The Behavioral Community's Ignorance of the Significance of Gesture-Subtlety
In the majority of the non-verbal community and within the behavioral analysis realm as a whole, there has been a neglect on the legitimate efficacy of gestural-intensity and subtlety, and it's significance on the received message on a non-verbal level.
Often times, expert commentary is made in reference to the emotional significance of gestures and expressions and non-specific body movement. This has been done well and thoroughly for nearly a century and has evolved into a much more easily digestible and replicable system of interpreting the possible meanings of non-verbal signals.
For the people who will use this information in the field and on the streets, the understanding of gestural-intensity can change the outcome of an entire scenario. Once we begin, as a community, to focus just a portion of our time and research to the study, instruction and research of the subtlety or intensity of gestures, we can change the scenarios for which our precious training will eventually be used.
For a law enforcement officer, an 'expert' may offer advice as to the significance of a person's hands being on the wheel vs. their lap. A body language seminar speaker will discuss the inter-personal relevance of the seated knee-clasp. It all seems to be informative, legitimate and well-researched...not quite.
Consider first, the difference between a relaxed hand on the steering wheel and one in which the blood has completely left the fingernails, causing them to turn mostly white. In the above example of the seated knee-clasp, imagine seeing the difference between a relaxed hand wrapped around the top of a person's knee during conversation and a grip that causes significant clothing indentation and wrinkling of the fabric. As you might imagine, the difference is significant, and the resulting conduct of having misread, or simply missed one of these subtle cues, could prove fatal in some professions.
As I've thus far been able to identify, there are three significant parts of a gesture to observe and make note of during conversation:
Pressure refers to the degree of intensity, strength or force behind a gesture. A man rubbing his finger over the rivet of his blue jeans may be meaningless, until you see him doing it so forcefully that it would cause pain and leave a lasting mark on his fingers.
Arm-crossing is another widely misinterpreted posture that we may discuss in a future article. When someone is crossing their arms, (meaning aside) make note of the hand placement. Are they towards the body in a self-hug, or facing in a different line? The severity or force behind this gesture can indicate the exact degree of the feelings in that moment. The severity of the gesture is almost more significant than the gesture itself.
When you watch someone cross their legs, the degree of anxiety or need to feel relaxed will be revealed almost immediately by observing the forcefulness with which they cross the legs.
Hands resting on a table, grabbing a steering wheel, holding a cell phone or manipulating an object can also tell us quite a bit. The pressure that one person puts into a gesture or movement may be more or less depending on whom is performing the behavior. However, the overall force with which the gesture is made can be measured against all others that were seen in the conversation. If in the beginning of a conversation, you can bounce your observations off of the 'average person' standard until you've established a baseline. (More on baselining in the future)
Facial touching is almost always a response to anxious or stress-inducing stimulus. Where it really counts, this isn't enough. We need to dig deeper in conversation and discover hidden truths and personal secrets. When fingers make contact with the face, an impression is made on the skin during contact. The depth and intensity of the impression is usually indicative of the degree of anxiety produced by either your questions, the topic at hand or environmental factors.
A good rule of thumb: Always look for body-freeze if you think the gesture includes a very high degree of intensity. When someone is focusing energy and strength and stress into a gesture, that's typically all the brain can handle in that moment. The other body parts will usually be very still and sometimes almost rigid while a high stress behavior is being performed.
From crossing arms, to hands on the table, the natural space between fingers will indicate a person's comfort levels in the moment with relatively accurate results. We naturally spread our fingers when we are confident and close them when we are threatened, stressed or being exposed to some kind of stimulus that triggers anxiety. A comfortable and relaxed person will have distance between their fingers. People who are withholding will usually close them in conversation and I especially see this when someone is rehearsing a story they memorized to tell me.
Gesture-Associated Facial Tension:
When a person makes a bodily gesture in a stressful environment, they will usually do one of two things: 1. Increase jaw muscular tension (resulting in pulsed temples), and 2. Compress the lips together. (It's important to note the difference between compressed lips and lips that have been drawn back into the mouth.) Compressed lips indicate withheld opinions and will usually tell a story all on their own. When they are associated with a gesture, they typically mean the gesture is being made under duress, or in response to a social situation in order to appease a conversational partner.
This is a brief outline of an article published for law enforcement in California this year. Post any questions that you have! Thanks for reading.
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