This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Dictionary of Body Language" by Joe Navarro. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What are some common uncomfortable body language cues? What might you be able to tell by observing their arms and feet?
Joe Navarro, a retired FBI Special Agent, is no stranger to people feeling uncomfortable around him. Over time, he realized that certain subtle behaviors pointed to uneasiness. In The Dictionary of Body Language, he shares three cues for identifying discomfort in somebody’s body language.
Keep reading to learn how to tell if someone is uncomfortable by observing their actions.
Uncomfortable Body Language
In the FBI, Navarro learned how to tell if someone is uncomfortable. In his book, he notes that body language that displays discomfort or aversion is typically closed and defensive, indicating that someone feels the need to protect themselves or step away from the situation.
(Shortform note: According to Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins in The Like Switch, many people adopt closed defensive body language without realizing it. When we do this, it can limit our ability to make friends and new connections—if our body language communicates “don’t approach,” others will typically follow that directive. If you have trouble making new friends, take time to observe your own body language to determine if that may be a barrier.)
Navarro offers the following uncomfortable body language cues.
Action #1: Folding the Arms Across the Torso
According to the author, people often fold their arms together and hold them against their torso as if they’re giving themselves a hug—this can be a way to soothe mild discomfort, and it may not indicate distress.
(Shortform note: According to some researchers, crossing our arms is comforting because it synchronizes the left and right hemispheres of the brain, allowing them to work together more effectively. They add that bringing both arms across the midline of our body makes us feel calmer and helps us think more clearly.)
However, this posture can also suggest that someone’s trying to protect themselves because they feel unsure or unsafe. Folded arms cover the soft front torso, which contains many of the most important and vulnerable internal organs. Therefore, when we feel unsafe, we instinctively seek to protect this area.
(Shortform note: In addition to folding their arms in front of them, people might hold something such as a bag against their torso when feeling threatened. This adds a further barrier between the vulnerable part of their body and the perceived threat.)
Action #2: Positioning a Fist in Front of the Throat
According to Navarro, when people make a fist and put it in front of their throat, they’re demonstrating fear and discomfort. The gesture is defensive, protecting the soft, vulnerable part of the throat from perceived danger.
(Shortform note: The soft part at the base of our throat is vulnerable because any injury to it could affect our ability to breathe. According to Jack Schafer of The Like Switch, covering this part of the body can be an indicator of lying as well as general discomfort—liars often do this gesture when they’re afraid of being discovered.)
Action #3: Angling the Feet Away From Someone
Navarro states that people often angle their feet away from someone they don’t like. In social situations, this is a reliable indicator of people’s true feelings, even if they’re smiling and being polite.
(Shortform note: Knowledge of this cue can be helpful in understanding the dynamics of group settings, including in the workplace. If you’re in a meeting, for example, observe where other people’s feet are pointing—whoever has the most feet pointed toward them at any time is likely the person people agree with the most. When a group is debating ideas, this will be a good indicator of whose suggestion they’ll choose.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Dictionary of Body Language summary:
- A former FBI Special Agent's guide to body language
- Why you should assess body language cues collectively, not individually
- The body language cues that indicate stress, boredom, anger, doubt, and more