Considered 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