Former FBI agent and spy catcher shares the body language myths we erroneously believe

Joe Navarro's insights are fascinating—but you probably don't want to play poker with him.

body language
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash
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If there's one guy you don't want to play poker with, it's Joe Navarro.

As a former FBI agent, Navarro's job was to catch spies—people whose entire job entails tricking people into thinking they are something they're not. In his 25-year career with the FBI, Navarro became an expert in body language and non-verbal communication. In fact, he's written multiple books on the subject, including "What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People" and "The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior."

Navarro shared with WIRED some of the myths surrounding body language—or "non-verbals"—and some of them are so common, we probably don't even question whether they're true.

For instance, crossing your arms is commonly seen as a "blocking" behavior, to place a barrier between you and whoever you're talking to. In reality, says Navarro, it's a self-soothing behavior. Other common myths are that looking in one direction or the other is a sign of deception or that people who cover their mouth or nose are lying. It's natural for people to look in various directions as they're processing information and touching the nose or covering the mouth are soothing behaviors.

"We humans are lousy at detecting deception," Navarro says. Sometimes there are clues in specific non-verbals. He shares how someone's hair, forehead, eyes, nose, mouth and neck can offer information about a person. How a person carries themselves can tell us something as well. But there's not one single indicator that a person is lying.

"When we study non-verbals, it's not about making judgments," he says. "It's about assessing 'What is this person transmitting in that moment?'"


Navarro explained that reading people's body language is often about noticing how their non-verbals change rather than just what they are in any given moment. Sometimes it's about someone trying to hide a certain instinctual behavior, which means the person is trying to manage people's perception of them. And sometimes it comes down to knowing cultural differences, like how people in Eastern Europe carry flowers vs. how Americans do.

And as for poker? His analysis of what each player was doing at the table at different times was quite fascinating.

"The similitudes of sitting across from a spy or sitting across from players—it's their reactions to a stimulus. We have behaviors indicative of psychological discomfort that we use at home, at work, or at the poker table," he says. From head movements to chair shifting to where people place their hands, the players are saying something. Navarro's advice to watch someone's body language on double speed to see what movements really stand out was particularly interesting.

As Navarro says, most of our communication is actually non-verbal, so it's good to know what people are "saying" with their bodies. But as it turns out, it's not always as simple to figure out people's body language as we've been led to believe.

You can find Joe Navarro's books on body language here.


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