Gesture. Lifting the chin and leaning the head backward (dorsally, i.e., toward the shoulder blades or scapula bones).
Usage: Lifting the chin and looking down the nose are used throughout the world as nonverbal signs of superiority, arrogance, and disdain (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1970, Hass 1970).
Anatomy. The prime mover of head-tilt-back (i.e., of extending the spine) is the erector spinae muscle group, components of which reach to the skull's occipital bone to produce extension movements of the head as well. These deep muscles of the back and neck are basic postural muscles which are innervated by the spinal nerves directly, without relay through the cervical plexus or brachial plexus. Thus, we have less voluntary control of our haughty head-and-trunk postures than we have, e.g., of our hand-and-arm gestures. (N.B.: Gross postural shifts which involve back-extension and head-raising may express unconscious attitudes of power and dominance.)
Culture. 1. In Greece and Saudi Arabia, a sudden head-tilt-back movement means "No," and may originate from the infantile head-tilt-back used to refuse food (Morris 1994:145; see also HEAD-SHAKE). 2. In Ethiopia, the same gesture means "Yes," and may originate from the backward head movment used as a greeting (Morris 1994:146).
Origin. In its "superior" sense, head-tilt-back is a constituent of the primeval high-stand display.
Politics. Political leaders who used the head-tilt-back gesture in public speeches include Al Gore, Benito Mussolini, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George Corley Wallace.
RESEARCH REPORT: Head-tilt-back may be accompanied by "contempt-scorn" cues: one eyebrow lifts higher than the other, the eye openings narrow, the mouth corners depress, the lower lip raises and slightly protrudes, and one side of the upper lip may curl up in a sneer (Izard 1971:245).
E-Commentary: "I was reading through the online Nonverbal Dictionary and I believe they've left out an entry on 'chin thrusts.' I don't know how you all get the entries for the Dictionary but I figured I would comment on that one. I am finding the Dictionary to be very informative and one of the best web resources on kinesics so far in my searches." --J.P., USA (4/16/00 12:12:54 AM Pacific Daylight Time)
Chin jut. A derivative gesture of head-tilt-back is the "chin jut," described by Desmond Morris (1994:30 ["The chin is thrust towards the companion"]) as an "'intention movement' of forward attack," which has become a worldwide sign of threat. The world's most exaggerated chin jut was that of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini
E-Commentary: "Have you come across any research regarding a rapid multiple eye blink that looks almost as if the person is rolling their eyes back in their head? It often is accompanied by ahead tilt back. I have a client who does this, and have encountered others who do this, and am not sure the source of such a gesture, or what it might suggest nonverbally. My gut tells me it makes the guy look arrogant and a bit supercilious. Am I totally off base in thinking this may be a problem. Any suggestions? I'd be glad to send you a copy of videotape showing what I'm talking about." --L.G., Senior Communications Consultant, USA (9/30/99 12:24:16 PM Pacific Daylight Time)
See also EYEBROW-RAISE.
Drawing of "Showing My Nonverbal Side" by my son Aaron Huffman (copyright 2012 by Aaron M. Huffman)