Dangerous Body Language: A Thousand Words…None Spoken! The Eyebrows Are a Sign | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

A Thousand Words…None Spoken! Is a quote from a law enforcement and security professional participating in one of the workshops I presented a few years back on dangerous body language. It was his way of grasping and understanding the concept of non-verbal communication as it relates to fine tuning his abilities of, pattern recognition and in understanding the subtle signs and signals of danger otherwise known as dangerous body language.

In the article Recognizing the Signs and Signals of Crime and Danger I wrote about these non-verbal signs and signals. This series on the web-site we will take a deeper look at these signs and signals one by one and break them down in attempt to help all in getting a better picture, snapshot or what COL John Boyd called “orientation” of what’s going on when we encounter people on the streets.

I am breaking these signs and signals down to explore, and discuss in detail their meaning. It is critical to remember when attempting to read people and make sense of the non-verbal sentences their body sends out while we interact with a potential adversary.  We must observe, orient, decide and act in context with the unfolding circumstances.  A non-verbal gesture standing on its own may mean nothing in particular when it comes to assaultive behavior, unless of course it’s a spontaneous furtive gesture, so it’s also important to read the non-verbal signs and signals in clusters, more than one gesture at a time. Multiple gestures may mean more stress, anxiety and hence heighten your anticipation of a deception, disruption or pending attack. It is also important look for congruence when reading nonverbal signs and signals, “do the subject’s words match his body language and the situation?”

When observing the eyes its important to remember that the muscles that control the mouth, lips, eyes, nose, forehead and jaw are interrelated and work synergistically for the most part as we interact with others. Paul Ekman in his research on facial expressions estimates that humans are capable of making more than ten thousand different facial expressions. Joe Navarro former FBI and author of the Book What Every Body is Saying states, “versatility makes nonverbals of the face very effective, extremely efficient, and, when not interfered with, quite honest.”  Navarro continues, sighting Ekmans research, “Happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy, rage, shame, anguish and interest are all universally recognized facial expressions.” In short there is a lot to be learned from reading peoples facial expressions.

In this ongoing series “Dangerous Body Language: A Thousand Words None Spoken” we have so far discussed the eyes as they form the thousand yard stare that may indicate aggression and gaze avoidance that indicate deception or avoidance. The face and eyes tell us the story if we are first observant and secondly, the person is not putting up a false front and disguising or attempting to disguise their true feelings. Again I must stress context, clusters and congruence as we observe, orient, decide and act interrupting nonverbal signs and signals. 

Sun Tzu said: War (CONFLICT and VIOLENCE) is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory it be thoroughly studied. This thorough studying Sun Tzu speaks of  includes the signs and signals of crime and danger that silently, speak action in the gestures and expressions of those who may present a danger. So lets take a look at the eyebrows and what they may mean to survival on the street.

An eyebrow flash or quick raising of the eyebrows, could indicate either a hello or it could be an indication of surprise or even fear based on context of the situation. The Center for Nonverbal Studies states; “The eyebrow-flash of recognition is a worldwide friendly greeting (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989; Morris 1994). We have all experienced this quick upward flash of the eyebrows in combination with a head raise and normally a sincere smile when we bump into someone we know. It is mutual a way we often acknowledge one another.  On the other hand when a friendly greeting is not expected as when dealing with those we do not know we should be aware of the eyebrow flash in combination with the insincere smile and the body either leaning or pointing away or from you.  This eyebrow flash combined with the body leaning and pointing away reaction could simply be because we took someone by surprise or, it could be we caught them in the act of something more sinister and this a nonverbal attempt to deceptively lull us into a relaxed state. I have also seen this eyebrow raising expression in combination with the person taking and adversarial bladed or fighting stance.

The subtle difference in the friendly greeting verses the deceptive eyebrow flash is in its speed and tempo. The deceptive eyebrow flash includes a smile that appears fake or insincere and the eyebrow raise will be slower to widen, hold wider longer and often times end with some form of gaze avoidance or focused aggression. Whereas the friendly eyebrow flash is much quicker, the smile is sincere and eye contact is kept. Steve Cliffe and John Demand both instructors in threat recognition and defensive tactics have described focused aggression as, “an individual being highly charged for action and dependent on the circumstances could be proactively defensive or asocial aggressive.where the head is dropped, chin down and tucked guarding throat and positioning thickest part of skull forward towards threat, eyes are using peripheral vision to detect movement while centering focal point towards primary threat/target in direction of intended motion.” Meaning!!! This subject is focused and ready for action. 

The Center for Nonverbal Studies says, raising the eyebrows adds intensity to facial expressions. Eyebrow raising and widening of the eyes shows dominance or possible aggression. The Center for Nonverbal Studies also states; Brow-raising can strengthen a dominant stare, exaggerate a submissive pout, or boost the energy of a smile. The eyebrow raising along with widening of the eyes is an involuntary enlargement of both eyes, which takes place in situations of high stress, and emotion. Furrowed or lowering the eyebrows also known as a frown,scowl or squint is a sensitive indicator of disagreement, doubt, or uncertainty and could be a sign of, anger or aggression.

In their research paper The Inner and Outer Meanings of Facial Expressions Paul Ekman and Joseph C. Hager  found, “facial actions are not limited to spontaneous emotional expressions. In addition to posed expressions, there are false expressions which are put on to convince others that an emotion not actually felt is being experienced.”  An attempt at deception which you need to detect!

There are a lot of nonverbal messages being sent out from the face and eyes, some of it controlled and much of it involuntarily. An officer must observe these expressions and gestures during interaction and he must orient to these signs and signals. Both the positive signs of cooperation and the negative and more dangerous signs of the uncooperative.  The ability to observe and orient to these subtle signs takes hard work and training. Work and training I might add well worth doing!

The knowledge gained through reading the nonverbals of the eyes and face will help in gaining insight as to what’s going on! This will allow the observant officer to utilize insight and innovative methods and tactics, with a balanced approach of persuasion and/or reasonable force, to seize the advantage when dealing with the unknown during a dynamic encounter. 

Conflict is a clash between two complex adaptive systems. Dealing with adapting adversaries you cannot predict exactly what’s going to happen next, because there are things going on that you cannot see, or hear. For example: the numerous thoughts going through an adversaries mind: “I will do what I am asked,” “I will not do what I am asked,” “I will escape,” “I will fight,” “I will assault,” “I will kill,” “I will play dumb until…,” “I will stab,” “I will shoot,” “he looks prepared I will comply,” “he looks complacent I will not comply,” etc. It is important to remember that the adversary has his own objectives; also, they have plans that conflict with the friendly side, therein creating further conflict and hence the need for adaptation. Understanding dangerous body language, (a thousand words…none spoken!) just may give you the edge you need. 

Stay Oriented!


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