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 57 Time Out

December 6, 2019

The time out signal is a common hand gesture that is rarely misinterpreted, yet there are some subtle differences in meaning to discuss.

Let’s focus in on the different meanings first and then cover a highly useful application of the gesture in an organization setting.

Please stop talking

If another person is babbling on in a private setting or in a group meeting, you can signal it is time to stop talking and start listening by using the time out signal. This is a helpful use when you are having a hard time getting your points out.

The caveat here is that you would use the gesture sparingly. If you made the motion two or three times, it would most certainly annoy the person who is speaking. It would seem like you are cutting off the person.

Also, this use would be ill-advised if you used it to shut up a superior. If the boss wants to talk, it is usually a good idea to allow it.

I need time to think

When a lot of information is being shared in a steady stream, people sometimes need a break for their brains to catch up with the content. The time out gesture would let the presenter know it is time to at least slow down so all people can understand and absorb the content.

This topic is dangerous

You might warn a fellow worker that to pursue a certain line of reasoning is going to backfire. Rather than interrupt the person verbally, the time out signal will call the question and let the speaker know it would be wise to change the subject. You could accompany the hand signal with facial cues that indicate caution, just be sure to verify the right message was received and was not misinterpreted.

Time for a counterpoint

If one person is landing multiple points in support of a one-sided viewpoint and you want to allow some balance, the time out signal will provide that opportunity without saying any words.

Need a break

If, during a long presentation, you or others need to take a bio break, the time out signal can let the facilitator know it is time to take care of the bodily functions. Also, maybe the group just needs to stretch and take in some oxygen.

Call for a vote

If several arguments have been given on a hotly divided topic and you want to call for a vote, the time out signal can get that message out, even while the conversation is continuing.

Need to caucus

During negotiations, it is often necessary to separate teams to discuss strategy. The time out signal is useful for letting the parties know they need to separate for a while.

We are wasting time

Perhaps the most helpful use of the time out sign is in a meeting situation where one person in the room feels the group is spinning wheels going over the same content or dwelling on trivial content when there are more important things to discuss.

This technique is an excellent way to prevent wasting time, but everyone in the group needs to agree ahead of time that nobody will be punished for showing the time out sign. The idea is to establish a group norm that allows the signal to be given by any individual with no negative repercussions.

It is then up to the leader of the group to acknowledge that at least one person has an issue. The first order of business is to thank the individual for expressing a concern, and then find out what the specific concern is.

It may be that the individual wants the group to take a break, or maybe the person feels the current content is not proper or redundant. Get an accurate description of why the person gave the time out signal. This is done by asking open-ended questions.

The leader would then check if others have the same feeling, and if so, make the change. If the person giving the hand signal is the only person interested in changing direction, then he or she needs to be treated with respect for the input but recognize there are other opinions among the group members.

The time out hand signal is a wonderful tool if used correctly, as described above. If used with a heavy hand or followed by ridicule then significant damage to trust is being done. It is up to leaders to set the tone for the correct usage so the method will be a way to enhance trust and transparency over time.

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