Why Surprise Looks the Same in Every Country

Why you wring your hands from nerves and cover your face in shock.

ByABC News
August 7, 2013, 12:07 PM
There appears to be a universal response to surprise among people according to body language experts.
There appears to be a universal response to surprise among people according to body language experts.
Getty Images

Aug. 8, 2013— -- intro:

It's the pose we see over and over again in photographs of disasters, people putting their hands over their mouths or holding their head looking in on horror.

There appears to be something universally human in the way we react to disaster, but experts have found it's not just disaster that elicits a similar response between people. There are universal gestures for victory, defeat and stress that appear to transcend country and region.

To figure out why a San Franciscan and a Beijing resident might both wring their hands from nerves, we've talked to body language experts to about five different emotional gestures.

quicklist: 1category: Universal Emotional Responses title: Holding Your Head in Shock url: text:It's the reaction we see often on the newspaper's front page, people putting their hands on their heads or over their mouth as they look on a scene with shock or horror.

Chris Ulrich, a senior instructor at the Body Language Institute in Washington D.C., said by covering your mouth or putting your hands on your head is a response that helps make people feel safer and smaller from a perceived threat. Ulrich said by covering part of their face they can feel hidden from the shocking event.

Additionally these reactions serve a second purpose by allowing a person to soothe themselves through touch also called a "pacifier" gesture.

"It's saying, 'I'll get through this,'" said Ulrich. "[it's a] self soothing gesture [to] help us in the moment."

media: 19897640

quicklist: 2category: Universal Emotional Responses title: Wringing Hands url: text:In times of heightened anxiety people can attempt to calm themselves by wringing their hands. Ulrich said it's a reaction people often have if they're in front of an audience or nervous.Hand Gestures, Do Hands Speak Louder Than Words?

"It's reassurance for them that they'll get through it," said Ulrich, who relates that gesture to a parent trying to calm a child.

media: 19897583

quicklist: 3

category: Universal Emotional Responses

title: Pain in the Neck url: text:Another common gesture, rubbing your neck or head when stressed, helps by actively relieving pent-up stress according to Ulrich.

"That's a way of reliving steam," said Ulrich. "If I'm rubbing my neck [it's a] literal a pain in the neck," said Ulrich. Study Finds Subtle Gestures Can Improve Performance

Janine Driver, president of the Body Language Institute, said by touching or covering their neck a person is also protecting a vulnerable area.

"We have the carotid artery [in the neck,]" said Driver, who explains by leaving our neck exposed we become more vulnerable. "A dog in a dogfight gives up by leaning back and [revealing] his neck."

media: 19897605

quicklist: 4

category: Universal Emotional Responses

title: The Victor/Loser Stance url: text:No matter how great or terrible an athlete is in competition most competitors react to victories or defeats with specific mannerisms.

A 2008 study found that both blind and sighted athletes celebrated victory with the same mannerisms, even when they were from different regions.

The study examined pictures of Judo competitors during the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic games. The male and female athletes, both blind and sighted, from different regions showed similar behaviors when they won a match. The winners would consistently throw their head back, push their torso out or raise their hands in triumph.

Driver describes these victory mannerisms are a way to "explode" out and take up more space as a winner. However, an athlete that suffers a loss will use mannerisms that make them physically smaller or "implode," such as slouching or hanging their head.

"When you lose you want to disappear," said Driver.

The study's authors also found evidence that the Judo competitors had the same mannerisms when they lost, except for a few competitors from North America and West Eurasian regions.

media: 19897628

quicklist: 5

category: Universal Human Responses title: Hand Over Heart url: text:Seen in awards shows and beauty pageants across the globe, putting your hand over your heart is seen as an international gesture of sincerity. However, Janine Driver warns that many people are coached to perform the gesture so that they can convincingly appear sincere and humbled.

But Driver has a trick to weed out the real from the fake. A sincere person will start to make the gesture a moment before they speak.

For example, if you want to determine if a best actor winner is actually grateful, don't look for tears, instead make sure their hand is already over their heart before they thank the academy.

Alternately Driver said a person who has been coached usually starts out with the thank you and ends their speech by putting their hand over the heart.

"You can tell the difference between genuine or real [if] a gesture comes a half a beat before the word," said Driver. "When they're pulling the wool over our eyes, they're being coached."

media: 19897595