The Law of the Jaw

You have all sorts of information on the nonverbal cues of the mouth, but don’t forget to look in the area surrounding the mouth—specifically, below it. Like bread and butter, the mouth and jaw work together. The lips might affect the appearance of the jaw, but it’s more likely that the jaw pulls the lips into formation based on its own mood.

The Locked Jaw

What’s an easy way to tell whether someone’s at ease or if he has some weighty matters on his mind? Take a look at his lower jaw. A jaw set in stone is a sure sign of tension. You can actually see the muscles contract in an angry jaw, which is one way to know for certain when a person’s emotions are taking a turn for the worse. The jaw might carry the burden of the emotion on its own, or it might be accompanied by pursed or compressed lips, which serve to emphasize the appearance of anger, tension, sadness, or whatever negative feeling the person is having.

The size and shape of the jaw also plays an important role in body language. A square jaw (like George Clooney’s) makes the face appear strong; a serious underbite makes the face look weak; a protruding jaw (think Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade) can make a person look somewhat unintelligent. Each of these characteristics can affect how the rest of a person’s nonverbal cues are received.

Keep in mind that although some people clench their jaws because they’re tense, others do it out of habit (although many times this habit starts out of a desire to relieve tension of some kind and develops into a long-term soothing routine). In these cases, the lips are usually not pursed. The compressed lip/locked jaw combo is almost exclusively reserved for expressions of anger or frustration.

A clenched jaw can also be a sign of hostility. The next time you witness two people having a serious disagreement, take note of their jaws, especially the jaw of the person who isn’t talking at the moment. The muscles will be drawn so tightly, they’ll look like violin strings.

The jaw drop indicates confusion, shock, or fear.

The Jaw Drop

You’re watching a horror movie. The heroine is characteristically headed toward the one area of the entire world that she should be running away from (a basement, a funhouse, or a cabin in the woods). Unlike her careless peers who’ve already met with their disastrous fates, she’s approaching this dangerous situation very slowly. Now, her jaw may be clenched at first—naturally, she’s tense—but as she gets closer and closer to the actual danger of the situation, you’ll note that her mouth is opening wider and wider.

The jaw drop tells you that a person is shocked or perhaps even confused—however, the mouth doesn’t necessarily have to be wide open, as it might be in the case above. Let’s say you recently parted ways with your beau. As you’re driving home from work, you spot his car in the lane next to you. Since the two of you have vowed to remain friends, you pull up alongside him to wave—and then you spot your best friend in his passenger seat! You’re understandably confused (Did her car break down? Are they carpooling?) and surprised. Anyone looking in on this situation would immediately be able to read your thoughts by way of your open mouth.

The jaw drop is a reaction to surprise, confusion, or fear. Of course, surprises can be good or bad. If you watch the news, you might see one person win the lottery and another watching his own house burn to the ground. Both of them might express their shock with an open mouth.


Babies and toddlers stick everything in their mouths. They slobber, they drool, and they drive their parents crazy with worry that this child will eventually choke. This is what experts call the “oral phase” of life, and it’s meant to be a means of discovery (how does the coffee table taste?) and a way to relieve tension. Most kids outgrow this by the time they go to preschool, but some don’t. There are plenty of adults who give in to the urge to stick things in their mouth.

The Adult Chewer

Does your office mate chomp on his pencils from 9 till 5? Some experts might say that he became “stuck” in this oral phase of life, that he never found a more mature way to soothe himself and that he continues to chew on his shirt collar, toothpicks, and chunks of paper because he needs this kind of soothing to get through his day. Now, if you happen to be very close to someone who chews on everything in sight, you might try explaining this concept to him and suggest other ways for him to deal with stress. The problem is that an adult chewer is very set in his ways—and he can’t really avoid the very thing that he relies on. (His mouth is always right there, after all.) If you can get a pencil chewer to switch to gum, that’s an acceptable compromise.

Mouth Chewing and Biting

All right, so no one really chews on his own gums, but lots of people chew on their own lips, tongues, and the insides of their cheeks. If you’re not one of these people, you might be wondering why anyone would do such a thing—doesn’t it hurt? Probably not. Chewing on the mouth is usually a way to relieve stress or boredom. Most people don’t bite themselves hard enough to cause any harm, though in times of extreme upset, a person might accidentally bite down harder than he intended and draw blood.

All infants are born with a sucking reflex, which they need to eat and to settle their nerves. This is why crying babies respond well to pacifiers and learn to suck their thumbs—the sucking calms them down.

So what about people who bite other people? What if your neighbor’s kid regularly tries to chomp on your child? This is a sign of aggression, obviously, but it’s also not all that uncommon in kids. Again, they explore the world with their mouths; also, once they bite someone to express their frustration or anger, they learn that it gets a reaction. Some kids really enjoy having that kind of power in their tiny little teeth.

Adult biters are a different story, of course. Hopefully, the only biting you’ve experienced in your adult life has been passionate in nature. There’s really nothing to read into it beyond this. Some lovers are biters; others aren’t. If your mate’s biting bothers you, don’t assume that it’s a character flaw of some sort. Just tell him to stop. Now, if he can’t or won’t knock it off, then you should look for other nonverbal cues of aggression, like dominant eye contact, a set jaw, and a ready-to-rumble stance.

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