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Former FBI agent of 25 years explains how to 'speed-read' body language—now that we're wearing face masks

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing has dramatically changed the way we interact with each other, especially when it comes to nonverbal communication.

Wearing a face mask has quickly become the norm — and that will likely remain for the foreseeable future. But with nearly half of the face concealed, it can be difficult to tell what a person is thinking and feeling. For example, an employee can't see that their boss' lips are pursed, which can be a sign of dissatisfaction. Or, if there's twitching in the corners of their mouth, it can mean they feel nervous or tense.

That said, as a retired FBI agent who has researched body language for more than 45 years, one question I've been increasingly asked is, "How can we better read body language, now that we're wearing masks?"

Part of the answer lies in the question itself. Too often, we put all our focus into people's faces, when we should also be observing the movements of their entire upper bodies. (This is especially important today, since we do a lot of social interacting through video platforms, where we see each other mostly from the waist up.)

Body language is an outward reflection of a person's emotional condition. Here are some tips on how to speed-read it:

1. Squinted eyes

What it can mean:

  • "I don't like what's going on."
  • "Something doesn't feel right."
  • "I disagree with what you're saying."

We often squint our eyes when we're trying to focus our vision on something that's far away. But squinted eyes and a furrowed "glabella" (the part of the forehead above and between the eyebrows) can also be a sign of disagreement or confusion.

2. Touching the neck

What it can mean:

  • "I'm struggling with something."
  • "I'm stressed by what you're saying."
  • "I'm concerned about this situation."

If someone is touching their "neck dimple" (the visible indentation at the middle-front of their neck), it could mean they're distressed or insecure. If you notice someone doing this, try communicating with more empathy to help comfort or ease their anxiety.

3. Rubbing the chest

What it can mean:

  • "I don't feel confident."
  • "I'm troubled by something."
  • "I'm very worried."

This is another sign of stress and anxiety. If someone is rubbing the upper part of their chest with a palm of a hand (or even just the fingers), it can indicate discomfort or concern. I recently found myself doing this when discussing a family member's health. 

4. Arched eyebrows

What it can mean:

  • "I'm happy to see you!"
  • "I'm pleasantly surprised."
  • "That's a very intriguing point."

If someone greets you with arched eyebrows (also called an "eyebrow flash"), it typically means they're pleased to see you. This expression can also be used to show recognition when someone makes a good point in a conversation.

5. Tilted head

What it can mean:

  • "I'm interested in what's going on."
  • "I'm listening and fully present."
  • "I agree with what you're saying."

Head movements can go a long way in showing whether or not someone is fully engaged, especially during video conference calls. A slightly tilted head displays awareness and attentiveness. And, when combined with a few nods, it can show approval of what's being said or heard.

Joe Navarro retired from the FBI after serving as an agent for 25 years. He has been studying nonverbal behavior for more than 45 years and is the author of 13 books, including the best-sellers "What Every Body Is SayingAn Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People" and "The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior." Follow him on Twitter @NavarroTells.

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