Fear to be unmasked or to be disbelieved

Face and body, the two channels of non-verbal communication: the first shows emotions; the second the way we cope with them, the way we react to them (1) (2).

Two channels hardly controllable, which are therefore a mirror of what we really feel and of this we must thank our limbic system, fast and essential, which escapes the control of the neocortex brain, just enough to leave those clues so precious for those who decided to devote himself to the interpretation of non-verbal language.

Emotions, therefore, before anything else. It is from them that everything starts, and are them, through their manifestation, that allow us to corroborate, doubt or disprove what is said in words, because in the end we also speak with the body and listen with our eyes.

But if the face and the body reveal the outbreak of an emotion, sometimes fleeting because repressed, and the reaction to it, nothing tells us why this emotion is experienced: we only know that something is happening, but not what has caused it.

This window opened on what, but closed on why, creates a potential interpretation risk for non-verbal communication, especially if you decide by the short way, where the what obscures why so much that we forget that the essence of what is communicated is right there, in the depths reasons that justify why we say what we said.

The risk should not be underestimated, especially where the emotion suddenly caught is a single moment, a sort of fracture in what was and what will be, a fracture that could be just a small perturbation and not, on the contrary, a sign of change, that can warn us about the continuation of communication.

Imagine, for example, that during a conversation, until that moment positive and fruitful, our interlocutor briefly shows, through his facial expressions, an emotion of contempt, which is then followed by a posture that seems to confirm what has been experienced (break on eyes contact, arms folded, ...). In this case our natural reaction could be to ask ourselves what we said to provoke this reaction - after all, until then, everything was going well - without thinking that, perhaps, our interlocutor has simply rethought an unpleasant episode, which had disturbed him, occurred before our meeting.

An even more negative and dangerous effect, resulting from relying only on what, ignoring the why - and here I come to the title of the paper - is when, for any reason, our goal is to understand if our interlocutor is lying or not (an interest that, of course, is not necessarily confined to police interrogation), where the risk of this superficiality of judgment are so well known that it has been classified as "the Othello error", a term used for first time by Paul Ekman in (3) and denoting an error based on the incorrect interpretation of the emotions experienced and manifested by the person whose we want to establish the veracity of his statements.

This error refers directly to the famous William Shakespeare’s tragedy, where Othello, deceived by Iago's plan, believes the betrayal of his wife Desdemona with Cassio and, during the confrontation with her, where she desperately denies the relationship, interprets her emotions as evident manifestation of the fear of having been discovered and not, on the contrary, as fear of not being believed, fear, however, strengthened by the fact that Othello made her believe that he had already killed Cassio, thus making impossible for her to have Cassio further denying the existence of the liaison.

Otello's conviction is so strong that he has rejected the possibility of having misunderstood what Desdemona was saying to him - or rather, of how he was saying it - which, as we well known, will lead him to kill her, only realizing later about the mistake he made.

The problem, unfortunately, is not easy to solve, since access to the reason of an emotion means access to the most private part of our ego, a part that is both conscious and unconscious, so difficult to investigate, and it is not by chance that investigations in this sense are generally part of the activities of psychologists and psychotherapists.

However, since something we must try to do, the only suggestion is not to stop at the first clue, but try to investigate, compatibly with what the context makes it possible, for example trying to reformulate what has just been said and that apparently gave rise to the observed emotion, so as to try to validate it, to verify that it has been proven as part of the discourse and is not, rather, a sort of emotional interruption with respect to it.

Another possibility is to explicitly pass the control to our interlocutor, asking him a question whose sole purpose is to verify if, by replying to it, is it possible to have a confirmation of the manifested emotion; many times, in fact, it happens that the question has the power to interrupt the interlocutor, allowing him to abandon the fleeting thought that caused the emotion.

In conclusion, the strategy is always the same: to seek confirmation or denial of something that has been observed, especially when this something has significant importance, for better or for worse, on what is being said and on the objectives that, based on this say, we hopefully reach. In the end, it is always the age-old battle between appearing and being, where the former can be assumed as a mirror of the second only after careful observation and not, on the contrary, by promoting to a proof what was only a single and weak clue.

Andrea Zinno - De Corporis Voce

Bibliographic references

  1. Allan Pease e Barbara Pease - “The Definitive Book of Body Language” - 2006
  2. Paul Ekman – “Emotions Revealed” – 2007
  3. Paul Ekman - Telling Lies. Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage” - 2009