A Little on Unconscious Survival Signals & Body Language: Past and Present – Darren Friesen

This excerpt is taken from a body language presentation I had developed some time ago. As with all body language, it is circumstantial, contextual and person-specific. For any of you interested in a purely knowledge-based context, or for those whose lives may depend on profiling, reading or understanding other people’s aggression, I hope this helps in some way.

So much of our body language is through our original protection system developed evolutionarily. Adrenaline dump, fear, flight/fight/fright or freeze, protecting organs and vitals, mobility/respiration/vision flinch response that transfers to regular daily body language, so much of our history is from survival signals/instincts from thousands of years of highly-evolved development.

Usually tells are derived from one of the three evolutionary fear responses:

FRIGHT/FREEZE (a neglected and sometimes utterly ignored element of the three, lip service is often only paid to the “fight or flight” axiom)-temporary motion stop, minimal bodily movement, momentary silence, making ourselves smaller, guilt responses, responses when placed back toward an open door/moving people/open window.

FLIGHT-shift feet toward exit, turn away from someone you don’t like, avoid conversations that threaten you, blocking behavior (closing the eyes, rubbing the eyes, placing hands in front of face, leaning away, placing objects on lap (purse) or in front of you, overall “distancing” (barriers, spatial creation, angling, body blading)

FIGHT-argument, insults, personal attacks instead of attacking the problem, counter-allegations, denigration of professional stature, defensiveness, goading, sarcasm; posture, eyes, puffing out chest, spatial violations, aggressive non-physical contact (ritual signs of violence, pacing, emphatic gestures, voice changes in tone), monotone response with minimal bodily gestures/motionless

One thing I always do if I’m somewhat uncertain about a certain non-verbal signal is to do it myself (tactfully of course so as not to mimic, an often clearly-perceived insult) and see how I feel or, more accurately, how it makes me feel.

CONTRADICTIONS

From our evolution and violent past, we often show remnants of body language that had direct purpose to survival but, as evolution always does, times have moved on and different survival systems have developed. These are, debatedly, somewhat scenario-specific:

  • Ventral showing: showing lack of fear by showing organs and sending message of other being non-threatening to person showing. Often in modern violence this show of perceived arrogance and show of vulnerable parts of the body have proven dangerous against an underhanded modern criminal (especially one with a knife) Option? Blading the body. One can still show confidence and status with an open body posture slightly angled in discussion/confrontation
  • Crotch display: showing confidence, machismo and competition to other men and physical interest in a woman; one needs to be careful in a confrontation when opening legs too far apart and not paying attention to potential genital-related outcomes (including voice permanently Mickey Moused with a higher pitch) Option? Once again, slight blading/angling of the body can still get the message across without being blindly confident and displaying a message of arrogance
  • Neck show: to show vulnerability and submission, potential attraction from the opposite sex, see number one (contains lots of vital areas vulnerable to attack as well: Vagus nerve, carotid arteries, jugular veins, suprasternal notch as well as the superior and middle thyroid veins, big muscle on the neck) Option? Slight angling of the head away to keep the vitals partially shielded while still showing polite deference and interest
  • Roots of the eyes: by looking down while maintaining eye contact is often perceived as submissive or negative in nature (though it can be perceived as judgmental as well), this is a very powerful confrontational tool that creates distance and sends a psychic message to one on the receiving end
  • Walking pace: in the modern business world, a brisk pace indicates the desire to get things done, being on a mission and being energetic. When in public and constantly under scrutiny by other testosterone-filled men measuring, a slower but purposeful gait is a powerful show of calm and control (slowER methodical walk though the validity of having a strong gait and purposeful pace cannot be over-emphasized)
  • Thumbs up: in the times of Roman gladiators, the crowd chose the sparing or ending the life of the loser by either the thumbs-up or thumbs-down gestures
  • Crossed arms: body protection, in times past it was an intentional sheltering of the body’s vitals including the lungs and heart
  • Open palms: to show others that there were no hidden weapons being carried, a show of trust
  • Nostril flaring: allows more air in with which to oxygenate the body in preparation for either fight or flight when threatened
  • Hand shaking: originated from arm wrestling
  • Territoriality: leaning on our possessions (or neutral possessions) to show ownership and protectiveness: cars, houses, chairs, etc.
  • Hand gestures: karate chops, finger stabs & fist/hammerfist punches all signify reinforcement of message, the final word or emphasis of an important point, although as “communication is how the message is received, not given” these are all received relatively poorly by the one on the other end as they show dominance, aggression and argumentativeness

FROM THE ANIMALS

  • Smiling: originally used by primates as a show of either fear or subordination to a more powerful member of the group; in modern it is similar in that it shows a non-threatening and accepting attitude towards the receiver (in carnivores it’s actually a threat)
  • Chin jut: also from primates, showing aggressive intent for a forward and direct attack
  • Baring teeth and flaring of nostrils: again, comes from the act of attacking
  • Sneering: used as a signal to warn other animals of impending attack or defense if necessary
  • Freezing/stillness: when a predator is in the animal’s area, somewhat of a “don’t pick me” signal

We have many similar signs from the animal kingdom that, when put in proper context and researched, have maintained their validity in the urban jungle to this day. We have a more than passing (and less than coincidental) interest in animal movement (everybody really was kung fu fighting), attack strategies and predatory methods and this, in an opinion, is far more valuable than looking back in history at our own past and methods/tactics. Theirs have stood the test of time without change.

One element of learning I try is when one of the family dogs is present, I go through various human body language signs and facial expressions to gauge response and even our friendly K-9s often react in predictable ways towards clear negative and positive projections.

Though not body language, per se, other examples of our survival instinct past and evolution that has manifested in modern-day scenarios:

  1. Sitting with your back to the door/open window creates increased blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and brainwave frequencies back from the Caveman days with the communal fire, multiple people eating in the tent after a kill, sitting with their backs to the wall for protection from both internal and external attack
  2. King Arthur’s round table: designed to create neutrality in meetings but not realizing that his own high-status created a pecking order of importance from those seated next to him (higher power) to those further away (lower power) to those seated diametrically-opposed (competitive)
  3. The term “right-hand man” coming from the fact that the one sitting directly to the leader’s right was the least threat due to the fact it was difficult to stab effectively with your left hand, considering in those days left-handed had a negative stigma attached to them and the staunch majority were right-handed
  4. The handshake. Originated from a grasping of the mid-to-lower arm to ensure there were no hidden weapons that could be pulled at a future point in the interaction
  5. 2nd arm during a handshake. Seemingly-kind, at times can be a hidden attempt to control through touch, establish dominance in a subtle and potentially hidden way
  6. Sitting across from each other at a table. Originally coined the “gunslinger” position due to the fact that squaring off the torso of the body was a sign of competitiveness. (although context-dependent in the modern-day)
  7. After eating, stomach takes blood away from the brain to help digestion (similar to fight-or-flight adrenaline response) and causing the person to not think as clearly. Bad for business decisions, good for romance, extremely good to take advantage of a vulnerable opponent with shady dealings
  8. Frontal display, showing confidence by exhibiting glibly one’s organs to show that they don’t find you threatening in any way, has come back to haunt some as they’ve transferred business tactics into the street world, where violence is a threat and this display is highly-unprotected

***Contagious actions that can give psychological openings pre-conflict: yawning, nervousness, confusion.

In conclusion, as nothing is universal, hope this sheds some light on why we do some of the things we do when angered, scared or anxious and where it comes from in our past.

 

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