Decoding Body Language

Crossing of the arms, biting of the lower lip, a change in breathing rate — all of these body movements can communicate a wide range of things. But what do they mean? Retired FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro, who made a career out of "reading" the body language of spies and criminals, offers insight on what our bodies say without our permission.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

This week on Science Out of the Box, what our bodies say without our permission.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: For 25 years, FBI agent Joe Navarro helped decode the non-verbal communication of spies and other criminals, not to mention his colleagues, his friends, his friends' wives. In a piece this week in the Washington Post, Navarro wrote that for him observing human behavior is like having software running in the background doing its job.

It got us thinking about all the times we blink or nod or cross our legs or arms. So, we called Joe Navarro; we asked him to come into our member station in Tampa and tell us what some of those non-verbal gestures mean.

Mr. JOE NAVARRO (FBI Agent): Here's one that most people miss. Somebody says to you, say, Andrea, how about helping me move this weekend. You immediately cover your eyes with your fingers and your rub them. That wasn't what you wanted to do this weekend and you'll help them, but it's a blocking behavior that is demonstrative of how you really feel.

Now, here's what's interesting: children who are born blind, they will cover their eyes when they hear things they don't like. So, that's how hardwired that is in us.

SEABROOK: So, as a body language expert, Joe Navarro, are you constantly aware of your own body language?

Mr. NAVARRO: Actually, no. Those who have traveled with me will see me at the airport. As soon as a flight is cancelled, I'm biting my lip, which is a pacifier, or my hands go on my hips, arms akimbo, which is, you know, hey, there's issues here, this type of thing.

You know, I really don't try to block it. I think it takes too much time. People who know me, when I'm happy, they see it in my face. And when I'm not they'll also see it in my face.

SEABROOK: Could you fake it, though? I mean, if you know these signals that way couldn't you manipulate them?

Mr. NAVARRO: It's difficult to. It's difficult for me because the kinds of tells that I talk about are those driven by the limbic part of our brain - this very primitive area of the brain that's very accurate because it deals with emotions and it deals with our survival.

And so for instance if I lacked confidence it's very difficult for me to act truly confident. I mean, I may be able to stand in front of an audience and so forth but somewhere with my feet or with my hands, my lack of confidence will show.

And speaking of that, here's one we often miss when someone is lacking confidence and they're making a statement. Sometimes their shoulder will come up towards their ear. And I have found myself, you know, when I'm asked, well, you know, how sure are you of this? And I find myself rising towards my ear. And I have to say to myself, well, actually, not that very sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: These behaviors that you describe, are they universal? Do unconscious gestures mean the same thing in every culture?

Mr. NAVARRO: It depends. The ones that I talk about specifically are what we call limbically-derived behaviors. And things that have to do with emotions -positive, negative - are fairly much universal.

SEABROOK: So, after many years of catching criminals, you now teach these skills, I understand, to university students, corporate executives, and even people trying to improve their poker game are the things you won't teach people.

Mr. NAVARRO: Well, I'll tell you, you know, I went through a struggle whether I wanted to teach poker players because of my reputation and so forth. And so I said, you know what, it really doesn't matter because I'm not teaching them to use this for evil or to rob a bank or something. I'm teaching them to understand when they're sitting at a table and they see a player who, for instance, maybe the nose wings - the sides of the nose - are dilated and moving. It means that this person is going to take some physical action.

Well, I used to teach that to police officers, and say, you know, if you pull somebody over and you see the person looking down but you see the nose wings start to dilate, move back because chances are they're oxygenating and they're going to hit you.

So, to me, it's no different. It's an educational process and incredibly I've had surgeons who have attended there and then invited me to, for instance, go to Baylor University School of Medicine, and then businesses started to ask me to come and teach for them.

SEABROOK: What would a surgeon want with this?

Mr. NAVARRO: Well, one of the things that they're up against is before surgery they're interviewing the patient and so forth and a lot of times patients aren't forthcoming with concerns and issues. So, one of the things that I teach them is when you're asking your patient about any issues or anything that they may be concerned about, see if they touch their neck at all. If they begin to touch their neck, this is usually a very good indicator that there is some issue there, there is something that they feel uncomfortable about and that they should perhaps pursue. And this is a very accurate indicator. And the beauty of it is that you see it in real time.

SEABROOK: Wow, cool.

Mr. NAVARRO: And by the way, Andrea, you just changed your posture a minute ago.

SEABROOK: I did. I was flaring my nose wings at my producer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRO: Yeah, and I could tell from your breathing rate.

SEABROOK: Joe Navarro is a retired FBI special agent and author of the book, "What Every Body is Saying." He joined us from member station WUSF in Tampa, Florida. Joe Navarro, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. NAVARRO: Great talking to you, Andrea.

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