Interpreting And Misinterpreting

The ability to accurately interpret hand-to-face gestures in a given set of circumstances takes considerable time and observation to acquire. We can confidently assume that, when a person uses one of the hand-to-face gestures just mentioned, a negative thought has entered his mind. The question is, what is the negative? It could be doubt, deceit, uncertainty, exaggeration, apprehension or outright lying. The real skill of interpretation is the ability to pick which of the negatives mentioned is the correct one. This can best be done by an analysis of the gestures preceding the hand-to-face gesture and interpreting it in context.

For example, a friend of mine with whom I play chess often rubs his ear or touches his nose during the game, but only when he is unsure of his next move. Recently I noticed some of his other gestures that I can interpret and use to my advantage. I have discovered that when I signal my intention to move a chess piece by touching it, he immediately uses gesture clusters that signal what he thinks about my proposed move. If he sits back in the chair and uses a steepling gesture (confidence), I can assume that he has anticipated my move and may already have thought of a counter move. If, as I touch my chess piece, he covers his mouth or rubs his nose or ear, it means that he is uncertain about my move, his next move or both. This means that the more moves I can make after he has reacted with a negative hand-to-face gesture, the greater my chances of winning.

I recently interviewed a young man who had arrived from overseas for a position in our company. Throughout the interview he kept his arms and legs crossed, used critical evaluation clusters, had very little palm exposure and his gaze met mine less than one-third of the time. Something was obviously worrying him, but at that point in the interview I did not have sufficient information for an accurate assessment of his negative gestures. I asked him some questions about his previous employers in his native country. His answers were accompanied by a series of eye-rubbing and nose-touching gestures and he continued to avoid my gaze. This continued throughout the rest of the interview and eventually I decided not to hire him, based on what is commonly called 'gut feeling'. Being curious about his deceit gestures, I decided to check his overseas referees and discovered that he had given me false information about his past. He probably assumed that a potential employer in another country would not bother to check overseas references and, had I not been aware of non-verbal cues and signals, I might well have made the mistake of hiring him.

During a videotape role play of an interview scene at a management seminar, the interviewee suddenly covered his mouth and rubbed his nose after he had been asked a question by the interviewer. Up to that point in the role-play, the interviewee had kept an open posture with open coat, palms visible and leaning forward when answering questions, so at first we thought it might have been an isolated series of gestures. He displayed the mouth guard gesture for several seconds before giving his answer, then returned to his open pose. We questioned him about the hand-to-mouth gesture at the end of the role play and he said that, when he had been asked the particular question, he could have responded in two ways; one negative, one positive. As he thought about the negative answer and of how the interviewer might react to it, the mouth guard gesture occurred. When he thought of the positive answer, however, his hand dropped away from his mouth and he resumed his open posture. His uncertainty about the audience's possible reaction to the negative reply had caused the sudden mouth guard gesture to occur.

These examples illustrate how easy it can be to misinterpret a hand-to-face gesture and to jump to wrong conclusions. It is only by constant study and observation of these gestures and by having regard to the context in which they occur that one can eventually learn to reach an accurate assessment of someone's thoughts.

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