Emblems, Speech Illustrators & Manipulators

Dog handler Bruce fingerConsidered by some as the holy grail of non-verbal deception leakage, however emblems, speech illustrators and manipulators can be mostly cultural. Facial expressions are universal, as are body language interpretations. What are not universal are cultural gestures, signs, emblems, etc – I will briefly mention several examples.

The Origins of the Thumbs Up

Peter Quennell – author of the 1971 book The Colosseum A History of Rome from the Time of Nero – suggests the origins of the “thumbs up” gesture is said to have come from the Roman gladiatorial times to indicate whether a gladiator will live or die – however there is contradicting evidence as to whether the thumb up meant to spare the fighter or not. Even today the interpretation of the thumbs up gesture is different depending on where in the world you live. It would seem at first glance that much of the western world has adopted the meaning of this symbol to mean “good”, “ok” or “yes” – generally some kind of positive meaning – as well as being used for hitchhiking (the hitchhiking thumb). However this can also mean the number one, used to indicate directions, or indicate an insult of a sexual nature.

Cultural Differences with Gestures

Another example of a cultural difference with gestures is the a-ok symbol, where the thumb and forefinger touch to make a circle can mean just that – everything is a-ok. In some Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, this gesture is an insult better described as a-hole or accusing someone of being homosexual, and in certain parts of Europe the a-ok symbol is an insult suggesting “you are nothing”, “zero” or “worthless”. In sign language this is the symbol for the number 9, or placing ones nose through the “O” in many continental European countries means “drunk”.

Tip: I want to emphasis that there is a very real danger of misinterpreting someone’s body language, due to not baselining properly (finding out what someone’s normal behaviour is before making an interpretation). It is missing this step where innocent people’s idiosyncratic habits and cultural differences (where they are in a culture that does not recognise the behaviour) can be mistaken as deceptive.

Ekman and Friesen’s 1974 Nursing Experiment

In 1974 Ekman & Friesen designed one of psychology’s first non-verbal communication deception experiments where ER nurses were asked to watch positive (such as a happy or uplifting scene) or negative (such as live amputations and burn victims receiving treatment) film clips, and describe one of the gruesome scenes as pleasant to an interviewer. The nurses were filmed, and their films were shown to a large range of professionals. After observing baseline footage of the nurse’s normal behaviour, the results indicated that when the viewer saw just the face of the nurse, the untrained lie detector had a very low chance of correctly picking deception (50 / 50). On the other hand, the same untrained lie detectors became much more accurate (around 50% – 65%) when they were able to see the body language of the nurses.

This suggests that no matter how good someone is at reading faces, being able to see the body will increase your chances of detection. With the body, the non-verbal leakage acts like a gestural “slip-of-the-tongue”.

Did you know? The handshake evolved as a way of men agreeing to a deal and showing each other that no weapons were concealed in their sleeves, as was common with the Romans.

The Difference Between Emblems and Speech Illustrators

Trying to remember the differences between emblems and speech illustrators can be challenging as they are often confused with each other, so I have included two helpful points:

1) Is the gesture done with words? It is a speech illustrator.

2) Is the gesture done without words? It is an emblem.

“He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” – Sigmund Freud


About Stu Dunn

Stu Dunn, Founder of SDL Behavioural Science Consultancy and Head Consultant, International Speaker, FACS Certified, Micro Expressions, Body Language & Deception Detection Expert. Stu Dunn is the first Facial Action Coding System (FACS) Certified consultant in New Zealand. Stu has had a natural interest in human behaviour and non verbal communication for most of his life. Stu's continued study of psychology, body language, micro expressions and FACS has helped him become New Zealand's leading expert in micro expressions, emotional surveillance and FACS (FACS is the most detailed de-coding of the face, and universally recognized by psychologists and physiologists worldwide). Stu is also one of the first in the world to achieve Master Level on Humintell's Mix Elite Micro Expressions software. Stu has been studying body language since 2001, and has worked with participants from New Zealand, Australia, United States, United Kingdom, India, Canada, Germany, Afghanistan, Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Macedonia and Sri Lanka so far. This includes working with participants from the NZ Defence, IRD Fraud Investigators, Sri Lankan Customs, Homeland Security, Telecom NZ and Vodafone to name a few. Stu's areas of expertise include: micro expressions, emotions and emotional surveillance, body language, deception, interviewing, training, business consulting, video analysis (evaluating truthfulness & credibility), FACS coding (videos, pictures and animation), sales training, assistance with criminal and private investigations.
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