The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Intention Cue

Body movement. A gesture, motion, or posture of the fingers, hands, arms, feet, legs, face, head, neck, shoulders, or torso which is preparatory to a nonverbal action, such as leaving a room, rising from a table, or attacking an enemy.

Usage: An intention cue--such as angling the feet away from someone we dislike--is an unconscious signal of how we truly feel about another person. Intention cues may also reflect inner attitudes, unvoiced opinions, and emotions as aroused, e.g., in deception.

Animal behavior1. "These are the incomplete or preparatory movements which often appear at the beginning of an activity" (Hinde 1970:668). 2. "Intention movements of biting or striking are a common source of the components of threat movements: the upright threat posture of the herring gull provides several examples. In other cases intention movements of preening, nesting, self-protection, copulation, and many other types of behaviour have given rise to display movements" (Hinde 1970:668).

Animal ethology. Two animals may fight over a food item, but usually they bluff each other with aggressive displays to force a bloodless retreat (see below, Snarl). In ethology, early researchers such as N. Tinbergen and K. Lorenz suggested that bluffing and threat displays were intention movements which evolved through a process of "ritualization." As incoming or afferent cues, intention movements are reliable signs with which to predict subsequent behaviors. 

Arm-reach. Sitting across a table from an attractive stranger, we may unwittingly extend our arms toward that person in preparation to touch (see LOVE SIGNALS IV). As with many intention cues, the preparatory action is not completed (i.e., we stop short of making physical contact).

Feet-pointing. Jurors may unwittingly point their feet away from attorneys with whom they disagree, in an unconscious preparation to walk away.

Knees clasp. In the seated position, leaning forward and clasping "both knees with the hands" means, "I am about to leave" (Morris 1994:149).

Ritualization. "Since the behavior patterns of social care of skin and fur already expresses contact willingness, it is understandable that they sometimes become ritualized into expressive movements. The lemur (Lemur mongoz) greets others with a movement that is used to comb the fur, a behavior that is common to this group. This combing movement with the lower mandible is made into space, accompanied by rhythmic calls and even licking the air at high intensity" (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1970:95).

Snarl. "When your dog lifts his lips and shows you his teeth because you reached for the bone between his paws, you've witnessed an intention display. Rather than bite you there on the spot, your dog shows the beginning phase of the biting sequence to bluff you away" (Givens 1983:43).


Drawing of "Showing My Nonverbal Side" by my son Aaron Huffman (copyright 2012 by Aaron M. Huffman)