Body Language 76 Contempt

April 27, 2020

What are the telltale body language signals for a person who is expressing contempt? Most of the gestures for this particular emotion are facial, however, sometimes the hands get involved as well.

Before describing the gestures related to contempt, we need to recognize there are various forms of contempt. In this article we will deal with the gestures associated with two types of content.

First we will explore the type of contempt where one person is upset with another individual and has reached the breaking point. Second, we will cover the form of contempt where one person feels superior to the other person

The first type of contempt is an extreme form of anger. Contempt means despising someone or having total lack of respect. In a professional setting, contempt is normally directed at another individual or group. I suspect it is possible to show contempt for your broken-down car, but nobody would be around to see the gestures.


The mouth is always involved when showing contempt, but there are various ways it can be configured. The most common mouth gesture is a deep frown. Usually the jaw is set tight as are the lips. If the person has an open mouth, then the emotion is usually rage rather than contempt. It is possible to convey contempt with a sneer where the upper lip is curled upward showing teeth.


Since contempt is an extension of anger, it is logical that many of the facial cues for anger will be evident. The classic frown with the eyebrows is a good visible cue, but you need to be a bit careful. Sometimes contempt can involve a rather placid expression with the eyebrows. If that is the case, look for a squint of the eyes and a piercing gaze.

Hand gestures

The most common hand gesture with contempt is pointing. This is a classic hostile movement that is intended to focus energy on the person who is being held in contempt. Another hand gesture might involve a flat hand extended palm up as if to say “you fool, how could you be so stupid?”

A person exhibiting contempt may have folded arms or put hands on hips. These two gestures are common with all forms of anger.

What to do

When you see evidence of this form of contempt, recognize that the person has gone way beyond annoyance and even anger. If the gesture is directed toward you, there is some serious repair work to be done.

The best course is to not mirror the gestures of the other person but calmly proceed to investigate the source of the problem. Do this with a sincere desire to uncover what is happening and no trace of a condescending remark.

You want the other person to open up and tell you what he or she is thinking. Only then can you explore ways to remedy the situation. Your sincerity will be evident by what you say and your body language as you say it.

You may want to put some time between the current interface and the problem solving phase. Sometimes having a cooling off period will soften the other person’s approach, but if you want to do this, be careful to not appear to reject the emotions.

Ask if it would be best to discuss this a little later and recognize the other person may insist on an immediate response from you.

Avoid becoming defensive and saying things like “you do not understand.” Those kinds of deflections will only increase the ire, because they will be interpreted as disrespect. Assume the non-verbal input is legitimate, because in the other person’s mind it is. Handle the conversation with care because often you can begin rebuilding trust right on the spot.

The other type of contempt

Here, the person believes he or she is better than the other person and shows it with body language. This is not a form of anger, but rather a strong feeling of superiority.

You do not see a frown or furrowed eye brows, in fact the body language is nearly opposite. The most obvious body language associated with superiority is the nose and chin in the air.

The message is “I’m too good to even talk to you.” Curiously, contempt can also be manifest by looking down one’s nose at another person.

The eyebrows would be level and not furrowed, and the eyes would be half shut as if to not let in more light than is necessary.

The mouth is closed and not clenched, as would be the case for contempt with anger.

What to do

When someone is giving you signals of feeling superior, there really is not a lot you can do about it. You might start reciting the Greek Alphabet, but that would only provide some comic relief. You could try to dazzle the other person by stating some obscure medical theory, but that would only play into the other person’s game.

Giving him a quick kick in the groin might feel satisfying, but it would not change his underlying problem, and it might get you killed.

The best thing to do when confronted with a person who believes he is superior is to turn around and walk away. Nothing you can say or do is going to impress a person who believes he is better than you. It is best to let the egomaniac stew in his own juice and don’t put up with the game he is playing.

Both Modes at the same time

It is conceivable that you might see both extreme anger and a feeling of superiority at the same time. In that case, you will witness a mixture of the gestures discussed in this article. The person will show obvious distain while also be on the verge of exploding with rage.

Wrap up

Contempt can come in lots of forms. In this article we have discussed the two primary forms of contempt and the body language gestures associated with them. See if you can think of other flavors contempt, and send me a note on them.

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

Body Language 28 Hand and Arm Movements

May 18, 2019

Numerous arm movements are part of the body language lexicon.

Actually, hand and arm movements turn out to be one of the more cultural-specific areas of body language.

For example, consider people who live in the Northern Mediterranean areas of Italy and Greece. These people are well known for broad hand and arm movements to illustrate what is being said.

The stereotypical talking with the hands is easy to spot and is actually true in many cases.

Contrast those broad and active gestures with those of people from Eastern Europe, where hand gestures are normally smaller and more confined to the area in front of the sternum, or Scandinavian folks who rarely gesture at all.

It is important to consider the home culture when trying to gain insight by the type of hand and arm gestures you see.

It is easy to misinterpret hand and arm gestures, and it can lead to rather serious problems.

We see evidence of miscommunication in families, in organizations, and especially in government, where people are frequently working in the international areas.

To avoid serious consequences, it is important to be educated on the norms of the culture in which you are currently working.

Hand Gestures

Beyond culture, there are numerous gestures that are very well known and usually similar in different areas of the world. Just for fun, make the hand signals for the following concepts.

• Only a little bit (index finger and thumb slightly apart)
• Great job (thumbs up)
• I completely disapprove (thumbs down)
• I am nervous (pretend to bite finger nails)
• Go faster (two fingers extended and hand revolving around at wrist)
• Stop (hand upright with palm facing the other person)
• This stinks (finger and thumb pinching nose)
• Time out (tips of fingers on one hand to palm of other hand)
• Call me (pinky and thumb extended with pinky at mouth and thumb at ear)
• Text me (finger pecking at empty palm)

We know that by learning to sign, one can convey any concept using hand gestures. I find it fascinating to watch professional signers as they are able to keep up with a presentation in real time. It must be exhausting. I watch the signers in some of my classes when there are deaf students in the class. They are amazing.

Arm Gestures

When you add the arms to hand gestures it becomes much more complex to interpret. Several gestures with the arm are pretty much universal. For example, see if you can make an arm gesture that can contain the following meanings:

• I’m cold (clenching arms across the chest)
• This is going to be huge (arms spread wide apart)
• Just go away (hands in front of chest with fingers down then flicked up)
• Close the door (arm movement showing person closing a door)
• Keep the noise down (Palms down and arms showing a downward movement)
• I will drive you there (pretend to be moving a steering wheel)
• We won! (arms straight up overhead like the touchdown sign of a referee)

There are several broad categories of arm gestures with many sub meanings underneath them. The most frequent gesture with arms is folded arms.

Folded Arms

The most common meaning for someone folding arms is to signal a defensive posture or a closed mind. You need to look closer to detect some of the sub gestures. You might be restraining yourself from bashing someone. If the person is grabbing the upper arms tightly, it usually implies agitation. If the fingers are tucked into the arm pits, it may be a sign that the person is feeling cold.

Studies have shown that crossing arms leads to lower retention of information and less positive impression of the person who is talking. An interesting way to get someone with crossed arms to open up is to hand the person something, like a book or a card. This action will soften the gesture and often a more cooperative spirit can be achieved.

Flapping Arms

The gesture of mimicking a bird in flight is very rare, but the meaning is pretty clear when it is. The person wants to get out or wants you to get out. The implication is, “Why don’t you fly on out of here?”

The Muscle Pose

Holding the arms up at a 90 degree angle with clenched fists is a sign of superiority and power. It is most often shown by men to indicate that “I am stronger than you.”

Be on the lookout for arm and hand gestures as you observe other people, and don’t forget to note the signals you are sending with your own hands and arms.

In the business world the arm and hand gestures can tip you off about the mental state of another person, but only if you are alert to the meaning and can properly decode the message by observing clusters of signals.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on 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.TheTrust 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, or 585.392.7763