The man sat stoic and engaged, chin in hand, as the woman at his side spoke. At times, the two seemed to mirror each other, echoing the other's head tilt and body language like two halves of a single person.
For nonverbal behavior expert Joe Navarro, that brief scene was a road map to their relationship. "This is a couple who have been together a long time, and they're happy," he said.
We'd been watching the pair on a balcony at BayWalk for less than 30 seconds, when Navarro delivered his verdict. So I approached the couple with a simple question: Was he right?
"We've only been together a little while . . . about 41 years," cracked Mike Kovac, 66, a retired University of South Florida professor who was enjoying the balmy weather with his wife, Midge.
"Seems like he got us pretty well."
Now, it's not necessarily a stretch to assume an older couple enjoying the day together might have a long, solid relationship.
But it was also the kind of rapid-fire analysis Navarro has specialized in, from 25 years spent as an FBI counterintelligence officer right up to his current work tutoring business executives and poker players on the myriad ways our bodies betray our thoughts.
After years of prodding, the Davis Islands retiree finally put his knowledge about body language into a book published last month, What Every BODY Is Saying, aimed at teaching the average schmo to decode the subtleties of our physical response to mental reactions.
So I put Navarro's concepts on trial, roaming the streets of lunchtime St. Petersburg recently to see if the cues highlighted in the book actually signify what he says they do.
We spent time at BayWalk, the Pier and a few sidewalks in-between, watching people and trying to dissect their behavior without looking too conspicuous.
At times, I felt like Keanu Reeves fighting Laurence Fishburne in the dojo scene from The Matrix, struggling to keep up with my more experienced guide's near-instant assessment of each person's public posture.
As a group of three women passed, angling across the courtyard like a flock of birds in perfect triangular formation, Navarro noted how their efforts to walk together indicated they're probably all good friends.
At the Pier's outdoor watering hole, Navarro looked at Diane Markell for about 10 seconds before pronouncing that she was having a good time talking to the guy wearing sunglasses about 5 feet to her left. The clue: The inside of Markell's right wrist was turned toward the man, a way of exposing your front to friends that he calls "ventral fronting."
"Yeah, we're getting along pretty well," Markell said with a wary smile, once I asked about Navarro's analysis. "It's freaky, what you're talking about. But it's reality."
What was also obvious: The signs betraying each source's anxiety as I approached with my initial questions.
Kovac leaned away as I approached, rubbing the back of his neck as I explained my intentions, folding his arms in front of his chest until I cracked a joke that broke the ice. Markell leaned away from me initially, turning the back of her wrist to me until she realized what I was doing and warmed to the conversation.
Navarro's book preaches that these actions are pacifying and protective behaviors; near-unconscious moves rooted in our limbic brain and connected to the primitive impulse to shield ourselves or soothe anxiety.
In man's earliest days, these impulses connected to our "fight or flight" response, helping our bodies gear up quickly to meet an anticipated threat. In modern life, they signal reactions to much more mundane sources of stress.
"I run into people all the time who say, 'That's not what I was doing,' " Navarro said, laughing. "Either they're not aware of the behavior, or they don't want to be that exposed. But if someone's talking to his girlfriend and his toe is up, he's having a good conversation. Talk to him long enough and you find out she's agreed to come over, which is the good thing he was anticipating."
In person and in print, Navarro said the biggest pitfall for amateurs is assuming too much from a single cue.
For example, I saw a man sitting with his kids bouncing his legs — a possible sign of agitation. But if he's the type of restless guy who always bounces his legs, Navarro said, it might not mean much.
"The key, sometimes, is getting to know your subject a bit, so you can better read their behavior," said Navarro, a master interrogator who once met with the producers of Fox's hit show 24 to offer feedback on how they portray interrogations. "It's the changes in what they do that can tell you something."
Navarro's book is filled with anecdotes on how such observations have helped him and his students — from deducing that a mother was hiding her fugitive son after watching her cover her lower throat during some questions, to an employer who concluded an applicant was hiding an unflattering Facebook page by the way he rubbed his legs during the job interview.
Some of his observations seem elemental: People squint when seeing something they don't like, a behavior Navarro's calls "eye blocking." Other cues — the way people's feet point toward a possible exit when they are thinking about leaving — are less obvious.
"It works everywhere humans interact," wrote Navarro, 54, who traced his expertise in nonverbal communication to his childhood as an 8-year-old immigrant from Cuba, forced by language barriers to guess how Americans felt about him from their behavior. "Because people are not always aware they are communicating nonverbally, body language is often more honest than an individual's (words)."
We didn't find many negative interactions during our brief experiment last week. So we tried to create one.
We asked a hostess at a restaurant if they could handle 30 people that afternoon, planning to let her in on the experiment when she nervously shielded her neck.
But after furrowing her brow a bit, the woman asked a co-worker if they could handle such a crowd. The answer: No problem.
"I guess that pretty much failed," said Navarro, laughing as we walked away. "No way to interpret anything, if you can't stress the person out in first place."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.