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Giving away your thoughts: non-verbal 'leakage'

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One of the most important concepts in the study of body language is that of non-verbal leakage. This occurs when we say one thing but our body language gestures give a different impression.

The most obvious of these are hand-to-face gestures. The best way to understand these is to think how you

behaved when you were a small child.What did you do then if you saw something frightening? You put your hands over your eyes, because in a toddler’s mind, if you can’t see it, it’s not there.  


Imagine your national football team is playing in the World Cup Final. One minute into extra time and your main striker steps up to take a penalty that will hand your team the World Cup. He shoots ...... and the opposition goalkeeper tips the ball around the post, putting the game into extra time. What would most of the fans do?

Can't watch Can't watch

As one, millions of fans would raise both hands to their faces and slap them to their foreheads or eyes while wailing in despair (virtually every fan in the crowd has used very similar gestures in the image below). They'd do this unselfconsciously because of the emotion of the moment. Indeed, it’s very likely that the striker himself would use the exact same gesture.


Sports hand to face


Watch an audience watching a horror movie in the cinema. When the females scream at a moment of high tension, it is often accompanied by the placing of both hans on the cheeks or over the mouth or eyes (the more deep throated male scream is reserved almost exclusively for pain). Afterwards, they may watch the rest of the movie throught heir fingers. Thinki about this for a second. If you don't want to watch something, there's a much easier way to do that than putting your hand over your eyes. How about CLOSING them? That's much simpler. Yet subconsciously, we still create a barrier with our hands rather than do that.


Scary movie

However, in everyday, mundane situations such reactions would be seen as ‘overkill’, so when you see or hear something you don’t like, your hand flicks automatically towards your face and then at the last moment, realising you are going to look foolish, you give it an ‘excuse’ to be there by doing something with it.


The significance of this to your public speaking is that at times you're going to have to deliver a message you are uncomfortable with. You may simply not like what you have to say. You could be required to exaggerate or put a gloss on something or deliver a ‘sanitised’ version for some reason. Events could force you to deliberately omit some facts or even tell an outright lie. Or you may just be uncomfortable with what is being said to you during a question & answer session.


If you aren’t aware of non-verbal leakage, your body language will scream out to your audience that something is wrong. They won’t necessarily know exactly what that is, but they will subconsciously pick up the incongruity between your verbal and non-verbal messages, and that you are uncomfortable in some way about what you are saying.


Therefore you need to know the telltale signs of leakage so you can avoid making them and rehearse your delivery showing open, confident body language instead.

So, what do people do when they see, hear or have to say something they are uncomfortable with?

Hand To Eyes

The hand(s) move to cover the eyes and then at the last moment rubs one of them instead, or pulls at its corner.Or it rubs the forehead or smoothes a fringe.  In the photo below, Jesse Jackson (pictured at the Michael Jackson child molestation trial) is almost watching proceedings through his fingers like he's watching a scary movie.

Jesse jackson hand to eyes Berlusconi hand to eye
Brown hand to face

Hand To Eyes

The same thing occurs, but the hand wipes the mouth, scratches the face or strokes the chin. This is especially common when politicians are  listening to other people speak, as they are chomping at the bit to reply but have to literally hold the words back.


Blair hand to mouth
Cameron hand to mouth Obama finger to mouth Putin hand to mouth

This gesture can be mistaken for interest and deep thought, but when this occurs the hand tends to be lower and holds or strokes the chin without touching the mouth. It is the fingers covering the mouth that makes all the difference. Look at the photo below of Bill Clinton; he looks genuinely thoughtful about what is being said. In the photos above, the politicians all look like they are dying to interrupt whoever is speaking.

Clinton evaluation

    This is especially important when you are handling Q&As. Even if you think the question being asked is the most puerile, ridiculous, trite thing you’ve ever heard, it is essential that none of this shows in your demeanour or facial expressions.


    Very often people can be long-winded and you will know what you are going to say in reply long before they have finished speaking. If this happens and you are waiting for the person to finish, you may unconsciously use a hand to mouth gesture. This is literally an attempt to hold your words in and prevent them from erupting out and interrupting the questioner.


   The trouble is, it is seen as that by the audience. It is even worse when you take your fingers taken away from your mouth for a second and then replace them. That is seen as an obvious attempt at interruption.


So the golden rule during Q&As is: Keep your hands away from your face!


The hand may also go to the throat, but this an effeminate gesture and is normally carried out by women, often disguised by touching a necklace.

Rice hand to ear

Hand To Eyes

Exactly the same, but the hand tugs at the ear lobe. Women can do this completely naturally by touching an earring.

Hand To Nose

Similar to above, but the hand scratches or strokes the nose. Who can forget Bill Clinton stroking his nose every time he said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" (Eatin' ain't cheatin' eh, Bill?)?

We all know the story of how Pinnochio's nose grew and grew when he told a lie. Perhaps hand to nose gestures were the inspiration for that part of the story - who knows (no pun intended)?

Blair hand to nose

This gesture is also common when someone has been asked a difficult question and they are thinking about how to reply. It may be accompanied by statements like, "That's a good question . . . "

Of course, it could always be that the person has an itchy nose, but when someone scratches an itch it tends to be with a vigorous motion using the fingernail. The hand to nose gesture is slower and uses the knuckle or fingertip to scratch, or pinches the bridge of the nose.



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