Table of Contents
- Your Nose Knows
- 8 Nose-Touching Gestures to Sniff Out
- Touching nose
- Sneaking nose touch
- Nose brushing
- Side nose touch
- Covering nose with both hands
- Pinching bridge of nose
- Playing with the philtrum
- The nose pyramid
- 7 Noseplay Gestures You’d Never Nose
- Blocked nostril (aka stuffy nose)
- Flared nostrils
- Wrinkled nose
- Nose twitching
- Releasing a puff of air
- Rapid nose inhaling
- Your Next Steps…
Your nose is a fascinating body part that often gets overlooked in the world of body language. For example, did you know that the way you sneeze might be genetic? Or that the nose can detect many different pheromones? Or that Voldemort has no nose?
In this ultimate guide, you will learn:
- why people touch their nose
- how spotting the nose flare successfully stopped a crime
- why our nostrils may flare when we’re angry (or about to get it on!)
- … and more!
Can You Read Body Language? (Quiz)
How good are your body language skills? Take our free body language quiz to find out!
Your Nose Knows
Can you guess how many different odors our nose can distinguish? Is it:
- 10 million
- 1 trillion
Click to Reveal Answer
Science estimates our nose is capable of sniffing over 1 trillion odors! We are able to identify small variations of different odors, even if we can’t exactly pinpoint what is “different.”
And what’s even weirder is that people actually smell each other during interactions!
We actually glean a ton of information from sniffing the other person’s “odor” after shaking hands—which is why it’s SO important to perfect your own handshake during an interaction.
Here’s how we do it, according to a 2015 Israeli study:
- After observing interactions between people, researchers used hidden cameras to observe what happened after people interacted.
- Some people shook hands; others didn’t. But the study found people constantly sniff their own hands during the interaction—about 22% of the time. On top of that, if they shook hands, that percentage rose significantly!
I know, super weird, right? But it’s not like they bluntly sniffed their hands during conversation—the sniffing was discrete.
They could have touched or rubbed their nose:
Put their hand on their mouth:
Or subtly touched their chin:
So why do we sniff each other? Think of your odor as your body’s unique ID. Everyone’s ID is different. In fact, one study found after wearing a cotton T-shirt for a day, 75% of people could correctly identify their own shirt and even those of a male and female stranger1.
During interactions, you might be able to sniff someone’s odor (hopefully it’s pleasant). Even if it’s not conscious, chances are you are downloading subconscious information into your brain, such a person’s health, genetic compatibility, and even emotional states. And it can affect our emotions.
So the next time you shake someone’s hand and notice them touching their nose… you’ll think entirely differently about this body language cluster!
More Odor Facts To Nose
Here’s some more sweet science about odor. Did you know mothers are particularly good at sniffing out odors? If you’re a husband, you may notice your wife being very particular about scents. There’s a reason for this:
- Mothers can recognize their own baby’s scent (or “olfactory signature”). Postpartum women can quickly tell their own newborn baby’s clothes, as opposed to another woman’s baby, some only 2 hours after the birth, sometimes with 90% accuracy1. Why? This is extremely helpful evolutionarily for offspring recognition, since back in the non monogamous days, it was hard to distinguish whose child was whose. Identifying odors helps establish parent-child bond1.
- Newborns are also good at recognizing smells. They show less distress in response to heel sticks when exposed to their own mother’s breast milk odor, as opposed to the odor of another woman or even baby formula1.
8 Nose-Touching Gestures to Sniff Out
Remember how your mom said it was rude to pick your nose? Nose touching, brushing, and playing is all the rage nowadays—especially during anxious or tense situations. Watch for repeated touching of the nose, especially during negotiations and dates gone bad!
What It Means: What does touching your nose mean in body language? Nose touching may mean a person is unconvinced, uncertain about a situation, or feeling anxious. When a person feels stress or anxiety, their heart rate increases, which may cause them to breathe faster through their nose. This in turn leads to their blood vessels in their nose dilating, causing a tingling or itching sensation. Touching can also come in different flavors:
But whatever way someone touches their nose, it generally means the same thing.
Sneaking nose touch
What It Means: A sneaking nose touch is a hidden way someone might touch their nose. You can find these variations, among others:
- a quick touch of an index finger to the nose
- swiping a forearm across the nose
- moving from a chin touch gesture to a nose touch
- swatting away an annoying fly that landed on the nose
Sneaking in a nose touch can indicate masked tension. It’s a nonverbal way of saying, “Everything is OK!” but everything might actually NOT be OK. A person who sneaks in a nose touch may just be feigning interest in you or pretending they are happy.
If you see a sneaking nose touch on a date, it may be time to rethink how well the date is going. Or if you’re in the office and your manager touches his nose when he says everything is “going great” with your performance, but you have a review coming up, you might want to prepare for a negative outcome.
You may even see the sneaking nose touch slip by in poker players who are trying to hide a weak hand or from other professionals accustomed to being in control but under stress2.
What It Means: Brushing your nose lightly with your index finger several times is linked with stress or psychological discomfort. It may also indicate a person is pondering something dubious or questionable3.
Side nose touch
A side nose touch is when the forefinger taps the side of the nose.
What It Means: This cultural signal can be interpreted as a sign of secrecy or conspiracy, such as saying “keep it dark, don’t spread it around” in England. And in Central Italy, it is usually a warning, like “take care, there is danger—those people over there are crafty.”4
Covering nose with both hands
What It Means: If a person covers their nose (and consequently, a large part of their face), this indicates shock, surprise, insecurity, fear, or apprehension. You might see this gesture during tragic events. Evolutionary psychologists speculate we evolved this instinctual cue to stop predators from hearing us breathe during times of fear3.
Pinching bridge of nose
What It Means: When someone pinches their nose, it can mean that they feel frustrated or negative about something, and they are thinking about it deeply.
Playing with the philtrum
The philtrum is the grooved area above the lip and below the nose.
What It Means: Playing with the philtrum indicates stress. Sometimes you might even see sweat collecting around the philtrum during times of high stress. Watch for tongue play here—if a person pushes their tongue between their teeth and back of the philtrum repeatedly, this gesture indicates pacifying behavior and a need for reassurance3.
The nose pyramid
What It Means: The nose pyramid is done when someone touches the tips of their fingers together and brings the hands to their nose. It is similar to hand steepling but brought closer to the nose. Since the nose is now in the picture, the gesture is completely changed. Touching the nose indicates great stress or anxiety, so you may see this gesture if someone were working on a project and their computer unexpectedly shut off, erasing their work.
During a negotiation, the nose pyramid is a great way to gauge confidence. If a salesman is confident in selling you his product, for instance, you might see him basketball steepling. Ask him about the price, however, and he may shift the steeple to the nose to hide his anxiety (or the fact that his product costs an arm and a leg!).
7 Noseplay Gestures You’d Never Nose
Sniffing, twitching, wrinkling, and flaring are all tiny nose movements that not everyone “nose” about (sorry for the bad pun!). Watch for these subtle cues that can indicate anger, disgust, and even sexual attraction.
Blocked nostril (aka stuffy nose)
What It Means: Do you notice excessive sniffing during a conversation? One of their nostrils may be blocked. Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki says the “erectile tissue in your nose is on a constant cycle that helps with the flow of nasal air and your sense of smell.”
In other words, the same type of tissues found in your private parts is also found in your nose. But this could also mean their nose is just stuffy—watch for context and other flirtation cues!
A nostril flare is when we fan out the outer lobes of our nose so they are as wide as possible. It’s sometimes called “wing dilation.”
What It Means: Flaring our nostrils before a fight is a very important survival mechanism because when we open up our nostrils, we are able to take in more oxygen. This fills up our lungs and loads our blood with oxygen so we have the energy to fight. It is possible our nostrils flare before a fight to take in more of the opponent’s smell so we can subconsciously smell adrenaline and pheromones. Before a fight, it is good to know as much about your opponent as possible.
How the Nose Flare Stopped a Robbery
In police work, the nostril flare may signal someone is about to run.
In 1974 Miami, Joe Navarro noticed a man standing near the cash register of his father’s small hardware store. The man had no reason to be there, and Navarro noticed the man had his eyes fixed on the cash register.
He observed the man’s behavior change—his nostrils suddenly started flaring, which signalled he was oxygenating and preparing to take some sort of big action.
Navarro noticed this and suddenly yelled, “Watch out!” to his father at the cashier.
The robber suddenly reached for the cash register but was too late. His father was already alerted and grabbed on the robber’s arm, twisting it and causing him to drop the money and run out of the store3.
Context is important here: Nostril flaring can also happen during arousal and attraction. Lovers can be seen with nostrils flared in excitement and anticipation as they absorb pheromone3.
So if it’s happening during boom-chicka-wow-wow, I wouldn’t worry about your partner punching you in the face.
What It Means: The definition of wrinkling the nose is pushing up on one’s mouth to cause wrinkles. Wrinkling the nose is a common disgust cue and can be seen when someone smells something stinky or even when something disgusting is talked about.
Take it to Level 2, and you might see their mouth open and teeth show in a high-disgust cue. This might even signal anger. You may spot this cue if someone is both disgusted and angered by someone else’s behavior.
What It Means: Nose twitching is the same as a nose wrinkle but shorter, lasting about 1/25of a second.
Nose twitching is normally found throughout the Caribbean and cities in the US—like Miami and NY—with a large Caribbean population. It’s a way to say, “What’s going on?” “What happened?” or “What do you need?”3.
Releasing a puff of air
What It Means: Like a dragon puffing air out, we sometimes puff a stream of air out when we feel frustrated, angry, or even insulted.This gesture may be coupled with crossed arms and pursed lips. Since puffing air out is quite obvious, you might see it in kids more often than adults.
Look for a more subtle release of air coupled with a nostril flare to identify anger or frustration in adults.
You may even notice a person’s nose having the runs. If this happens, it just might not be due to having a cold.
What It Means: Anxiety may cause a runny nose and thus cause someone to sniff. It might even happen in minutes—say, for example, your coworker is acting nonchalant about his yearly review, but right before the review, his nose starts running.
If a person’s nose starts running, consider reassuring them and providing comfort (or a Kleenex, if you have one handy).
Rapid nose inhaling
Rapid nose inhaling is a loud inhale that is loud enough to be heard. Picture this. You’ve announced your “big idea” to the company, and right before your boss replies, you see him purse his lips and rapidly inhale. Big uh-oh.
What It Means: Right before delivering bad or unpleasant news, a person may deeply inhale. When we inhale, air stimulates our nose hairs and nerve endings, which momentarily mitigates the stress of having to say or reveal something bad3. You may even see liars inhale before coming out with the truth.
Your Next Steps…
Hey! So now that you’re a professional nose expert, did you know there are so many more body language cues out there?
- Did you know pupil dilation can indicate attraction?
- Or that crossed arms don’t always mean someone is closed off?
- Or that exposing the neck is an amazing flirtation cue?
The human body is truly complex, so don’t miss out on this opportunity to expand your body language knowledge!
Sources:1 Knapp, M. L., & Hall, J. A. (2014). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 2 Navarro, J. (2018). The dictionary of body language: A field guide to human behavior. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. 3 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. 4 Morris, D. (2012). Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language. London: Vintage Digital.
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!