Tilted Head

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! --Shakespeare, Macbeth, II, 2

Gesture. Leaning the head over laterally, toward the right or left shoulder.

Usage: Head-tilt-side may be used a. to show friendliness and foster rapport; b. to show coyness, as in courtship; c. to strike a submissive pose (e.g., to show deference to one's boss); and d. to respond to cute signs (i.e., to immature cues emanating, e.g., from kittens, puppies, and babies).

Anatomy. Head-tilt-side involves a. the scalene muscles, which connect the neck bones (cervical vertebrae) to the upper two ribs, as well as b. the trapezius, and c. the sternocleidomastoid muscles. Controlled by "gut reactive," special visceral nerves (see also PHARYNGEAL ARCH), the latter two muscles are well equipped to express emotions, feelings, and moods.

Culture. In Spain, tilting the head sideways and resting the cheek in the palm of the hand is a deliberate signal which says, "Sissy!" (Morris 1994:21).

Media. Head-tilting was a signature cue of method actor, James Dean. Dean's head-tilts seemed to say, as East of Eden director, Elia Kazan put it, "Pity me, I'm too sensitive for the world" (Dalton 1984:60).

Origin. Head-tilt-side is one of several self-protective gestures stemming from the larger shoulder-shrug display (see also CROUCH).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. Head-tilt-side is used extensively by men and women as a flirting or courtship cue (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1970; Givens 1978, 1983). 2. Sideward head-tilts have been decoded as signals of shyness in young children (McGrew 1972), and in adults (Givens 1978). 3. "Females tilted their head [sic] to one side significantly more than males: 18 out of 20 times recorded. The head-tilt seemed to be more obvious in male-female greetings" (Kendon and Ferber 1973:152). 4. "This head [tilt] gesture may convey an attitude of coyness or submissiveness, but it is so common that one can almost always find such a head position in any group of women" (Key 1975:152).

E-Commentary: "People frequently ask me 'Is your neck stiff?' I also have had numerous counseling sessions with our managers about client complaints regarding my attitude. I have had multiple spine operations, including the cervical spine, therefore, something always hurts, and sometimes I am stiff without being aware of it. Could my 'posture' have much to do with the way I am perceived by other people, specifically my 'stiff neck' position?" --USA (9/10/00 6:43:49 PM Pacific Daylight Time)


Copyright 1999 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of a head tilted right (see SHOULDER-SHRUG; picture credit: unknown)