“Don’t Make THAT Face!” Mastering Nonverbal SE

If you follow my work at all, you know that one of my passions is nonverbal communications. In my time and work with Dr. Ekman, I have learned to not put an exact percentage on this next statement, but some researchers claim that even up to 80% of what we say is nonverbally transmitted. Whether its 50, 60, or even 80% — we know it is A LOT.

The interesting part for me is that as important as nonverbal communication is to us as humans, our field of security tends to not focus on how seriously it can affect our work. The wrong nonverbal at the wrong time can send the…. wrong message. And if the wrong message is sent, we can prematurely end our engagements.

For example, we want to build rapport with our targets. Rapport is built by making the target feel you trust them. That feeling releases a chemical called oxytocin into the bloodstream. (1) Trust opens the person up. When this release of oxytocin is followed up by the appropriate level of validation, it will release dopamine into the bloodstream. When this is done naturally and correctly, what is the result? From a nonverbal perspective, we can see it with open ventral displays of body language, natural head tilts, and smiling.

Now, how would you feel if you were doing a near–perfect job at trust building, rapport building, and validation, but when you expected to see this face:

Mastering Nonverbal SE

you were instead met with this face:

Mastering Nonverbal SE

If you are like me, you would be pretty disappointed and even a little concerned.

One of the reasons for this possible incongruence between what you think should happen and what actually happens is your own nonverbal leakage. Nonverbal leakage is when your nerves, your own emotions, or your real beliefs about the target’s beliefs or statements leaks out.

This is hard, if not impossible, to control, especially on topics on which you have a very deep–seated belief.

Enter the “NOT FACE”

A team of researchers from Ohio State University recently got together to perform a study — and they found something quite fascinating.

In their paper titled, “The not face: A grammaticalization of facial expressions of emotion” researchers Benitez-Quiroza, Wilburb, and Martinez found what they are calling a “universal expression” indicating disagreement. (2)

In their test they covered major language and culture groups such as English, Chinese, Spanish, and American Sign Language. In each group they spoke to the person in their native language and asked them questions that would elicit a negative response. They took video recording their faces during the response, then cataloged which muscles moved when answering. All of this allowed them to make this claim of a finding a “not face.”

The “not face” is characterized by a furrowed brow, pressed lips, and raised chin — all indicators of negative stressors. According to Dr. Paul Ekman and other facial expressions researchers, each of these have their place in other expressions, mainly negative: A furrowed brow in seen in anger as well as negative conversational signals. (3) Pursed lips are indicative of stress, disagreement or anger. (4) A raised chin is seen as contempt. (5)

The researchers found that the subjects showed this sign of disagreement whether they were responding verbally in a negative fashion or thinking about the question asked negatively. Some of the images they captured are below, and it is clear that none of the faces show agreement:

What Does This Mean for Social Engineers?

Understanding this is important for you and me since, if we know that we might be interacting with a target that has deep-seated beliefs that are opposing to ours, it would best to prepare ahead of time.

So how can you prepare? A few tips for the budding social engineers out there:

  • Having your pretext planned out will help you prepare the emotional content you should display.

  • Practice the nonverbal display your pretext would be showing.

  • Role play before hand as part of your practice sessions.

  • Don’t overthink it.

  • Most importantly, since this is the way we are made, don’t try to consciously stop yourself from showing nonverbals. Instead, find a common ground, as common ground can help you display appropriate nonverbals.

In the end, you are a human (so I have heard), and humans display nonverbal expressions in response to external stimuli — you can’t stop that, besides using botox (which, by the way, I don’t suggest). Embrace your emotion, learn how to be more conscious while engaging, and think through your responses. All of these tips can help you become a master of what you display.

‘Til next time.

Written By: Chris Hadnagy

“Oxytocin increases trust in humans” (Michael Kosfeld, Markus Heinrichs, Paul J. Zak, Urs Fischbacher & Ernst Fehr)
“The not face: A grammaticalization of facial expressions of emotion.” (C. Fabian Benitez-Quiroza, Ronnie B. Wilburb, Aleix M. Martineza)
“About brows: Emotional and conversational signals” (P. Ekman 1979)
“Facial Sign Of Emotional Experience” (P. Ekman & W. Friesen 1975)
“Emotions Revealed, Second Edition: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life” Dr. Paul Ekman (p. 183 pp 1-2)