Self-defense>Mental aspects>Non-verbal indicators

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Non-verbal indicators


Non-verbal signs or indicators are ways we communicate non-verbally. Many of these signs are involuntary and may give away our underlying intentions. This is important in self-defense situations since it gives you a warning that the other person is getting more agitated and more aggressive. The warning will allow you to use methods to try to calm the situation or to prepare for an attack.

Non-verbal indicators

Some non-verbal indicators as related to self-defense are:
  • Adam's apple jump. This is a  conspicuous up-and-down motion of Adam's apple such as when gulping or swallowing. It is an unconscious sign of emotional anxiety, embarrassment, or stress.
  • Clenching teeth. This is a clinching the jaws in frustration and anger. It is a manifestation of the biting defense mechanism.
  • Hands-on-hips. This motion enlarges or exaggerates the body's size to dominate, threaten, or bluff an opponent. Hands-on-hips shows that the body is prepared to take additional steps.
  • Cutoff. This is a form of gaze avoidance in which the head is turned fully away to one side. In a conversation, a sudden cutoff gesture may indicate disagreement with a speaker's remarks. A sustained cutoff may reveal shyness or disliking.
  • Making a fist. This gesture is made with the hand closed tightly, with the fingers curled, and the pads of the fingers held firmly against the palm. Clenched fists signal an aroused emotional state, as in anger, excitement (to cheer on a team), or fear. In Pakistan, displaying a clenched fist toward another is considered an obscene insult.
  • A hand to the head. This is touching, scratching, or holding the back of the neck or head with the opened palm, or reaching a hand upward to scratch an ear, grasp an earlobe, or stimulate an ear canal, or touching, scratching, or rubbing the cheek or side of the neck. In a conversation, hand to the head may be read as a potential sign of uncertainty, conflict, disagreement, frustration, anger, or disliking. In the United States, leaning back and placing both hands behind the neck in the bilateral head clamp posture is a non-verbal sign of dominance.
  • Lip roll. This is a gesture produced by compressing, in-rolling, and narrowing the lips to a thin line. In this position of the mouth, the lips are visibly tightened and pressed together through contraction of the lip and jaw muscles. Lip and jaw tension reflect anxious feelings, nervousness, emotional concerns, or anger. Thus, a tense-mouth precisely marks the onset of a mood shift, a new thought, or a sudden change of heart.
  • The tone of voice. This refers to how a verbal statement is presented, such as its rhythm, breathiness, hoarseness, or loudness. The tone of voice reflects psychological arousal, emotion, and mood. It may also carry social information, as in a sarcastic, superior, or submissive manner of speaking. The more threatened or aggressive a person becomes, the lower and harsher his or her voice becomes; thus, the person seems bigger.
  •  Eye contact. This is a visual connection made as one person gazes into the eyes of another. Gazing at another's eyes arouses strong emotions. Thus, eye contact rarely lasts longer than three seconds before one or both viewers experience a powerful urge to glance away. Breaking eye contact lowers stress levels. In Japan, listeners are taught to focus on a speaker's neck to avoid eye contact, while in the United States listeners are encouraged to gaze into a speaker's eyes.
  • Blinking. This is displayed by a rapid closing and opening of the eyes. Our blink rate reflects psychological arousal in the manner of a polygraph test. The normal, resting blink rate of a human is 20 closures per minute, with the average blink lasting one-quarter of a second. Significantly faster rates may reflect emotional stress.
  • Raising eyebrows. This the lifting of the arch of short hairs above the eye, as in uncertainty, disbelief, surprise, or exasperation. Raising the eyebrows adds intensity to a facial expression. Brow-raising can strengthen a dominant stare, exaggerate a submissive pout, or boost the energy of a smile. In tandem with head-tilt-back, the raising one or both eyebrows suggests a supercilious air of disdain, haughtiness, or pride.
  • Lowering eyebrows. This occurs when you depress, knit, pucker, or wrinkle the eyebrows as when making a frown or scowl. It may indicate anger, concentration, displeasure, or thought. Lowering the eyebrows is a sensitive indicator of disagreement, doubt, or uncertainty. 
  • Down gaze. This occurs when you rotate the eyeballs downward position or when you bow or tilt the head forward so that the eyes face downward. This may convey a defeated attitude, guilt, shame, or submissiveness. Gazing down while speaking shows that a speaker may not believe his or her remarks.
  • Blushing. This occurs when the face becomes red or rosy due to physical exercise, embarrassment, shyness, anger, or shame. Blushing is caused by sudden arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which dilates the small blood vessels of the face and body. Contrary to popular belief, blushing is rarely seen in a purely aggressive individual since it is a sign of actual or possible defeat.
  • Flashbulb eyes. This is an involuntary and dramatic widening of the eyes, that occurs in situations of intense emotion, such as anger, surprise, and fear. When we are genuinely surprised, rather than feigning the emotion for effect, two involuntary visceral muscles in our eyelids, the superior and inferior tarsals, widen our eye slits to make the eyes appear noticeably rounder, larger, and whiter. As visceral signs, true flashbulb eyes are difficult to produce at will. Thus, they are even more trustworthy as non-verbal cues, especially of terror or rage. In angry individuals, flashbulb eyes are a danger sign of imminent verbal aggression or physical attack.
  • Blank face. This is the display of a neutral, relaxed, seemingly expressionless face, with the eyes open and lips closed. It is the deadpan face we adopt at home alone while resting, reading, or watching TV. Though it is expressionless, the blank face sends the strong emotional message of "Do Not Disturb!" In shopping malls, elevators, or subways, we adopt neutral faces to distance ourselves from strangers; it is a subtle sign used to keep others a polite distance away.
  • Head tilted back. This lifting the chin and leaning the head backward. Lifting the chin and looking down the nose are used throughout the world as non-verbal signs of superiority, arrogance, and disdain. In Greece and Saudi Arabia, a sudden head-tilt-back movement means "No." While, in Ethiopia, the same gesture means "Yes."
  • Bending away. This is flexing the spinal column to increase the physical distance between two people to enlarge or exaggerate the body's size to dominate, threaten, or bluff an opponent.
  • Decision grip. This is a manner of firmly grasping an object securely between the inner surfaces of the fingers and the palm as a clear indication of ownership.
  • Disgust. This is a sickening feeling of revulsion, loathing, or nausea. Disgust may be displayed by a curled upper lip, digestive vocalizations, narrowed eyes, lowered brows, backward head-jerks, side-to-side headshakes, visible protrusions of the tongue, wrinkled nose, raised nostrils, and lowered inner corners of the eyebrows.
  • Fear. Fear is a usually unpleasant, visceral feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or dread. Fear may be displayed by keeping an exaggerated angular distance, an increase in breathing rate, trembling and chattering teeth, crouching, crying, a faster eye-blank rate, a fear grin, widely opened flashbulb eyes, bristling hair, an accelerated heart rate, tightened muscle tension, screaming, squirming, staring eyes with enlarged pupils, sweaty palms, a tense mouth, a throat clearing, a higher pitch or tense voice, yawning, standing motionless and breathless ass a statue, crouching down or leaning over, a violent heartbeat, pale skin, a cold sweat, erect hair, trembling muscles, a dry mouth, avoidance, hiding, wary watching, cowering, and clinging.
  • Uplifted palms. This a speaking or listening gesture made with the fingers extended and the hands rotated to an upward position in an appealing, imploring, or begging position. Uplifted palms suggest a vulnerable or nonaggressive pose that appeals to listeners as allies, rather than as rivals or foes. Throughout the world, holding the palms-up reflects the moods of congeniality, humility, and uncertainty.
  • Downward facing palms. A speaking or listening gesture made with the fingers extended and the hands rotated in a downward position. While speaking or listening to another's remarks, palm-down gestures show confidence, assertiveness, and dominance. When accompanied by aggressive, palm-down beating motions, remarks appear stronger and more convincing.
  • Shoulder shrug. This is the lifting, raising, or flexing forward of one or both shoulders in response to another person's statement, question, or physical presence; or in response to one's inner thoughts, feelings, and moods. The shoulder shrug is a universal sign of resignation, uncertainty, and submissiveness. A shoulder shrug may modify, counteract, or contradict one’s verbal remarks. A shrug reveals misleading, ambiguous, or uncertain areas in dialogue.
  • Clearing throat. This is a vibration of the vocal cords caused by a sudden, involuntary release of air pressure from the lungs. It suggests disagreement, anxiety, doubt, deception, or may be used to announce one's physical presence in a room or to draw attention to oneself.


  • Givens, D. (2004). The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs, and Body Language Cues.  [Online]. Available: [2004, July 1].
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