Understanding Body Language

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Columnist Trina Rea on why her body language betrays her

The security guard at the airport was looking at me. Not in a “well, hellooo!” type of way. No, it was another look. I knew because I’d seen it before. For whatever reason I’m often taken aside at airports. This time I was going through JFK airport. I had a possible fake Dior wallet in my luggage, a gift from a friend I was travelling with. I knew it was probably fake when she gave it to me, unless Dior had started selling through the street vendors in Chinatown where we first spotted it. I instantly loved it and though I refused to buy it, she bought it and later surprised me with it. She’s kind and lovely like that, but damn it, I’m not, and I wasn’t going down on account of her kindness! Thankfully the wallet wasn’t the problem. The issue was my hair. Yes, really. Back then I had very long, thick curly hair. I had piled it up on top of my head in a messy bun.

The security guard who was male called over his female colleague to inspect my hair. Without saying a word she reached up and touched my bun. As a germ-phobe all I could think of was what else had that latex gloved-hand touched. My breathing quickened and I could feel little beads of sweat form on my forehead as I bit down on my lower lip. Then they asked, or rather ordered, me to take down my hair, which I did instantly. The gloved guard ran her fingers through my hair. I visualised a zillion germs now joining the party, though I also realised they thought my bun was so big that I’d concealed something in it, possibly drugs or blades or God knows what.

Then the male security guard asked me was I okay? So I told him about my germ phobia and what I was visualising and he smiled. They don’t usually smile. I knew I was off the hook. So what is it about me that’s sending off alarm bells? Apparently, it’s got nothing to do with what I’m wearing or my high bun, instead it’s my body language that’s betraying me.

The US government has spent almost $1 billion since 9/11 training their airport security guards in how to spot terrorists and people who are concealing something or simply up to no good simply by reading their facial expressions and body language. While you are standing in line waiting to be screened, two behaviour detection officers are unobtrusively observing you looking for certain behaviours.

So what are these behaviours? That information is secret, but if you do get flagged as suspicious, the first thing that will happen is that one of the officers will initiate an informal conversation with you. The officer might make some small talk, ask how your day is going? Where you are headed? What your plans are on arrival? Is this your first time in the country, and so forth, and the chat may take up to thirteen minutes. If the officer is satisfied with your answers, nothing else happens – you are good to go and you’ll presume they were just being fierce chatting. However, if the officer is not satisfied with your answers, then you are referred for further screening to another Behavioral Detection Officer who’ll be even chattier!

Your answers are almost irrelevant, the officer is looking for other indicators through your facial expressions, or lack of them, or through the detail or vagueness of your answers.  Vague, evasive responses means fear has shown itself. Apparently when you make a living from ‘chatting’ to people like this, you see the indicators immediately.

The next step is a pat down or other screening and possibly a background check to decide whether to make an arrest or clear you for boarding! They take into account the typical stress many of us experience when traveling.

Ordinary people who are feeling anxious are much more open with their body movements and their facial expressions as compared to an operational terrorist who thinks, ‘I’ve got to defeat security’. This is probably why I’m being pulled aside because I do say to myself, ‘act normal, appear relaxed,’ and maybe that’s what’s alerting them because I look too relaxed, after all my rapid breathing seemed to get me off the hook when I could no longer hide my stress. So next time I’m just going to try and be myself, instead of a very poor actor – I’ve nothing hide, except that damn Dior wallet.