Updated: Aug 19, 2019
Nonverbal clues are important in letting us know what people are thinking, feeling, desiring, intending or even dreading. They also help us to communicate more effectively or be more empathetic. Every day, if we are observant, people will demonstrate behaviors that give us personal insight, whether we are at home, school, or work.
Sometimes we perform behaviors that shout, “I need help,” “I am having a really tough time,” or “things are truly bad.” These go beyond a dour face or slumped shoulders—these are behaviors indicative of high psychological distress. For the empathetic, these behaviors truly communicate: Here is an opportunity to help.
These behaviors that tend to show up when things are really bad I have come to call reserved behaviors. I call them “reserved” behaviors because they usually only appear at those times when a person is undergoing particularly high psychological discomfort or distress and seems to be in need of comforting.
1. The Freeze Response
The freeze response is the first of the three responses that we evolved to cope with threats. I say first because for hominids and our early ancestors, it can be argued, the primary threat to survival was large felines. (This remains true in parts of Africa and India today, where humans are routinely attacked.)
All cats orient to physical movement, so it made no sense for us to “fight or flight (flee),” as is often said, when facing swifter, more powerful predators on the African savannah. So we evolved to freeze first (to avoid being detected), flee (flight) or distance ourselves second, and lastly, fight if there was no other recourse.
Even today, we continue to see people frozen stiff in the middle of oncoming traffic, seemingly unable to move, when dangerously confronted by a car or train. And when we hear a gunshot we freeze, as videos attest, and hold still when someone walks into a room with a gun. This is all part of our evolutionary heritage.
Likewise, when someone is notified of devastating news or, as when a suspect is told there was a witness to the crime, the freeze response often kicks in. As they contemplate that they have been caught and will go to jail, they appear as if flash-frozen in their chair—unmoving, rigid, their hands gripping their own legs or the armrest, as if in an ejector seat (Navarro 2007, 112).
2. Rocking Back and Forth
As I have written here and elsewhere, repetitive behaviors are soothing or pacifying and help us deal with stress. From foot bouncing to finger strumming to twirling strands of hair, they help us pass the time, enjoy a moment, or deal with momentary stress or anxiety.
But the sudden onset of rocking back and forth, almost like a metronome, is reserved for extremely stressful situations—when terrible news has been received or a horrific event has been witnessed. In those cases—I have seen it in adults as well as children—a person seemingly zones out, oblivious to the world or any attempts to communicate as he or she self-soothes by rocking back and forth, sometimes for several minutes.
As renowned author and researcher David Givens points out in his Nonverbal Dictionary, the rocking action back and forth or side to side (think of a mother rocking a baby to sleep) “stimulates the vestibular senses and is therefore soothing” in a very primitive, but effective way.
3. Assuming the Fetal Position
Crushing news or an overwhelming event can cause us to momentarily assume the fetal position as if to protect our ventral (belly) side. This is usually accompanied by the individual turning away or disengaging from those around them. The behavior appears to be reassuring as well as soothing. We know from research that whether you are physically kicked or just hear something hurtful, the pain registers in the same brain areas (principally, the amygdala) and causes similar responses.
This explains why I have seen adults assume the fetal position as if punched in the stomach when notified of something horrific. In one case, a young mother I accompanied to the morgue to identify her daughter collapsed into the fetal position upon seeing her child’s body there.
Interlaced Fingers (Teepee Hands)
4. Stiff Interlaced Fingers (Teepee Hands)
Here is a behavior usually reserved for when people are upset or distraught, or unveiling disquieting information about themselves, about tragic events or difficulties encountered—or when couples are breaking up. The behavior is performed subconsciously (as are all reserved behaviors) by interlacing stiffened fingers. The hands look like a teepee either held stationary or rubbed back and forth. This is differentiated from the usual palm-on-palm hand rubbing which is a mild a pacifier; teepee hands go further than that (Navarro 2008, 62).
The interlacing of stiffened fingers, I suspect, serves two practical purposes. The stiffening of the fingers indicates a conscious awareness or arousal that there are issues, and the interlacing of fingers causes increased tactile stimulation.
I have seen this behavior many times when individuals must report bad news—something broken, a car accident, intentions to quit a job. Clinicians I have trained confirm seeing this behavior in couples therapy just before, or while, patients/partners explain previously hidden infidelities, improprieties—or a desire to divorce.
Children, like adults, often perform this behavior as they gather up the strength to reveal that they did something wrong, or failed to comply with a task.
One caveat here: Some people do this behavior routinely, and as such we should note the behavior as simply idiosyncratic and is not as significant as when it appears in other individuals only in extraordinarily stressful situations.
5. Lips Sucked In
Occasionally we see a political or sports figure who has to confront the press over some unsavory episode. In these scenes of public apology, we often see the individual stand before the media, or his or her accusers, and their lips appear to have completely disappeared—dramatically sucked inward. We originally evolved this “closed mouth–tight lip” response, either pursed or otherwise, in response to spoiled or foul tasting food. Over time, we adapted the closed mouth (tight compressed lips) to deal with negative things we see or hear—this is why when we see flights being canceled at the airport, passengers stand looking at the flight-board with compressed lips. The extreme of this is the sucking in of the lips, a behavior that communicates to others, in real time, that they are feeling great distress, or they are contrite.
The behaviors described above are a few of the most often observed “reserved behaviors.” There are likely more—such as the sudden covering of the face with both hands when we hear something tragic. But whether performed by adults or children, these in particular can serve to tell you that the person is experiencing something seriously wrong, challenging, awkward, or stressful. They are communicating precisely how they feel, sometimes while overwhelmed, and are struggling with something significant. What a great opportunity to empathetically lend an ear, ask how we may help, listen carefully—or just put our caring arms around them.