Body Language 67 Afraid

February 14, 2020

A person who is experiencing fear may show it in several different ways with his or her body language.

In this article I will highlight the most common ways people express fear without speaking. First, we need to understand that there are an infinite number of different sources and magnitudes of fear.

You might be afraid that the rumor you heard about a layoff this month could be true. Depending on your seniority and several other factors, you could be afraid of losing your job.

On the other extreme, I may be convinced there is a thief with a gun in my apartment about to enter the room where I am trying to sleep.

The type and intensity of the body language signals will depend not only on the reason I am afraid but also my current ability to tolerate uncertainty and not show it. This spectrum of signals makes the interpretation of one’s body language signals a chancy endeavor.

As with all body language, when trying to interpret what you see, you need to take into account several factors:

1. Is there a cluster of signals that all point in the same direction? If so, that will greatly enhance a correct diagnosis

2. Is this person from a culture different from the one I am most familiar with? Although fear is a primal feeling, how it is expressed in body language can be unique to a specific culture. The likelihood of misinterpretation goes up dramatically if you are observing a person from a different culture than your own.

3. Is the observed body language as a result of a specific stimulus or is it a habitual pattern for this person?

4. If there is a specific stimulus, is the reaction immediately following the stimulus, or is there a delayed reaction?

5. Is the person picking up and mimicking another person who is making an overt signal of fear? If so, the gesture may not be genuine; it could be an imitation.

6. Is the person making an attempt to hide the emotion, or is the reaction obvious to everyone?

7. Is the person consciously attempting to look a certain way or is the reaction an unconscious and authentic gesture, at least at first?

These are the main factors that will influence the specific gesture in reaction to fear. Here are some of the common facial and body reactions to fear that we have all seen at some point.

Contorted Facial Muscles

The narrowing of the eyebrows and wrinkling of the forehead is a pretty good give away that the person is experiencing fear. You need to be careful though, because the same facial contortions are common with anger. Look for more corroborating signals.

Hands to the mouth

Usually both hands will go to the mouth when a person is experiencing high fear. It may take the form of symbolically biting the nails, or it may be to actually cover the mouth and eyes. The person is trying to disappear from sight.

Arms outstretched

Another gesture of fear is a kind of blocking motion made by outstretching the arms in front of the person with palms facing the thing being blocked. Here, the idea is to put up a figurative wall between yourself and the offending person, animal, or thing. In this gesture, the head may be lowered and shoulders raised as we cower in fear. The posture is to make yourself a smaller target.

Behind an object or blanket

Children will often express fear by hiding behind something, like a couch cushion or a blanket, then the gesture is to peek out ever-so-slightly from behind the safety of the screen. Adults often hide behind other items or excuses. If one is afraid of the outcome of an effort, the fear may be manifest in procrastination.

Open mouth

The mouth is usually open when a person is experiencing high fear. The idea is to give a symbolic primal scream, even if the sound is inaudible. People in fear do not look tight lipped, instead they normally will be showing their teeth.

In a business environment, be alert to less obvious, but symbolically equivalent signs of fear in a person. Reach out to determine the nature of the fear and attempt to engage the person in some dialog about it.

The verbalization of fear and the brainstorming of ways to mitigate the angst are both ways to calm the person down. Helping another person who is in mild fear regain his equilibrium is an excellent way to build rapport and trust.

Adults develop patterns to help them deal with fear in ways that may not show in overt body language. They use compensating actions, and if you can recognize these signs, you can address the underlying cause to help the person, even though no specific physical signals are evident.

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


Body Language 14 Hand Gestures

February 8, 2019

In my article last week, I covered wringing of the hands. This week I want to make some general statements about hand gestures and discuss several of the ones that are of high interest to me.

There is no way that I can list even half of the gestures that people use in this short blog article, but I will share my favorites and give some caveats on their use and misuse.

In an article in “Science of People,” they reported that the most viral TED Talks contained roughly two times the level of hand gestures than the least viral talks.

Gestures generally improve the accuracy and interest of communication. Usually the use of hand gestures is a positive thing for communication, but we will see that it is not always the case.

First of all, recognize that if you have hands, you are going to use them when you communicate verbally. If you doubt that, just observe yourself as you talk with other people naturally. You will use your hands to embellish your points as naturally as you breathe in and breathe out. If you ever do observe a person who can talk for 10 minutes with no hand gestures, check his pulse, he may be dead and just playing a recording.

On the other extreme, some people use excessive hand movements to emphasize their points. It can get to be distracting and even annoying. I know a public speaker who uses excessive gestures to emphasize every part of every sentence. I found myself listening to him and began to realize that all the movement eventually distracted from his meaning, and I started to lose trust in him.

The habit of hand gestures is nearly impossible to break, so an important concept is to monitor how much gesturing you are using and watch how other people react when you speak. If you see a fatigued, confused, or bored expression, you may be doing too much gesturing.

If you do any speaking in public (including training or teaching), it would be wise to get a tape of yourself from time to time to view your level of gesturing. You may be surprised by what you see on the tape.

Just like all body language, hand gestures are highly culturally specific, so do not assume your gestures will translate accurately to everyone. For example, when Neil Armstrong first walked on the surface of the moon, he turned to the camera and made an “O” gesture with his first finger touching his thumb and the remaining three fingers straight out.

For people in many countries, the implication was clearly a signal meaning “AOK.” However, the people in Japan interpreted it as “Zero” and the people in Brazil and Greece saw an obscene gesture. Be careful with that gesture!

The position of your hands as you speak also reveals a lot about your attitude. For example, extended hands with palms up is a signal of openness and honesty. This type of gesture works to enhance the level of trust. The other extreme where the palms are hidden from view while gesturing often has a negative impact on trust.

In any context, pointing is one of the more hostile gestures. It tends to put people on the defensive. If you point a lot while you speak, you would do yourself a favor by toning it down. It takes a lot of effort to break the habit, but you will improve your relations with others if you refrain from pointing, unless you are giving directions or directing attention to something of interest.

We tend to indicate the relative size of things by the distance between our hands or fingers. This gesture is usually done when we are comparing one thing with another. We might have our hands apart by 18 inches when describing a very large boat and then only a few inches apart when we talk about the dinghy.

One gesture that I found particularly useful in the business world was the “Time out” sign, where you put the tips of the fingers on one hand to the palm of the other hand. I found that sign to be helpful in a team environment to allow one member of the group to signal he or she is questioning what is going on. You have to make an agreement at the outset between all parties that anyone can make the gesture without fear of being ridiculed.

Once you have that agreement, the “time out” sign is useful at enabling more meaningful discussions that enhance the level of trust between people. If someone thinks we are “spinning our wheels” he can just indicate that with the time out signal.

When people want to communicate literally, they will often use “air quotes” where each hand bends the first two fingers simultaneously. This gesture is easy to understand, but there is a caveat. It may mean that the speaker wants people to understand the specific wording, but it can also be a kind of mocking gesture where the person does not believe what another person has said and wants to point that out for the record.

You need to decipher the meaning from the context of the message. The use of air quotes can signal disagreement between parties in a discussion. One party may be trying to mimic what another party said with an tinge of scorn.

The famous “thumbs up” gesture is a quick way to indicate approval, and the reverse (thumbs down) gesture indicates the opposite. These gestures are generally consistent from one culture to another. I have never heard of these signals being reversed in any particular culture.

These are a few of the thousands of hand gestures that people use all the time. The important thing is to use gestures well but not to excess and be very careful when using gestures outside the specific culture where you live. When going to a culture you are not familiar with, it is a good idea to check out the specific gestures for that country. A good book to help with this prepping is “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries” by Morrison, Conaway, and Borden.

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