Former FBI Agent Explains How to Read Body Language


The best poker players in the world can pick up on their opponents’ slightest tells, small physical clues that inadvertently give away the strength or weakness of their hand. Another group of highly skilled professionals also rely on reading body language to help them learn hidden truths, only they’re not playing a game. The FBI isn’t tasked with spotting bluffers on the felt; their job is to locate spies. And in a new video, a former body language expert explains what to look for, and what to avoid, when trying to decipher what someone is accidentally telling you.

“My job was to catch spies,” shared former FBI agent Joe Navarro. He was straight up recruited to the FBI when he was a 23-year-old cop and he spent the next 25 years with the Bureau, working in counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

Former FBI agent and best-selling author Joe Navarro sat down with Wired to talk about the basics of reading body language. Using real-life examples, Navarro specifically points out oft-repeated myths of non-verbal cues such as folded arms and face touching, which have multiple causes. Rather, it’s the less obvious behaviors that can give away even the closest-kept secrets.

Former FBI agent and best-selling author Joe Navarro sat down with Wired to talk about the basics of reading body language. Using real-life examples, Navarro specifically points out oft-repeated myths of non-verbal cues such as folded arms and face touching, which have multiple causes. Rather, it’s the less obvious behaviors that can give away even the closest-kept secrets. When I was in college in the early 70s there were really no courses on nonverbal communications. You quickly realize that to a great extent it’s really about what you can interpret from behavior. And so we talk about non-verbals because it matters. Because it has gravitas. Because it affects how we communicate with each other and when it comes to non-verbals this is no small matter. We primarily communicate non-verbally and we always will.

TranscriptFrom the time we're born,we spend an inordinate amount of timestudying each other's faces.As babies we can recognize that big smilethat we see of that caring motherlooking down on us and so forth.But we're confronted with many variants of that.Just take a look at these, all examples of smiles.Some come to us, they're very genuine,some are a little reserved, some are a little nervous.They're all smiles, but what are they communicating?My name's Joe Navarro.And for 25 years I was a spy catcher for the FBI.You may be familiar with my previous video,I talked about body language.There's just no Pinocchio effect.And people who prattle that, and say, well,we can detect deception because the persontouches their nose or covers their mouth.That's just sheer nonsense.And today we're going to focus on the face.When it comes to non-verbals, the face is key.There's so much information and feelingsthat we receive from the face,that for us, the face takes primacy.So one of the ways to look at the faceis to think of it in two areas, comfort and discomfort,because really that's how the brain reacts to the world.So let's start with psychological comfort.When we're very comfortable,the muscles of the face become very relaxed,and we have all the behaviors that are associated with it.Smiling, laughing, usually the pupils are slightly wider.The lips are full, and usually the chintends to be further out.The very second that there's psychological discomfort,usually it begins to register in several areas.Now, for some people we'll see it in the foreheadand here between the eyes,where there'll be furrowing of the forehead or squinting.And of course, the tucking down of the chin.Or, in some instances where something is really emotional,you'll see the chin begins to vibrate.Covering of the eyes alsois a display of psychological discomfort.So our faces, what we feel in that momentis immediately displayed by our non-verbals.And the easiest way to look at it is,is that behavior consistent with comfort,or is it consistent with discomfort?One of the questions that I'm often asked is,how do we read each other?How do we read each other's faces?We start with the hair.How it's combed, what color it is?Is it dry, is it wet?Is it curly, is it disarranged?As children we play with each other's hair,we look at each other's hair.We immediately notice when it's wet, or dry,or it's changed in some form.We look at the forehead for information.When it's smooth the forehead tells usthat everything is well and placid.When it's furrowed, we begin to noticethat perhaps there's some sort of discomfort.The eyebrows, the arching of the eyebrowsis our exclamation point.Doing that eyebrow flash when we see someone,we recognize them, we go, hey, how are you?The glabella, this little area between the eyes.Someone says something we don't like,and we might squint at them and look at them askance.The nose, do we wrinkle our nose upward?We do that bunny nose.At about three months of agebabies are already doing this onewhen they don't like something they're being offered.And then there's the lips, which convey so much information.Maybe as often as the eyes, I'm asked about smiles.We have the social smile.The interested smile.The curious smile.We have little secretive smiles that we might giveto someone that we're interested in.There is so much to our mouths, it's so expressive.But starting at a very young age,we're already focusing on these things.You may not notice, for instance, the pupils,whether they're wide or narrowed,but subconsciously your brain is assessing this information.There's just so much there.So we never stop communicating with our faces.It is something that is always telegraphingour emotions, and our sentiments,and sometimes even our desires.One of the things that was startling to mewhen studying faces was what I hadbeen picking up for decades.When I look back on the Lone Ranger,watching the movies of Zorro, or even Batman and Robin,one of the things you notice is all these good guyswere wearing masks that covered the eyes,but the bad guys always covered their mouths.So the bank robbers would wear a bandanaand then just pull it over their faces.Undoubtedly, we are being affected by the factthat we cannot see the full face.I mean, we first had reporting of thisright after World War I.Where we saw the horrors of that warand soldiers who had their faces somehow ameliorated,they had to wear these masks.And even with masks,they still were not being received well into society.And so there has always been something unsettlingabout not being able to see the full face.And I think it has to do with the factthat we get so much information from there.But even with masks,we can still communicate with each other,we can still understand what people are trying to say.And you can pick up above the line of the mask.Look at this clip, notice thateven though they're wearing a mask,we can still see the emotions behind that mask.We can still decode that face.Now obviously, you're not gonna see lip compression,but with some people you really see it both in the foreheadand in the glabella region of the eyes.And then, of course, in the orbits of the eyesthere's a lot of squinting.So for some people,it doesn't matter that you can't see their mouth,you'll certainly see it in their face.But you know, the rest of the bodyis transmitting information.If we can't see the full face, where can we go?The neck, the shoulders, right?The hands, the fingers, the thumbs in particular, right?So when we emphasize, the fingers are wide.When we lack emphasis, our fingers come together.Even our feet communicate sentiments.So we have to redirect where we're getting information.But always remember, that from the time we're bornwe're looking at the face for that information.We just have to be patient with ourselvesand know that there's still information out there,we may just have to get it from other parts of the body.A lot of us now are doing these video conferences,Zoom, Google Meets, and so forth.And the visual range has changed completelybecause now we're only seeing maybe from the chest up,maybe we're only seeing the face.One of the things we know is that in face to face meetings,this tends to be on a subconscious level, very aggressive.So directly looking at another personas I am now directly looking at the lensis actually creating discomfort,that we actually get greater comfort when we turn slightly,it makes the other person relax.And one of the mistakes that I'm finding on Zoom calls,and Google Meets, and other environments,is this very direct, intense look at the lens.So one of the things that you can try,next time you're on a video call,is angle yourself and see if you find that more comfortable.See if it's more relaxed.See if in doing that behaviorthat the other person then does the same thing.They feel a little bit more relaxed,maybe they lean back a little bit more.One of the things that I teach is that synchrony is harmony.So the more that I can get the other party to relax,to mirror my behaviors,the more I know that we are in synchrony.And that's powerful because we areboth engaging each other at a consciousand at a subconscious level.So about 30 years ago, while still working for the FBIand conducting thousands of interviews,I began to notice that there were timeswhen I would look at a faceand there was just something odd about it.I couldn't quite pinpoint what I was seeing.And so I began to think about the concept of chirality.And chirality usually, in chemistry,means that when you fold something overit looks like it's going to fold over perfectly,but in fact it doesn't.And that's what I found with faces.Sometimes when someone presents in a waythat they're difficult to interpretit's because their faces are actually showing two emotions,one on the left and one on the right.And if you divide the face in half,and just cover one half of the face,you'll be able to more clearly seewhat that specific emotion is.Take a look at these photographs.Now these photographs are takenduring emotionally charged moments.And when you first see the face, you may look at it and say,well, there's something going on there.But it's not till you cover perfectly one half,and then cover the other halfthat you begin to see the real gross differences.Normally, when we feel an emotion,we see it fully on both sides of the face.But because we don't see the full emotion on the whole face,that's something that we need to focus on,and determine why, because something isn't right.Why do we focus so much on the face?We focus on the face because of necessity,because through our faces we can show that we care,through our faces we can validatewhat others are going through.And so, by studying the faces of others,we gain understanding about ourselves,realizing that our body languagewill affect others positively.And that's why we study nonverbals.We study nonverbals because it benefits us,but it also benefits others.

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