The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


Don't bother me now! --"Recent research at the University of Western Australia identified the [slightly] protruded tongue as a particularly effective cue for this message" (Burgoon et al. 1989:411).

Facial expression1. A momentary protrusion of the tongue between the lips. 2. A gesture of the tongue found in gorillas and other primates, in children, and in all ethnic groups studied.

Usage: The tongue-show is a universal mood sign of unspoken disagreement, disbelief, disliking, displeasure, or uncertainty. It may modify, counteract, or contradict a verbal remark. Following the statement, "Yes, I agree," e.g., a protruded tongue may suggest, "I don't agree." Tongue-shows can reveal misleading, ambiguous, or uncertain areas in dialogue, public statements, and oral testimony, and thus may signal probing points (i.e., unresolved verbal issues to be further analyzed and explored).

Culture. In Tibet and southern China, a brief tongue-tip show is used to show, "I didn't mean it" (Morris 1994:224).

Pediatrics. Infants ranging in age from 0.7 to 72 hours old can imitate adult displays of tongue protrusion (Meltzoff and Moore 1983).

RESEARCH REPORTS1. The tongue-show has been studied in both gorillas and human beings as a negative sign of aversiveness and social stress (Smith et al. 1974). A gorilla pushed from its favorite sitting place, e.g., or a man entering a roomful of strangers, will unwittingly show the tongue in "displeasure." 2. Staring, striking, or scolding another primate may release a tongue protrusion, which may be a fragment of the emotion cue for disgust (Smith et al. 1974). 3. Tongue between lips is a defensive sign children use when approaching strange adults (Stern and Bender 1974).

E-Commentary I: "About body language acts, in police interrogations I have many times observed the tongue-showing cue just before the defendant would confess." --Marco Pacori (12/17/00 9:53:16 AM Pacific Standard Time) 

E-Commentary II: "I was trying to discover what a tongue meant if it was curled, poked determinedly towards the lips so an observer could see a tube or hollow. The mouth being rounded. This was at the same time as the person concerned was saying something that I felt was 'beaten you at this one' or 'I know best'. It seemed to be a gargoyle facial expression. Very worrying. Should I be concerned? Last time he did that was shortly (days) before beating me up. I am not expecting diagnosis nor counseling but seek data on such an event in order to come to my own conclusion. Do you have any reference or studies that I can view?" --Gillian (5/25/01 11:19:17 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary III: "During my stay in Thailand on the island of Koh Samui, I bought many handmade articles. There, when one wants to buy something one bargains over the price. So I adapted myself to that custom. Though many behaviors are different from ours [Marco Pacori is Italian], nonverbal behavior stays the same. On one occasion, I haggled about the price of a pair of pants. I asked the merchant how much, and she quoted an outrageous price. So I began to bargain. I proposed a very low price and she retorted with a very high price still. So, we went on negotiating. At a given time I proposed a certain sum, and she made a curious behavior. She looked away from me, her eyes appeared vacant, and she made a tongue protrusion (her tongue appeared for a moment quickly out of her mouth). I have seen this act in police interrogations moments before the suspect was going to yield [see above, E-Commentary I]. Remembering the meaning of this observation, I put 'psychological' pressure on her and she agreed to my price." --Marco Pacori (9/6/01 2:49:11 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes. 1. Subcortical: The tongue-show reflects negative emotions of the amygdala acting through brain-stem paleocircuits of the hypoglossal nerve (cranial XII). Stimulation of the amygdala can produce unwitting tongue movements associated with eating and the sense of smell (Guyton 1996:758-59). 2. Cortical: That we often tongue-show while performing tasks which involve precise manual dexterity, such as, e.g., while threading a needle, may reflect the neural linkage between human tool-making and speech (see WORD, Neuro-notes I).

See also LIPS.

Photo of Roger Clemens testifying before a U.S. Congessional Committee. On February 13, 2008, I observed several tongue-shows as Clemens said he'd never used steroids (picture credit copyright 2008 by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)