Spy movies come in two forms: Ian Fleming 007 violence or John le Carre melancholy realism. In both genre’s, however, it is the look and feel of the movie that offer so much texture to the experience, not the words. The way that James Bond looks at a woman; the way George Smiley nods his head. The meaning of their messages doesn’t need to be explained. We can observe—and more importantly, interpret—the meaning of each non-verbal communication.
Alas, real life spies aren’t always as clever at recognizing the dangers around them as those in the movies. The Russian spy ring lived in America among the neighbors who didn’t suspect anything out of the ordinary. And yet, the FBI had surrounded them with undercover agents and human informants for over ten years.
On July 24th, 2010 Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin said that he had met with the Russian agents swapped in an exchange with the U.S. He expressed his admiration for them and said that they had a very tough life in America. Not only did they have to master a foreign language as their own, he said, they also had to think and act like foreigners.
Secret agents can be taught to say the right thing, but it’s much more difficult to teach them to feel and react in a way that doesn’t betray their true inner feelings. This is how we know a good actor from a great one: they can convey the complexity of their feelings through body language, without having to say a word.
As an FBI agent, I was trained to observe—and interpret—non-verbal gestures. There are many books on how to read body language but I’m going to share with you only those tips I learned from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
The FBI study of body language begins with two generalizations.
“Norming” refers to acquainting yourself with the person’s normal pattern of gestures. This means taking time before beginning a discussion in critical areas to determine how the person reacts in a normal conversation. Many people punctuate with constant gestures and movement while others are relatively still. They key is to notice how these gestures change during a conversation.
For example, if Aunt Mabel scratches her nose while talking about her childhood, it may mean nothing. However, if she breaks eye contact, rubs her nose, and raises her eyebrows, those clusters of activity indicate that a critical area in the conversation has been reached—at least for her.
The head shows the most expressive body language characteristics. Here are some physiological signs that can be easily observed:
- Blushing—a sign of reaction to your conversation
- Carotid pulse—arteries in the neck that will visibly pulse when under stress
- Larynx—the Adam’s apple will start to bounce under stress
The Eyes Have It
As a general rule, breaks in eye contact are the most important non-verbal gesture. Here are some other examples:
- Closing the eyes
- Covering the eyes
- Glancing at watch
- Showing intense interest in fingernails
- Looking out the window or at the floor
- Avoid looking you in the eye during the moment of deception
- Rapid eye movement
- Raising eyebrows
This is a very partial list and we’ll be looking at more signs in the weeks and months to come.
TIP: Look for clusters of activity that can indicate deception or that a critical area in the conversation has been reached.
The eyes believe themselves; the ears believe other people.
People will reveal what they feel through non-verbal gestures regardless of what they say.
What non-verbal behaviors have you noticed in people?
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