What the Shoulders Say About Us
I remember as a child my mother saying, stand up straight, shoulders back, chin high. What I didn’t realize was that she was telling me this because of what I was communicating to her with my posture and shoulders. I was nonverbally saying, “I am having a bad day because my friends can’t come out and play.” Perhaps she learned it from her mother or perhaps from her classical training in ballet, but she instinctively read my body language and used that to communicate back to me. Who knows, perhaps this was my first lesson on nonverbals of the shoulders, in any case, it has served me well ever since. I say that because as I look back over my life, there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t used the information from the shoulders to help me understand others.
While most of the literature on body language is inordinately fixated on the face, I think it worthwhile to consider what the shoulders can reveal about us. It is rare that the shoulders are mentioned in the nonverbal literature and when people are asked about the topic, they just shrug their shoulders, and that is the irony of it. The shoulders are there, very prominent, they hold up our clothes, they shape what others think of us, they reveal our health and emotions, and they assist us in communicating, yet most people ignore them.
Both Desmond Morris, the famous zoologist, and David Givens, the famous anthropologist (see bibliography below), have talked about how wide muscular shoulders, as found on the statue of David, represent strength and virility. It is also something the Greeks particularly valued, as shown in their kouros statues with “V” shaped young men. There is probably a genetic component to this as Morris argues that we associate positive attributes to males who have that mesomorphic “V” look (wide shoulders narrow hips), we see on athletes. Perhaps this explains why women swoon when soccer player David Beckham takes off his shirt. Here the shoulders are communicating health and vitality and from an evolutionary perspective, as David Givens would say, there would be biological advantages to selecting mates with these features.
We are so subconsciously attracted to this “V” shape so much so that men’s jackets are purposefully padded on the shoulders to insure that we achieve this shape. I once heard a tailor telling a client that he could add extra padding to the shoulders if he wished: a hint the man should have taken since he was unfortunately pear shaped.
The shoulders communicate vitality but they can also communicate dominance and hierarchy. Over my career I have interviewed a lot of criminals and I always made it a point to ask how they assessed their victims before they acted out. Over and over three things stood out, how their victims looked (frail, weak, not athletic), their overall situational awareness (never go after someone who sees you first), and their arm swing (vigorous arm movement or passive subdued). And so to a criminal, our own intra-species predators, as Robert Hare would call them, how the shoulders look is a key factor for those who seek to prey on us. As one psychopath said to me, and this was very telling, “silverbacks don’t go after silverbacks, they go after everything else.” Good point.
No matter what branch of the military you observe, one things stands out: their shoulders say look at me, I am a leader; follow me. This is part of establishing hierarchy, but it is also how we demonstrate respect. This is especially so at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider at the Arlington Cemetery, where pride and respect is reflected in the posture and the shoulders of those who tirelessly guard those tombs. Even during hurricanes those dedicated soldiers, ramrod straight, shoulders back, communicate that they value the solemn sacrifice of others. You can’t do that by slouching the shoulders and so here is a simple behavior that communicates so much.
Shoulders help us to communicate respect and reverence, but they also help us to communicate happiness and joy. Belly dancers in Beirut shimmy their shoulders as do Samba dancers in Bahia, a world away to communicate sensuality and joy. Dancing around the world celebrates the human spirit and invariably it involves the shoulders. After all, what would carnival in Brazil be like without shoulders moving rhythmically?
Shoulders can communicate playfulness as well as seductive allure. Across the Mediterranean, but in particular Italy, women can be seen rolling their bare shoulders to both attract attention and to communicate sexual attraction in a teasing manner. These behaviors were almost de rigueur in Sofia Loren films.
As with dancing, shoulders reveal what is in the heart and mind very effectively. So much so that they can even be used to gauge depression. Years ago a well known forensic psychiatrist in the Washington, DC area gave me some valuable insight. He said, “Many of the patients I see are depressed and even before they open their mouths I can see it in their shoulders – slumped and weighty – you rarely see any movement.” And he was right of course.
Over the years I have dealt with individuals who have been diagnosed as clinically depressed. In each of those cases I could certainly see shoulders that didn’t defy gravity, shoulders that lacked spontaneous movement, shoulders seemingly weighed down by the weight of their malady. And while a child coming home from school may demonstrate slumped shoulders for a few minutes or hours, the clinically depressed may be like this for months or years. In time, if not corrected, it shapes how they are perceived.
Without realizing it, everyday we use the shoulders to communicate nonverbally what we think. When someone asks us, “Which way is it to the freeway?” and we immediately shrug the shoulders, elevating them quickly and emphatically, this is our way of saying, “I really don’t know.” Nothing more needs to be said either here or in Borneo; it is a universal gesture. If we decide to answer that question verbally we will most likely simultaneously shrug our shoulders also to potentiate the message without realizing it. We do it because it emphasizes what we are saying. This quick gravity defying behavior (lifting up or shrugging of the shoulders) positively reinforces what was said. We have greater confidence in others when we see the nonverbal confirmation of the verbal message.
Over the years, after doing thousands of interviews, one of the things that I observed, which unfortunately had not been written about in the literature, was how the shoulders betrayed those who lacked confidence or who were outright lying. I found that when people are unsure of what they are saying or they lack confidence, their shoulders tend to reflect that uncertainty. As they answer a question, they will say something such as, “I am positive he wasn’t here yesterday,” and as they do so, you see the shoulders or perhaps just one shoulder rise up slightly or slowly. This muted or slow inching up of the shoulders says, subconsciously, I lack confidence in what I am saying.
Clinicians have found this useful when they talk to patients and ask, “Are you going to take your medications as I have instructed?” and they answer back with a slight shoulder rise, they know something is up. As one primary care doctor told me, “invariably they don’t want to come out and say what is on their mind: they don’t like taking that medication or it causes them a stomach upset. So rather than speak up they answer with a shoulder up or slightly raised.” For the caring clinician this serves as a great opportunity to ask, “What is your experience with this drug and has it caused you problems?” Observing the shoulders as they inch up should serve as a starting for even more questions to determine what are the issues.
The shoulder rise, is not indicative of deception (there is no single behavior indicative of deception) and it must not be construed that way but rather as an indicator of lack of confidence. It should serve as a warning that the person does not fully back up what they are saying. For example, if a manager asks, “Will this get done by Tuesday?” and the person answers “Yes,” but that one shoulder rises slowly as they answer, there are issues. My next question to would be, “What could interfere with this getting done?” And that is when you hear, “Well, I have two kids that are sick right now and . . . ,” and you realize that is why they subconsciously did that behavior. As I said in my book Louder Than Words, “the body reveals what the mind conceals.”
As I said in the beginning and I have written about elsewhere, the shoulders are seen but rarely observed and when we do, we don’t always pay attention to the messages they are sending. So next time you are people watching, take a good look at the shoulders, especially children whose body language is so honest, to see what is truly in the heart and mind. And oh yes, out of deference for our parents, stand up straight and put your shoulders back it shapes how others see you.
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Givens, David G. 2007. Crime signals: how to spot a criminal before you become a victim. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Givens, David G. 2005. Love signals: a practical guide to the body language of courtship. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Givens, David G. 2009. The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues. Spokane: Center for Nonverbal Studies (http://www.center-for-nonverbal-studies.org/6101.html)
Givens, David G. 2010. Your body at work: A guide to sight-reading the body language of business, bosses, and boardrooms.. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Morris, Desmond. 2002. Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language. London: Vintage Books.
Navarro, Joe. 2011. Clues to Deceit: A Practical List. Amazon Kindle.
Navarro, Joe. 2010. Louder Than Words. New York: Harper Collins.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.