WHAT EV ERY BODY IS S AYING
Clothing says a lot about us and can do a lot for us. In a sense, our
torsos are billboards upon which we advertise our sentiments. During
courtship, we dress up to enchant; while working we dress for success.
Similarly, the high school letter jacket, the police badge, and the mili-
tary decoration are all worn on the torso as a way of calling attention to
our achievements. If we want others to notice us, the torso is where it’s
at. When the president gives his State of the Union address before Con-
gress, the red-garbed women you notice in a sea of blue and gray are
those who, like birds displaying their plumage, are wearing vibrant
colors to be noticed.
Clothing can be very subdued, very sinister (consider “skinhead” at-
tire or a “gothic” look), or very flamboyant (such as that of musicians
Liberace or Elton John), reflecting the mood and/or personality of the
wearer. We alternatively can use torso adornments or bare parts of our
torsos to attract others, to show off how muscular or fit we are, or to ad-
vertise where we fit in socially, economically, or occupationally. This
may explain why so many people fret excessively about what to wear
when attending a high-profile function or going on a date. Our personal
adornments allow us to show our pedigree or our allegiance to a particu-
lar group—for example, wearing the colors of our favorite team.
Clothing can be very descriptive, such as revealing when people are
celebrating or mourning, if they are of high or low status, whether they
conform to social norms or are part of a sect (e.g., Hasidic Jew, Amish
farmer, or Hare Krishna). In a way, we are what we wear (see box 24).
For years people told me I dressed like an FBI agent, and they were
right. I wore the standard agent uniform: navy blue suit, white shirt,
burgundy tie, black shoes, and short hair.
Obviously, because we have certain employment roles that require
specific attire and since we make conscious choices when it comes to
clothing, we need to be careful in our assessment of what it signifies.
After all, the guy standing outside your door dressed in a telephone re-
pairman’s uniform just might be a criminal who purchased or stole the
outfit to gain access to your home (see box 25 on page 100).
Even with the caveats just mentioned, clothing needs to be considered
YOU ARE WHAT YOU WEAR
Imagine this scenario. You are walking down a sparsely populated street
one evening and you hear someone coming up behind you. You can’t see
the person’s face or hands clearly in the dark, but you can determine
he is wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase. Now, imagine the
same dark sidewalk, but this time picture that all you can see behind you
is the outline of a person wearing disheveled and baggy clothing, sagging
pants, a tilted cap, a stained T-shirt, and tennis shoes that are worn and
raggedy. In either case, you can’t see the person well enough to discern
any other details—and you are assuming it is a man, based simply on the
clothing. But based on the attire alone, you will likely draw different con-
clusions about the potential threat each person poses to your safety. Even
if the approaching pace of each man is the same, as the person nears,
your limbic brain will activate, even though your reaction to these individ-
uals will be based exclusively on your reaction to their clothing. Your assess-
ment of the situation will either make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable,
even potentially frightened.
I am not going to tell you which person would make you feel more
comfortable; that is for you to decide. But right or wrong, all other things
being equal, it is their clothing that often greatly influences what we think
of individuals. Although clothing, itself, cannot hurt us physically, it can
affect us socially. Consider how judgmental and suspicious some Ameri-
cans have become since September 11, 2001, when they see a person
in clothing that reflects a Middle Eastern background. And furthermore,
imagine how some Middle Eastern Americans have been made to feel as
I tell college students that life is not always fair and that, unfortu-
nately, they will be judged by their attire; therefore they need to think
carefully about their clothing choices and the messages they are sending
WHAT EV ERY BODY IS S AYING
in the overall scheme of nonverbal assessment. For that reason, it is im-
portant that we wear clothes that are congruent with the messages we
want to send others, assuming we want to influence their behavior in a
way that is positive or beneficial to us.
When choosing your wardrobe and accessories, always remain cogni-
zant of the message you are sending with your clothing and the meaning
that others may perceive from your dress. Also consider that although
you may deliberately want to use your attire to send a signal to one per-
son or group of people at a specific time and place, you may have to pass
a lot of other people who are not as receptive to your message along the
At seminars I frequently ask the question, “How many of you were
dressed by your mother today?” Of course everyone laughs, and no one
raises his hand. Then I say, “Well, then, you—all of you—chose to dress
the way you did.” That is when they all look around them and, perhaps
for the first time, realize that they could do a better job of dressing and
presenting themselves. After all, before two people first meet, the only
input each has to go on about the other is physical appearance and other
nonverbal communications. Perhaps it’s time to consider how you are
WE AREN’T ALWAYS WHO WE APPEAR TO BE
Clearly, we have to be careful when we assess a person on the basis of
clothing only, as it can sometimes lead to the wrong conclusion. I was in
London last year at a very nice hotel just four blocks from Buckingham
Palace where all of the staff, including the maids, wore Armani suits. If I
had seen them on the train going to work, I could easily have been misled
as to their relative social status. So remember, because it is culturally
prescribed and easily manipulated, clothing is only part of the nonverbal
picture. We assess clothing to determine whether it is sending a message,
not to judge people based on their attire.
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When we are physically and mentally well, we take care of our appear-
ance, preening and grooming ourselves accordingly. Humans are not
unique in this regard, as birds and mammals engage in like behaviors.
When we are physically or mentally ill, on the other hand, the posture of
the torso and shoulders, as well as our overall appearance, may signal our
poor health (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, 304–307, 350–352).
Many unfortunate homeless people are afflicted with schizophrenia and
rarely do they attend to their attire. Their clothes are soiled and grimy,
and many of these individuals will even fight attempts by others to get
them to bathe or wear clean clothing. The mentally depressed person
will stoop as he walks or stands, the weight of the world seemingly
bringing him down.
The phenomenon of poor grooming during illness and sadness has
been noted around the world by anthropologists, social workers, and
health-care providers. When the brain is saddened or we are ill, preen-
ing and presentation are among the first things to go (Darwin 1872,
chap. 3, passim). For example, patients recovering from surgery may
walk down the hospital hallway with hair disheveled and in gowns with
their backsides exposed, not caring about personal appearance. When
you are really ill, you may lie around the house looking more unkempt
than you ever would be normally. When a person is really sick or really
traumatized, the brain has other priorities, and preening is simply not
one of them. Therefore, within context, we can use an overall lack of
personal hygiene and/or grooming to make assumptions about a per-
son’s state of mind or state of health.
Splaying out on a couch or a chair is normally a sign of comfort. How-
ever, when there are serious issues to be discussed, splaying out is a ter-
ritorial or dominance display (see figure 35). Teenagers, in particular,
often will sit splayed out on a chair or bench, as a nonverbal way of
WHAT EV ERY BODY IS S AYING
dominating their environment while being chastised by their parents.
This splay behavior is disrespectful and shows indifference to those in
authority. It is a territorial display that should not be encouraged or
If you have a child who does this every time he or she is in serious
trouble, you need to neutralize this behavior immediately by asking your
child to sit up and, if that fails, by nonverbally violating his or her space
(by sitting next to or standing closely behind him or her). In short order,
your child will have a limbic response to your spatial “invasion,” which
will cause him or her to sit up. If you allow your child to get away with
torso splays during major disagreements, don’t be surprised if he or she
loses respect for you over time. And why not? By allowing such displays,
you are basically saying, “It’s OK to disrespect me.” When these kids
grow up, they may continue to splay out inappropriately in the workplace
when they should be sitting up attentively. This is not conducive to lon-
Splaying out is a territorial display, which is OK in your own
home but not in the work place, especially during a job
gevity on the job, since it sends a strong negative nonverbal message of
disrespect for authority.
Puffing Up the Chest
Humans, like many other creatures (including some lizards, birds, dogs,
and our fellow primates), puff up their chests when trying to establish
territorial dominance (Givens, 1998–2007). Watch two people who are
angry with each other; they will puff out their chests just like silverback
gorillas. Although it may seem almost comical when we see others do
it, puffing of the chest should not be ignored, because observation has
shown that when people are about to strike someone their chests will
puff out. You see this on the school grounds when kids are about to fight.
It can also be seen among professional boxers as they goad each other
verbally before a major fight—chest out, leaning into each other, pro-
claiming their certitude of winning. The great Muhammad Ali did this
better than anyone during prefight events. Not only was he threatening
he was also funny—all part of the show—which made for good theater
and, of course, ticket sales.
Baring the Torso
Sometimes in street fights, people getting ready to strike out at an oppo-
nent will disrobe—removing an article of clothing like a shirt or hat.
Whether this is done simply to flex one’s muscles, to protect the dis-
carded clothing, or to rob the opponent of some type of hold he can use
to his advantage, no one is sure. In any case, if you should get into an ar-
gument with someone and he or she takes off a hat, shirt, or other article
of clothing, most likely a fight is in the offing (see box 26).
Breathing Behavior and the Torso
When a person is under stress, the chest may be seen to heave or expand
and contract rapidly. When the limbic system is aroused and engaged for
WHAT EV ERY BODY IS S AYING
flight or fight, the body attempts to take in as much oxygen as possible,
either by breathing more deeply or by panting. The stressed individual’s
chest is heaving because the limbic brain is saying, “Potential problem—
step up oxygen consumption in case we suddenly have to escape or fight!”
When you see this type of nonverbal behavior in an otherwise healthy
person, you should consider why he or she is so stressed.
Full and slight shoulder shrugs can mean a lot in context. When the boss
asks an employee, “Do you know anything about this customer’s com-
plaint?” and the employee answers, “No,” while giving a half shrug,
chances are the speaker is not committed to what was just said. An hon-
est and true response will cause both shoulders to rise sharply and equally.
Expect people to give full (high) shoulder shrugs when they confidently
support what they are saying. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I
don’t know!” while both shoulders rise up toward the ear. As discussed
previously, this is a gravity-defying behavior that normally signifies the
ONE TIME YOU DON’T WANT THE
SHIRT OFF HIS BACK
Years ago I witnessed two neighbors verbally sparring over a sprinkler
system that had accidentally sprayed a freshly waxed vehicle. As things
escalated, one of the neighbors started unbuttoning his shirt. It was then
that I knew fists were going to fly. Sure enough, the shirt came off and the
chest bumping began between them. This was a mere precursor to the
punching, which soon followed. It seemed incredible that grown men
would fight over water spots on a car. What was really remarkable, how-
ever, was the chest bumping between the two guys, as though they were
gorillas. It was actually embarrassing to watch them engage in such a lu-
dicrous torso display. It’s just something that shouldn’t happen.
person is comfortable and confident with his or her actions. If you see a
person’s shoulders only partially rise or if only one shoulder rises, chances
are the individual is not limbically committed to what he or she is saying
and is probably being evasive or even deceptive (see figures 36 and 37).
Weak Shoulder Displays
Speaking of shoulders, be aware of the person who, while conversing or
in reaction to a negative event, moves his or her body so the shoulders
begin to slowly rise toward the ears in a manner that makes the neck
seem to disappear (see figure 38). The key action here is that the shoul-
ders rise slowly. The person displaying this body language is basically
trying to make his head disappear, like a turtle. Such an individual is
lacking confidence and is highly uncomfortable. I have seen this behav-
ior in business meetings when the boss comes in and says, “OK, I want
to hear what everyone has been doing.” As different people around the
room proudly talk about their accomplishments, the marginal employees
Partial shoulder shrugs indicate lack of
commitment or insecurity.
We use shoulder shrugs to indicate lack
of knowledge or doubt. Look for both
shoulders to rise; when only one side
rises, the message is dubious.
WHAT EV ERY BODY IS S AYING
will seemingly sink lower and lower, their shoulders rising higher and
higher in a subconscious attempt to hide their heads.
This turtlelike behavior also shows up in families when the father
says, “It really hurt my feelings to find that someone broke my reading
lamp without telling me.” As the father looks at each of his children, one
will be looking down, shoulders rising toward the ears. You will also see
these weak shoulder displays demonstrated by a losing football team as
they walk back to the locker-room—their shoulders seeming to swallow
up their heads.
Shoulders rising toward the ears causes
the “turtle effect”; weakness, insecurity,
and negative emotions are the message.
Think of losing athletes walking back to
the locker room.
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