You can’t turn on cable news these days without coming across some “body language expert.”
No licensing agency verifies the claims of those self-professed experts, so it’s no surprise that many of them come across with the credibility of a roadside psychic. I regularly roll my eyes at cable news segments that feature these allegedly wise people who appear to make it up as they go along (but they’d be right to view my eye rolls as a sign of disdain).
Reading body language is notoriously difficult. Sure, some “tells” are more certain than others, but even rather obvious tells usually require other, complementary tells—known as clusters—in order to accurately assess their meaning.
That’s why I so thoroughly enjoyed Joe Navarro’s What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. His book is filled with all of the necessary and responsible caveats, but is still an easy read full of fascinating tidbits. Navarro rests his conclusions on the most recent science—his book has a three-page bibliography—but he impressively avoids the pitfall of weighing down the book with dense prose.
Navarro, a 25-year FBI veteran, says the face is one of the least reliable indicators of what someone is truly thinking. He writes:
“Having conducted thousands of interviews for the FBI, I learned to concentrate on the suspect’s feet and legs first, moving upward in my observations until I read the face last. When it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the head.”
In part, that’s because people are taught to lie using their faces at an early age, he says, such as when children are told not to make a certain face when eating a distasteful meal or to pretend they’re happy to see an unpopular aunt.
Navarro’s book does a nice job of explaining the “three brains,” and why our “limbic legacy” is responsible for the freeze, flight, or fight instincts that manifest themselves—usually without our knowledge—in our nonverbal behavior.
In subsequent chapters, he details nonverbal behaviors from head to toe—or, more accurately, from toe to head. His book also includes almost five dozen short side “boxes,” many of which contain fascinating anecdotes from his career as an FBI agent.
Since I believe every review should take note of a book’s flaws, I’ll briefly mention that in a few places, I felt that the author stated the obvious. For example, it probably didn’t require a full page to explain that attire communicates a message, and that a person in a dark alley wearing a suit will be perceived as less threatening than a person wearing baggy clothing. But that’s a small point. Every time I started feeling that the author was stating an obvious point, I’d flip the page and learn three new things.
Joe Navarro’s What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People is available here.