Scientific Portal on Body Language, Kinesics and Nonverbal Communication#

Search this site

Basic responses in stressful situations

Have you ever been in a stressful situation? Actually, I shouldn’t have asked this question at first place because every single person in this world would certainly have gone through not just a single but many stressful situations throughout entire life. What I should have asked instead is that have you ever noticed how exactly your own body responded under stress. When you realize bodily responses to a stressful or precisely speaking - to a life threatening or survival situation then perhaps you might be able to alter it for good. Are you getting me clearly?

Let me help you by explaining by sharing a real incident which took place with me quite recently, in an unexpected manner. How me and my wife quickly understood and altered our bodily responses under that particular situation dramatically affected our very well-being. This story is really interesting and I hope you would like it for sure.

Almost a one month ago, my wife and I went to visit a historical place. The place was Gingee fort, situated 150 KM away from my home in recently flood hit Chennai city. It’s one of the well built, almost impregnable and also nicely preserved forts in entire world. We started to climb by taking stairs built using stones. We got mesmerized by surrounding panorama and natural rock formations on way up the top and I kept myself busy taking photos. Finally, we entered in citadel which was a narrow and long strip of land, artificially created on top of large and continuous rock. I was really excited to catch images by standing at highest point of citadel but it was about to turn into horror within just few moments.

Gingee fort was praised as "Troy of East" by British army officers.
I was heading on a narrow & rough pavement and my wife was right behind me. Suddenly, I saw an alpha male monkey which was silently marching towards us only. I stopped walking only to detect what he was intended to do with us. As I realized that hair surrounding his face were raised straight and he was bearing his long and sharp canines, both of us went frozen. We were completely unsure about how to respond to this unexpected and potentially threatening situation. Hungry monkeys attacking humans and injuring them for food is very common (at tourist sites).

Clock was ticking and monkey was closing very fast. My brain was rapidly gathering up and processing information about potentials risks we might be running into. Soon after realizing that the aggressive monkey was planning to attack us in his own territory, very first thought came into my mind was to run for life. This was very natural and also safer choice at that moment but we couldn’t have acted upon it effectively.

If we would have started to run away, monkey could easily have attacked us from back and injured any of us with his sharp teeth. On the other hand, a single mistake while running on narrow, rough and curly pavement could have resulted into serious injuries or in worst case - thrown us off into a deep moat which was running alongside the pavement. Also, thick but short grass both side of pavement wasn't enough to provide enough cover. For both of us, it was matter of survival.

Alpha male monkey (Courtesy: dailymail.co.uk)
Even after calling aloud, there was nobody around us to run for helping. If we would have  offered handbag to monkey then we could have lost a camera, a cell phone and dry fruits kept inside it. It could have cost a lot to us. Hence neither running away from nor surrendering ourselves to that wild mountain monkey was a better choice. After gathering my courage and recollecting best defense moves, I firmly told my wife to stand firmly and get into fighting mode. Both of us started shouting or roaring very loudly at and also blow clenched feasts towards the monkey. Also we started sweeping the handbag from one side to another so we could hit that creature. All we wanted was to look more aggressive, fierce and relentless in comparison to the attacking monkey.

For next couple of minutes, we continuously kept shouting, roaring, blowing our clenched feasts, sweeping handbag and throwing whatever we could pick by our hands. Monkey wasn’t giving up that easily but our strategy to appear aggressive and potentially harmful proved fruitful at the end. After few iterations of attack and retreat, monkey gave up to our collective fierceness, aggression and potential harming capacity and ran away. Rush of adrenaline and sense of safety wasn’t fading quickly though. For further safety, while we were climbing down the fort, I carried a long and strong wooden stick in my hand.

Why we were so sure about saving ourselves by fighting back only? My wife and I were far more superior to the monkey in terms of body size and mass, even while lacking required maneuvering capabilities, tactics and skills which untamed monkeys normally have. Monkey had to retreat only because we were appearing bigger than normal through aggressive, outreaching body movements, continuous roars, grunts and loud shouts. We could safely came down from citadel of Gingee fort without loosing valuable stuff and getting hurt only because we chose to fight in face of an unexpected and life threatening challenge. Nothing else but that very incident inspired me to write this article.

Until we don’t understand how exactly our brain and body naturally and sequentially responds in stressful situations, we may not able to alter it if needed or also appropriately respond to, co-ordinate with and assist others who have chosen a particular response unconsciously. Each response is nothing but a marvelous gift of evolution, a proven strategy through Darwinian natural selection.
All of these responses are primitive and they evolved billions of years ago and all (living) creatures act upon them no matter how big or small their brains and bodies are or kind of habitat they live in.
One primary and three secondary responses
Responses have been given by following a sequence in which each creature gives them away. Freeze response in very basic, independent and also mandatory while other responses are strategy based. Each secondary response is either given away either as a final solution or it might be tried after any other response fails. For example, a person might start running away or fighting back but surrender at last after realizing that both responses could do more harm. Also, a person or creature can choose different combinations of three responses to protect itself and render expected results.

1) Freeze (Detecting): Before anything else happens, this is a very first response that every creature gives under any stressful as well as normal situations. Before reacting to an impending situation, we all need to detect and understand what is going on exactly. As if we accidentally receive an electric shock, we keep ourselves still or simply stop making any kind of body movements. This helps us to concentrate on and collect clues about an impending situation or any approaching entity. Our brain tries to gather up and process clues at quickly as possible. Freezing time might vary from one person to another.

Duration of staying in frozen or detection mode is entirely dependent upon how quickly we could figure out our own capabilities, risks subjected with our involvement in an impending situation or with any approaching entity and also potential consequences of very next step we take in defense. That’s the reason why some persons appear frozen, unsure or locked-up over a longer duration in face of danger before giving further response. On the other hand, some of us react quickly but inappropriately at most of time, only because of not being able to judge outcomes of particular response.

2) Flight (Running away): After judging a situation or approaching entity as potentially harmful and assuming that we may not survive (by fighting with) same, we unconsciously choose to move away from physical space we share with it, its possible reach or attacking range of it as quickly as possible. Flight or running away is a very basic yet warrantable response especially to novel or unexpected situations, approaching or emerging entities, concepts, ideas or thoughts because we don’t have any experience about possible results coming out of  previous encounter or engagement with them.

Unlike freezing over a considerably long amount of time, running away from danger happens comparatively faster. Flight or running away is most likely response to be given by our limbic system because it’s matter of survival. It’s also equally interesting to know that physiological changes taking place corresponding to flight response are almost indistinguishable from that of fight. While giving both responses, our heart increases blood supply to major muscles of our body. In result, skin temperature also increases.

3) Fight (Defending): After judging a situation or approaching entity as potentially harmful and assuming that we should, can or have to defeat it; we unconsciously choose to prepare ourselves for launching an attack. We don’t keep ourselves away from physical space we share with it, its possible reach or attacking range of it. Fighting or defending is a very tempting response especially to known or previously encountered situations, approaching or emerging entities, concepts, ideas or thoughts because have experience about results which came out of  previous encounters or engagements with them.

Unlike running away quickly, launching an attack might take some time because one needs to decide an effective strategy and also weapons to overcome the source of danger. Delay in freeze response can be reduced by enhancing detecting and judging capacity e. g. a well-trained martial artist, soldier or spy can launch attack on its opponent(s) or enemies much quickly than an ordinary person. It’s James Bond who pulls trigger far before his enemy does. Right?


4) Forfeit (Surrendering): When neither running away from nor fighting with seems to work, we choose to surrender ourselves in face of potentially harmful situations or entities. Very dramatic changes happen to our posture. We unconsciously choose to appear small, self-consoling, immobile and harmless. Also we try to conceal and protect our most vulnerable body parts like neck, chest and ventral cavity i. e. abdominal area by arching our back and pulling our legs closer to body.

Passengers in Brace Position
Haven’t you ever heard about brace position? It’s always exercised during aircraft crash to save ourselves from physical injuries as much as possible. While aircraft is crashing, we know that only turning ourselves into a turtle could possibly save us from injuries cause by impact. Showing palms of both hands by raising them about our shoulders in front of policemen or soldiers is surrendering, as well as ‘playing dead’ or lying on ground without and not making any movements in front of a giant grizzly bear.

I’m quite sure that many of us (including biologists, psychologists, behavioral researchers, nonverbal communication experts and personals handling emergencies that involve people) confuse forfeit response with flight response. If you have same confusion at deeper level then please go through the aforementioned details again to know clear differences among each of them. On the other hand, forfeit isn’t considered as one of basic responses because term ‘Fight-Flight-Freeze’ or simply ‘Flight or Fight’ was very popular among us
till now.
Attacking and Running: Classical story of a cat and a mouse
Only ability of precisely detecting behavioral changes and nonverbal clues subjected with these four basic responses given by body can ensure better and harmonious results for individuals, groups and organizations that have to face and deal or interact with people and creatures on routine. Not just specific people but we all have to do it day in and out. Isn’t it right? In our large and complex world, with people growing in numbers, detecting nonverbal clues accurately is crucial and moreover - life changing.

Whenever I recall that brief incident, I truly appreciate these responses and also very ability to detect them in ourselves and others. If we would have failed to detect aggression in that monkey before choosing to fight over running away then fate of me and my wife would have been entirely different for sure. Be adventurous and exploring but stay safe!


Related Articles:
1) Basic Emotional Expressions 2) Fear Factor 3) By just looking at hands and eyes 4) The Body Seeking Comfort

Are you a 'flying' terrorist?

Flaying in sky was indeed one of the greatest dreams of our remote ancestors. Why it shouldn’t be? It presents us so many opportunities in a single flight and it was only ability to fly that saved a small group of reptiles. They eventually evolved into birds that we see today or it would be more appropriate to say that they their turned their crawling bodies into perfect flying machines to conquer skies. Birds inspired us to make airplanes and aviation revolutionized and accelerated transportation, science, technology, industry, trade, economics, education, communication and international relationships. However, civil aviation eventually posed serious challenges, threats and nightmares too.

None of us could dream or imagine oneself being into a situation in which a small group of lunatics or extremists has took control of airplane and threatened to blow it in sky or crash it into an important installation. Terrorists and hijackers have found their way into peaceful commuter planes only to make whole world pay serious and immediate attention at their outrageous demands. They have done serious damage to global peace and mostly innocent passengers have been put to death by them. Airlines are really under serious threat. We all need to remain cautious and vigilant.

Airplanes taking off from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
After recent major incidents, both security and passenger screening has been made stringent throughout the world. There no surprise to see a large and penetrating network of cameras and body scanners setup along with vigilant and armed security personals on international airports which comb through passengers. Developed country in west like America or England takes or handles potential threats to civil aviation more seriously because considerable portion of population travels by air regularly in those countries. To err is human so it’s also no surprise that mistakes happen while scrutinizing passengers.

We must know that our body unconsciously, involuntarily and continuously gives away clues beyond and without words to outer world i. e. different kind of signals and clues originated from or related to different emotional, cognitive and physical states. As most of us traditionally assume or are regularly told about, there are certain body language clues or hotspots that can help us in spotting and catching (potential) liars, perpetrators, offenders and conspirators. Some experts who (think they) are or became more confident over time have came forward to catch terrorists with their ‘established’ techniques.

Airport security in America has come up with an integrated framework that helps in short listing potential terrorists moving along with other innocent and naive passengers. However, there are major flaws in same because the system hardly considers contexts behind and cluster of signals being given away by people under scrutiny. What if an innocent airliner passenger is arrested by security personals based upon the check list they fill in while observing its so-called ‘suspicious body language’? Exactly this is what happening by most.


The heavily funded Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program has been facing criticism and allegations from both passengers and experts alike since its inception. The list of body language signals against which a trained Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) needs to look for matching inputs given away by passengers is immature or flawed. Most of ‘suspicious’ signals selected by SPOT implementers are what an ordinary and innocent person would give away unconsciously in front of officers. What officers need to thoroughly observe and quickly understand is the context in which a particular movement or expression is made by a person under observation. Considering the amount of passengers, it's really very hard to achieve.

Few of the signals listed under SPOT
Even if we assume that these signals are the true indicators of person having unsocial or harmful intentions towards others, situation in which the person is giving them away is very important. Passengers who are traveling at very first time to any international destination might give them away due to nervousness and fear about flying at first place. In addition with same, body scanners, personal scrutiny and terrifying security personal giving a suspicious look at could easily add to anybody’s unrest or anger. On the other hand, the sequences in which different suspicious clues are given away also need to be testified thoroughly. One passenger’s nonverbal interaction with other passenger needs to pay close attention at.

Signals like exaggerated yawning, rubbing or wringing of hands, gazing down, excessive throat clearing, widely open staring eyes, exaggerated or repetitive grooming gestures or whistling might definitely catch attention of anybody but how much observing officers are systematically trained and also keenly interested to check background behind them is critical. Other experts in behavior detection have given a very valuable and critical suggestion against existing and not-so-successful SPOT program. They say that suspects should be thoroughly questioned and their nonverbal clues should be observed inside a closed room than just catching them based on the score in a form or SPOT Referral Report hand filled by behavioral observer.

Related Articles:

Cultural connection behind gesturing

Rajnikanth - Tamil Movie 
Superstar and Icon
In January 2014, I moved from Pune to Chennai with my wife for new job in a local IT company. It's was very first time of coming into contact with native South Indian population since I never traveled this part of country ever before. I was really excited yet little bit nervous because I didn’t know local etiquettes, mannerism and normal (or socially acceptable) nonverbal behavior. Though I've few Tamil friends living in Pune, facing and interacting with people in their own territory is very different because they tend to behave very naturally and comfortably.

Knowing the fact that gestures have different meanings and purposes in different culture, I started to investigate one particular hand gesture which I found completely different. I never saw people from any other cultures especially people from other parts of India making this gesture in exactly the same way. It’s a typical gesture that Tamil men and women make during face to face conversation. One of my colleagues turned close friend makes this gesture a lot of time during conversation so I could pick enough details about same from very close distance.


Questioning Gesture
How this gesture is made? One hand is stretched out, held above torso (upper body), thumb is kept jutting outside partially or fully, other fingers are clenched and finally this whole formation is abruptly shaken 2 or 3 times vertically at elbow. Through a stranger’s point of view, it appears as if a person, who makes this gesture, is trying to hold and shake something quickly by one hand. I didn’t see by Tamil friends living in Pune making this gesture. Has this gesture tight connection with local population, culture and geography of Tamil Nadu (or South India) only?

I was very intrigued to observe this gesture at very first time because I really didn’t know that exactly why native Tamil people make this gesture. After few instances, I realized that a Tamil person makes this gesture only while asking (seriously) or emphasizing something. Finally, true nonverbal purpose behind the gesture was disclosed. Even though I no longer find this gesture as an offensive or weird, as people from other cultures might assume it to be, investigating it further became necessary. Why and how this particular gesture might have evolved at first place?


‘Shikhara’ gesture
To my surprise, I found Bharatnatyam (classical dance form of Tamil Nadu) dancers also use this gesture for exactly the same purpose - asking question or demanding answer in a symbolic way. In Bharatnatyam, this gesture is called as ‘Shikhara’ (शिखर/शिखरा, Sanskrit word synonymous to ‘Peak (of a mountain)’) and it’s made in a slightly different way. Unlike common way of gesturing, dancers don’t shake hand at elbow but just hold it stationary and raise their eyebrows significantly. Bharatnatyam might have adapted this gesture from native people’s nonverbal vocabulary and later modified it.

As per my own speculation, this gesture might have evolved out of a very normal yet an effectively threatening practice which ancestors might have developed. Perhaps, they might have become used to ask questions by holding a tool or weapon e. g. chopper, knife or stick to bring seriousness in conversation (Enough is enough! Now come to the point.). My own strong speculation is that it might be tightly related with agricultural/occupational background of Tamil community. People carrying and using ARUVAL (handy chopping tool with a long and thick steel blade which is curved at it outer end) can be watched to shake their clenched fist over the tool (by jutting out thumb) same way during conversation to emphasize or put stress on something during face to face conversation.


Aruval - a tool and weapon
Even today, we make many gestures in absence of same or similar kind of objects which our ancestors might have used to hold in or handle by their hands. One very good example is ‘beat you with stick’ gesture which is made by wagging an index finger in front of the person to be warned off. Also, both thumbs up and thumbs down gestures are used to convey OK or Not OK respectively but they evolved in such a way that we can’t imagine in today’s context. In ancient roman Colosseum, spectators used to send signals to winning gladiators for killing (Thumb Down) or letting go (Thumb Up) their loosing opponents. Thumb was representative of a sword so pointing it downward conveyed stabbing and pointing it upward conveyed keeping the weapon into non-harming upright position.

Not only cultural but historical, social, educational and genetic aspects also influence the way certain group of people gesticulates normally and unconsciously (during conversation). There can be many distinctive gestures people from different cultures might be making. What all we need to do is to pick and analyze them in different contexts than jumping into misinterpretation. So next time you watch any distinctive gesture, please check its cultural, social and geographical background first. Feel free to write an email to me on sachchidanand.swami@gmail.com.

[An article was posted in world's largest English daily Times of India on 9th June, 2014. Senior Editor from daily's office had contacted me to write an investigative write-up. Follow this link to read same.]

Related Articles:
1) Words and gestures are alike 2) Basic Gestures: Best Survival Tools for Travelers 3) Gestures - Are they learned or genetic?

This is what I (want to) see.

Are you reading right?
I can clearly recall one incident which would perfectly explain what I’m trying to put here. One day, I went on walk with some my friends. After covering some distance, we reached in in a large and open public space. All of us sat on a bench except one special person. He stood right in front of us by resting his hands on his hips. I would like to mention here that he used to claim himself being a body language expert. While we were chatting among ourselves, a small group of boys & girls came there and all of them sat 50 to 60 feet away from us. What happened after that moment only added to my fascination about individual-centric social reading.

Right from the moment the group arrived at the spot, a good looking girl caught attention of the self-proclaimed body language expert. He started to look at her continuously and without batting his eyelids but she somehow didn’t realize about same. Apart of other girls in the group, she had dressed up very well for sure. What she did is that she sat 5 to 6 feet away from rest of her friends, only to talk with somebody privately on her cell phone. This only added to excitement of the guy and perhaps few others too in our group. She kept talking on phone and he kept looking at her only.

The girl on her cell phone
Couple of minutes passed and an unexpected incident occurred. The so-called body language expert suddenly asked me a question, “What’s your interpretation of that girl’s body language?”. Without wasting a single moment, I answered to his question by saying, “She’s just busy in talking with someone in private. Other than that, she’s not conveying anything to any of us here.” It didn’t end there and whole incident took a new turn. However, I was expecting same derogatory comments from him at that moment when he was quite busy in looking at her. Undoubtedly, he was enormously attracted at her beauty.

The guy tried to turn me down by saying, “Sachchidanand, you simply didn’t fulfill my expectations by answering this way. The girl is doing nothing but trying to grab attention (of him only?) by sitting away from rest of her friends. What all she wants is to get noticed (by somebody).” Well! The guy indirectly conveyed his own desire even when she never looked at anybody else other than her own group. She wasn’t giving away any classical nonverbal clues of attention grabbing, grooming or flirting. She was just sitting there, glued to her cell phone.

Like all others in our group, I was quite aware about sarcastic, jealous and derogatory commenting style of the guy. Definitely, he was quite skillful in reading people and has done some good social readings, according to my personal experience. However, his unconscious urges took hold of his conscious mind while reading her body language clues. The only reason behind his wrong or biased interpretation about the girl was his own wish to attract her attention at himself as he couldn’t step towards an unfamiliar but nice looking and well-dressed girl. Not with him only but this happens with almost everybody and quite frequently!

Subjective Perception
When emotions, instincts and desires run high or uncontrolled, we simply try to look at people and situations in false colors only. We unconscious try to convince ourselves or (openly) defend our own biased or individual-centric viewpoint(s) about people we are looking at and situations we re in. We try to interpret people and situations on the basis of our own mindset, intentions, emotions or desires towards them. Moreover, an individual assumes that he/she is the only target or center of false mindset, intentions, emotions or desires of people that he/she is looking at the moment. This is called as ‘Subjective Perception’ of a social situation.

We misinterpret not just an initial impression, facial expressions and body language of people but also arrangement, placement, sequencing, links among and appearance of different objects and entities. There are plenty of real life examples and not just one to put here. What you personally think after looking at this woman’s face? Does she look jealous, angry, bored or lustful/flirtatious? Without ay doubt, your answer would reflect your own subjective perception about her.

This woman appears to be jealous, angry, bored or lustful/flirtatious?
Just to mention here that this face has been included in a small quiz created by me couple of months ago. By clicking on this link, you can test your social reading skills. Good luck!

Related Articles: