Table of Contents
- How to Read Neck Body Language
- 4 Positive Neck Body Language Gestures
- 10 Negative Neck Body-Language Gestures
- Neck stretching
- It’s getting hot in here
- Adam’s apple jump
- The interrupting cough
- Scratching neck
- Neck stiffening
- Neck rubbing
- Neck pulling
- Playing with necklace
- Nail Your Neck Cues
Have you ever wondered why a neck massage just feels so darn good?
The neck contains thousands of nerve endings that are highly responsive to touch.
The neck is a “hot zone” of sensory information and can give away a great deal of body language information, if you know what to look for.
In this guide, you will learn:
- the neck gesture that may help you catch a liar
- how to stop touching your neck when feeling nervous
- why women often play with their necklace during dates
- the #1 cue to avoid when giving a presentation
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How to Read Neck Body Language
Since the neck has thousands of nerves, if someone touches their neck, they are “activating” these nerves and sending good feelings throughout their body. In body language, this is effectively a pacifier.
In other cases, we may actively hide or show our neck, depending on who’s around us.
For example, think of a turtle. A happy turtle will display its neck while wandering around, but as soon as you startle it, it will draw its neck back into its protective shell.
You may see this neck-hiding behavior when a presenter is nervous or when a salesman is unsure about his pitch.
So if someone exposes their neck to you, this is generally a good sign they are opening up. But if they close it or block their neck like a turtle…
They may need a little reassurance.
Sounds simple, right?
Neck body language may seem simple, but it’s complex under the surface. Our necks have evolved over time to help us, just like the giraffes’ necks have evolved:
Neck cues may be hard to read on their own, but if they’re repeated or found in clusters, you will be more accurate in your body language judgment.
Keeping that in mind, let’s jump into the list!
4 Positive Neck Body Language Gestures
Touching the neck dimple
The neck dimple, or more scientifically, the suprasternal notch, is the small space between your collarbones.
What It Means: If you touch this indented part of your neck, it may mean you’re trying to self-soothe any nervous or anxious feelings you might have at the moment. Lightly massaging the neck dimple can help lower your heart rate and make you feel calmer1.
Like we talked about large felines earlier, neck-dimple touching likely evolved to protect us from the countless encounters we had with dangerous neck-eaters.
Women tend to touch their neck dimples more often and more lightly than men do, using the tips of their fingers1. And in pregnant women, you may see them initially move their hand toward the neck but later divert their hand to their belly to protect their fetus1. When men touch their neck dimple, you may see them grab the area more robustly and with their entire hand.
How to Spot a Liar Using the Neck Dimple
Body language expert Joe Navarro recounts a story when police officers investigated a house of a mother where they thought an armed and dangerous fugitive was hiding.
They walked up to her door and knocked, asking if her suspected son was around. The mother immediately touched her neck dimple and said, “No.”
The police officer responded, “Was it possible he might have snuck in while you were at work?” She denied again, and touched her neck dimple again.
Before giving up, Joe tried his third and final attempt. He asked her whether she was absolutely positive her son wasn’t home. Again, she lightly tapped her neck dimple and said, “He’s not here.”
Joe was now positive she was lying. He asked to look in the house and upon searching, he found her son hiding in the closet under a pile of blankets.
Neck touching is one of those behaviors that is so reliable and accurate that it truly merits our close attention.—Joe Navarro
Exposing the neck
What It Means: If a person makes an attempt to elongate their neck or expose the side of their neck to you, it may mean “I feel vulnerable” or “I’m flirting with you.” Neck exposing is more common among couples early in a relationship.
Just imagine: 2 strangers meet after hooking up on Tinder. They’re feeling nervous, so they hide their necks. But as the date progresses, and they become more comfortable, they’ll start to expose their necks more.
We even instinctively do this when holding or even seeing a newborn baby1. Babies recognize our neck exposure and respond with a smile and a relaxed face in return.
How To Use It: Tilt your head to the side to expose more of your neck to show that you’re listening and interested in what the other person is saying. This nonverbal cue is especially powerful to disarm confrontational behavior. Head canting, along with a smile, is “one of the most effective ways to win others over”1.
Come get me
What It Means: The head flip is another variation of exposing the neck. You may see this gesture when a person flips their head back. However, watch for other cues to get a better idea of the real meaning:
- If they are smiling warmly, then they might want to increase the intimacy.
- If they are frowning with furrowed eyebrows, they may actually be pushing their head up to increase their height and gain dominance over you.
How To Use It: Want to show someone your attraction? That you are interested in the conversation? Flipping your head back is flipping the switch on.
Touching the neck
What It Means: If you see someone touching their neck, this could indicate signs of stress or anxiety. Stroking or touching the neck is frequently a pacifying behavior we use to respond to stress1. The higher the stress level we feel, the greater the amount of facial or neck stroking may be involved.
On the other hand, it can be a positive—especially with women—as a sign of attraction. Taking the Tinder scenario above, a woman meeting her date for the first time might touch her neck more. However, this isn’t all bad! It may just mean she feels anxious around you and wants to seek your approval.
Body language expert Traci Brown says if a woman touches her own neck or the side of her Adam’s apple, it may mean that she is “calling attention to a sensitive area—and lengthening it.” It’s possibly another way of saying, “I’m sexy.”
What about when someone touches your neck? This is usually a very positive sign. You’d only let others touch your neck or invade your personal boundaries if you’re comfortable with them.
How To Use It: Want to ramp up the intimacy? Slowly caress the neck to subtly show sexiness. However, you do NOT want to touch your neck in business settings or when giving a presentation. This is distracting and can signal unprofessional behavior.
10 Negative Neck Body-Language Gestures
What It Means: Stretching your neck may indicate that you’re trying to relieve and pacify yourself when facing a stressful situation. The back-and-forth motion relieves built-up tension in the muscles. For example, you may do this when someone asks you a difficult question that you don’t want to answer.
And here’s the funny thing about neck stretching: People stretch their necks all the time… even if they’re unaware of doing it. We build up tension from looking down at our phones and keeping our head steady in front of computer screens, and so we build up a LOT of tension in general. So we’ll often stretch our necks in “micro” stretches throughout the day.
Bottom Line: Don’t mistake this gesture for stress when it’s not.
It’s getting hot in here
What It Means: Similar to neck stretching, adjusting our shirt collar is another way we can self-soothe when we’re feeling anxious. We may do this when we feel angry or frustrated. As the blood pressure around our neck increases, or the sweat accumulates, we may be more inclined to adjust our collar to let more cool air flow in2.
Adam’s apple jump
What It Means: When someone is feeling on edge, threatened, or apprehensive, they may experience what is called an “Adam’s apple jump” or a “sudden jolt”3.This gesture is a spontaneous reaction to unsavory, dangerous, and stressful events. You may not only see the Adam’s apple move up and down but, in some cases, hear it as well.
Body language expert Tonya Reiman says that a hard swallow is a sure sign someone doesn’t believe what they’re saying. Months ago I noticed my daughter swallowing hard after I asked her if she brushed her teeth before bedtime, and she responded, “Yes, Mommy!” She hadn’t.
Swallowing difficulty is also associated with panic disorder patients. When people swallow hard from anxiety or stress, it is due to the “fight-or-flight” response that causes the moisture in our throats to dry up. Interestingly, the Adam’s apple jump is one body language cue to look for in the TSA’s 92-point checklist for catching suspicious air travelers.
The interrupting cough
Have you ever had a conversation with an interruptor? My high school sociology teacher was like this. She would waltz into the room every morning and before greeting us, would greet the room with her orchestra of, “Ahemmm! Bleugh! Blarghhh!”
What It Means: Throat clearing indicates uncertainty or readying your voice to speak, even if you don’t want to. Look for this cue during conversations, as this could mean the other person is waiting for their speaking turn—this is a great tip if you’re a constant rambler.
Coughs could also mean disagreement or doubt when the other person is speaking. Look for other cues like:
- crossed arms
- single raised eyebrow
- pursed lips
- scratching the head
The interrupting cough can also be used to say, “Hey, I’m here!” when in a room full of people or to deliberately interrupt someone if they’re talking (great to use if someone else keeps rambling!).
What It Means: This signals doubt or uncertainty when someone may not agree with something you say. People will typically scratch their neck just under their earlobes. Pay attention to neck scratches if you’re an entrepreneur pitching your product to investors or at a business meeting bringing up a new solution to the boss.
Look for this gesture in 5s: a neck-scratcher scratches an average of 5 times, and typically it rarely deviates from 52.
What It Means: A noticeable, throbbing neck vein is typically caused by a forceful heartbeat and a diversion of oxygen from the heart to the brain. It may mean that someone is experiencing stress, anxiety, fear, or anger.
Look for these other cues to pinpoint a person’s emotions:
- Stress: look for the audible deep puff of air from the mouth.
- Anxiety: look for the throb, along with cues such as nail-biting or arm rubbing.
- Fear: scared individuals may have a fear microexpression or raised eyebrows.
- Anger: reddened facial skin or clenched fists may indicate anger.
How To Use It:
What It Means: If a person has issues with something you’ve just said, they might straighten and stiffen their neck. This indicates hyperalertness or vigilance. You may naturally stiffen up if you’re walking alone in a dark alleyway at night and hear a sudden glass-shattering noise.
You may also notice neck stiffening from a student in a classroom if a teacher suddenly calls on him for an answer.
I especially see neck stiffening clustered with other height-increasing cues such as straightening the back or rolling the shoulders.
What It Means: Scratching the neck or rubbing the back of the neck is a self-soothing gesture you might do if you feel uncomfortable. Someone may rub the front, the sides, or the back of their neck to signal they’re feeling insecure or stressed. When you rub your neck, the vagus nerve on the neck is stimulated, which releases acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that sends signals to the heart, which brings your heart rate down3.
If you’re a chronic neck-rubber, here’s some news: Gerard Nierenberg from the Negotiation Institute in New York found that those who habitually rub the back of the neck have a tendency to be negative or critical2. If you catch yourself rubbing your neck, try switching to a more competent gesture like the chin stroke.
What It Means:
Pulling the fleshy area under the neck calms some men, but this mannerism is rarely seen in women3. The harder the pull, the greater the stress.
And if someone slaps the back of their neck? That’s not a good sign—this literally means someone is a “pain in the neck”2. I have also noticed neck slapping recently from one of my nephews. When I asked him when he was going to clean his room, he slapped his neck and gave me a hand shrug. This tells me he forgot to clean it and isn’t really concerned about doing it.
Playing with necklace
Can also include tie or shirt collar.
What It Means: Playing with a necklace, tie, or shirt collar is a pacifying behavior that relieves stress1. One of the best examples of necklace playing you may see is from newly hired employees who are socially awkward or mildly anxious. As time goes on, you may notice this behavior decrease.
Women who are genuinely attracted to a man may also fiddle with their necklace to relieve tension or draw attention to their collarbone.
Nail Your Neck Cues
Did you take away something of value from this post? I’d love to hear your comments below about this article! And for further neck-related body information, be sure to check out:
- What crossed arms mean, and 17 other arm gestures.
- What does the hands-on-hips pose mean?
- All body language about the head.
Learn to read others’ neck gestures and control your own, and you’ll be one step closer to mastering your body language!1 Navarro, J., & Karlins, M. (2015). What every BODY is saying: An ex-FBI agent’s guide to speed-reading people. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 2 Pease, A. (2017). The definitive book of body language: How to read others’ attitudes by their gestures. London: Orion. 3 Navarro, J. (2018). The dictionary of body language: A field guide to human behavior. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!