Monday, Aug. 2, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Sitting across from Jack Brown, it’s easy to become self-conscious about your every move. It can’t be helped.
Brown is something of an expert in body language, a skill he’s sharing with businesspeople who want to understand more than spoken words.
An ophthalmologist by education, Brown says eyes are only one source of the nonverbal messages he has been researching since his teen years.
“Everyone’s walking around with a gold mine of information on their face,” he told me. “Our face and our body — you can almost think of them as ‘control panels’ for what’s going on inside of our brains.”
Even routine social interaction betrays information — especially because most of us are much more focused on what we’re saying than on our gestures or facial expressions. It becomes difficult to disguise the signals we’re sending out, even for the most disciplined among us, such as politicians and people who are frequently on television.
Such folks may be more disciplined than most of us, “but things still leak out,” Brown contends, no matter how hard they may try to disguise true feelings. Things such as blinking more frequently, for instance. Or simply touching the face more often.
“People touch their face when they have anxiety,” he noted. “They touch their nose … rub their eyes … put their finger in their ear.”
Conversely, people who normally use their hands a lot may also be reflecting anxiety — or perhaps even telling a lie — if they abruptly stop doing so during a conversation. Brown said this is because when someone is lying, some mannerisms may increase, but a few may actually decrease.
As one might expect, a lot of people who seek Brown’s services want to discern when someone is lying, for either professional or relationship reasons. And yes, he knows a number of telltale symptoms.
“When you tell even a white lie — and everyone tells them, they actually allow social interaction to occur — your face will itch. It will truly itch. You will have to touch your face to relieve it.”
There can even be a reaction on the receiving end of a lie, if the listener feels he or she is being misled.
“If I’m anxious about what I heard, I may scratch my ear. About what I see, maybe I rub my eye.”
On the flip side, sincerity can also be detected by the face.
“When people ask you a question and their eyebrows go up, they know the answer. That means it’s a rhetorical question. When they ask you a question and their eyebrows go down, they don’t know the answer.”
The eyes help in analyzing a smile.
“A true smile — it’s not in the mouth, it’s in the eyes. In a real smile, the eyes will squint a little. Sometimes in a good laugh, the eyes are almost completely shut. People who just smile with their mouths — that’s a false smile.”
If you can see only the upper teeth, it’s also a true smile, by the way.
All this must be put into context, though, including signals of anxiety. There’s no foolproof system for quickly assessing honesty or other emotions. External factors can contribute to the signals you’re getting.
“It could be that the speaker just remembered he forgot to pay his mortgage, and maybe his body language reflects that,” Brown said.
The key to effective analysis is to establish an individual’s “norm” or baseline behavior, a process that begins by getting people to openly describe both things they like and things that create anxiety in them. I wondered if he was doing this with me, and I suddenly became very aware of my hands, which I placed on the table.
People are more likely to trust other people when they can see their hands, he observed.
As we were leaving, I watched for the smile of the waitress when she said thanks. I noticed her eyes squinting a bit, and I could see only her upper teeth.
A version of this story appears in the July 23 In Business Las Vegas, a sister publication of the Sun.