Guess which one of these guys is more stressed? To find out, I highly recommend the book, What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro. The author explains that his system has to do with the “limbic” part of the human brain that is more primitive, mammalian and emotional. These limbic responses show up in our body language and are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control. While the “thinking” part of our more modern brain can scheme and formulate lies, the limbic brain is completely honest and to the astute observer can give us away most every time; this has to do with our ancient survival mechanisms of freeze, flight, fight – in that order.
Navarro says in the book that the most “honest” parts of the human body are the feet and legs, followed by the hands, and finally the face. The face comes last because we have all learned to mask our expressions for reasons of social harmony. Under capitalism, for example, it’s a really bad idea to sneer at your boss, no matter how much you hate his guts. However, if you observe carefully, fleeting facial expressions can tell you a lot about what a person is really thinking or feeling.
So, in reading others’ body language, you have to look for clusters of behavior in response to a certain stimuli – such as a question posed or a specific event or situation. It also helps to establish a baseline of behavior for your subject. It may be that your particular subject for analysis is just a jittery, nervous person in social settings and will constantly fidget or bounce his knee or whatnot. These signs should not be taken for evidence of stress or deception. (Oh, so perhaps I should have mentioned that, if it weren’t already obvious coming from a political blog, our primary reason for studying body language here is to detect deception, but of course that is not the only reason.) Anyway, once you’ve established your baseline behavior, then you want to look for sudden changes in that normal behavior in response to a stimulus, again, like a question. You want to look for not only a sudden behavior, but also the cessation of one or more nonverbal behaviors.
Now, take a look at the photo above of Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin. I’ll start with analyzing the hands, because that is the first thing that jumped out at me. Just from a cursory glance you will see that, actually, their overall posture is very similar. (This is called mirroring, but don’t worry about that right now.) So both heads of state have their hands clasped together with the fingers interlocked. This is a sign of tension, stress or concern. Hiding the thumbs is an even further indication of stress or insecurity. You may notice that Obama’s thumbs are practically hidden, while Putin’s thumbs are clearly visible. Now take a look at their legs. Notice how Obama’s legs are kind of drawn in while Putin’s legs are splayed out a bit more in a sort of territorial display? Finally, observe their faces. Lip tightening or disappearing lips are another sign of anxiety, stress or concern. But when the lips have disappeared and the corners of the mouth are turned down in a frown, this is the ultimate sign of stress, anxiety or displeasure. Who’s wearing the upside down smile in the photo?
The author of the book stresses that his system is not perfect and that care should be taken when drawing conclusions, especially when it comes to detecting deception, but when it comes to detecting a person’s true emotions, it comes pretty close to perfection if you know what to look for. My final analysis: both men in the photo are stressed and concerned, but Obama seems to definitely be at an all-time emotional low point. Putin is concerned, but still exhibiting some signs of confidence and dominance.