Body Language 71 Guilt

March 12, 2020

The body language associated with the emotion of guilt makes an interesting study.

In his wonderful program on Advanced Body Language, Bill Acheson of the University of Pittsburgh has a humorous section relative to guilt. Let me start by relating the way he describes it, then give some of my own observations.

Bill’s research has uncovered that out of the ten most common emotions, there is only one emotion that is conveyed more accurately by men than women. That emotion is guilt. With tongue in cheek before an audience made up of more women than men, he joked, “It turns out that women are so busy creating it, they are not getting the practice time.”

To go along with Bill’s research, I will be using the male pronoun for the remainder of this article. I do believe it is possible for women to convey guilt, though perhaps not as easily or frequently as men, but women can and do assume any of the body gestures in this article as well.

Just for fun, try to assume a facial gesture that conveys guilt. If you are like me, you will find it more difficult than trying to project other emotions, like sadness, happiness, fear, shock, love, etc.

Guilt is a little more elusive. Let’s go into how to show guilt and how to decode it when others try to hide that emotion.

Blank stare and looking down

Generally, for a man experiencing guilt, his eyes are looking down and there is a kind of far-away look in his eyes. He is perhaps trying to cover up the facts or just does not want to face the awful truth of what he did.

In the picture above, notice the blank stare on the face of Lance Armstrong, who was caught doping and disgraced as a world class cyclist. I have not found a picture that reflects guilt better than that one.

Anxiety

When experiencing guilt, we are highly anxious. That may manifest itself in all kinds of body language cues.

In the photo, the finger in the collar is a classic form of anxiety. The literal meaning is trying to loosen the collar to get in more oxygen.

Another signal of anxiety is the wringing of hands. The person is fretting because he has to admit to something that is unpleasant.

Another gesture you might see with guilt is biting of the finger nails. This is also a sign the person is experiencing anxiety.

Holding the head

Often a person feeling guilt will instinctively hold his head with one or even both hands. The hands often are covering the eyes, because he would rather not see other people while feeling guilt.

The posture here is similar to a “woe is me” type of feeling. It is like the person is trying to ask “What have I done?”

Shaking the head from side to side

This is another form of denial. The person is scolding himself for whatever he did and shaking his head as if to say, “How could I have been so stupid?”

Part of the head shaking routine may be a decoy to deflect attention away from the thing that was done. If the person shows enough remorse, perhaps other people will cut him some slack.

Closing eyes

This is an attempt to hide in plain sight. If he cannot see out, then he can play incognito for a while and maybe figure out how to change the subject.

Summary

The gestures for expressing guilt are numerous, and it also matters what caused the guilt. An empty cookie jar would be a mild form of guilt, whereas a larceny or extramarital affair would be major and have lasting consequences.

Whenever guilt is being experienced, a loss of trust is happening as well. Since it takes a lot of effort to rebuild lost trust, it is no wonder that people try to avoid guilt if they can.

You can help a person who is feeling guilty by gently trying to get the person to talk. Verbalizing the issue is one way to begin the healing process. Just recognize that sometimes the guilty party does not want to discuss the issue yet. You need to pick your timing and approach carefully.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Body Language 9 Fingers in the Collar

January 5, 2019

Putting one’s finger between the neck and collar is a common gesture that is rather easy to interpret. The gesture is much more common with males than females for a few reasons I will discuss later.

The most frequent interpretation is anxiety due to some factor, such as guilt. A famous example is that of Lance Armstrong after it was revealed that he was lying about his doping. (There is a famous photo of this, but I do not have the rights to copy it, You can go to Google Images and look it up under Lance Armstrong doping).

The collar metaphor actually has a physiological basis, as is the case with many body language gestures. The overriding feeling is one of anxiety.

The connotation is that the person needs to loosen his collar to get more air. You can see witnesses on the stand in a heated trial frequently trying to open their collars to get in more oxygen. When you see an individual putting a finger in his collar, look for other corresponding signs of anxiety, like shifting weight, wringing hands, a blank stare, or looking down.

Women use this gesture less often because they less frequently wear a tight collar with a tie. They also often have jewelry which might get tangled up if the gesture was tried. Interestingly, most women have a different type of experience when trying to demonstrate guilt through body language than men do.

According to Bill Acheson in his wonderful DVD “Advanced Body Language,” guilt is the one emotion accurately conveyed by men that is not modeled nearly as well by women. The reason, he explains, is that for men, guilt is a two-part emotion.

“There are things these guys have done that they thought was funny as Hell ‘til they got found out.” For women, guilt is usually an inside job. They do it to themselves. Bill sarcastically jokes that “it turns out that women are so busy creating it that they are not getting the practice time [showing it through a facial expression].”

There are several other reasons, besides guilt, that can cause men to pull at their collar. There is sometimes a kind of strangulation panic that sets in when some men wear a shirt and tie that are too tight. I am always much more comfortable with an open collar and no tie.

It takes a very formal event for me to grudgingly button the top button on a shirt and put on a tie. I typically feel uncomfortable all evening and cannot wait to get rid of the tie after the event. If the event has inherent stress, like a funeral or an important presentation, I suspect you would find me with my finger in my collar at some point.

Another reason to use the gesture is when the person is getting upset, which we call “getting hot under the collar.” Watch for a reddening of the face and puffy cheeks or bulging neck when the person is getting angry. Sometimes it looks like the person is trying to let out steam when using this gesture as a way to communicate rage.

Be alert for the gesture of loosening the collar, and you will begin to pick up more information than you have in the past when observing other people. Specifically, look to see if there are other signs of anxiety or anger that go along with the gesture. Also, try to be more aware of when you are using this gesture to communicate your own emotions.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763