dog deer

As mentioned last week, here are some of the ‘tells’ that, according to Peter Collett, people exhibit subliminally, and what they usually mean. In The Book of Tells Collett doesn’t just describe body language, but other clues — speech, behaviour etc. — that may give away your intentions, fears or state of mind. He also explores political tells, the tells of British royalty, smokers’ tells (and an explanation of the inherent eroticism of smoking), and even how the meaning of physical expressions differs from country to country. I’m more intrigued by the straight body language tells, the tacit, surreptitious signs that things are not all they seem.

It is not surprising that more than half of all tells exhibit either dominant or submissive tendencies. Before humans invented language, these signals were used more overtly to establish the pecking order in prehistoric tribes. This ranking was not merely done as an act of bravado — your placement in the pecking order from alpha to omega male or female was a critical determinant of your role in the tribe, and hence literally provided pre-literate instruction for ‘what you did for a living’ as part of the tribal community.

Although Collett doesn’t make the distinction explicitly, he suggests that the dominant and submissive signals each come in three ‘flavours’:

  • Dominant/Threatening-Possessive (DT) signals — “I’m the boss, do what I say or else”
  • Dominant/Relaxed-Confident (DR) signals — “I’m the boss, so I can let my guard down”
  • Dominant/Controlling-Protecting (DC) signals — “I’m the boss, and I make the decisions”
  • Submissive/Deferring-Inviting (SD) signals — “You’re the boss, make your move”
  • Submissive/Anxious-Shy (SA) signals — “You’re the boss, don’t hurt me”
  • Submissive/Helpless (SH) signals — “You’re the boss, what should I do”

There’s no mistaking the dog’s DC signals and the fawn’s SH signals in the picture above. But can you pick out the three dominant (DC) and three submissive (SD and SH) signals in the picture below? (Apologies for stealing this picture at random off the net, but it was an ideal illustration of Collett’s theories)

meeting tells

Here are some clues:

Dominant signal (type) Corresponding Submissive signal (type)
Body signals:
1. Standing/sitting up very straight (DT)
2. Sitting at the head of the table (DC)
3. Standing planted legs astride (DT)

4. Sitting with legs stretched out (DR)

5. Sitting knees apart or ankle-on-thigh (‘figure 4’)(DR)
6. Walking slowly and purposefully, arms swinging forward (DR)
7. Body stretched out and asymmetrical (DR)
8. Hands on hip (esp. with closed fist) (DT)
9. Elbows out while walking (DT/DR)
10. Approaching others head-on (DT)

11. (there is no ‘dominant’ counterpart to the shrug)

12. Slow breathing from abdomen (DR)

1.Slouching forward (SD)

2. Sitting half-way along the side of the table (SH)
3. Standing legs crossed or standing on one leg, other bent behind or in front (SD)
4. Sitting with legs drawn up beneath chair (SA)
5 Sitting with legs or ankles crossed (SA)

6. Walking briskly, arms still or back (SA)

7. Body pulled in and symmetrical (SA)

8. Hands at side, wrists exposed front (SD)
9. Arms drawn in front while walking (SA)
10. Approaching others slightly from the side or turned (SD)
11. Shrug (SH)

12. Fast breathing through upper chest (SA)
Hand signals:
13. Firm grasp of another’s shoulder or arm (DT)
14. Arms stretched out, flexing (DR)

15. Handshake – very firm or hand above other’s (DT)

16. Steepling – fingers gently touching (DT)
17. Talking with hands animated and raised (DC)

13. Gentle touch of another (SD)

14. Self-touching, self-gripping, stroking own hair (SA)
15. Handshake – weak or hand angled palm-up (SD)
16. Hands or fingers intertwined (SD)
17. Talking with hands palms out or arms folded (SA)
Facial signals:
18. Head lowered and drawn back (DT)

19. Lowered eyebrows, narrowed eyes (DT)
20. Jaw thrust out (DT)
21. Non-smiling or tight smile (DC)
22. Frequent yawning (DT)
23. Scowl, stare overtop eyeglasses (DC)
24. Genuine smile, open mouth, narrowed eyes (DR)
25. Oxbow mouth, bottom lip pushed up, corner of mouth down (DT)

18. Head canted, neck exposed, or head dipped briefly or nodding slowly (SD)

19. Raised eyebrows, eyes wide open (SD)
20. Jaw clenched (SA)
21. Open smile (SD)
22. Suppressed yawns (SD)
23. Mouth-shrug (Parisian ‘boff’)(SH)
24. False smile, eyes stay open (SD)

25. Pout or oxbow mouth with quiver (SD/SA)
Eye signals:
26. Hold eye contact (DT/DC)
27. Looking away from speaker (DC)

26. Break eye contact first or shift side-to-side (SD)

27. Looking intently at speaker without staring (SD/SH)
Speech signals:
28. Talking first, most, interrupting, loudest, deepest (DT)

28. Talking breathily, high-pitched, name-dropping, ingratiating (SD)

Here are some other tells, not specifically with dominant or submissive messages, and their usual meaning:

Signal Usual Meaning
Body signals:
29. Buttress stance – one foot pointed away, or tapping feet
30. Concave hug – abdomen pulled back
31. Convex hug – abdomen pushed out
32. Chewing on eyeglasses
33. Women: Frequently crossing/uncrossing legs
34. Women: Tiptoe walk, arm backswing, back arch
35. Men: Arm foreswing, palms pointed backwards

29. “I want to leave”

30. “I’m not comfortable with this intimacy”

31. Seeking intimacy
32. Seeking comfort
33. Arousal
34. Sexual invitation

35. Sexual display
Hand signals:
36. Wipe skin under eye
37. Patting during a hug
38. Smoothing back of hair
39. Constantly removing glasses
40. Covering eye/mouth
41. Cradling back of neck with arms
42. Cradling neck tightly, elbows and chest out
43. Framing face, head on hands
44. Touching another’s property
45. Caressing objects
46. Hands in pockets
47. Finger or hand on mouth or nose

36. Regret

37. “Please let go now”
38. “I’m about to leave”
39. Evasiveness
40. Trying to avoid bad news
41. Self-reassurance
42. Frustration or anger
43. “Look at me”
44. Desire to possess/control them
45. Arousal
46. Disengagement/ withdrawal
47. Concealing, dishonesty
Facial signals:
48. Broad, closed-mouth smile
49. Tongue showing between lips
50. Brief tongue-flick
51. Forehead kiss
52. Rapid swallowing, bobbing Adam’s apple
53. Pulling both lips in
54. Biting one lip
55. Women: Hair flick
56. Licking lips or brief, mouth-only smile
57. Straight (stone) face

48. Concealing

49. “Back off”
50. Embarrassment
51. Protectiveness
52. Anxiety
53. Anxiety or dishonesty
54. Self-restraint
55. Sexual invitation
56. Sexual invitation
57. Concealing, dishonesty
Eye signals:
58. Eye-puff (eyelids drawn back)
59. Frequent blinking
60. Series of 3 quick glances, or sideways glance
61. Slightly extended gaze, or eye-flicker (raised eyelids)
62. Dilated pupils
63. Hooded eyes (eyebrows up, eyelids lowered)

58. Sexual invitation

59. Anxiety or deceitfulness
60. Sexual invitation
61. Sexual invitation

62. Arousal of one kind or another

63. Arousal or haughtiness

The most important message of the book is that being alert for tells is far more important than researching what they probably mean. In many cases, especially if we know someone well, we become ‘blind’ to their body language, and even with strangers you need merely be observant to pick up on the visual clues presented by people with their posture, hand, body, facial and eye movements — usually the meaning is quite obvious. After all, this is how we communicated as a species before we invented language, so we shouldn’t be surprised that to the careful observer, most tells are dead give-aways.

Some other interesting tidbits from the book:

  • Collett says men who like thin (and plucked) eyebrows like submissive women, while those (like me) that prefer fuller female eyebrows tend to like their women to be more aggressive. I took a look at all the pictures of attractive (to me) women that I’ve posted on my blog and they almost all have full eyebrows.
  • A lot of these tells don’t apply with close friends, with whom we are generally more honest and trusting, and less likely to play ‘power games’.
  • In many ways today, a hug is more intimate than a kiss on the cheek.
  • Sometimes dominant individuals deliberately (if unconsciously) exhibit submissive tells, as a means of lessening tension and appearing more accessible (a favourite ploy of politicians), and sometimes submissive individuals will exhibit dominant tells to conceal feelings of weakness. These are what Collett calls ‘false tells’, and in some ways they are more telling than ‘real’ ones.
  • The book misses a tell that I’m famous for, and one that I’ve only ever seen exhibited in meetings by executives — the arms on top of the head, hand on wrist, elbows out. The very picture of stag antlers, and a classic dominance display.

Do I really buy all of this? No, and I’ve excluded some of the signals in the book that I thought were way over the top. Jumping to conclusions based on signals that may just indicate sunburn or asthma or a bad night’s sleep, is foolish, even dangerous. But pop psychology is fun if you don’t take it too seriously. It makes people-watching in restaurants and meetings a hoot. It makes you more observant, about other things beside subliminal signals. What’s hard is explaining to people that you think you’ve ‘caught’ what you’re laughing about.

(Top photo above is circulating by e-mail, and I don’t know where it originated. Bottom photo is from the Northeast Illinois U website, identity of the people depicted unknown. )

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  1. I recently read a book titled Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson in which he discusses how our brain works in relative, but easy to read, detail. At one point he discusses how we, mostly subconsciously, determine a person’s mood just by looking at somones eyes in static pictures. Interestingly enough, when you look at a static image of someones eyes your first reaction (the subconscious one) is almost guaranteed to be more accutate than the one you get when you study the image and consciously analyze the persons eyes.I suspect that posture/handsignals/speech/etc. signaling dominant/submissive nature is very much the same in that you are much better going with your gut instinct than analyzing what is going on and trying to draw a rational/reasoned conclusion. Your subconscious mind has taken millions of years of evolution to develop and is far more complex and substantially faster at analysis than our conscious mind with a table outlining dominant and submissive signals. That said, it is pretty interesting studying all the subtle signals we give each other.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Aha, another advocate of ‘Trust Your Instincts’! As I mentioned, the real value of the book is making you more observant. Once you start, it’s hard to turn it off again.

  3. joanne says:

    The author of this book was featured in a series of programmes on Channel 4 here in the UK, I think. Although I didn’t watch them, so I can’t say for sure.If you’re into this, you might enjoy Derren Brown (www.derrenbrown.co.uk) – I’m a big fan of his. He’s a former magician turned “psychological illusionist”. It’s very hard to describe what he does though. If you’ve heard of him it’s probably from his Russian Roulette stunt, but there’s much, much more to him than that, and his DVD is really worth checking out if it’s available where you are. There’s some clips of what he does here:http://www.channel4.com/entertainment/tv/microsites/M/mindcontrol/(Re-reading that it sounds incredibly spammy, but I am honestly just a fan!)

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