The four major behaviors are dominant, submissive, comfortable and uncomfortable. These are the most prevalent and easiest to categorize most nonverbal communication into. Identifying the behaviors is not our main goal. Creating a baseline of the behaviors is first, then looking for clusters of anomalies is the goal. Seeing anomalies for what they are, changes within the individual’s emotional state around a specific topic.
Each of the behavioral categories has some defining characteristics. Someone who is trying to portray dominance will have a tendency to take up more space than those around them. Much like a person during a staff meeting who has their area spread out over two or three spaces. They are trying to portray dominance.
The guy whose significant other is being checked out at the bar, who in turn gets swole (or so he thinks) is trying to portray dominance.
When an employee is getting counseled by their supervisor and they lean forward, closer than socially accepted. They are attempting to portray dominance.
Trying to show dominance or having the upper hand in a situation doesn’t have to be a huge behavioral statement. It can be large or small. Something massive like a whole body shift towards the person they’re interacting with is huge. Or it can be as simple as how the hand extends forward in the Western Culture’s customary style for a handshake.
Take the Salesman who approaches the prospective client as an example. The Salesman may extend their hand with the palm facing skyward. Extending the hand with a palm skyward is a sign of submissiveness. This gives the prospective client the upper hand by having their palm facing down toward the ground. Without saying a word the client starts by being on “top” of the salesman during the handshake. This small nonverbal behavior sets the mood for the rest of the inter- action. That mood allows the client to feel that they are in a position of power during the pursuing interaction.
Take a couple of minutes during the day and try to pay attention to how people are holding themselves. Watch for any changes in their baseline of behaviors. See if you can pick out who in a group is holding the dominant position within an interaction.
Comfortable behavior is one of two behavioral categories which are most often observed. Reason being there is little or no expectation of fear or danger. There is no need to place one’s body in a position which is easy to escape from. This is in stark contrast to what’s seen with uncomfortable and submissive behaviors.
That means when you are looking over a crowd or a group look for the person(s) who’s taking up the most space. They are most likely the first people you’ll identify. It’s natural when creating a baseline to identify the largest behaviors first.
Implementation of the same principle can work directly when focusing on comfortable behaviors. Someone who is comfortable isn’t thinking about escape and their body positioning will show that.
They may have their body positioned exposing vital areas of the body. The abdomen, inner thigh and undersides of their arms are great places to start noticing. They may have their feet sprawled out in front of them. They would be unable to take swift action in the event of an emergency. Nonverbal behaviors are instinct driven and controlled by the hindbrain, the primal section. That means most of the time the behaviors happen without much, if any, thought on the part of the subject.
During an interaction when a person is exposing their vital area they may be feeling comfortable. Comfortable enough not to worry about any negatives during the interaction. Because behaviors are primal instincts they share common denominators of freeze, flight and fight. Comfortable is the only category that doesn’t take a protective stance of some kind. It is the only category that a person would be willing to give up their ability to escape from.
Waving arms or legs crossed at the feet show comfort. Showing vital parts of the body or any behavior which defies gravity are all examples of comfortable behaviors. Something as small as the thumbs sticking skyward with clasped hands in front of the body is a sign of comfort.
This was behavior I watched for when observing my team and how they held themselves. One venue we worked was a bar setting so we often interacted with people who had too much
to drink. We trained all our security officers to stand in a neutral stance. This was so they were not perceived as aggressive by the general public. It’s secondary purpose so they could have the fastest reaction time possible in any event. I would watch as the Security Officers stood ready to respond to any action the patron took. I notice some of the officers held their thumbs skyward as they progressed through the interaction and others did not.
After speaking with the officers I found an interesting reason why the difference. I found that those who were not defying gravity with their thumbs were not as confident in their abilities. Notably the ability to defend themselves should the interaction turn violent.
Submissiveness is; ready to conform to the authority or will of others; meekly obedient or passive. Which means that submissiveness is antithetical to dominance. These two behavioral categories are polar to one another. As such, there are stark differences between what’s observed when watching others.
In the previous section we used the example of the salesman. We explained how their behavior at the onset of the interaction could influence the exchange. Putting the person who is looking to buy in the dominant position within the interaction. We used that example to highlight the dominant behavioral traits. It is also a prime example of how making the slightest shift in behaviors can control the outcome. Especially when the interaction is happening between people who do not know one another.
How does submissive behavior look when shown between people who already have a personal relationship? There is one main example that we’ll go through to try and show what some of those behaviors may look like.
Kids are great starting point because they have yet to be corrupted by the social contract or they are unaware of accepted social cues. These very same cues which causes many adults to self edit or manipulate a given situation.
You are standing outside of the classroom waiting for the school bell to ring and your child to be released for the day. You notice that there are many other parents already there waiting alongside you.
The bell rings and the classroom door swings open and the area breaks out into chaos as the children start to flood the area. They are breaking away from the crowds and heading to their normal meeting spots. Your daughter comes out holding hands with one of their good friends as they frolic toward you. Once they arrive you ask them how their day was and who they ate lunch with. Both children enthusiastically explain that it was hot ham and cheese day at school! That they scraffed their food then spent the majority of the lunch period on the playground.
Through all the ruckus you notice that there are still parents arriving late after the bell has rung to collect their children. One person in particular catches your eye as they are walking toward you vehemently. You have seen them around before picking up a child as well. You are not sure though if they are here to pick up your child’s friend or some other kid.
You see that your daughter’s friend has also noticed that person. And with that the child’s behavior changes. While leaving the classroom and for a couple of minutes they had been happy, upbeat, and defying gravity. Their behaviors were happy and excited. Waving hands and arms in the air and dancing around hugging their other friends.
As the new adult approaches the friend is restricting their movements. They are not waving their hands in the air, not dancing around and they are no longer hugging their classmates. But rather they are behaving in an entirely different way. They are trying to hide among the rest of their peers. As the adult gets closer the child’s shoulders raise toward their ears hiding their head, much like a turtle. The child sulks slowly away to meet the approaching adult.
You watch the interaction between the adult and your child’s friend. You take note that the adult did not yell at the child. They did not hit or verbally harass the child. The child seemed to be in good health while they were running around as they exited the classroom.
You think to yourself, “there’s nothing to the feeling I have in my gut. There’s no reason I should worry about the child. They will be fine.” Finishing up their goodbyes for the afternoon, you start walking toward the vehicle. The interaction is over.
What’s important to remember is that the change you observed in the child is indicative of something being wrong. The adult could be aggressive emotionally or verbally toward the child. The adult may have been having a bad day. The child may have been feeling guilty for something they did prior in the day. Or something more sinister, which we would never be able to tell from simply watching the interactions.
Polar changes in behaviors of children should be noted. The example above would be enough of a cluster to approach one of the administrators of the school. Enabling them to watch and be aware that there may be some concern of abuse within the relationship.
The above example is one that I have observed a handful of times while dealing with my own children and it is never a fun experience.
One of the best explanations that I can give would be any behavior that attempts to “hide” or reduce
the visual footprint of the subject. Some other examples of submissive behaviors would be hiding the thumbs while someone’s hands are in their pockets. Or turtling as stated above in the previous example. Gravity defying behaviors should be noted when dealing with any of the big four behavioral categories.
Dominant = getting big and taking as much space as possible Submissive = Getting small and reducing the visual footprint of oneself
When we start looking at behaviors which may indicate a person is feeling uncomfortable, there may be some obvious shifts in the baseline. Uncomfortable behaviors are like submissive behaviors. A person may show a desire to leave or hide during the situation. They may shift their body language and posture in a way that makes them look smaller. They may be removing access to some of their vital areas of the body.
As with all anomalies, a cluster is needed to verify that the hypothesis you have created is correct.
Someone showing uncomfortable behaviors is most likely experiencing some emotional or physical discomfort. Uncomfortable behaviors can be identified from the slightest to most obvious actions. Such as both feet facing the doorway or a slight shift in where the abdomen is facing.
Some uncomfortable behaviors to look for may include:
- Self pacifying behaviors
- Positioning body to escape or react
- Sweating above and beyond that of the baseline
Examples of uncomfortable behavior can be seen daily in the interview room. When a Human Resources professional begins the hiring process an interview is almost always a required step. The interview process is a golden opportunity to observe how some will act when they are uncomfortable. Interviewing for a position is not something that people do on a normal basis. As such there is quite a bit of anxiety associated with it. Having to brag about oneself while staying humble, attempting to gain employment is high stress.
It’s understood that an offer for employment is a consensual agreement between the employer and the employee in most states. The burden of meeting the “standard” still rests on the shoulders of the potential employee if they hope for any consideration. There will be the potential for ample perceived threats during the process. Questions about past work experiences, credit history and/or criminal background are all hot topics.
Each of the above topics are great places to watch for anomalies to the baseline of behavior. The vast majority of the population have had some sort of emotional tie to at least one of these. And there’s a plethora of other topics, each independent to the person, that may be emotionally charged.
For example, you ask an interviewee a question about their past employment history. Their baseline of behavior up to this point has shown them engaged in the conversation. They have been leaning into the conversation. Speaking with emphasis and modulating their tone and volume throughout the previous questions.
When you drop the question their behavior changes a little. They are no longer leaning into the conversation. They are now leaning away from you and sitting with their back straight against the back of the chair. That’s anomaly number one.
You notice this change and switch up the topic of conversation. In an attempt to get the interviewee reengaged, you ask about previous personal accomplishments. It works, they are back at it, engaging and back onboard leaning into the conversation once again.
After a few minutes you want to test if the anomaly you noticed before had something more to it. The next question is about work history again. But this time you ask about a different employer than the last one you were talking about before. To that question of past work experience the interviewee doesn’t show any major changes to their baseline. They stay engaged and comfortable in the conversation.
Past work experience is not where the emotional burden is for the interviewee. Being a student of nonverbal communication, you make effort once more to try and see if the original anomaly could lead to something. You ask about the past work experience of the company you were talking about when the first anomaly was noticed. Sure enough, there’s a change in the baseline of behaviors again.
The interviewee again becomes distant in the conversation. Leaning away from the conversation and not speaking at the same rate or with the same tone. This time you notice their leg is starting to bounce and that they are taking a couple of seconds to pick a hair off of their coat. Breaking eye contact, which had been solid throughout the previous part conversations.
You have noticed a cluster of anomalies and can now articulate what you saw should the need arise.
Breaking of or aversion to eye contact is one. Changes in tone and pace of conversation is two. Creating a space between them and you by leaning away from the conversation is third. The self pacifying behaviors are fourth and fifth. They were the bouncing of the leg and the self preening which created a full cluster of anomalies.
It’s been identified that there are some sort of emotions about that specific past employer. The emotion isn’t tied to past work experience as a whole. The interviewer may never get the chance to figure out why there was any sort of emotional response to being asked about a specific past employer.
Knowing how the biological process work allows us to explore what it all means. Nonverbal cues are completely based on the perceptions of the mind. When someone perceives incoming information in a specific way they will react to it. In the next issue we’ll be delving into this reaction and, as observers, what it is that we are looking for.
The Baselines of Behavior
By Luke Daniel
Luke’s experiences as a Global Executive Protection Agent, Instructor at Tony Scotti’s Vehicle Dynamics Institute, and a student of behavioral analysis/non-verbal communication have led him to work with Fortune 1000 companies as a leader in human assets, “buy in,” and business resiliency.