Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Nonverbal Communication: Can What They Don't Say Give Them Away?

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Nonverbal Communication: Can What They Don't Say Give Them Away?

Article excerpt

Today, one of the most important skills necessary to conduct an effective interview is the ability to understand and interpret nonverbal communication. As Voltaire once said, "Words were given to man to enable him to conceal his feelings." With this thought in mind, this article discusses the various forms of nonverbal behavior. It also details the steps that an interviewer should take to examine nonverbal behavior successfully during an interview.


Throughout history, people have been aware of nonverbal communication. In fact, as long ago as 900 B.C., one observer wrote the following description of a liar on a piece of papyrus: "He does not answer questions, or gives evasive answers; he speaks nonsense, rubs the great toe along the ground, and shivers, he rubs the roots of his hair with his fingers." (1)

More contemporary findings indicate that people have not changed much in 3,000 years. (2) In 1948, a polygraph examiner named John Reid observed that subjects reacted differently when giving truthful answers as opposed to when they supplied deceptive ones. As a result of his observations, Reid developed the behavioral analysis interview. During these interviews, Reid observed the criminal's verbal and nonverbal behavior, focusing on how the subject reacted during questioning. He then recorded the answers and nonverbal behavior, such as eye contact, posture, and attitudes. Reid concluded that a subject's behavior during an interview could reveal truthfulness and/ or deception.


Usually, people exhibit certain constant, spontaneous, and involuntary behaviors when interviewed under stressful conditions. Body movements (kinesics), body positions (proxemics), facial expressions, physiological symptoms, and paralanguage reflect these nonverbal behaviors. Interpreting a subject's nonverbal behavior properly could possibly point investigators toward new leads, and hopefully, toward a successful resolution of an ongoing case.

Kinesics--Body Movements

The human body is one of the best sources of nonverbal communication, primarily because it is the least controllable nonverbal channel. A calm, emotionless face, along with active arms, hands, legs, and feet, is a distinctive feature of deception. For example, when witnesses or suspects deceive, they lean forward less and move their legs and feet significantly more than when they are truthful.

Additionally, such gestures as pounding one's fists or stomping one's feet reinforce verbal messages. Gestures may sometimes even replace words, such as when individuals nod their heads up and down in lieu of the verbal response "yes."

Hands and arms are also expressive features and often provide critical insight into a person's feelings. Most notable are folded arms. If someone's arms are folded loosely, it may be indicative of relaxation. However, when arms are folded firmly and high across the chest, this may signify refusal or defiance. If this gesture is difficult to interpret, the interviewer should look at the subject's hands to see if they are relaxed or fist-like.

Hand movements, in which the hands are rotated at the wrists, usually indicate uncertainty. When a person is being deceptive, these hand movements decrease and are replaced by shrugs. Additionally, rubbing one's palms is considered a gesture of expectation, while strumming or tapping the fingers is indicative of nervousness and is often associated with deceit. A person making a hand-to-chest gesture is generally recognized as sincere and honest, while a person making a hand-to-mouth gesture is communicating self-doubt or may be lying.

Truthful persons tend to gesture away from their body, while liars tend to gesture toward themselves. It has also been found that grooming gestures and clothing adjustments that keep the hands busy may allow the subject a delay in answering questions and allow release of pent-up anxiety. …

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