Closed body postures, like hands hiding in pockets, indicate insecurity which we subconsciously associate with lying.
Closed body positions, as we know, give off bad signals in general. When in a high pressure situation, closing the body off in any way may lead people to think that you have something to hide. Tucking the chin in, pulling the arms closer to the body, crossing the legs, turning the body away, and taking on a less threatening profile are all attributed to lying. Another less obvious clue to being closed-off, is to subconsciously place an object between the liar and interrogator, such as a book, brief case, or any other “security-blanket.”
As we all know of course, closed body positions like the majority of the signals associated with liars is in fact due to the stress, fear and hence nervousness of the interrogation. When “under attack” we close up our bodies to make it appear smaller and less significant to draw less attention to it, which is a way to protect our bodies in case the interrogation escalates into a physical attack. While most cultures prohibit physical force during everyday encounters, we still have the mental hardwiring that programs us to foresee physical violence, never mind the fact that a verbal threat is just as embarrassing and visceral as any physical confrontation. Threatening language puts our minds at risk to long term emotional damage, no different than being threatened by physical conflict. In our daily lives accusatory situations, verbal threats, and scolding, ranks near the top as far as the sorts of harm we endure throughout our lives. This is why we see our bodies react through body language to emotional threats, as well as to the possibility of being uncovered as cheats and liars.
When a child lies, she might bring her hand up quickly and slap her mouth closed, but when an adult lies, she holds back and might only lightly touch the side of the mouth.
Mouth covering is another way to reduce the pain of telling a lie. In this case, it is so as to “speak no evil.” Small children perform a full cover and even slap their mouths when they say something they shouldn’t. Grown adults will sometimes cup their hands to their mouths like children in effort to “jam the words back in their mouths” but usually use more subtle gestures such as talking through their hand or placing a finger softly over their lips. Talking with ones hand covering the mouth “talking through the hand” or resting the hand around the mouth by wrapping the fingers around the top, are significant clues indicating insecurity.
Subconsciously, hand-to-mouth gestures leads people to distrust others, and see them as less honest overall. The gesture can be done with a fist, a finger, or a ‘shushing’ motion with the index finger vertically placed over the lips. Other times the subconscious mind is so powerful that the hand comes up and slaps the mouth, but to cover this ‘tell’ up, a fake cough is added.
We often take for granted our office layout which is understandable, but another nonverbal channel also exists, and that is the artifacts it contains. While we might not personally pay particular attention to these objects, visitors will use the information to make decisions about your personality and traits. Diplomas, certificates and awards on walls all provide clues to the office owner. Excessive accolades spells out to others an outward looking individual seeking to dominant and dazzle others by their achievements (usually attributed to them by the opinions of others). Pay particular attention to awards that might be less than prestigious as this might mean they are poorly accomplished, but trying to play it up. Usually someone that is more subtle will only hold their highest award rather than all awards leading up to it. For example, I know of one particular aesthetician who has ten neatly framed awards on her salon walls for miniscule achievements during her one year study. In this sense, small accolades detract from a persons perceived status and shows insecurity instead.
Tidiness is another factor. A cluttered office shows busyness and importance, but only up to a certain limit. When hygiene becomes a factor, it’s time to clean up! An overly tidy office can show obsessive tendencies negating any positive feelings. Thus, a mixture of clutter and tidiness is likely best as it conveys busyness and importance but avoids the negative feelings of an overly sanitized office. Also consider richness of furnishings such as desks and chairs, the view (or having windows at all), the size and location, the type and level of lighting, degree of privacy, having plants and so forth. What research that does exist on lighting shows that brightness has a more positive affect on friendliness than does more subdued lighting. Also consider the ability or lack of ability to personalize a particular space. Lower ranking workers are often not permitted this luxury.
Personal items, like family or pet photographs shows a strong family orientation whereas artwork can provide clues to interests. For example, fishing or nature photographs for people interested in the outdoors and adventure, city backdrops to someone with a metropolitan interest, or beaches for those interested in leisure. Paying particular attention to these variations can provide clues to someone’s interests, and when building rapport quickly is required, it can spell the difference between success and failure.
In effort to research a better handshake I shook hands with a door to door salesman (against my primary instincts), my ex-employer, my father and brother in-law, my dentist, a lawyer, my accountant, my wife’s boss, my friends wife, my new tenants and thirty other potential tenants that came for a look, a real estate agent and his brother, a doctor, a university professor, a banker, my mortgage broker, a waiter and two new guys that showed up for poker night. In that time I’ve had just about everything imaginable done to my hand. It was twisted, crushed, pulled, slapped and rotated and lovingly held. My arm was hugged, pushed, rigorously pumped and yanked practically out of its socket.
From what little research exists on handshakes, the conclusion is that most people aren’t aware of what they are doing when they shake hands and so don’t know how their handshakes appear to others. The next time you get a chance, ask others what they thought of your handshake. Perhaps you carry some of the following traits in your handshake unintentionally.
Here’s a breakdown of the various bad handshakes that I have, and that you (hopefully won’t) experience:
1. The death grip
2. The cold dead wet fish
3. The limp fish
4. Short grabber/finger grabber
5. Stiff arm and trust forward
6. Wrench forward controller
7. Arm twister
8. Over pumper
9. Double gripper politician
10. The teacup
11. The undershaker
12. The oddball
The death grip 1: Those that employ a macho bone crushing grip have aggressive personalities and intend to try to dominant you from the start and while this is true, the origins of this handshake and personality usually lies in insecurity that fosters a need to prove himself at every instant. It says “I have the power over you and can cause you pain if I so desire.” They have no regard for how others perceive them and use pain to put people in their place. Rings on the fingers can make matters even worse, and I think they know it! You can put these people in their place by verbalizing your pain, and drawing other people’s attention to it jokingly. Most people wont have enough confidence to be vocal about it, which is how the death gripper gets his power, but if done properly can make others laugh and set yourself apart.
Instead of using bone crushing force, use moderate pressure and when in doubt match the pressure given by the other person to signify a desire for cooperation. If you wish to set the tempo in a relationship, then deliver only slightly more pressure than them. When applying for a job, a bone crushing handshake should be avoided at all costs. You do not want to send a dominant or hostile message to your potential boss.
The cold dead wet fish 2: The dead wet fish is another particularly disgusting handshake and it portrays negative emotions to anyone that receives it. Nervousness causes sweat or even a cold drink that is condensing causes our hands to become damp and clammy which is a turnoff to others who receive this nasty treat. Sometimes the hands simply sweat continuously and uncontrollably from a medical condition called hyperhidrosis which affects about five percent of the population. If you are meeting a large amount of people, as in a cocktail party, holding a drink in the left hand, rather than the right, is a good practice to keep it properly aired out and dry. Storing a napkin in the pocket can also help in wiping your hands discreetly before handshakes, but even absent of a napkin, wiping them on the inside of the leg inside a pant pocket can serve the trick. Women who usually lack attire with pockets can lightly wipe their hands on their clothing discretely, use a napkin that holds food, or better yet or make a few trips to the washroom if the problem is particularly severe. Keeping the hands out of your pockets is good advice too, since the added heat and moisture will only make matters worse. Sometime moisture issues are unavoidable and rather than dwelling on them raising anxiety further, it is better to focus on aspects that are more controllable such as pressure and connectivity.
The limp fish 3: The flaw in the limp fish handshake is that it has far too little pressure – the handshake has “no bones.” It can be so ineffective it is as though one is shaking the hand of a five-year-old and usually comes from people who are ill at ease with shaking hands and touching in general. The limp fish handshake comes from people who submit the handshake ritual but who find the handshake as a violation of their personal space. The credibility of this handshake is very low and makes people think that you are shy or timid, lack masculinity and interest, confidence, leadership or have poor people skills. You are far less likely to gain employment for positions requiring dominant traits such as management. Men also might resort to the limp fish when shaking hands with women, but this is a mistake. Today, women expect the same treatment that men do, so give them the respect they deserve and don’t let up, give a good firm handshake. When shaking hands always try to match grip pressure to the other person unless of course they have a weak handshake. If that’s the case, apply slightly more pressure, there is no need to overdue it. If you really wish to send a submissive handshake you can do so by letting up slightly, but be careful not to seem like a push-over.
Short grabber/finger grabber 4: Someone that grabs your fingers rather than your entire hand is trying to keep you at your distance and also put you in your place. Short grabbers are usually insecure but often try to hide this by coming off as dominant. If they add a crushing action in addition to the finger tip grab they are trying to send and even stronger message by displaying their physical power over you. Crushing is used to put a bit of fear into their partners so as to dismiss the likelihood of any future challenge against them. If by chance you accidentally grab the fingers of someone else which can happen when men shake hands with women, you can vocally suggest doing the handshake over again. A simple “sorry, that didn’t quite work, let’s give it another go” will suffice. This will show that you are concerned about starting off on the right foot to properly set the tone for the relationship.
Stiff arm and thrust forward 5: The stiff arm thrust forward happens when someone grabs your hand then pushes you backwards putting you off balance. It’s a common occurrence for those trying to maintain their distance. Take for example a city slicker and a country farmer who meet for the first time. The farmer might accept the handshake even though a wave would be more appropriate for their comfort and to keep his space will push his arm forward shoving the city slicker back. This sort of handshake can happen anytime a person requires more space than their partner and this isn’t always people from the country.
Wrench forward 6: Unlike the thrust forward, the wrench forward handshaker will pull people into their personal space. This is done by people who require less personal space. It happens during a normal handshake except that a person pulls sharply toward them forcing you off balance and moving you into their personal space. People who shakes hands in this way are trying to control the other person by moving them into their personal space against their will. They feel that they can influence them more efficiently by making them uncomfortable. They are also setting the other person off balance making them unable to properly respond. Another variation exists too where someone might pull you forward toward a chair, or move you to one side of the room as they desire. Someone that shakes hands like this is trying to set the tone for the relationship by controlling where you move next. Obviously, this is a sign that they want to dominate you.
Arm twister 7: The arm twister happens like any other normal handshake except that part way through the hand is twisted underneath into the submissive palm up position. Someone who does this is absolutely committed to being on top. Sometimes a dominant handshaker will also offer their palm facing upwards almost vertically making it nearly impossible to gain the upper hand position. An arm twister is someone that wants to dominate the relationship from the start, so your tactics should be adjusted accordingly. In future encounters, attempts should be made to rotate the palm back to an even, vertical position.
Over pumper 8: This guy thinks handshakes are like pulling water from a well. Your arm is not only vigorously pumped up and down and with force, but it’s done more than what anyone would call normal. Three pumps is recommended and usual, but up to seven can still be acceptable. However, more than ten or fifteen is getting excessive and the pumping action should never seem out of ordinary or particularly violent.
Double gripper politician 9: The double gripper where both hands are used to sandwich the other persons hand is the “politician’s handshake”. It’s an intimate handshake but in the wrong company can be taken as insincere and create negative feelings for the same reason it creates positive feelings when used by politicians – because it breaks privacy boundaries. Politicians and celebrities and other high status people are afforded greater luxuries than the rest of the population, which is why we tolerate and even encourage them to kiss our babies! However, even in politicians, touching is carefully calculated and practiced. The double handshake happens when the right hand’s join followed by the left hand placed (almost) lovingly over the right hand as if to form a glove. The higher up is the placement of the hand, the more intimate. We would only use this once a strong relationship has been formed to show affection or a deep desire to make amen’s. It might also be used to strike a particularly lucrative deal that both parties feel will greatly help each other. In everyday use, the double grip handshake has little place and instead of conveying positive emotions arouses suspicion and doubt. Other forms of touching during a handshake include the elbow, shoulder, upper arm or the wrist. These are fairly advanced ways of shaking hands and reserved for more aggressive and experienced handshakers. The higher up the touching occurs, the more intimate it is so can appear as a personal space invasion. The shoulder grip is the most intense form of intimacy used during handshakes and should be used only with those you have a strong emotional tie.
Secondary to the double gripper politician but not a category onto itself is a handshake that happens as normal except the inside of the wrist is stroked with the index finger during the hand shake pump. If this happens to you, you’re bound to feel shocked, as are most people as it was by design. This person is trying to evoke a visceral feeling in you that they have the upper hand and can do as they please. Think of the wrist tickler as a nonverbal way to assault but that is so subtle that no one else will notice except the person experiencing it. Be very weary of folks that try this handshake on you as they are definitely playing psychological mind games and may try to pull a fast one on you.
The teacup 10: This handshake is conducted like any other good handshake except that the palm is cupped such that it makes no contact with the other palm. Someone that shakes hands like this is either shy or insecure, doesn’t want to fully bond or is trying to hide something. These people might take more time to open up and fully reveal their true selves to others. Take your time with them and give them lots space to open up and instead of bantering on endlessly give them an open platform to express themselves.
The undershaker 11: This handshake is so quick, it’s actually offensive. It lasts merely seconds where the hand is quickly grabbed then released or tossed aside. Sometimes it even lacks any pumping action at all. Someone who shakes hands like this is showing indifference and suspicion, perhaps they feel you are trying to sell them something they aren’t at all interested in. Other times they are trying to signal that you are intruding on their ground and that no agreement will be made. It’s probably best to respect their wishes, as their initial impression shows that you have come on far too strong. Other times the undershaker resides in an area where physical contact isn’t normal and they aren’t used to shaking hands so don’t know how to properly handle it.
The Oddball 12: This is the sort of handshake your teenage son or daughter comes home with in effort to confusing the heck out of you! It’s the handshake that has you saying “You do what with what, then what?!?” It often includes bumps, slaps, flicks and clicks. This is a fine handshake amongst casual friends, but please avoid this on a job interview or with other employees. It does however, display a relaxed atmosphere and has its place to form intimate friendships and bonds.
This chapter focused on emotional body language. We began by discussing New York style body language called “displacement behaviour.” We saw that displacement behaviours include actions set to preoccupy in order to dehumanize the outside world – especially in more crowded areas. The list of behaviours included nail biting, gum chewing, grooming, tapping the does, head scratching or playing with jewelry, but can also mean looking and acting ‘out of touch’ or closed off.
Next, “fight or flight” was finally shifted to “freeze, flight or fight” finally putting it into the proper order. Following this was clenching behaviour where we found that actions such as gripping the wrist of the opposite hand in behind the back, or wringing the hands out like a wet article of clothing, are forms of restraint. We also hit on nervous hands and how shaking can tell us a lot about what sort of emotions a person is experiencing.
We then moved onto poor self image and the language that tells. Here we found that auto contacts including stroking the beard, rubbing the hands, tugging the ear, massaging the throat, pulling the fingers, rubbing the back of the neck and so forth, are linked to insecurity since they attempt to provide reassurance. We hit on eyebrow lowering and that when they are permanently lowered by the newly incarcerated it signifies easy prey for existing inmates. Interlaced fingers and palm finger stroking, on the other “hand”, were both labeled as emitted by those with negative thoughts. In the section on suckling and mouthing we saw that the mouth and lips provide a target for tactile gratification to provide comfort. Here we saw that anytime the fingers go to the mouth or lips to suckle, that our target is regressing to an infantile stage, and is trying to regain the security they felt as a child.
We found that compressed lips indicate stress, down-turned smile unhappiness, anger or tension, and lip pursing indicates that a thought, usually negative, is being processed. We found that tongues can depict deep concentration or a cheeky attitude, and that sneering signals contempt, disapproval and disrespect the world over. Ear language was covered next and we learned that ear grabbing refers to “hearing no evil” showing disbelief or an attempt to close off communication by blocking the ears. Hostile body language, on the other hand, was found to be more similar to sexual body language, but only in so much as the body language showed through figuratively onto ourselves when we would much rather inflict it onto others. Examples of such hostile body language included pulling or pinching at one’s own ears, cheeks, hair, or face. Next we covered the sequence by which bodies reject and then how they relax.
We discovered that the neck becomes particularly sensitive under pressure and like the cheeks, it becomes red and engorged with blood when we become nervous. Thus when people are under pressure they tend to touch or cover it so as to pacify. Women also tend to cover their “suprasternal notch” when they are experiencing anxiety. We found that people who don’t cross their legs are generally uncomfortable because crossing significantly reduces the ability to act quickly during confrontation and exit. Next we found that the eyes and the body can block unwanted thoughts and images, that blushing indicates emotion and anxiety, and that asymmetry can show when emotions are faked, gravity defying behaviours means people are happy, and that there are six universal facial expressions. We learned that asymmetry is what tells us honest expressions from fake ones. We also discovered that everyone, no matter how extroverted, requires emotional downtime, that timid people will cocoon and that guilty people will turtle. We also found in this chapter that full body hugs, where the chest and hips make contact, shows sexual intimacy, and that light hugs, where the shoulders touch shows friendship. Lastly we covered the “hug-ender cue” or the “tap out” that tells others that the hug has run its full course and one party wishes to submit. We concluded with a list of additional emotional body language.
Stroking can take on many forms and depending on context can indicate the need for comfort.
Emotional body language can arise anytime the hands touch the face, neck, shoulder, arm, hand, or leg as a direct response to negative events. These negative events can be anything from an embarrassing or sexist joke, being put on the spot, having to present to an audience or being asked a difficult question. When viewing emotional body language keep in mind that men tend to touch their faces more often, whereas women prefer to touch their hair, arms, neck, clothing or jewelry. Men also tend to be more aggressive with their gestures and will tend to cup their necks just below their chins or will stroke the back of their necks with their fingers. They might also be seen adjusting their tie or a shirt collar when no such adjustment is required. On the other hand women will grab or play with a necklace or cover the part of the neck just below the Adam’s apple and above the breast bone. Emotional manipulation can serve to calm by reducing blood pressure and lowering the heart rate.
Like most emotional body language they serve to pacify the body to make it feel better by stimulating nerve endings to release calming endorphins. For example, while in deep thought, the temples might be massaged with one or both hands, the head might be scratched and when facing extreme difficulty the hand might reach around and grab the back of the neck depicting a negative thought stemming from emotional discomfort, frustration, doubt, insecurity or restraint. Rubbing the forehead is an evaluative body language gesture, but it also signals an internal struggle where slight to severe discomfort is being experienced. Exhaling air forcefully through a compressed mouth can also be a pacifying message especially when done by a smoker, since it reminds him of a habit that calms him. We mentioned chewing gum as a displacement gesture earlier, but even it is an oral pacifier especially if the rate of chewing intensifies.
Some other examples of pacifiers include smoking cigarettes, licking the lips more, rubbing the chin, stroking their face, playing with pens, pencils, lipstick, pulling the hair or scratching the forearms or more subtly like brushing the hair, adjusting a tie (preening), or checking or playing with a watch seemingly results driven and purposeful.
Some people have even been known to talk to themselves to make peace and are otherwise perfectly normal and sane. These gestures usually find their way into the repertoire of people and become favourites. That is, they will use the same ones each time when they become tense making it easy for us to read them accurately.
When viewing these gestures keep in mind that they may ebb and flow in real-time to the level of threat present. For example, imagine a tense negotiation between a couple who are making plans for their honeymoon vacation. The wife might be seen cupping her arm under her elbow to support her arm covering her suprasternal notch while the husband clasps the back of his neck in a restraint posture. As he concedes she might drop one or even both arms, but without a concession from her of some sort, he might remain negatively locked or might place his arms crossed on his chest. Sensing this, she might agree to a compromise, or if she doesn’t, may stimulate him to ramp up his agenda futher sending her back into an emotional state where she might begin fingering her necklace by playing with it.
Eyebrows lowered is a sign of pain – here we see grief.
Eyebrows can squint just like eyes can and have many different meanings. Eyebrows can be lowered to indicate confrontation due to anger or aggression, fear from threats, when we feel displeasure or are annoyed. If eyebrows are dropped low enough and kept there it indicates weakness and insecurity. This is true universally and so can even appear in children especially those who are abused. Lowered eyebrows is submissive, cowering, facial expression.
Inmate report seeking the gesture when new prisoners arrive as clues to which will make easy targets. Lowered eyebrows is a sign of being defeated and weak and shows that one is unlikely to put up a fight. Bullies at school will also look for the expression to single out children as prey and so will social predators and psychopaths. Victims are rarely chosen at random and I’ve witnessed the body language myself from a woman who reported suffering abuse as a child and several times as an adult. She carried herself in vulnerable ways and stood out for this reason so she likely attracted attention as an easy target. In business, eyebrow lowering can indicate the relative strength of a position and in negotiation show that someone is willing to surrender with little fight.
How the environment is used by people can provide clues to their inner thoughts and emotions. For example, propping up against the wall indicates that the person is in need of support (or is really tired) which shows that they are incapable of comfort without the assistance the structure affords. Hiding a portion of the body behind a desk also indicates insecurity and we rarely invite commerce onto ourselves without placing a desk between us and our clients because we require the security it provides.
Imagine what it would be like to meeting face-to-face in an empty room. Desks and tables are more than just places to store notes! The “employee’s line” by which customers are forbidden to cross in retail stores has more to do with privacy, power and territoriality than security. What would happen if retailers could freely move into storage rooms and behind the counter, what about enter the kitchen at a dinner? The formalities of the establishment would drop significantly and it would be like being at home, free of boundaries.
The chair is a prop used to shield the body from “attack.”
Even podiums creates a much needed refuge, a place of security for presenters where the self conscious can be partially out of sight, or even dodge flying tomatoes! Only those that are supremely confident or experienced in front of others will ignore the podium and instead immerse themselves into the embrace of the crowd. Women who wish to quell an advance by men can steer them away by turning a cold shoulder, a barrier, or if possible, moving to the backside of a chair which can be used as a shield. When nervous around women, on the other hand, men can use bar tops to prop up against to protect them from rejection. As you see, objects are sometimes used as crutches and at the same time indicated to us as body language readers that a person is uncomfortable standing by themselves. In other words, it tells us that they are worried that they might suffer an emotional attack so they limit their exposure. People can use chairs, lean against a bar as discussed, a beam, a table, or might simply use objects like mugs or cups, or even pens and utensils which can figuratively represent make-shift weapons. Obviously pens would never be drawn, so to speak, as a weapon, but they still offer a psychologically comforting mechanism.
Fist clenching can be subtle and show hidden insecurity and hostility.
Holding the fists clenched and holding a full arm cross shows hostility, defensiveness and also readiness to attack. It can also be accompanied by a red face, clenched teeth, lowered eyebrows, a forward thrust of the lips or an angry expression. These accompanying signals show that physical aggression is imminent and likely, and ignoring them can be a huge mistake. Part of the reason we have aggression signals at all is to avoid risky physical confrontations. Our minds are hardwired to avoid possibly deadly or damaging situations. The signals are our way to warn others, or be warned by others, that we are nearing our threshold. All people are capable of lashing out with force if provided with the proper stimulus, any mother will agree.
In business and other context were violence is strictly forbidden we see an abbreviation of the hostile cues listed above. Here we see a more subtly form with the fists clenched tightly and the arms folded across the chest, usually while seated. Other times the dominant hand will make a fist with the other hand clasping the wrist. This is a mental way for the person to figuratively ‘hold themselves back.’ When we lack the right to express ourselves to our satisfaction, we hold back our negativity. Social norms and customs prevent us from expressing our true emotions whenever we desire.
Fist clenching happens very naturally and subconsciously; a slip of the hand so to speak. Women can even be seen doing this while being verbally berated by a partner. President Nixon was videotaped intensely balling his fist such that his knuckles turned white during a press conference called to discuss what was supposed to be a temporary incursion into Cambodia. The rest of his body was confident and his voice was smooth, yet his hands gave his restraint and dishonesty away. Of course, holding a tight fist does not necessarily mean they intent to strike out, rather it shows just the opposite – that their minds are dealing with a dilemma, of which social norms prevent physical resolutions. So very rarely are we allowed to fully express our emotions. In fact, one of the most important lessons we learn early in life is self control and this is exactly what happens when the fist is balled, clenched, but resists striking. We learn very early on that it’s not acceptable to throw fits and tantrums so we do the next best thing – we get very close to striking, but stop at the last second.
Whenever you are privy to clenching body language your first inclination should be to diffusing the situation. You might start by slowing down speech or stopping it altogether to allow the situation to simmer rather than continue boiling. You should then use open body language with palm up gestures to show honesty. Next, add submissive postures, head down, shoulders slumped and a reduction in body size. Your goal is to show that you are not interested in confrontation. You might even consider succeeding to their point of view, even just temporarily to allow them to take a saner headspace. In many cases it will be impossible to recover from this position successfully depending on what level of negativity is present. It’s always best to reduce tension early on before it gets out of control.
We curl up in a ball when we feel upset – as a fetus does in utero.
An extreme form of closed posture is the fetal position. While it might seem far fetched to expect someone in your company to have this posture, it does occur although in more abbreviated adult acceptable ways. While at an informal party, for example, a women in might find herself hugging her knees at the end of a couch. To her, this feels comfortable, which is why she does it, but it reveals her true emotions. When in a public she is timid and reserved so she curls up in a ball. The abbreviated form of this position, of course, and one that is more acceptable in public is to pull the limbs in closer to the body and across the center-line as in the “self hug”. With age, we learn that taking up the fetal position, like thumb sucking, is not an acceptable way of dealing with our insecurity so we drop the extreme form of the gesture in favour of more subtle cues. Playing with the hair, rolling it around a finger, sucking on it, or a pen, or other oral fixations are also juvenile coping behaviours that become unacceptable, although often still continue, into adulthood.
Sucking on a pen or piece of hair serves as a replacement for a soother.
Nail biting is an oral fixation that replaces thumb sucking and allows the body to burn off nervous energy.