Our unspoken language of love is universal. The postures, gestures, and facial cues of attraction are everywhere the same, in all societies and cultures. A case in point is: An affectionate mother moves her face to within inches of her baby’s face and positions her eyes in parallel alignment with her baby’s eyes for optimal eye contact. Her face gaze completely captivates the newborn, stops its crying, and nurtures a strong mother-child bond. Pediatricians view face communication as a sort of “mating dance.” Mother and child gaze in seeming rapture, synchronize their body movements, and imitate each other’s facial expressions to enhance compatibility and build rapport.
Affectionate couples move their faces within inches of each other’s face, lock eyes, and gaze deeply to show their love. Figuratively, they become each other’s baby.
If the language of love is universal, you might wonder why we need a field guide to decipher it. One reason is that people postpone marriage in favor of careers today. As a result, they have problems attracting partners who are older, wiser, busier—and choosier. Thirty-somethings are less automatically smitten than they were as youths in high school. Another reason is that divorced men and women feel out of practice. They have trouble decoding the love signals they received earlier in their teens and twenties. Many, who avoided flirting after marriage, find it hard to shift gears and flirt again. In large metropolitan areas thousands of eligible partners await the attention of complete strangers. In the past—in rural areas—people were more likely to romance familiar folk who were known to be “safe.” Unacquainted couples often had matchmakers to ease them through the psychological barrier of stranger anxiety.
The dating scene is different today. Urban singles find themselves surrounded by strangers. Some use video dating services, go on cruises, run personal ads in newspapers, or search the Internet. Many find that interacting with people who are unfamiliar can be uncomfortable, unpredictable, even unsafe. Is that woman sincere? Is she telling the truth? Can I trust this man? Is he genuine? Is he dangerous? What clues should I look for?
Answers to these questions lie not in words, which can be deceptively manipulated, but in more candid, unedited signs from our faces, bodies, and hands. As you will see, the body’s unspoken script reveals volumes about hidden agendas, feelings, and fears. Estimates of what percentage of our total communication is nonverbal range from 60 to 93 percent. In love, the percentage of emotional communication that is nonverbal exceeds 99 percent. When it comes to emotions, instead of verbalizing how we feel, our bodies do the talking.
What Do Hands Say?
A case in point is hands, which attract special notice in romance and love. We find fingers, palms, and wrists incredibly appealing to look at. Dedicated centers in our temporal lobes, the cerebral lobes located just above our ears on either side of the brain, respond exclusively to hand shapes. Both men and women are unconsciously alert to the physical appearance of each other’s hands and digits as well as to their expressive shapes and gestures.
Showing an upraised open palm is universally friendly. Recognized around the world, this inviting hand gesture says, “You may approach.” Women find men’s hands and wrists most attractive. In courtship, display them with rolled-up sleeves.Holding a jacket slung over the shoulder displays the masculine forearm, wrist, and hand.
The Body Language of Strangers
Presenting a friendly, open palm is an effective way to break through stranger barriers. The stranger barrier evolved millions of years ago to protect us from being harmed by potentially dangerous, unknown human beings. Xenophobia (xenos is Greek for “stranger,” and phobos for “fear”) is a common human condition. Every culture mistrusts the stranger in its midst, and each of us experiences mild-to-moderate wariness around newcomers and outsiders—even those we find attractive.
Someone you have not properly met makes you feel uneasy and self-conscious. The anxious feeling is perfectly normal.As a stranger approaches, your palms may turn cold as the sympathetic nervous system constricts blood vessels in your hands. Your level of blood adrenaline rises, and your palms sweat enough to register a galvanic-skin, or polygraph, response. For some, enough perspiration is released during courtship to make a friendly handshake too embarrassing.
Stranger anxiety starts in infancy, between five and nine months of age, along with a general apprehension of almost anything new. It is to our advantage to be cautious about picking up strange objects—or about being picked up by strange adults. Wariness protects us from harm.
Though it subsides in childhood, fear of strangers never fully goes away. Stranger anxiety runs especially high in romance. It’s what keeps you from asking someone you don’t know out on a date. Nonverbally, stranger anxiety shows in gaze-aversion when a partner’s eyes shift away from you to one side, in lip-biting mannerisms, and in tightly in-rolled or compressed lips.
An Expression You Should Never Show
A stranger’s presence prompts the brain’s amygdala, a primitive arousal center located at the front of our temporal lobes, to produce the tensed jaws, tightened lips, and lowered eyebrows that signal unease about meeting someone new. Though you might like the nice-looking stranger to come a little closer, your face and body discourage the move with subtly discouraging messages that seem to say “Stay away.”
Stranger anxiety may trigger an aversive facial expression called the tongue show. In tongue-showing, the tongue protrudes slightly and just the tip shows between the lips. The tongue show has been decoded as a socially negative sign in gorillas and human beings. A gorilla pushed from his favorite seat on a log, or a man entering a roomful of strangers, unwittingly shows the tongue in “displeasure.” The tongue show, a defensive sign children use when approaching strange adults, has been deciphered by researchers as an antisocial cue that means “Don’t bother me.”
Seeing a tongue show, clenched jaw, or furrowed brow may keep you from approaching someone new at a party. You may suppose she finds you unattractive or imagine he finds something eccentric about your ankle tattoo. Understanding the psychology of stranger anxiety should reassure you that an unwilling face says little about you personally. At the very beginning of a relationship, your partner knows nothing about you. Your only fault is that you are momentarily a stranger, and this fact alone should not keep you from moving closer.
Attracting with Your Eyebrows
An appealing way to greet someone new is with a universal sign biologists call the eyebrow flash of recognition. This cue is decoded everywhere as a sign of friendship and goodwill. You make eye contact, smile, lift both eyebrows, and briefly glance away. The eyebrow raise is a positive signal that says “I’m happy to see you.” Gazing away suggests you expect nothing in return. When combined, the two eye messages make your greeting emotionally unconditional. You neither pressure nor wait for a response in kind. As your face becomes familiar, your persona is better liked.