Updated: Aug 19, 2019
I am often asked what areas of the body I focus on, beyond the face, when I am analyzing body language, especially when there is no established baseline of behaviors. My answer often surprises: the feet.
Whether it is a “cold read” or assessing someone I am familiar with, I find the feet are very useful in deciphering nonverbal behavior.
Why the feet? Very simply, our feet often reflect emotions more accurately than our faces. By social contract, when someone smiles at us, we usually smile back even though we may not know the person. We can fake a smile and some people are very good at it—what they cannot hide is how their feet respond to us.
For example: you walk into a party, someone you know smiles at you from a distance, perhaps they even track you with their eyes as you move across to the other side of the room, but their feet never move. Or as you come closer, you find their feet begin to shift so that they are still looking at you but their feet orient away from you. I don’t mean they turn 45 degrees which is a good sign the person wants you to join them. I mean one foot will turn 90 degrees away from you, usually toward an exit and the other soon follows, all while they are looking at you. This is a behavior not to miss as it often reveals that there are issues between you and this individual.
As I noted in, What Every BODY is Saying (HarperCollins, 2008), the brain is saying to the feet prepare to flee, I don’t want to see or spend time with this person. This is a subconscious behavior that I have found to be very reliable.
Over the decades, after thousands of hours of observation, I have learned to appreciate the feet and how honest they are. Your limbic system, that wonderful more primitive area of the brain that keeps you from running over to the edge of a cliff, a high dive-platform, or that makes you hesitate when you enter a darkened unfamiliar room, in essence keeps us safe. That same limbic system governs our feet based on our surroundings and emotions including how we feel about others. Tell a child they're going to Disney and they get happy feet! Tell them they can’t go play and they may stomp their feet in disagreement. You run into someone with whom you have had a disagreement and your feet will likely freeze when you see them, or immediately turn away. It is part of our survival system.
I travel almost every week, so I get to see the best and worst in airline passengers, especially when there are issues. Many times, a passenger will approach a gate agent and their faces appear to be neutral or at least trying to keep it together, but their feet reveal just how agitated or upset they are.
One behavior I mentioned in my last book, The Dictionary of Body Language (HarperCollins) which you should look for, or at least be aware of, is the ankle quiver. The foot, which normally lays flat, suddenly begins to roll oddly so that the outside edge of the foot or shoe remains on the ground, but the inside is arched upward exposing the bottom of the foot or shoe back and forth from flat (normal) to extreme supination (rolled to the outside edge).
Most people miss this behavior even though the repetitive roll side to side causes the body to quiver and the clothes to shake. This behavior is extremely accurate in letting us know something is wrong or there is an issue. The agitation of the foot, speaks volumes, especially if you understand just how difficult it is to perform this behavior repetitively (supination) when we are not upset, and how infrequently it is used. It takes a lot of angst, restlessness, or agitation to get this behavior going and it is for a reason that it is so accurate.
If you want to expand your observation skills and go beyond the overhyped micro-expressions, take a look at the feet, they are often more honest than the face.