Among the most valuable of the “soft skills” that law schools (and other training of lawyers) might not formally address is the identification and interpretation of body language.
Joe Navarro’s What Every Body is Saying (2008), drawing on his 25 years of experience as an FBI special agent and supervisor in counterintelligence and counterterrorism, presents plenty of practical, plainly-illustrated principles for assessing people’s actual emotions and intentions.
Navarro’s advice generally crosses cultures, and applies not only to professional but also to “social” and “courtship” situations, as well as to interactions arising from the happenstance of personal proximity.
The book initially recommends that readers first (when possible) determine a person’s “baseline behavior” of postures, gestures, and facial expressions. It concludes with a warning that “There are no nonverbal behaviors that, in and of themselves, are clearly indicative of deception.”
In between, Navarro offers a wide variety of immediately-applicable tips, tricks, tests, and techniques, including:
● Watch for, and try to identify (and, perhaps, deliberately aggravate) the stress that induces someone’s “pacifying behaviors,” such as the “touching of the face, head, neck, shoulder, arm, hand, or leg. . . . These stroking behaviors don’t help us to solve problems; rather, they help us to remain calm while we do. . . . Men prefer to touch their faces. Women prefer to touch their necks, clothing, jewelry, arms, and hair.”
Pacifying behaviors also include “leg cleansing” (a seated person’s “plac[ing] the hand (or hands) palm down on top of the leg (or legs), and then slid[ing] them down the thighs toward the knee”); and “a person brushing the front of his shirt or adjusting his tie.”
● “Having conducted thousands of interviews for the FBI, I learned to concentrate on the suspect’s feet and legs first. . . . When it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the [face].”
To substantiate his contention that “the feet are the most honest part of the body,” Navarro provides an extensive catalog of foot and leg behavior, including: “happy feet,” which “wiggle and/or bounce with joy”; lifting the toes, which can signal the receipt of good news, or the heels, which suggests imminent physical action; leg splay, the territorial behavior otherwise known as manspreading; crossing one’s legs while standing, which can indicate confidence (as does, to the extreme (but with the opposite extremities), “hand steepling”); and, the direction in which legs are crossed—typically, towards “the person we favor.”’
As one of Navarro’s numerous photos depicts, “when someone we don’t know approaches us on the street, we usually turn our attention to them from the hips up, but keep our feet pointed in the direction of travel. The message we are sending is that socially I will be attentive briefly; personally I am prepared to continue or flee.”
(Thus, contrary to the globally chart-topping 2005 song, hips sometimes can lie.)
● To appear trustworthy, “always be sure to keep your hands visible during face-to-face communications with others.”
In a parallel to Navarro’s caution about leaping to conclusions, Peanuts’s Charlie Brown once declaimed, after seeing Linus’s drawing of a man who had his hands behind his back, that “You did that because you yourself have feelings of insecurity.”
Linus’s retort: “I did that because I myself can’t draw hands!”
(In fact, Navarro suggests that the posture signals both an attempt to communicate “higher status” and a desire “not to be [approached or] touched.”)
● “Feelings of low confidence can be evidenced when a person (usually a male) puts his thumbs in his pockets and lets the fingers hang out on the side. . . . Particularly in an employment setting, this signal says, ‘I am very unsure of myself.’”
By contrast, Navarro identifies another classic thumbs-inside, fingers-outside position as “genital framing,” designed to signal virility: “Remember the Fonz in the TV series Happy Days?”
● As “a general rule when it comes to interpreting [apparently-conflicting] emotions and/or words by looking at facial expressions” (a wide range of which Navarro reviews), “The negative emotion will almost always be the more accurate and genuine. . . .”
● “If you are confused as to the meaning of a facial expression, reenact it and sense how it makes you feel. You will find this little trick may help you decipher what you just observed.”
● The book’s penultimate chapter, on “Detecting Deception,” includes, based on the author’s “interviewing suspects during my years with the FBI, . . . a list of twelve things I do—and the points I keep in mind—when I want to read pacifying nonverbals [i.e., attempts to relieve stress] in interpersonal interactions.”
As I have noted, beyond using Navarro’s insights to interpret the behavior of others, lawyers and law students might apply them (or help clients use them) to:
● Reduce or eliminate their own inadvertently revealing displays.
For example, in Rounders (1998), Matt Damon’s law student Mike McDermott wins a poker pot from John Malkovich’s Teddy after detecting just such a “tell.”
● Deliberately create their own false “tells.”
In Casino Royale (2006), Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous Le Chiffre thereby out-“bluffs” Daniel Craig’s James Bond (who had, perhaps just a little too suavely, advised a newly-met colleague, even as they attempted to profile each other: “In poker, you never play your hand. You play the man across from you.”)
Indeed, in a separate book, Navarro discusses both of these topics in the context of poker-playing, although he advises that, “before you can get [other] players to believe you have a super-hand (when you don’t), you’ll need to literally rewire your nervous system. . . so that you can adopt all of the subtle behaviors that are equated with confidence.”
● Identify and de-escalate, or at least avoid escalating, potential (and potentially physical) confrontations, including during “interviews” and “discussions” that might be less delicately characterized as interrogations.
For instance, Navarro notes that “arms akimbo is a powerful display of authority and dominance, as well as a claim to territory. . . . During a domestic dispute, if a police officer performs this display, it. . . may escalate the situation.” Similarly, “In schools as well as prison yards, finger pointing is often the precursor to many fights.”
● Although its purportedly scientific support has been challenged, the practice of “power posing”—deliberately (and often, privately) assuming certain postures to quickly influence one’s own mood and perspective (such as adopting the arms akimbo stance to enhance confidence)—might well be worth experimenting with, even if only to reduce the instinct to display less-powerful body language.
In the fifteen years since the initial publication of Navarro’s book, its personal and professional relevance has only increased.