8 Body Language ‘Tells’ that Show you’re Bored, Anxious, or Possibly Lying

The former FBI agent Joe Navarro has probably spared the world the effects of a nasty crime or two. And also saved a lot of cash for the companies he has consulted for. 

Why and how?

Because Navarro is a master in the art of ‘non-verbal communication’. That is, he understands how to read bodies so well, that if he saw you in a room, he could probably know your emotional state without you even saying a word. And if he was watching you on a date, he could definitely tell if you were into them. 

Thanks to Joe’s book, What Every BODY is Saying, now everyone can learn to speed read people. And although most of us aren’t required to detect crime in our daily lives, being able to accurately guess when others are responsive to what we are saying helps us to self-adjust, and maybe even improve the way we communicate. At the very least, reading people means we’ll be able to see when we are not wanted!

Here are 8 body language ‘tells’ from the book, and what they might mean:

1. Neck touching/stroking

If you or the person you are talking to is touching and/or stroking their neck, then something stressful is happening. That is because neck stroking/touching is one of the most frequent pacifying behaviors we use, according to Navarro. 

And what is a ‘pacifying behaviour’? It is something that humans and even some animals do to calm themselves down. Says Joe: “Pacifying behaviours reveal so much about a person’s current state of mind, and they do so with uncanny accuracy.”

Look for pacifying behaviour to see if people aren’t at ease around you, or are reacting negatively to something you said. If you care about their opinion, you might be able to take measures to put them at ease. 

2. Feet that wiggle or bounce with joy – and feet that face away

As you can probably guess, this means that a person is in an extremely happy state. In fact, the feet are the most honest part of the body, according to Navarro. Whatever a person’s feet are doing when you’re with them is worth checking out. 

Also, we tend to turn towards the people we like, and turn our feet away from what we don’t like, or what we are trying to get away from. So check out your date’s feet if you want to know whether they like you. 

In extremely comfortable situations, our feet and legs will mirror those of whoever we are talking to. 

3. Knee clasping

If the person you are talking to suddenly sits up straight and is clasping their knees, then they probably want or need to leave, so you should/could make that easier for them!

By the way, rubbing knees up and down is a pacifying behavior to look out for. If you or the person you are with does it, they/you are feeling anxious. 

4. Arm crossing/torso shielding

You are probably already aware of this one, but when it is unpractical to simply walk away from a person we don’t like, we may cross our arms or button up our jackets. 

The torso is generally a powerful communicator of our thoughts and intentions. If you want a person to know you are interested in what they are saying, then leaning towards them or ‘ventrally fronting’ them is a good clear signal. It works especially well when you don’t have the opportunity to speak up. 

5. Arm withdrawal

We tend to withdraw our arms when we are upset or fearful. In fact, injured or abused people tend to bring their arms straight down their sides. And holding your arms behind your back, in a regal sort of way? This communicates that you don’t want to make contact at all. It is the equivalent of ‘don’t touch me’. 

Arms akimbo (holding arms out in a triangle with hands on hips) is a territorial display or means there are issues. Unless, that is, if the fingers of the hands are behind the body and the thumbs in front, in which case it is a more questioning gesture (often used by women). 

If your date or partner suddenly withdraws their hands when you are speaking to them, take note! You’ve probably upset them. If that wasn’t deliberate, you might want to chat about it. 

6. Sitting on your hands

Never do this in an interview: it might make you feel better, but it communicates that you’ve got something to hide. If you want to create an atmosphere of trust with a person, keep your hands in view when communicating with them. 

7. Steepling

Hand steepling is the most powerful high confidence tell a person can display. Hand steepling is when fingertips are touching a la praying hands, except the hands are not interlocked. When a person does it, they are extremely confident in their thoughts and position. High status people use it a lot. 

When steepling hands quickly become interlocked hands, then a person has lost some confidence in what they are saying or how they are being received. 

8. Slight squinting

Squinting can be very brief – but if you catch someone doing it immediately when they see you, they probably don’t like you very much. We squint to block out light or objectionable things. Similarly negative gestures to do with the eyes are touching our eyes, or blocking them during the course of a conversation. This means we don’t like what is being said. 

Detecting deception

As for lying? There is no one ‘tell’ to detect when a person is being deceptive, which is why it is notoriously difficult to do. Joe says look for several signs of discomfort and use of pacifiers.

I think the main message here is that if he has trouble with it, then so will you, so don’t go accusing people of lying on the basis of ‘tells’ you learned about in a book. It might be you making them uncomfortable!

If you’re interested in learning more about speed reading people, check out Joe’s book. It’s a great read.