Photo: Mark Wemple
Body of Work
An interest in body language led Joe Navarro to become a global expert in reading people
On an April morning in 1961 when Joe Navarro was just 8, he heard the rumble of war planes above his home in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and ran outside to see them. Instinctively, his father knocked him down and coiled his body around the boy to protect him. Sixty miles away, the Bay of Pigs invasion was underway.
Soon after, Navarro’s family fled to Miami, where a young Joe struggled to learn English and fit into his new homeland. He loved books about Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, heroes who were always taking notes of things they were studying. Finding the mannerisms of the people in his new neighborhood interesting, in the evenings the boy would type out the observations from his day, making his own notes. “For me as a child, it was always the non-verbals. I don’t know why, but I just latched onto them. I’d think, ‘That’s a genuine smile’ or ‘Hmm … that’s not a genuine smile.’ Or, ‘Oh, these people don’t want us here,’ and I’d figure out how to navigate a situation, and so forth. I built a reliance on that. I developed that interest based on curiosity. I just became enamored with humans and the things that we do.”
He eventually abandoned his note taking for the life of a typical American teenager, growing into a star high school football player in Miami sought after by more than a dozen universities, only to have violence again send his life spinning in a new direction. While working an afterschool job in security at a department store, Navarro tried to stop a robbery and was stabbed. His injuries were life-threatening. In the months it took him to recover, the athletic scholarship offers vanished. One school, Brigham Young University, offered him a chance to attend while waiting to see if he’d regain his athletic abilities. He never made it back to the field, but he found a new calling in criminology, going on to become one of the youngest FBI agents in the nation at age 23.
Still fascinated by human mannerisms, Navarro caught the attention of higher-ups when his insights on body language helped resolve a child kidnapping case. “It was still not something a lot of emphasis was placed on,” Navarro says. But his ideas took root after being promoted to a counterintelligence unit in New York City, where Navarro used his body language expertise to identify potential international spies. He became one of just six agents in the founding of the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Program and the only agent with an expertise in body language, training his colleagues to sharpen their investigative skills by paying attention to more than a suspect’s words. “In the end, you can’t convict someone on body language. You can only use it to guide an investigation,” Navarro says.
Assigned to the FBI’s Tampa office, Navarro’s skill as an interrogator helped catch former American soldier and spy Rod Ramsay in the late 1980s for selling NATO secrets to the Soviets — a case Navarro detailed in his best-selling book, Three Minutes to Doomsday. When on a routine assignment in Tampa to interview a “person of interest” following the detection of a spy ring in Germany, Navarro noticed Ramsay’s hand trembling slightly when asked about another soldier who had been arrested on espionage charges. The involuntary movement was enough for Navarro to convince his bosses to eventually widen the investigation, leading to Ramsay’s arrest and conviction. Navarro also was a case agent in the 2000 arrest of retired Army Reserve Col. George Trofimoff, who spied for the Soviets in Germany during the Cold War and evaded detection for decades. The Florida retiree was the highest-ranking American officer ever convicted of espionage.
Retired since 2003 and still living in Tampa, Navarro has spent the past two decades churning out books on how to understand body language and personality types; writing a blog for Psychology Today, where some entries have more than a million views; appearing on network morning shows; and coaching business leaders around the world. In recent years, Navarro earned another unusual title: YouTube star. Collaborating with Wired magazine on a video series, one episode racked up 42.5 million views alone. His tips on body language have practical application beyond catching spies and negotiating business deals. “You can have a poker face, but you can’t have a poker body,” he says.
Read an excerpt of Sabrina L. Miller’s interview with Navarro at FloridaTrend.com/bodylanguage.
There are things this retired FBI agent knows just by looking at you.
Without you saying a word and only with the slightest gesture, or the squint of your eyes or a twitch of your nose, Joe Navarro can detect if you are anxious, happy or scared. The way you stand lets him know if you are a confident person. After a quarter-century as an FBI counterintelligence agent — during which he conducted thousands of interviews and interrogations and earned the reputation as one of the agency’s best spy catchers — what Navarro can’t prove from body language is if you are lying. “There’s not one single behavior that indicates deception,” he says.
The longtime Tampa resident says what most people don’t realize is their brain’s limbic system is more in control of their body language than they are. It’s a part of the brain that evolved from the earliest humans and carries over reactive movements from the time people communicated with gestures rather than spoken words and while trying to survive predators. Ever wonder why you instinctively cover your mouth when you see something shocking? Navarro says that goes back to when our ancestors didn’t want to attract the attention of predators by breathing.
Navarro bases his teachings on peer-reviewed science from the world’s leading academics in anthropology, psychology and other disciplines, and at times collaborates with them on academic research projects. His first book, What Every BODY is Saying, in 2008, remains the best-selling body language book in the world and has been translated into 29 languages. His 2021 book, Be Exceptional, focuses on the traits that set effective leaders apart.
Since 2007, Navarro has lectured on body language at Harvard Business School to MBA students. “When you are trying to recruit someone to work for you — let’s say I was trying to get a Russian to work for the U.S. — I would use non-verbal (techniques) to communicate that I was trustworthy and honest, all the things you would use in business,” he says.
“I’ve had executives tell me now ‘I can’t read (people), Joe. What do I look for?’ We can look for the arching eyebrows. Even the smile, a genuine smile engages the corners of the eyes, the head tilt is engaging; it’s powerful. What we forget is that we are always subconsciously decoding others.”
Projecting confidence comes natural to some leaders, but for everyone else it’s a skill to be learned. Navarro coaches his clients on how to adopt the movements of confident people well beyond the power pose. Confident people have smooth and broad movements, he says. “Confidence can be quiet,” he says. But behind the relaxed demeanor needs to be plenty of preparation — do your homework, he advises. Be prepared to answer questions and have a command of the knowledge at hand while moderating the loudness of your voice and the pace of your speech. One of his most useful lessons involves a simple gesture he says all negotiators should know. “It’s steepling — where the fingers are together — this is the most powerful gesture we have of confidence,” he says. If you are negotiating and want to “demonstrate to the other side that you are not moving from a number, just steeple.”
Our bodies reflect comfort and discomfort in real time. Relaxed face muscles, a smooth forehead and a smile project to others that all is well. But the very second there is psychological discomfort, it begins to register in the forehead and eyes. Someone tucking down her chin has just experienced discomfort, and if it’s an emotional discomfort the chin will begin to vibrate. Covering your eyes is another sign of psychological discomfort. “The arching of the eyebrows is our exclamation point,” he says.
While you may not notice if someone’s pupils are widening or narrowing, your brain does, he says. Also disconcerting, devious people will often project one emotion from one side of their face and an opposite emotion from the other side — telegraphing conflicting expressions. “We never stop communicating with our faces. It’s constantly telegraphing our emotions and our sentiments.”
We think of clutching pearls as an expression of shock and dismay, but the physical action of moving your hand to your neck is really a defensive motion, Navarro says. It’s another gesture that’s been held over from when early humans witnessed large cats and wild dogs take down their prey. “Three behaviors are associated with large felines: The first was if we saw anything that threatens us, we would freeze. If you ran, it would initiate the ‘chasetrip- bite’ sequence. To this day if you get bad news or you see something frightening, you freeze. The second thing we do is we cover our mouth when we see something shocking. That was so that predators would not hear us breathing and to stop the particulates released into the air (from breathing), so they couldn’t tell where you were. The third is the neck covering. These are shortcuts that we take, we don’t think about them. But they have evolved with us because of large predators.”
Head and Hands
Upper body language in this age of virtual meetings can make or break an impression. The neck, shoulder, hands and thumbs especially are effective in communicating. Scared people will instinctively tuck their thumbs in, another leftover from primitive humans who wanted to protect their opposable thumbs while fleeing a predator.
A more modern challenge is video conferencing, especially when it comes to hiring. “The early comments from a lot of CEOs and HR people were that they were trying to hire somebody, but for the first time they can only see this much (head and torso) of their body, and we miss all that other information that helps with getting a read on somebody,” he says. “We didn’t realize how important that was. People are unsettled right now when it comes to hiring because they can’t really see the hands anymore.”
Trust Your Gut
“Most of the observations we make are made subconsciously; the gut feeling is very accurate. Most people don’t realize that the vagus nerve is directly connected from the brain stem down to the stomach,” Navarro says. “As we are processing information subconsciously, it registers viscerally in that gut feeling.”