Dangerous Body Language: A Thousand Words...None Spoken! The Nose, Mouth and Lips

By Fred Leland

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 and obvious threatening gesture. 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?”

The nose, mouth and lips:  are critical locations to observe on subjects we deal with in the law enforcement and security professions.  We live by bringing into our system, oxygen. A normal breathing rate is somewhere between 12 and 20 breaths per minute. However when a subject is in a potential conflict, where his freedom may be at stake, and significant increase in breathing rate takes place. When observant you will observe flared nostrils and/or a wide open mouth and the chest rise and fall at a more deeper and rapid pace.  This natural physiological effect opens the mouth and the nostrils flare in an effort to get the oxygenated blood to where it needs to go, the gross motor muscles, lungs, legs, and arms in an effort prepare for the perceived potential fight or flight. 

Lips are another place to watch closely. A subject full of anxiety, lips may curl or tighten in a moment of decision making. Dr. Paul Ekman in his research found the lips take on two different positions in anger. “The lips may be open, either square or rectangular in shape. Or the lips may be tightly closed, lip pressed against lip.” A law enforcement officer, encountering people on the street should watch the nose and mouth as an early warning to a potential attack. In Dr. Ekman’s research, he found that Charles Darwin more than a century ago, noted; “we press our lips tightly together whenever we engage in any strong physical exertion.” One of the strongest indicators Dr. Ekman found was, “the red margin of the lips becomes narrower in anger, the lips become thinner.” He goes on to say, “I have found it to be one of the earliest signs of anger, evident when a person has not yet become aware he is angry.” Steve Cliffe Chief Instructor, Imminent Threat Defense Systems recommends; “placing emphasis on the nostrils over the lips, as they are more likely to be linked to the unconscious physiological responses. The lips you can control more and a fake smile can mask a lot, the nostril expands as the adrenals ramp though and the body oxygenates and demands more so they will flare out of physiological necessity. The smile pick up is really an easy tell if you can read eyes. Watch for the iris dilation and focal point shift as they indicate true social interaction versus asocial disconnect so the smile becomes an easy read in conjunction.”

These subtle signs presented in body language, are linked to the subconscious physiological responses, some more controllable, than others as Steve Cliffe points out above. However it’s important to note; the nose with flaring nostrils starts out subtly in the early stages of contempt or disgust and becomes more pronounced as disgust and contempt turn to anger and even more pronounced as the confrontation turns physical. The lips work much in the same way subtle first and more pronounced at the physical, only the lips start to display earlier and more frequently in conflict as the adversary plots and deceives. In short, plotting and deceiving the lips play a more significant role, impending or actual assault, equals more nose flaring action. Keep in mind, again that clusters or multiple gestures are the key when reading body language. Gestures and micro-expressions are fleeting and continuous and based on persons changing emotions or, attempts to conceal their emotions as you interact with them on the street.

Other potential things too look for is, licking the lips and in combination with shaking or nodding of the head. Shaking of the head in a NO gesture, could possibly mean NO I am not going or nodding in the YES gesture, as in YES your ass is mine. I have also seen the tongue pressed tightly outside the mouth along the lower lip with teeth exposed and biting down, with eyes glaring and focused on you, just prior to a person assaulting. As part of this dangerous body language cluster, you will often see the chin raised and pointed or thrust toward the target of the aggression. Think of boxers squared off in the ring and their corner advising their fighter to; stop leading with your chin. This indicates to me that even the highly trained; have difficulty controlling the body’s natural reactions to fight or flight, even more prevalent and pronounced on the street where the outcome may be life and death.

Observation and orientation, decision and action take on new meaning when we begin to recognize the subtle signs and signals of dangerous body language. Superior situational awareness takes effort to condition, but an effort well worth undertaking in our efforts to outpace a potential adversary on the street.

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!


Be sure to check out more article in the Dangerous Body Language Series Here.