Body language: Gestures of the head and neck

By Hanan Parvez

The head nod

Nodding the head almost everywhere in the world means ‘Yes’ and shaking the head from side to side means ‘No’. A slight head nod is used as a greeting gesture, especially when two people greet each other from a distance. It sends the message, ‘Yes, I acknowledge you’.

The speed and frequency with which a person nods when you’re talking to them can convey different meanings. 

Slow nodding means the person is listening very intently and is deeply interested in what you’re saying. Fast nodding means the listener is telling you non-verbally, ‘I've heard enough, let me speak now’. 

You might have noticed how people sometimes nod their heads quickly before they interrupt a speaker and then, after interrupting, eagerly make their own point.

If the nodding or shaking of the head is not congruent with what the person is saying then you're well-advised to be suspicious. For example, during a conversation if a person says, ‘It sounds good’ or ‘Okay, let’s go for it’ while shaking his head from side to side then it's clear that he does not mean what he's saying.

When non-verbal signals contradict verbal messages you should always prefer the former because they cannot be easily manipulated and so are more likely to be true.

The head tilt

Tilting the head to the side communicates the message that a person is interested in what he’s seeing or listening to. It's a submission gesture that is commonly used by women when they're in the company of someone they like or are simply interested in the ongoing conversation. 

If you see someone tilting their head to the side while you're talking, know that they either like you or like what you're talking about or both. To test which one it is try changing the topic of the conversation. If they're still tilting their head then it's a clear indication they're interested in you more than the conversation.

interested woman

By tilting the head to the side, the person is exposing to you a vulnerable part of their body- the neck. Many canines including dogs lie down and expose their necks while confronting a more dominant canine to signal ‘defeat’, ending the fight without any physical aggression or bloodshed. 

When someone tilts their head in your presence, they're non-verbally telling you, ‘I trust you not to harm me’. Interestingly, if you tilt your head while speaking, the listener will trust your words more. This is why politicians and people at other top leadership positions that require the support of people tilt their heads frequently while addressing the masses.

This gesture is also used by a person when they're looking at something they don't understand, like a complex painting or a strange gadget. In this case, they're just trying to change the angle of their eyes to get a better/different view. Keep the context in mind to figure out the correct meaning.

Chin positions

The neutral position of the chin is the horizontal position. If the chin is lifted above the horizontal, it means the person is displaying superiority, fearlessness or arrogance. By lifting the chin up, the person is trying to increase their height so that they can ‘look down through their nose’ at someone. 

In this case, the person is exposing their neck not in a submissive way but in a way that says, 'I dare you to harm me'.

When the chin is positioned below the horizontal, it can signal that the person is sad, dejected or shy. It's an unconscious attempt to lower one’s height and status. This is why our heads 'hang' in shame and don't 'rise' in shame. 

It can also mean that the person is engaged in self-talk or feeling an emotion very deeply.

When the chin is down and pulled back, it means the person is feeling threatened or judgmental in a negative way. It's as if they're being symbolically punched in the chin by the source of their threat and so have it pulled backwards as a defensive measure. Also, it partially hides the vulnerable front portion of the neck.

This gesture is common in groups when a stranger joins the group. The person who feels that the stranger will steal their attention does this gesture.

When someone feels disgust, they pull their chin backwards because they're judging the situation negatively. Tell someone you had worms for breakfast. If they believe you you’ll see them pulling their chin backward.

disgusted man
'Worms, yuckkk'
The head toss

This is again a submission gesture that is commonly done by women when they're in the company of someone they like. The head is tossed backward for a fraction of a second, flipping the hair, and then returning to the original position. Besides exposing the neck, this gesture is used as an attention grabbing signal for a male communicating the message, ‘notice me’.

If a group of women is chatting and suddenly an attractive male appears on the scene, you might notice the women doing this gesture almost instantaneously.

Women also sometimes do this gesture to move hair away from their face or eyes while they're working on something so keep in mind the context before you draw any serious conclusions.

Swallowing

When someone hears a bad news or is about to say something unpleasant, you’ll notice a subtle swallowing movement on the front portion of their neck. Sometimes this swallowing movement is also accompanied by a brief closure of the mouth almost as if the person is actually trying to swallow something. 

This is very noticeable in men because their frontal neck area is usually large and it's even more noticeable in those having a large Adam’s apple.

This neck movement basically signals a strong emotion. It's mostly fear, sometimes sadness and other times deep love or even deep joy.

When a person is crying or weeping you'll notice this neck movement frequently. So, any situation that makes a person feel like wanting to cry, however slightly, can trigger this neck movement. 

You’ll notice this movement when a doctor is about to announce bad news to a family, when a person admits his mistake to a friend, when someone is afraid that he'll be caught, etc. 

You might also notice it when a mountaineer climbs to the top of a mountain and looks at the magnificent scenery with tears of joy in his eyes or when someone says 'I love you' and means it. 



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