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Former FBI Spy-Catcher Talks Body Language

“You can have a poker face but not a poker body.”

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What you’re not saying actually says quite a lot. Joe Navarro walks us through what he’s learned about body language from his twenty-five year career with the FBI.

In an interview with Wired, former FBI agent Joe Navarro talks about nonverbals or, as they’re commonly known, body language. He also sets about busting some myths that have worked their way into popular culture. Here’s a few:

  • Myth #1: folded arms = blocking behaviour. Navarro says that instead of building a wall, like folded arms are commonly held to represent, this is actually a self-soothing behaviour. A self-hug, if you will. He also notes that this behaviour is more commonly observed in public than in private. Make of that what you will.
  • Myth #2: directional glances = lying. Another misconception, says Navarro, is that when we look to one side or the other while thinking we’re crafting a lie. Instead, the reality is much more innocent. This directional looking is a sign of processing ideas or recalling memories.
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  • Myth #3: liars exhibit clear “tells”. It is commonly believed that if, for example, someone covers their mouth while talking then they are lying. Navarro says that this is nonsense. Instead, as with folding one’s arms, these are various self-soothing behaviours that we make to cope with the stresses of interacting with people (particularly new people) in our day-to-day lives.

Navarro also highlights the significance of cultural differences in body language when talking about a case he worked during his career in the FBI. He gives the example of a spy who carried flowers in the eastern European fashion while posing as an American, eventually leading to his capture.

Body Language: What We’re Saying And Where We’re Saying It

Navarro, in his book The Dictionary of Body Language, lists eleven main areas where we generally transmit the strongest messages from in terms of nonverbal communication:

  • Hair
  • Forehead
  • Eyes
  • Nose
  • Lips
  • Cheeks and jaw
  • Neck
  • Shoulders
  • Hands and fingers
  • Legs
  • Feet

While that may seem like it covers pretty much the entire body, that’s kind of the point. We’re constantly using our bodies to talk and it only takes someone who’s skilled at reading these signals to pick up on this language. Navarro also points out that while these nonverbal communications are incredibly important, so too is it significant when an individual consciously attempts to hide such communications.

In the interview Navarro challenges the misconception that, by reading someone’s body language, we are judging them. Considering that we all transmit messages via nonverbal communication, it would be pretty hypocritical to judge someone for that. Instead, Navarro shifts the focus from judgement to assessment: when reading body language he says we are assessing what a person is transmitting.

His overall message stresses the importance of nonverbal analysis:

“We talk about nonverbals because it matters, because it has gravitas, because it effects how we communicate with each other.”

– Joe Navarro

If this has peaked your interest, consider checking out the video:

And if you want to see a spectacular use of body language, check out what Theresa May did here.

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