Body Language – Hand-to-Face Gestures

DECEIT, DOUBT, LYING

How can you tell when someone is lying? Recognition of the non-verbal deceit gestures can be one of the most important observation skills one can acquire. So what deceit signals can give people away?

One of the most commonly used symbols of deceit is that of the three wise monkeys who hear, speak and see no evil. The hand-to-face actions depicted form the basis of the human deceit gestures (Figure 53). In other words, when we see, speak and hear untruths or deceit, we often attempt to cover our mouth, eyes or ears with our hands. We have already mentioned that children use these obvious deceit gestures quite openly. If the young child tells a lie, he will often cover his mouth with his hands in an attempt to stop the deceitful words from coming out. If he does not wish to listen to a reprimanding parent, he simply covers his ears with his hands. When he sees something he doesn’t wish to look at, he covers his eyes with his hands or arms. As a person becomes older, the hand-to-face gestures become more refined and less obvious but they still occur when a person is lying, covering up or witnessing deceit; deceit can also mean doubt, uncertainty, lying or exaggeration.

When someone uses a hand-to-face gesture, it does not always mean that he or she is lying. It does, however, indicate that the person may be deceiving you and further observation of his other gesture clusters can confirm your suspicions. It is important that you do not interpret hand-to-face gestures in isolation.

Dr Desmond Morris noted that American researchers tested nurses who were instructed to lie to their patients about their health in a role-play situation. The nurses who lied showed a greater frequency of hand-to-face gestures than those who told the truth to the patients. This chapter looks at the variations in hand-to-face gestures and discusses how and when they occur.

The Mouth Guard

The mouth guard is one of the few adult gestures that is as obvious as a child’s. The hand covers the mouth and the thumb is pressed against the cheek as the brain sub- consciously instructs it to try and suppress the deceitful words that are being said. Sometimes this gesture may only be several fingers over the mouth or even a closed fist, but its meaning remains the same.

The mouth guard is not to be confused with evaluation gestures, which will be covered later in this chapter.

Many people try to disguise the mouth guard gesture by giving a fake cough. When playing the role of a gangster or criminal, the late Humphrey Bogart often used this gesture when discussing criminal activities with other gangsters or when being interrogated by the police to show non-verbally that he was being dishonest.

If the person who is speaking uses this gesture, it indicates that he is telling a lie. If, however, he covers his mouth while you are speaking, it indicates that he feels you are lying! One of the most unsettling sights a public speaker can see is his audience all using this gesture whilst he is speaking. In a small audience or a one-to-one situation, it is wise to stop the presentation or delivery and ask, ‘Would someone care to comment on what I’ve just said?’ This allows the audience’s objections to be brought out into the open, giving you the opportunity to qualify your statements and to answer questions.

Nose Touching

In essence, the nose touch gesture is a sophisticated, disguised version of the mouth guard gesture. It may consist of several light rubs below the nose or it may be one quick, almost imperceptible touch. Some women perform this gesture with small discreet strokes to avoid smudging their make-up.

One explanation of the origin of the nose touch gesture is that, as the negative thought enters the mind, the subconscious instructs the hand to cover the mouth, but, at the last moment, in an attempt to appear less obvious, the hand pulls away from the face and a quick nose touch gesture is the result. Another explanation is that lying causes the delicate nerve endings in the nose to tingle, and the rubbing action takes place to satisfy this feeling. ‘But what if the person only has an itchy nose?’ is frequently asked. The itch in a person’s nose is normally satisfied by a very deliberate rubbing or scratching action, as opposed to the light strokes of the nose touch gesture. Like the mouth guard gesture, it can be used both by the speaker to disguise his own deceit and by the listener who doubts the speaker’s words.

The Eye Rub

‘See no evil’ says the wise monkey, and this gesture is the brain’s attempt to block out the deceit, doubt or lie that it sees or to avoid having to look at the face of the person to whom he is telling the lie. Men usually rub their eyes vigorously and if the lie is a big one they will often look away, normally towards the floor. Women use a small, gentle rubbing motion just below the eye, either because they have been brought up to avoid making robust gestures, or to avoid smudging make-up. They also avoid a listener’s gaze by looking at the ceiling.

‘Lying through your teeth’ is a common phrase. It refers to a gesture cluster of clenched teeth and a false smile, combined with the eye rub gesture and an averted gaze. This gesture is used by movie actors to portray insincerity, but is rarely seen in real life.

The Ear Rub

This is, in effect, an attempt by the listener to ‘hear no evil’ in trying to block the words by putting the hand around or over the ear. This is the sophisticated adult version of the handsover-both-ears gesture used by the young child who wants to block out his parent’s reprimands. Other variations of the ear rub gesture include rubbing the back of the ear, the finger drill (where the fingertip is screwed back and forth inside the ear), pulling at the earlobe or bending the entire ear forward to cover the earhole. This last gesture is a signal that the person has heard enough or may want to speak.

The Neck Scratch

In this case, the index finger of the writing hand scratches below the earlobe, or may even scratch the side of the neck. Our observation of this gesture .reveals an interesting point: the person scratches about five times. Rarely is the number of scratches less than five and seldom more than five. This gesture is a signal of doubt or uncertainty and is characteristic of the person who says, ‘I’m not sure I agree.’ It is very noticeable when the verbal language contradicts it, for example, when the person says something like, ‘I can understand how you feel.’

The Collar Pull

Desmond Morris noted that research into the gestures of those who tell lies revealed that the telling of a lie caused a tingling sensation in the delicate facial and neck tissues and a rub or scratch was required to satisfy it. This seems to be a reasonable explanation of why some people use the collar pull gesture when they tell a lie and suspect that they have been caught out. It is almost as if the lie causes a slight trickle of sweat to form on the neck when the deceiver feels that you suspect he is lying. It is also used when a person is feeling angry or frustrated and needs to pull the collar away from his neck in an attempt to let the cool air circulate around it. When you see someone use this gesture, a question like, ‘Would you repeat that, please?’ or, ‘Could you clarify that point, please?’ can cause the would-be deceiver to give the game away.

Fingers in the Mouth

Morris’s explanation of this gesture is that the fingers are placed in the mouth when a person is under pressure. It is an unconscious attempt by the person to revert to the security of the child sucking on his mother’s breast. The young child substitutes his thumb for the breast and as an adult, he not only puts his fingers to his mouth but inserts such things as cigarettes, pipes, pens and the like into it. Whereas most hand-to-mouth gestures involve lying or deception, the fingers-in-mouth gesture is an outward manifestation of an inner need for reassurance. Giving the person guarantees and assurances is appropriate when this gesture appears (Figure 60).

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