something they’ve said. They are easily spotted, as quite often they will exhibit shrugged shoulders and/or their hand or hands will be in their pocket(s). Their feet are usually fairly close together as well. Understand you’re going to be doing the heavy lifting in the conversation and know that that’s okay. The questions you ask them can begin in a similar way to those you would ask an introvert, such as questions about the things we all do at home. “Have you binge-watched that show yet?” Or, “What book are you in the middle of?” “Are you a dog person or a cat person?” works like a charm with shy people.
Connecting with the nervous person the right way will be a little harder. They are processing a whole lot more that’s going on and in a different way than you are. It’s important to be patient with them and to speak calmly and clearly. You might notice adaptors, larger ones like arm massaging, shaking a leg, rubbing a hand. They may even have a tight grip on their cup or glass. Taking a deep breath, letting it out audibly and saying “Sometimes these things are too much” can help them understand that you get it. If that doesn’t help, you might try smiling and saying, “You look like how I feel.” When they say, “How’s that?” or, “What does that mean?” you can say, “I just don’t like these things. I know everybody else does, and I should, but I just don’t like ’em.” You will be surprised how that can calm a nervous partygoer.
The person exhibiting a “fake front” is usually the most interesting. You’ll know them by the loud volume they speak at. Their head will probably be tilted back, almost like they’re looking down their nose at you. They may have one hand on their hip and their chest forward a bit as well, while at the same time having one of their legs sticking out in front of them just a little too far. Though showing many signs of a narcissistic attitude, they may be faking that front of confidence to hide the fact that they are sad, nervous, unsure, or even shy. Approach this person with a bit of caution, as some of the cues are similar to those of a con or grifter. The person who is truly confident will rarely exhibit more than one or two of the several cues you can spot with these people. A great opening line for the person you suspect of being fake is: “So, what is your take on all of this?” This type of person will usually answer with information based more on them and much less on what is going on at the party.
#1 EYES OPEN WIDER THAN NORMAL
The nervous person’s brain wants to take in as much information as it possibly can from its surrounding environment. They tend to check the surroundings every couple minutes or so, and they listen to everything more closely than most other people.
To aid their ability to process this deluge of constantly changing information, the limbic system is triggered and the brain makes sure the eyes are open a little wider than they normally would be. They aren’t wide enough to look odd, but wide enough to be noticeable.
The nervous person will go back and forth between a higher state of alert to a lower state, over and over, in an observable cycle. If you notice this cycle, it is best to engage the person while they’re in the lower alert state. They will be much easier to approach and more open to listening to and engaging with you. They will also appreciate someone “coming to the rescue” as they try to cope with whatever is bothering them.
#2 STRESS MOUTH
When there’s a problem or when a person is stressed, quite often you will see what we like to call “Stress Mouth.” Some refer to it as “Lip Compression,” while others call it “Disappearing Lips.
Stress Mouth can show up during different levels of stress. For example, when you’re at a party and you walk out of the kitchen or into the living room and see people you don’t know, if someone looks you in the eye as you pass and smiles, your lips will try to smile. They’ll press together and disappear as you nod your head at the person. You’ll probably do the same thing if you’re sitting at a red light on the way home and realize the person you’re looking at in the car next to you is staring back.
#3 HAND MASSAGING ARM
One of the most common pacifiers you will see are a person massaging their arm, hand, finger, or a shoulder. We most often employ these pacifying behaviors as we deal with a problem or situation we are uncomfortable with
When you see someone exhibiting this behavior, more often than not, the person has no idea they’re doing it.
#4 ARM TIGHT AGAINST SIDE OF RIB CAGE
One of the important things the limbic system does is protect us when we sense something is wrong. When this response is triggered, without realizing it, our arms spring immediately to our sides with our forearms and hands in front of our stomach, chest, and heart. At the same time, our face exhibits the expression of Surprise: eyes and mouth wide open, eyebrows pulled up, nostrils flared, and pupils dilated.
#5 TIGHT GRIP
During the first drop on a roller coaster, you don’t lightly touch the shoulder harness that keeps you in your seat. Your hands squeeze that harness like it’s the only thing keeping you alive. Again, your limbic system is protecting you, forcing you to hang on tight.
Similar to crossed arms during an uncomfortable conversation, a person with a tight grip on a glass, coffee cup, or other object held in front of their heart and chest area can indicate anxiety and/or fear.
#6 EXTRA FACE
They do that because they know they’re on camera
At parties and in social situations, when you see someone exhibiting Extra Face, they may be hiding their true feelings and/or intent. They may be sad, lonely, or anxious. Like the extras, they know they are being observed and want to give the impression that all is well.
#7 SHOULDERS PULLED BACK
s hard to successfully execute a fake front. Quite often, the faker will overreact and go too far in the opposite direction of the emotion they want to hide. For example, keeping their normal behavior in mind, their smile will seem almost too big. They will laugh or comment a little too loudly.
In the same way that it’s hard to keep an insincere expression on your face because there is no emotion fueling it, the realism and believability of these gestures and stances will ebb and flow as well. This makes the fake, unnatural behavior stand out as obvious, especially with those shoulders pulled back a bit too much.
#8 PROTRUDING LEG
It looks similar to the way a relaxed person would put weight on their dominant leg as they lean back just a little. This movement forces the non-dominant leg forward to help the person maintain their balance.
The dominant leg in the situation we’re discussing protrudes more than what would be categorized as normal. Not far enough out to make it look odd, but far enough for others to see it as: “This is my space. Check me out.” Some people will exhibit similar behavior when they stand too close to a busy area or doorway, or right next to the punch bowl or gathering spot at a party.
This behavior tends to look a bit clunky, especially if the person is shy and trying to appear confident. When combined with the other cues in this illustration, the faker makes for an easy read, even at a distance.
#9 EYES SCAN WHILE HEAD REMAINS STILL
This type of eye scanning behavior is not only common for the person putting on a fake front, but also the nervous person who isn’t putting on a front. The difference being that the nervous person’s eyes will dart around somewhat quickly as they check the environment for threats. The side-to-side head movement will be small and almost jerky. The shy person’s eyes usually won’t dart, depending on the level of anxiety they are experiencing in the situation. They tend to look down and toward the center, and they will look back up as they scan the area. What little side-to-side head movements they do make tend to be slow.
The person putting on a fake front will exhibit all of these behaviors, depending on the reason they are faking. Sometimes their eye movements will be a great deal slower than the previous two examples. The room scan may be more controlled as the brain searches for familiar faces. Their head will move just enough to be noticeable, but not deeply from side to side. This is also a common predator behavior.
#10 HAND ON HIP
One hand is on the hip, while the other hand holds something. This can be mistaken for a mild display of dominance. However, when seen in this situation, it stands out, similar to the way the protruding leg stands out. Think of it as a flag telling you the person is ready to, or wants to, connect.
The hand on the hip also denotes confidence when it’s done the correct way. This example suggests confidence isn’t high because of the hand’s position. The problem is the inner rim of the hand, that part between the thumb and first finger. When that is firmly pressed against the hip forming a triangle with the elbow pointing straight out, you’ve got a confidence cue.
When the inner rim of the hand is just touching the hip, along with the inner side of the palm, and there is no point on the elbow, no triangle, you have a cue that denotes a relaxed or unstable confidence. Again, ready to connect, ready to talk to someone, but not a truly dominant gesture.
#11 SHOULDERS SLIGHTLY SHRUGGED
Some refer to this as “turtling,” as the head looks like it’s trying to disappear into the chest.
You will notice similar behavior when someone is surprised or experiencing fear. The shoulders quickly rise to protect the neck as the chin lowers. Once again, the ever-powerful limbic system is making sure that the neck is protected.
If you work in retail, you may want to start looking for this cue. When a thief shoplifts, they will often attempt to blend in and look smaller and harder to notice. However, shrugging and leaning forward makes them appear odd and results in them standing out, achieving the opposite effect.
#12 COVERING THE CENTER OF STOMACH AREA
The shy person is experiencing a form of fear. That’s the reason you’ll see them use barriers like the cup in the example picture. They want to put something, anything, between themselves and another person.
As the shy person’s stress continues to grow, they will begin to use barriers and adaptors. You can get an idea of how shy a person might be by the distance the barrier they use is from their stomach area. The same thing goes for how close the under part of their forearm is to the side of their stomach. In situations like the one in the example picture, the person battling shyness will often push on the side of their stomach with the lower part of their wrist.
#13 LEGS CLOSE TOGETHER
When the legs are straight and shoulder-width apart, it is referred to as “Legs Akimbo.” You will see police officers, military personnel, coaches, fighters, and anyone in a dominant or alpha position using such a stance. It is one of the first nonverbal cues that communicates to people who is in charge.
The opposite posture is standing with the legs close together. It’s a common display among shy people. When displaying Legs Akimbo, the person is always on balance. They look ready to take on most anything. The opposite proves true for the person standing with their legs too close together. They are often off-balance, not only physically, but also in the social situation they find themselves in as well.
#14 HEAD TILTED DOWNWARD
The person exhibiting a downward tilt of their head, even while in conversation, may indicate that they are experiencing sadness, loneliness, or possibly shame. With the shy person, the downward head tilt along with the slightly shrugged shoulders may not necessarily denote any of these emotions.
In a social situation, you may see the shy person with their head tilted forward and a light case of Stress Mouth creating a “Stress Smile.” To make a Stress Smile, smile normally. Now, curl your lips in like you would for Stress Mouth. Ta-dah! You’re the shy, nervous person in the corner making eye contact with someone passing by. This smile says, “Hello there. I’m not going to talk, but hi.”
Keep in mind, this smile can be mistaken for the smile of an angry person if you do it wrong. The angry person, who isn’t going to speak but is letting you know they’re angry by smiling, won’t nod their head as the shy person will. Their eyebrows won’t be popping up for a second or so, either.
#15 HAND IN POCKET
Whether at work, in the military, or at a bank meeting, the person who is lowest in the hierarchy is usually the person with their hands in their pockets. The problem with this is that most people are under the impression that keeping your hands in your pockets makes you look untrustworthy, simply because they can’t see your hands. That is not actually the case. However, it is a possibility that, if observed, those in charge may get the feeling they can’t trust you with an important task.
When you’re in a meeting, giving a talk, or negotiating, people want to see your hands because you communicate much better when using your hands as you speak. We’ve talked about how your illustrators convey a level of importance that your words may not fully transmit, and people want to see those illustrators.
The thumbs play an important role in the hand-pocket relationship. When the hand is in a pocket and the thumb is displayed, that denotes a feeling of confidence. It is when the thumbs are hidden with the hands entirely in the pockets that you can count on this cue indicating shyness or being uncomfortable with the situation.
Analyzing News Anchors & Show Hosts
Confidence shows in a person’s behavior when they appear to be calm with little or no distracting or jerky movements, especially when you pay attention to their head. You’ll notice that when you observe people with a large following on social media. News anchors and talk show hosts also look and act this way. Although some of their movements will be larger than normal, that’s part of the art of keeping the viewer’s attention.
#1 HAND GESTURING
One-on-one, hand gestures are usually small and stay within the stomach and lower chest area. It’s rare to see someone gesturing above the shoulders as in this illustration. However, sporting events are one place where you may see both hands raised above the head and shoulders, or gesturing above the shoulders.
When speaking to a group, the gestures need to be larger and have more movement. The same principle applies for video and film. The larger the movements, the more there is to see and the more the viewer’s attention is attracted to or directed by the person executing the gestures. Here we see an open-handed gesture indicating the host is asking for an answer or suggestion.
#2 LARGE TORSO MOVEMENTS
Instead of standing straight and bowing their head when there is a somber moment, the host will sit up straight and bow their head. When given interesting, questionable, or greatly anticipated information, their torso will tilt forward.
When given unexpected news, graphic information, or bad news, their torso will tilt back, to the side, or both. Depending on the type, importance, and degree of unpleasantness, this movement may happen faster or slower. In the seated position, the torso has the ability to bring the head, face, and chest closer to the guest or take it further away. These large torso movements are imperative in keeping and directing the viewer’s attention.
#3 NO MOVEMENT OF EYEBROWS AND FOREHEAD
Botox has become more popular, as well as more accessible, over the past few years. Many people, including some celebrities, use it to help get rid of wrinkles in the forehead and brow area.
While it can make a big difference, there are consequences. For example, if a host is showing cues that suggest he is eliciting an answer, like “What do you think?” then his eyebrows should be up. Greg Hartley refers to that as a “request for approval.” In this instance, though he is requesting approval or an answer, the eyebrows are not pushed or pulled upward. The forehead is motionless and is not wrinkling. This suggests Botox has been used.
News anchors can take advantage of the effect and continue to look serious even though the story they are relaying may be sad or even a bit humorous, but the eyebrows and forehead play important roles in connecting with others. It’s a big chance to take if you’re a person whose livelihood depends on that connection.
#4 SHOWTIME SMILE
The Showtime Smile is practiced and rehearsed, and it looks exactly the same every time you see it. Take a look at photos of your favorite celebrity on the red carpet. They will display plenty of smiles there. Then take a look at that same celebrity on the red carpet from another event. See it? The exact same smile.
Now that you’re aware of this, pay attention to your own smile. Is it the smile you really want history to record when your picture is taken? It’s okay to practice your smile. Believe me, more people practice theirs than you’re aware of.
#5 HAND LIGHTLY TOUCHING TABLE
In stressful situations, people become loosely unaware of what the rest of their body is doing. It’s not that they have no idea what the rest of their body is doing; they have simply put most of their attention somewhere else. Pickpockets, magicians, and con artists depend on that loosely unaware state to steal your wallet or take advantage of you. That’s why the host’s hand is placed so oddly on the desk. They are completely focused on the audience. You do this as well, when you are in situations demanding your undivided attention.