Anthony J. Iantosca, BCFE
Part Two (2)
When describing nonverbal communication/behaviors there are words that
sound different but mean the same thing. I will explain these words and their
meanings to you now to avoid confusion later in my articles. There are certain
words that have very specific meanings which I will explain to you as we go
along. I use the word "tell/tells." Because these nonverbal behaviors "tell"
us about the person's true state of mind, what the body is telling and
expressing /communicating to us. The word "cue" also means the same thing, what
the body is "cueing" us in on. Many times you will see words in books or hear
different terminology in a video or TV show when a body language expert is
explaining body language behaviors and they use different terminology. The words
used sound different but their meanings are the same. Body language experts will
use their own terminology such as: adaptors, manipulators, tells, cues,
gestures, postures, etc.
Nonverbal communication/ body language is a means of transmitting
information, just like a spoken word except, it is achieved through facial
expressions, gestures, touching (haptics), physical movements (kinesics)
posture, body adornments (cloths, jewelry, hairstyle, tattoos). The tone and
volume of an individual's voice, (rather than the spoken content). Nonverbal
communication comprise approximately sixty to sixty five percent of all
interpersonal communication. (Burgoon, 1994, 229-285) (Navarro, 2007,
Freeze, Flight, Fight response. The limbic systems elegant protocol.
The limbic system our emotional brain does not reason nor rationalize. It
reacts to the world around us in real time. The prime directive of the limbic
system is to ensure our survival as a species. The limbic system has a very
elegant protocol that has kept us alive and out of danger and is programed in
each and everyone of us since the day we are born. This limbic response
to distress or a threatening situation takes on three forms: the freeze, flight,
fight response. This protocol has has helped us to survive as a species and is
hard wired into our nervous system. You may have heard people call it is the
fight or flight response. This is half correct and somewhat backwards. If we
fought first we would be to battered and worn to run from the danger facing us.
The first limbic response when exposed to a threatening situation is to
"freeze," why? Movement attracts attention. Example: many of the children who
survived the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings survived by playing dead
"freezing." The killer/killers walked right by them thinking they were already
dead. Their limbic brain made them "freeze" and play dead, this limbic response
saved many lives. The freeze response is also called "the deer in the headlight
look" have you ever come across a herd of deer in the roadway early in the
morning? The first thing you will notice is they all look up and stare at you
for a second, then they all run off in a split second. The second protocol. The
flight response. Sadly, children who are being abused will manifest these
freezing limbic behaviors when in the presence of an abusive adult. The
children's arms will go dormant by their sides and they will avoid eye contact
thinking this helps them not to be seen. A tactic called "hiding in the open" a
survival tool for these helpless children.
The second limbic response when the "freeze" response is not adequate
enough to eliminate the danger is the "flight" response, to run and escape from
the danger facing us. This response can be very obvious such as someone running
from a threatening situation as we saw when the buildings collapsed during the
911 attacks. Or these "tells" can be very subtle such as turning our heads or
bodies away from someone or something that is undesirable. Have you ever met
someone for the first time on a date or business meeting and you did not like
him/her? You may have acted polite but your body will turn away from that person
ever so slightly. Sitting or standing will make no difference. This distancing
behavior however so slight is the limbic system's "flight" response to an
unfavorable person or situation.
The third limbic response when the first two responses are not adequate
enough and the only alternative left is the "fight" response. In our evolution
as a species we as well as animals developed a strategy of turning fear into
rage and aggression to "fight" off attackers (panksepp, 1998, 208). This
response can take on many forms and expressions, from physical aggression
and fighting which is not the socially acceptable or a legal way of dealing with
other people in todays society. So a modern form of aggression or "fighting" is
argument. An over heated argument is "fighting" by nonphysical means. The use of
insults, goading and sarcasm are all the modern equivalent of fighting. (Navarro
2008, 33) Court rooms are filled everyday with people fighting and aggressively
arguing two opposing viewpoints.
This elegant protocol called the freeze, flight, fight response will help
you to accurately decode what a person is thinking, feeling or intending. To
decode nonverbal tells you must be a competent observer of your environment and
to decode nonverbal gestures "tells" based on the context of the situation you
Comfort/discomfort and pacifying behaviors.
The limbic system is programed to make us secure by avoiding danger or
"discomfort" and seeking safety and "comfort." Nonverbal behaviors can be very
binary. You or the personality you are engaged with is either in a state of
"comfort" (well being, relaxed, not in a state of stress). Or in a state of
"discomfort" (stressed, worried, in fear, feeling very uncomfortable or
uneasy). The limbic system "leaks" this information in the form of body
language tells/behaviors called "pacifiers." These "pacifying behaviors," will
be congruent with those feelings either positive "comfort" or negative
It is very important to remember that when you are attempting to
decode nonverbal behaviors you must decode the nonverbal "tells/cues"
according to the context of the situation you are in.
This is the prime reason why there is so much confusion when people are
attempting to decode nonverbal behaviors and are confused to there meaning. This
is why "context" is such a very important rule to remember. One "tell" is not
the same for all situations.
For example: you may read or hear that a person who is rubbing their ear or
touching their face is a sign of stress or even worse, is lying. This is not the
case at all, first what is the "context" of the situation you are in?
If it is a social setting and the person is exhibiting other nonverbal
behaviors that are congruent with "comfort?" This would be considered a
The personality is enjoying the experience and the "pacifying behaviors"
are heightening their experience by releasing very powerful brain peptides
Dopamine and Oxytocin by touching or "pacifying" themselves. On the flip side of
the coin, if you see these very same nonverbal behaviors when the personality is
under a stressful situation such as a job interview, meeting a date for the
first time, answering questions regarding a situation they were involved in,
etc. These same "pacifying behaviors," are the limbic systems response to a
stressful situation and the "pacifying behaviors" seen are a sign of
"discomfort" or a negative "pacifier." The same brain peptides are being
released by the limbic system in an effort to calm the personality down and to
restore the personality/ body to a state of comfort again.
Two hard and fast rules when decoding nonverbal behaviors is, "what is the
context of the situation you are in?" Have you identified a "base line" pattern
when the person is in a state of comfort. I would pay close attention to a
change in their "base line" behavior. I would take note of that change and would
want to know why. Remember, "a change in behavior is a change in their
reality." It does not mean the person is being deceitful. It is telling me that
a change has taken place and I would go back to that portion of the interaction
and ask additional questions to understand why that change took place. Without
"context" or a "base line" you will misread the "tells" that the body is
telling/saying to you. Also one nonverbal "tell" is not enough to decode what
the person is thinking, feeling or intending. You must decode clusters of
nonverbal "tells" that show congruency with one another. Another rule to
remember, is emotions are always expressed before words and actions. The
limbic system is our emotional brain, it does not reason nor rationalize. It
reacts to the world around us in real time without thought. Based on this
understanding of our brains limbic system elegant protocol of "freeze, flight,
fight" you can understand why the "primacy of reaction" is a very accurate
Part three (3) tomorrow.