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.”


Operate Ahead of the Power Curve

May 23, 2010

A wise mentor of mine used to have a saying that he often shared with me. He advocated I should “operate ahead of the power curve.” It took me a while to figure out what exactly he meant by that and a lot longer to appreciate how fantastic his advice was. I now try to operate ahead of the power curve always, and it reduces my stress level, improves the quality of my work, makes me less edgy with others, and allows me to display a more professional and controlled image. So, exactly what is this magic advice all about?

The advice is to always do the bulk of the work on a project or assignment immediately so you have it nearly completed well ahead of any due date. Then you can relax and complete the work at a less frantic pace to produce high quality work with very little stress.

Do it in school

I do a lot of university teaching where students are encouraged to write their assignments early in the week. Get the bulk of the writing done at least 1 or 2 days in advance of the due date, then finish up the editing after taking a break. By tricking yourself into thinking the paper is due on Saturday when it is actually really due on Monday, it changes the process dramatically. Now, the student applies significantly more effort early and can relax on Sunday. This improves the quality of student life and also leads to higher quality work. Reason: most students procrastinate until Monday afternoon to even begin writing. Then, they are in a state of panic while trying to concentrate on the organization and technical aspects of the paper. Little interruptions close to the deadline become huge annoyances because they distract the student from an important mission at a critical time. But if the work was already done two days earlier, then a last minute distraction can be accommodated with grace.

Do it making a movie

In Hollywood, when they make a movie, they have a saying for when the bulk of the movie is completed. They say it is “in the can,” which means the expensive shooting is completed and initial editing is done. What remains is the fine tuning to produce a finished product. This is done at a more leisurely pace, which helps improve the artistic creativity of the finished work.

Do it writing or consulting

I do the same thing in my writing and consulting work. For example, I am writing the bulk of this article on Thursday morning. I intend to put it out on my BLOG on Sunday evening, so I will have a draft to refine for 4 days before putting it out. I am doing some leadership consulting with a company in two weeks. I already have my materials organized and packaged up for the event. I will have a chance to soak on the material and make many refinements over the next 14 days and do so at a relaxed pace. That will make a significant difference in the quality of my work.

Do it in a tough spot

Let me share a graphic example of how powerful this philosophy can be. Several years ago I was a Division Manager in a large company. There were 4 Divisions in a large unit of the company, and we were told there would be a forced ranking of all our professionals in order to select who would be leaving as a result of a planned RIF. My Division was not the most powerful group, so I realized my people would be at a disadvantage when it came time for the rankings. As soon as I learned the ranking sessions would take place in two weeks, I immediately told all my Department Managers to drop everything for a command performance meeting that afternoon. We went into action immediately to map out a strategy. It became obvious that we did not have enough supporting evidence on the merits or talents of some of our professionals. We established a listing of what things were needed to have at our finger tips during the ranking process and set out to gather that information. It took nearly all of the two weeks but with a few days to spare, we stood back and looked at our organized data base. It was impressive.

Meanwhile, the other 3 Division Managers went on with their daily activities that habitually took up all of the time. They fretted and worried about the upcoming ranking process. The day before the ranking began, these managers hunkered down with select underlings to discuss their people. There was a lot of infighting and bickering among the various sub managers, and things became highly strained. They worked nearly all night frantically trying to get their ducks in a row. Meanwhile my managers and I were able to spend some quality time calmly focusing on our values so we would do the responsible thing the following morning.

During the ranking process, it became obvious that the other three Divisions had not done their homework well and were in a panic while my managers were well rested and ready. Whenever someone from another Division tried to downgrade one of our good people, we had a string of examples and hard data to back up our claims. They had very little documentation and only anecdotal stories as evidence. Finally one individual from the most powerful Division stood up slightly purple with rage. He said, “Whipple, the only reason your people are all coming out on top is because you were more prepared.” He was angry at me for being prepared? For once, I was speechless and said nothing.

Do it for yourself

You are probably saying to yourself, “How do you get the time to do the work well ahead of deadlines”? It is simply a matter of priority. It can be done if the will is there and the practice has become a habit. The peace of mind gained by having tasks well in hand long before the due date is well worth the early workload. The added benefit of higher quality work makes a huge difference in terms of one’s reputation.