• Robb G. Best

Speaking the Language of the Subconscious Brain, or, The Power of the Elbow Touch


When we think of communicating, we might consider speech an essential tool. Some even argue it is this which makes us human. Talking is a pretty cool development, but it’s not the preferred mode of expression in the subconscious brain. Still, the subconscious brain is not without language. It speaks through body language, the playground of gesture and nuance.

This was borne out in an interesting experiment conducted in Paris. In an attempt to understand the power of touch, one day scientists stationed four exceedingly handsome French men on four separate corners. They were given the following task: single out a passing woman. Commenting on her beauty, reach out and shake her hand. Then, suggest a coffee date and ask for her phone number.

At the end of the day, each man had solicited roughly 280 women. They had successfully obtained the phone number about 10% of the time.

On the next round of the experiment, the scientists made one slight alteration. This time, when the man shook each woman's hand, he reached up and touched her elbow at the same time. The touch was so subtle that after the experiment, 50% of the women reported they were not even aware of the contact. But an impression had been made: the men doubled their phone number success rate.

So what was going on? What does the elbow touch mean?

One theory is that our brains still follow the primitive instinct to sort between us and them. The elbow touch may game that system, creating a false sense of in-group intimacy.

A study done in Germany shows waitresses who touch patrons on the shoulder earn more tips than the ones who keep their hands to themselves. More ‘us’ than ‘them’? Perhaps. Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that body language plays a far larger role in our everyday communication than what many of us might expect.

Sales people know that customers who lean in towards them when discussing pricing are far more likely to buy. And conversely, customers leaning back and away are less likely to buy, regardless of what they may verbalizing. It is estimated that in a sales situation, 93% of the way a customer decides to buy has nothing to do with the salesperson's pitch. (So much for the silver-tongued devil who can allegedly sell ice to the Inuit.)

Since so many body gestures are controlled by the subconscious, it’s difficult to detect all the informational cues you might be displaying at any given time. This is one of the reasons FBI interrogation sessions pay so much attention to your gestures and less to your words. Telling a lie is not all that difficult. However, getting your heart rate, facial ticks, palms, posture, and eye movements in on the game is another matter entirely.

So the next time you want to establish some in-group trust and camaraderie, pay attention to the things you're communicating before you ever open your mouth. And consider the humble elbow touch. Even if your goal isn't to obtain the phone numbers of total strangers, it can't hurt. (Unless an FBI agent has you strapped to a polygraph test--probably not the time to unleash that particular move.)

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