Body Language is a form of Nonverbal Communication
This article is largely based on the work of former FBI agent, Joe Navarro who studied with Dr. Paul Ekman. Have you watched the show Lie to Me? It’s wonderfully entertaining and based on Ekman’s work with microexpressions. Navarro doesn’t dismiss microexpressions, but he chooses to look at the entire body and what it is saying as opposed to a nostril twitch.
I originally started reading Joe Navarro’s books to help my writing process. There are some obvious things we might think of regarding body language and how a character might express themselves — this is something novelists have to do on their own whereas in comics, we the writers have to let the artists know what we want the character to feel and let them create the visuals. Common examples might be touching the chin while thinking hard or pulling at the collar of a shirt to make nervous breathing easier. From Navarro’s book What Every Body is Saying, I learned that sweaty palms are not necessarily a sign of being nervous or deceitful. I learned that one has to take culture into consideration with gestures because they are different from place to place. When I was in Poland, I was warned that the locals of Bogatynia will shake their heads the opposite way as Americans for yes and no so to listen to their words instead. Navarro is an expert on many of these cultural shifts.
Masking Behaviors and Taking Up Space:
I began to wonder, due to old events of my life coming to the surface recently, what Navarro and Ekman would make of the comic convention scene.
In one of Navarro’s sections in What Every Body is Saying about facial cues as non-verbal communication, he addresses disappearing lips. I don’t think retired FBI Agent Navarro envisioned a scenario in the comic convention culture where people are costumed.
When the Costume Isn’t There:
For example, maybe there’s a comic creator who had created a persona and used to wear an ensemble: a hat, sunglasses, black suit, and a scarf covering his face from the nose down like pulp icon, The Shadow. With the eyes hidden and the lips hidden there is a lot to be analyzed. However, once this creator rid himself of the need to cosplay fully and switched to only wearing a black suit, he kept up the “play” part of cosplay by hiding his face with anything possible, usually his books or his hands.
Navarro’s subsection is titled: When Disappearing Lips Aren’t the Only Things Being Hidden
“I look for lip compression or disappearing lips during interviews or when someone is making a declarative statement. This is such a reliable cue that it will show up precisely at the moment a difficult question is asked. If you see it, that doesn’t necessarily mean the person is lying. Instead, it indicates that a very specific question served as a negative stimulus and really bother the person. For example, if I asked someone, ‘Are you hiding something from me?’ and he compresses his lips as I ask the question, he is hiding something. This is especially accurate if it is the only time he has concealed or compressed his lips during our discussion. It is a signal that I need to push further in questioning this person.”
Since Navarro does not have any examples through his years of FBI training where the person has a costume on to mask their face playing a character at a comic convention, I think we can look at this “disappearing lips” as one of the cues of nonverbal communication expressed by a creator hiding their face all the time. What is he hiding?
A timely example is testifying before Congress and the 2020 impeachment of Donald Trump. Though What Every Body is Saying was published in 2008, the visuals of government employees testifying carries through to today.
“If it seems like the lips have disappeared from every photograph you have seen recently of anyone testifying before Congress, it is because of stress I say this with assurance, because when it comes to stress (like testifying before Congress), nothing is more universal than disappearing lips. When we are stressed, we tend to make our lips disappear subconsciously.”
Having masked jawlines and lips means we can’t tell when this creator is physically compressing his lips. We can still consider this act as lips disappearing when he masks them with books or props.
Navarro states, “Lip compression is very indicative of true negative sentiment that manifests quite vividly in real time.”
Covering the face is discussed in Navarro’s section about eye-blocking behavior. As you can probably easily think of instances of seeing something you found gross or horrific, you might turn your head and cover your eyes or whole face. It’s a blockade. A barrier. In nonverbal communication vernacular, this is called “distancing.” The subject does not like what is being asked of them like answering questions or having a serious conversation. They cover their face or eyes in order to do anything to make a physical representation of distance.
Navarro explains, “During conversation, this is one of the best signals to let us know that something spoken did not sit well with the person hearing the information.” You can tell from this that wearing sunglasses (when it’s not a medical/vision reason or one hundred paparazzi flashbulbs going off), establishes an even firmer physical barrier because the hands can be free to do other things while the eyes are masked, such as hiding the jawline and lips.
When I made my notes to interview Navarro all those years ago, my copy of this book became filled with neon colored sticky notes. I found one on a page that drew my attention as I was working on this post. It discusses actors creating fictional facial cues that seem real enough to be convincing. But then Navarro reveals something viscerally scary:
“When we lie using our faces, we are often said to be acting; obviously, world-class actors can adopt any number of faces to create fictional feelings on demand. Unfortunately, many people, especially con men and other more serious social predators, can do the same thing. They can put on a false face when they are lying, conniving, or trying to influence the perception of others through false smiles, fake tears, or deceiving looks.“
Other women who have experienced the emotional and financial abuse I have by the same person can attest to the person having weepy eyes or crying as if on command. There’s a look in his eyes before he turns them away to say how he’s never told this information to anyone else before in his entire life — and that includes how “special” and loved the con man’s target is.
There’s another behavior called “hooding” which is lacing the hands behind the head and forms a hood shape — imagine a king cobra when agitated and ready to attack. A snake’s head coming straight out would be terrifying. Hooding cues are a sign of dominance. A confident, “don’t fuck with me” posture. It’s something typically seen in corporate conference rooms. The more space a speaker takes up, the more confident they think they are. In Navarro’s book on histrionic personalities, one of the identifying signs to look for is someone who makes grand gestures or grand entrances to catch the eye.
Again, we have to address what we know of the comic con scene and make some adaptations to authentic nonverbal communication used in board rooms and at poker tables. If someone is covering their mouth (lip hiding) and extending an arm with tentacle-like fingers jutting forward as if to be a monster attacking, that’s someone who feels the need to expand into space they feel they are owed. Space that tells anyone else around, “This is my domain, not yours and I’m ready to attack.”
There could be a whole dissertation on the fashion and costuming of a pop culture convention. Some choose casual comfort for those sixteen-hour days on their feet. Others sacrifice their joints and health to look good in heels and constrictive clothing or armor. But at the vendors’ tables, it’s either casual or primped. Gender roles are being more playful too.
As for the traditional suit jacket worn by someone vending, it’s 2020 and there are still shoulder pads in them. In the 1980s, this was a huge deal for women to look more masculine and be accepted in the corporate world. Overall, shoulder pads are another way to simply take up space and commandeer it as their own. Shoulder pads also serve another purpose for hiding body language and it takes a keen eye to notice it. When the arms give way to gravity, it’s a sign of not being confident. An interesting note about gravity-heavy or gravity-defying cues is that they have a contagious quality. Think about a sporting event where everyone is upset that a goal was missed or a batter struck out.
A person with a histrionic personality is constantly seeking approval, as well as the limelight, according to one of Navarro’s other books — How to Spot a Histrionic Personality. He states, “Their behavior is singularly purposeful; it is to get attention whether it is positive or negative — so long as they are the center of attention.”
The histrionic personality is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as characterized by a “pervasive pattern of excessive emotionally and attention-seeking,” with an excessive need for approval from other and very over, inappropriate seductiveness, usually beginning in early adulthood (APA 2000, 711-712).
There are several other key identifiers that this subject may have a histrionic personality:
- their social interactions are often inappropriate, sexually seductive or considered provocative.
- the person has rapid shifts or cycles and shallow expressions of emotions.
- the person uses physical appearance to draw attention to them (take into consideration the descriptions above about how a creator is always presenting himself at comic book conventions, but not in every day life).
- their language lacks details and is excessively impressionistic (such as taking credit for discovering artists).
- This passage from Navarro is alarmingly dead-on: “They are intentionally manipulative (they will tell you they are not), they lie, they are willing to cheat, and are quite resourceful at doing all of these things quite smoothly (think again of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind).”
Someone with this personality is hypersensitive and holds grudges for long periods of time. Navarro has an descriptive label for this called “wound collecting.” He explains they have no boundaries: sex, manipulation, and self-fulfillment, take precedence over other considerations. The bottom line is they lie and cannot be trusted. They love to use guilt to induce loyalty and compliance. They leave people confused or dumb-founded, yet they are so skilled they keep people drawn to them like magnets.
“They will emotionally extort and manipulate those around them without any qualms. That includes elderly grandparents, parents, bosses, siblings, spouses or children — it does not matter to them who they manipulate or use.” — Navarro
As you can see, someone with this kind of personality bends the truth as much as they want even from conversation to conversation, day to day, text to text. Truth is fluid to them. Truth is only relative to them in the sense that they get to be ones to define what it is. You cannot count on them because of their sense of exaggeration which makes the truth irrelevant compared to a good story.
More signs include:
- someone who repeatedly ignores the desires of others, changes plans previously agreed upon
- has multiple intimate partners
- lacks genuine empathy towards others
- manipulates other for their own gain
- uses colorful language but it lacks substance
- bonds are formed quickly but are self-centered and superficial
- cries at will convincingly
- self-centered and vain
- uses/abuses sexuality to control others
- they can be clueless that others are upset at them and their behavior
- relationships are intentionally used to gain objects of desire or rewards
- they may convince people they’ve just met that they are their “closest friends”
- nothing is ever their fault
- constantly flirting even in inappropriate situations
- they are keen and alert to other people’s weaknesses so they can exploit them
- seeks to make people dependent on them until they’re bored with them
- no efforts are made to self-reflect or examine their behavior
- is seductive over the phone (or online in modern terms) but cold when face-to-face and other people are around
This is only a short portion of Navarro’s list of signs to look out for when considering if someone has a histrionic personality. And with his extensive list, a score of 40 hits on it is considered a toxic individual.
Part One – my experience with a toxic person
Part Two – Science on abuse
Part Three – trolls don’t like crying
Part Four – How to identify toxic people