Bernard Tomic's 60 Minutes Interview: Body Language and True Emotion Revealed

Yesterday, ABC Radio Perth invited me to talk about the wink gesture, on Geoff Hutchison’s Drive show. The invitation came in response to the unusual and repetitive winking behaviour displayed by tennis player, Bernard Tomic, whilst being interviewed by Allison Langdon on Australia’s 60 Minutes.

Bernard Tomic Winking

When Lucie Bell, the Producer, spoke to me about Tomic’s winking, I hadn’t seen the clip. I didn’t know anything about him, his previous notorious behaviours, nor the negative perceptions about him. I assumed Tomic’s repetitive winking must have been a nonverbal tic, fuelled by stress. And then, I watched a short clip from the show. I was wrong. He was overtly and inappropriately flirting with Allison Langdon. I was somewhat surprised, as it isn’t often we see ‘professionals’ behaving in a way, and to a degree, that is entirely inappropriate in the context of the situation.

Tomic’s verbal messaging confirmed his nonverbal behaviour–the flirtatious wink–when he asked Langdon, “You want to come to the restroom with me?”. At first, I heard ‘restaurant’. My brain had filled in the slightly more appropriate question, and, I was probably distracted by seeing the winking. However, on playback, it sounded more like ‘restroom’–wholly inappropriate! What did you hear?

In the short snippet I watched, I counted nine winks. Langdon ignored Tomic’s question, but Tomic wouldn’t let it go, he continued winking urging her, nonverbally, to pay attention and respond to his overt flirtatious signalling. You can read about the various meanings of a wink in this article.

Just moments later I spotted some more behaviours, both interesting and telling. I could see the bigger picture–it was a mask. This was Tomic’s defence mechanism. He was deliberately being dismissive to distract, escape from and avoid the reality of the interview, concealing his true emotion. As a result, his nonverbal behaviour and verbal message were disrespectful towards Langdon.


Bernard Tomic’s Body Language Reveals his True Emotion

The first behaviour I noticed, after the wink, was his one-sided shoulder shrug. This nonverbal behaviour points towards deception. For that reason, it’s my favourite behaviour to observe because it can reveal so much. It’s a very common behaviour, along with its sister behaviour, the double shrug (both shoulders), but it's not always significant. Its significance is determined by the words spoken at the time. In this case, it’s not significant, but it does give us insight into the bigger picture and Tomic’s true emotion.


“You could have been better though.”


“Do I have to try mega hard–no.”

On the word, “no”, Tomic’s left shoulder raises and falls. His one-sided shrug reveals he isn’t confident when he says, “no”. It tells us he does have to work hard–to some degree. In one way that’s obvious, it would be a stretch to say that a professional sports person doesn’t have to try hard. But his response in general, the very fact he says this, is defensive.

I went back to the start of the video clip and spotted three behaviours following on from each other. The first was a lip lick–a stress indicator. When we feel stressed and anxious our body responds, preparing us for the freeze, flight or fight response, it’s coming from the emotion of fear. A small part of this response is a dry mouth, due to a reduction in the production of saliva. We physically respond to this physiological change, by licking our lips or moving our tongue around in our mouth. This tells us Tomic is stressed.

The lip lick was immediately followed with a short eyelid flutter, consisting of two rapid blinks. An eyelid flutter is observed in people who are struggling with something. It stems from a high cognitive load. Stress on its own does increase cognitive load, but often, it’s more than that–it’s an emotional struggle or turmoil. We know Tomic is stressed and we can assume he is struggling with something emotionally. What? We don’t know. We can’t decipher the reason for the stress or the eyelid flutter, because reading body language can only tell us about emotional state. Anything beyond that is assumed.

The third behaviour in the cluster looks like the expression of shame. As Tomic’s eyelids flutter, his eyes avert downwards. This is observed within the emotional expressions of sadness and shame. In this case, it looks more like shame. Tomic possibly feels guilt or remorse.

There’s another behaviour that Tomic displayed throughout most of the short clip. His arm is across his torso, with his hand on his knee. This is a blocking behaviour. He’s blocking with both his arm and his leg. An extremely common behaviour, we observe this in people when they feel discomfort. For most people, it takes only the slightest level of discomfort, such as a stranger being in the room, to result in a blocking behaviour. Where this stems from is our drive to survive. When a threat is perceived, our brain responds in the same way it’s always responded for many thousands of years, keeping us safe. The physical reaction is to protect the most vital organs in our body–located in the torso.

If we put all of this together, we can decipher that Tomic is stressed, possibly struggling with something emotional, feeling shame and discomfort. I don’t know how that makes you feel, but for me, it reverses some of the negative emotion I felt in observing his inappropriate winking. It makes him seem more human. He’s just like everyone else, dealing with his feelings the way he thinks is best. He perhaps doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to know what is best, but none of us are perfect. I’m not trying to justify his behaviour, but I do want you to see it from another perspective.

Reading and understanding nonverbal communication often unveils the masks people use to disguise or conceal their inner emotion. You see people’s true emotion, and who they are as a person becomes accessible. It can alter snap judgements and give a deeper understanding of emotion and personality–it makes you more understanding and empathic.

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