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  • Have you ever found yourself unconsciously playing with your hair during a stressful job interview, or rubbing your hands together while waiting anxiously? These seemingly insignificant behaviors are actually part of a fascinating realm of communication called self-adaptors – a type of nonverbal cue that reveals information about our emotions and mental state.

What are Self-Adaptors?

According to communication pioneers like EkmanOpens in new window and FriesenOpens in new window, self-adaptors are a category of nonverbal acts alongside emblemsOpens in new window, illustratorsOpens in new window, regulatorsOpens in new window, and affect displaysOpens in new window. Self-adaptors represent a subset of nonverbal behaviors characterized by self-directed movements or gestures that involve touching or manipulating some part of our body. Common examples include:

  • Touching the face: Rubbing your eyes, scratching your nose, biting your lip, or playing with your hair.
  • Fidgeting: Bouncing your leg, tapping your fingers, or picking at your nails.
  • Playing with objects: Twirling a pen, fiddling with buttons on your clothes, or adjusting your glasses repeatedly.
  • Crossing arms or legs: This can indicate defensiveness, discomfort, or self-protection.
  • Touching your neck or throat: This can be a sign of nervousness, anxiety, or difficulty swallowing emotions.

Unlike other nonverbal cues that primarily serve communicative purposes directed towards others, self-adaptors involve actions aimed at oneself. These movements typically occur unconsciously and serve various functions, including self-regulation, stress relief, and expression of inner states.

Self-adaptors encompass a broad spectrum of behaviors, ranging from subtle gestures like scratching one's nose or playing with hair to more overt actions like tapping one's foot or fidgeting with objects. While these behaviors may appear innocuous on the surface, they provide valuable clues about an individual's psychological state, level of comfort, and engagement in a given situation.

What Do Self-Adaptors Communicate?

While interpreting any single body language cue in isolation can be misleading, understanding self-adaptors in context can offer valuable insights. Here are some potential meanings they might convey:

  1. Stress or anxiety: Self-soothing behaviors like nail biting, fidgeting, or playing with hair can often indicate feelings of stress, anxiety, or boredom.
  2. Discomfort or uncertainty: Crossing arms or legs can signal closed-mindedness, discomfort in a situation, or feeling unsure of how to respond.
  3. Evaluation or thinking: Touching your chin, stroking your beard, or rubbing your temples can be indicative of focused thinking, contemplation, or decision-making.
  4. Deception or dishonesty: Although not always reliable, covering the mouth with your hand while speaking or rubbing your nose can sometimes suggest attempting to conceal information.

Types of Self-Adaptors

Self-adaptors manifest in diverse forms, each offering unique insights into an individual's inner world. Some common types of self-adaptors include:

  1. Tactile Self-Adaptors

    These involve physical actions such as touching, scratching, or rubbing parts of one's body, such as the face, neck, or arms. Tactile self-adaptors often serve as soothing mechanisms during moments of stress or discomfort.

  2. Object-Manipulative Self-Adaptors

    This category encompasses behaviors where individuals engage in repetitive movements involving objects within their environment. Examples include tapping a pen, twirling hair strands, or fiddling with jewelry. Object-manipulative self-adaptors can indicate nervousness, boredom, or cognitive engagement.

  3. Postural Self-Adaptors:

    Postural adjustments, such as shifting weight from one foot to another, crossing and uncrossing legs, or altering sitting positions, fall under this category. These subtle changes in body posture reflect underlying emotional states, level of relaxation, or attempts to regulate arousal levels.

  4. Oral Self-Adaptors

    Actions related to the mouth or oral region, such as lip biting, lip licking, or chewing on objects, constitute oral self-adaptors. These behaviors often signal anxiety, anticipation, or discomfort, providing valuable insights into an individual's emotional state.

Significance of Self-Adaptors

Understanding self-adaptors is crucial for deciphering the complex tapestry of human behavior and improving interpersonal communication. By recognizing and interpreting these subtle cues, individuals can gain deeper insights into their own emotions and those of others, fostering empathy, rapport, and effective interaction.

Self-adaptors serve several key functions in interpersonal communication:

  1. Self-Regulation: Engaging in self-adaptors can help individuals regulate emotional arousal and manage stress or anxiety in challenging situations.
  2. Self-Comforting: These behaviors offer a form of self-soothing, providing psychological comfort and reassurance during moments of discomfort or uncertainty.
  3. Communication of Inner States: Self-adaptors subtly convey one's emotional and cognitive states, allowing others to gauge their mood, level of engagement, and underlying concerns.

Practical Implications and Applications

The knowledge of self-adaptors holds practical implications across various domains, including psychology, communication studies, and interpersonal relationships. By observing and interpreting these nonverbal cues, professionals and individuals alike can enhance their communication skills, improve emotional intelligence, and navigate social interactions more effectively.

In therapeutic settings, therapists may utilize insights from self-adaptors to assess clients' emotional states, monitor their progress, and facilitate emotional regulation and coping strategies. Similarly, in business contexts, understanding self-adaptors can aid in negotiating, networking, and building rapport with clients and colleagues.


Self-adaptors represent a subtle yet significant aspect of nonverbal communication, offering valuable clues about individuals' inner thoughts, emotions, and intentions. By paying attention to these self-directed behaviors and understanding their significance, we can deepen our understanding of human behavior, foster more meaningful connections, and navigate social interactions with greater insight and empathy. In a world where communication extends far beyond words, embracing the language of self-adaptors enriches our interpersonal interactions and enhances our ability to connect with others on a deeper level.

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  • References
    • Nonverbal Communication, Interaction, and Gesture: Selections from SEMIOTICA, edited by Adam Kendon, Thomas A. Sebeok, Jean Umiker-Sebeok

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