Everyone gets nervous from time to time. It is an unavoidable fact of life that there will be moments when you feel uneasy or anxious. However, finding the person that is nervous is only half of the battle. It is making the determination whether that behavior fits the baseline or not that is the real challenge.
If you look at the person in this picture with the green circle around him, you will see one way to find people who are acting uncomfortably. By identifying pacifying behavior, we can gain a bit of insight into the mind of those we are watching, and begin to determine why this guy is displaying pacifying behavior.
First, let’s establish the context for this picture, because a picture is only one moment in time and doesn’t always reflect the true situation. This is taken inside of a theater on Broadway in New York City. The outer doors have recently been opened, letting people come into the theater lobby, but people are not yet allowed to enter the theater itself. I was standing on the second floor of the building looking down into the crowd waiting to take their seats when I first identified this person. What made him stand out wasn’t the pacifying behavior that we will analyze in a minute, but the fact that he came in alone and then proceeded to stand in the middle of the lobby.
Whether that makes him an anomaly or just a loner is yet to be determined. When I am observing people, I am constantly searching for behavior that is displayed overtly due to nervous emotions and feelings. When someone is nervous, the limbic system in the brain will recognize that stressor and begin to generate energy that will be used in the flight or fight response that follows. That energy has to go somewhere, so in situations where a person is not going to use it to physically walk away, it manifests itself in what we refer to as Pacifying Behavior.
Some people clench their hands together. Some people will rub their hands on their thighs (if they are seated). Some people will rub the bridge of their nose. Some people will take a really long, drawn out exhale to try and calm themselves back down. Most people usually revert back to just a few types of behavior that have been proven to work for them in the past. These are patterns that we can identify on those we interact with to know when they are feeling stressed. This person has been rubbing and pinching the tips of his fingers for about a minute before I took the picture, which is a relatively long time to display such uncomfortable cues. The reason I felt this was a long time, was because this person could have gone somewhere else, he could have gone to the wall to stand, he could have walked to the bathroom, he could have walked to the gift store, but this person stayed where he was, and kept displaying this type of behavior.
Does this make him an anomaly? I don’t think so, at least not yet. Because he came here alone, he is probably just uncomfortable standing in the middle of a lobby all by himself while being surrounded by people talking in groups. This dynamic has likely just caused him a bit of discomfort.
As we establish clusters of Kinesic cues for people, observing pacifying behavior will often times cause the person to fall into the uncomfortable category. To practice finding this very common telltale sign, put yourself in places where people are likely to be annoyed or nervous. A great place is the DMV. As people stand in line for longs periods of time, it is usually pretty easy to find those that are more anxious than others as their use of pacifying behaviors is well above those around them.
If you are interested about learning more about what we call pacifying behavior, take a look at some of the books on our recommended reading list, I’d definitely recommend What Every Body Is Saying as Joe Navarro talks about the behaviors in great depth. One note I have to make though is that some researchers refer to this type of behavior as “adaptors,” so make sure you don’t skip over a section with that information.