One interesting exchange I had while on my recent tour went like this:
Man: “I love watching people, and I’ve noticed some interesting things.”
Me: “Such as?”
Man: “I’ve noticed that people who talk without moving their upper lips are usually dishonest.”
Me: “Uh…..Ok. I recommend you never visit England.”
If you read me even occasionally, you’ll know that talking with a stiff upper lip is almost certainly not an indicator of general dishonesty. This is true simply because there is no indicator of general dishonesty. I’m curious, though, what sort of observations led to the man’s conclusion. How many people had he met who didn’t move their upper lips when they talk? What sort of dishonesty did they display? My guess is that the man saw pretty much what he wanted to see, and then patted himself on the back for his own perceptiveness.
But let’s address this mystery of ‘the stiff upper lip.’ Does it mean anything at all? Can it reveal anything about the inner life of the person who exhibits it? Can we use it to armchair analyze the entire population of Great Britain? Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but the behavior does serve as a good example of one of the functions of body language.
Much of our body language is devoted to the task of Impression Management. We use our body language to try to control the way others perceive us. A man who wants to appear more masculine may just his chest out, or adopt more violent and aggressive hand gestures. A woman who wants to appear more feminine may raise the pitch of her voice, and adopt a more submissive posture. People who want to come across as friendly will often smile a little wider, laugh a little louder. If you look closely at these examples, you’ll notice a pattern: people are either inhibiting or exaggerating what are otherwise natural or innate mannerisms.
The stiff upper lip strikes me as clear example of inhibition. I imagine that it’s an effort to avoid showing strong emotion. In some people this strategy may be innate, for many it’s clearly rooted in culture. When society places a high value on appearing stoic, calm, rational, you will find all sorts of strategies to minimize display of emotion. I’m Scotch-Irish by heritage; trust me I know a thing or two about inhibitions.
I suppose you could say, in a sense, that the stiff upper lip is a sign of dishonesty, since the person doing it is working to hide his true feelings. The problem with this is, we all use body language to create false impressions. All the time. This is part of being human. Creating false impressions, that is controlling the display of our emotions for the benefit of others, is one of the two essential functions of body language. You could say we’re all liars, but I prefer to say we’re all human beings.