In the first two parts of this series on thoughts and gestures, we looked at gestures that occur in combination with spoken words. These gestures are also sometimes called illustrators as they help the speaker add meaning and context to the words spoken. Illustrators or gestures are shaped by the individualized needs of the speaker and may be unique to that person’s communication style. The illustrators or gestures are unconsciously selected by the subject and generally have no meaning on their own but are coordinated with the words to help make the message clear.
There are other physical movements people make that are not done to support the actual spoken language. These are pantomimes, emblems, and adaptors.
Pantomimes are intentional, symbolic gestures that mimic action and convey meaning independent of language. Playing an imaginary violin while listening to someone’s sob story is a sarcastic, unsympathetic, nonverbal response to the story. The message is clearly delivered without any actual words being spoken. Pantomimes can also provide a suggestion to the observer. For example, suggesting someone zip up their coat might be done by grabbing an imaginary zipper and drawing it up from the waist to the chin. Pretending to zip one’s mouth closed is asking for or promising silence. Each pantomime is consciously selected by the individual to convey an action without using any words. Much like selecting language to describe an event, a pantomime is consciously selected by the individual to convey a specific meaning to another.
It’s important for the investigator to note that pantomimes have their own meaning independent of language and that the subject has consciously selected that pantomime to convey a specific meaning to another. Just like the words selected by the individual to describe an event, they are done consciously and should be evaluated as an insight into the person’s thinking.
Emblems are learned socially and have a culturally agreed symbolic meaning that can fully take the place of the spoken word. Emblems essentially have a common social meaning within a culture or geographic area, although their meanings can change depending on the country or culture where they are used. Emblems are used intentionally to communicate a message to another. Importantly, emblems take the place of words and should be viewed as part of any sentence of spoken words in which they are included. Many emblems may be included unconsciously since they are used so often. For example, shaking the head no will almost always be included with a denial, although it may be only a partial movement of the head to the side. In a similar fashion, the shrug of uncertainty will accompany the answer that is not definitive.
A number of emblems are actively used around the world, some of which have contrary meanings depending on the culture or geographic location. In the United States, placing one’s finger vertically across the mouth is an indication to be quiet. Waving the hand palm out and above the shoulder line is an indication of hello or awareness of another’s presence. Cupping the hand behind one’s ear and leaning slightly forward is an indication that the person is having difficulty hearing another. The shrug is generally interpreted as, “I don’t know,” or uncertainty of an answer.
If someone is asked how many items they have taken and they shrug before responding, “Five,” this should be interpreted as, “I don’t know. Five?” The offer of five should be more fully explored before it is accepted since the shrug would indicate that they are simply offering an initial estimate that may not have accurately been considered.
If an individual was asked whether they broke into the store and they nod yes while saying, “I didn’t do it,” we have a contradictory emblem that negates the denial of participation in the break-in. On the one hand, the physical behavior of the emblem yes is saying, “I did it,” while the words selected have entirely different meaning. An investigator should consider this contradiction as an indication that more questions should be asked to clarify the situation. On the other hand, a shake of the head no when responding to the question, “How was their vacation?” may actually support the language. How was your vacation? The subject shakes their head slowly no in an exaggerated fashion and says, “Oh, man, we had the most amazing time.” Here the exaggerated shake of the head is an indication of the awesomeness of the vacation experience instead of a denial of a good trip.
An investigator should consider the use of an emblem as part of the reply made by the subject. The evaluation of the verbal response should include the meaning of the emblem. The investigator should consider whether the emblem complements or contradicts the verbal response made by the individual.
Involuntary gestures seem to be hardwired in the brain and are related to our visceral response to emotions such as anger, disgust, or fear. These gestures, much like the expressions of the face, seem to be linked to the basic human emotions, and their use is unconsciously done. For example, in a fear response, we generally move away from the threat and position the hands and arms in front of our bodies. With anger there is tension in the arms, and the fists will often clench preparing for an attack.
Adapters are body-focused manipulators not commonly related to the spoken words, although some researchers have suggested they may reveal thoughts the individual is trying to intentionally conceal. Adapters are typically touching behaviors where the individual touches himself or another object usually resulting from an increase of anxiety as a result of a loss of control of a situation.
Adapters also manifest themselves as grooming gestures where the individual twirls their hair, scratches, or fidgets using their fingers. These gestures could also consist of nose scratching, picking the teeth or nostrils, picking lint from clothing, or even manipulating a pen or paper clip. Adapters can also take the form of created jobs, such as lint picking or playing with a pen or tissue. These activities help an individual release excessive energy and address the uneasiness of the situation that has increased their anxiety. The use of adapters also gives the individual an opportunity to avert their eyes to supervise the task.
Many investigators incorrectly interpret the subject’s gestures or created jobs as an indication of deception. Adapters should be interpreted as an indication of increased anxiety in the individual or a general discomfort with the situation they find themselves in. Many innocent people will exhibit displays of adapters and manipulation because of the uncertainty of the situation that they face. Often, the use of adapters by the subject will diminish as the individual becomes more comfortable during the interview.
If the individual is using the grooming gestures as a means to avoid eye contact with the investigator, the conversation should be extended to determine whether these actions are the result of unease with the situation or a conscious attempt to avoid detection. While these movements can be noted by the investigator, their exact cause can only be assumed and, generally, not known for certain. Many people attempting to conceal information will become unnaturally still, almost locking themselves in place.
An investigator should also consider the timing of the movement of any gestures. With illustration of the language, the gestures are closely related to the words in a very natural correlation, looking fluid and relaxed. However, if the movements appear mistimed, jerky, fast, or abrupt, the investigator should extend the interview and ask more questions to determine why the individual has a high level of anxiety. For example, a subject was being questioned about participation in a crime, and when asked, he moved his arm across his chest to adjust the pen in his shirt pocket. Since there was nothing for him to write and no need to adjust the pen, this adapter was a created job coming in response to increased anxiety. This adapter taken with the delayed soft verbal denial gave an indication additional questioning was needed in this area.
Movements that occur at moments of high stress should be carefully evaluated. This can be done by later returning to this area of the conversation to determine if the level of stress in this area has been maintained. If the anxiety level is still high, the investigator should ask more questions and continue probing the topic.
In our next column we will continue to explore the impact of nonverbal observations and their usefulness in identifying areas of increased anxiety.