shrugThe new tome by the UK’s Peter Collett, who has worked extensively with Naked Ape writer Desmond Morris, is called The Book of Tells, and is about the little mannerisms that we exhibit, usually unconsciously, with our bodies, our faces, our hands and our eyes, which reveal non-verbally more than our words. It’s a substantial work, but astonishingly contains very few pictures (and curiously, the pictures are almost all of Canadians) and contains no summarized ‘catalogue’ of tells as an Appendix. So you have to wade through long written descriptions about broad categories of tells to get the goods.

The most famous tell from earlier work on the subject is the arms crossed high across the chest while you’re talking to someone, which supposedly means you’re rejecting the other person’s company or message or advances. I’ve noticed this one a lot, most recently exhibited by an accomplished author who did it to everyone he spoke to. But in my experience it can also be sending a subtler message: I’ve seen shy men do it almost automatically with people they don’t know well, evidencing a much more defensive posture (“don’t hurt me” rather than “go away”). It’s the lower-chest/abdomen arm cross that’s supposed to signal anxiety. Maybe it depends on the length and flexibility of your arms?

As pop psychology goes, I think it’s interesting and perhaps even useful, and I’m going to blog about it when I’m done. Your homework before then is to ask people to point out, or ‘fess up yourself to, your own tells. Then when you read about their meaning in the book, or on this blog, you won’t be able to weasel out of them. Mine are (and I haven’t read far enough to get Collett’s explanation of them):

  • in social settings, standing on one leg with the other curved behind it, and with one hand on my hip or ‘braced’ against a wall or furniture
  • when sitting and conversing, slouching back with one arm across my stomach and the other on top of it at 90 degrees with the forefinger tapping on my lips (and I also confess I rarely make eye contact during conversation with anyone)

In a week or two I will tell all.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Interesting and I notice I feel a little sceptical. I smell the suspicious aroma of “rational reductionism” about this book – with its customary tendency to believe that everything can be found in what is explicit. One variation is the “you must assess everything” version which leads to data overload; this is the “ah ha!” version which focuses on one signal as if it is the key to everything.

  2. deni aberle says:

    Indeed, some say that 80% of communication is non-verbal. Seems a bit extreme, but perhaps this takes into account how little most of us can recall of verbal input. Speaking of non-verbal: your current picture (intriguing) is very different from former ones. What is the meaning behind your positioning away from the camera…

  3. Wht i would like to know is How much of this non verbal communications depends on your culture and How much are really universal?? because you could not interpret in the same way the same attutude from people from diferents cultures.Because you would hace to leran the verbal and non-verbal signification for each

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Johnnie: You’re right to be skeptical. What has kept me reading is that the author isn’t trying to read too profound a meaning into things, like those who psychoanalyze dreams try to do. He’s basically looking for ‘tells’ that signal discomfort, anger, anxiety, boredom, sexual interest, arrogance, inhibition and other stress-related conditions that may not be evident from what the speaker or listener is communicating orally. These can be quite useful when making presentations or speaking to strangers. The author also suggests you look for combinations of these subliminal signals, since they can sometimes be unintentional or even deliberately deceitful.Deni: Body language was the precurser to syntactic oral language, and evolved over a much longer time, so it doesn’t surprise me we haven’t lost it nor that it’s still a powerful communicator even though we don’t ‘learn’ it as we do formal languages. BTW, My picture is the only one that hasn’t attracted a significant number of complaints from readers. I looked, and angled, the way the photographer told me to. Simple as that, I’m afraid.<br<Miguel: Yes, the author has a whole chapter on the differences between cultural groups across the globe. They have a lot to do with the egalitarianism, expressiveness, and proxemics (sense of ownership of physical space) differences between people in different countries. More when I review the book.

  5. Indigo Ocean says:

    I think there is just as much misunderstanding when people try to read others’ body language as when listening to people’s words. For example, I often cross my arms because as a skinny woman I tend to often be cold, especially in a social situation in which I don’t want to put on bulky garments to keep warm because I want to wear something pretty. I’ve also heard that women tend to smile and look down demurely when they are attracted to a man as a part of flirting. I however do it when I notice a man is attracted to me. The fact that he is attracted to me, however, doesn’t usually have any mutuality from me. Being stared at adoringly simply makes me a bit uncomfortable so I look away, yet I smile because it is pleasant to have positive attention directed at you.I could go on and on. I think people will do far better in accurately accessing what people are trying to communicate by just asking people enough questions to clarify situations than in learning formulas that make them think they already know.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Indigo: In his book Impro, Keith Johnstone says that the misunderstandings, disconnects and non-sequiturs between our body’s messages, our oral assertions and our position in society are the essence of all comedy. As frustrating as the experiences you describe must be to you, they would be absolutely *hilarious* if acted out in a play. These misunderstandings, vanities and denials are just so *human*.

Comments are closed.