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Fact vs. Fiction: We Can’t Always Decode Nonverbals

Danielle Bertini, LPC

There are countless examples in the media, especially related to celebrities, in which a story is posted about something they are doing and make reaching judgments about what is going on. For example, a story was posted about Prince William in which he was “caught” giving the middle finger to onlookers. A journalist wrote, “You can even see a look of smug confidence on his face too.” Oops; that was actually a profile shot. From a more direct angle, Prince William was actually holding up three fingers, one for each of his children (‘Viral Pic of Prince William’, 2018). The reality of what happened sends a very different message than what was decoded in the photograph. Situations like this can happen in many different contexts. Certain hand signs can signal very different messages in different countries. What is a sign of respect in one country might actually be a sign of disrespect in another. Nodding the head means “no” in some cultures. Crossed arms can have multiple meanings. Eye contact or its absence can mean different things in different contexts. Police officers sometimes think people are reaching for guns when they’re not.

The list of decoding failures is endless, especially when looking at snapshots. Even reading emotions from faces is harder than most people think. The six “universal” emotions are not so universally recognized as once thought. Part of the problem related to this is because most of the early research was based on pose photographs (Stalder, 2018). When researchers then switched to spontaneous, on-the-spot expressions, facial-decoding accuracy rates dropped significantly. Early research also had participants pick the correct emotion from a short list of possibilities. However, when researchers switched from multiple-choice to an open-ended format, accuracy rates also dropped (Stalder, 2018).
When looking at nonverbal cues, it also largely a myth that we can accurately detect deception from them. Most people (experts included) are no better than 50-50 in detecting lies, despite their beliefs to the contrary (Stalder, 2018).

However, of course, there are times when our nonverbal decoding is accurate. Some gestures are clear, within a culture or context. Plenty of police officers read potential suspects correctly. We do have some ability to read emotions from faces. With this is mind, it is important to be aware of the “above-average effect,” which means that most of us think we are better than average when really only about half of us can be.
Although it can be bleak to think that the plentiful amount of articles related to nonverbal cues is oversold, there is importance in facing that truth. It is all too easy to think we can read someone when we can’t, and this can lead us to be too quick to take offense and criticize. An important piece of material to take away from this information is to try to avoid making any interpersonal judgments based on nonverbals alone. Avoid trying to think you can know what somebody is thinking or feeling just from looking at them. It’s important to also look at the context, and if possible, use your verbals to listen and talk to the individual.

If you need help with your communication, you may benefit from seeing a Chicago therapist. Contact Symmetry Counseling for a psychologist in Chicago.


Stalder, D. R. (2018, July 25). The Bias of Thinking You Can Nonverbally Decode. Retrieved from
Viral Pic Of Prince William ‘Giving The Middle Finger’ Isn’t At All What It Seems. (2018, April 28).
Retrieved from

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