Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark! Or is it in Your Relationship?

How The “Bunny Nose” Can Reveal Relationship Issues

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D.

In Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet, Act I, Scene 4, the officer Marcellus spies the ghost of Denmark’s late King and utters, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” The phrase is meant to convey that something is really wrong.

In our last blog, we discussed micro expressions of happiness and the telltale signs of a genuine smile. Today we discuss the micro expression of disgust—a sure sign that something is not quite right.

Disgust. Even the word sounds, well, disgusting. Its Medieval etymological origins emanate from the Middle French word, desgouster, and used as a verb disgust can cause loathing, nausea, or revulsion in a person. Example?  “You disgust me!”

We exhibit disgust as babies. According to Susan Heitler, “A baby who tastes rotten food immediately wrinkles his nose, curls his lips in an expression of disgust, and spits it out.  When someone speaks to you with a tone of contempt, you are likely to feel spit out from that person’s world.” [1]

Retired FBI Agent and Profiler Joe Navarro writes that this reaction—the crinkling of the nose, sometimes called the bunny nose—is a sign of negative emotions. He adds: “This disgust cue remains with us all our lives. When we smell, hear, or even just see something we don’t like, our nasalis muscle contracts involuntarily, revealing our true sentiments.”[2]

Disgust and its close relative “contempt” can indicate that something is rotten in your relationship. In fact, Gottman’s marital metaphor of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling—are used to predict the failure of the marriage with high accuracy.[3]

While our next blog will focus on contempt (its meaning is often misunderstood), today we will show you how to spot its nauseating next of kin—disgust.

The two pictures below show a person (my colleague Patryk, from the Center for Body Language) with a genuine expression of disgust. In the left-hand picture, you can see his wrinkled nose—a reliable indicator of disgust. In the picture on the right, disgust can take the form of an open mouth. Growing up in my family, we would simply say about Patryk below: “Looks like he ate a plate of [FILL IN THE BANK]!”

What to Do When You Encounter Disgust?

We see the micro expressions of disgust in the research that we conduct—especially in advertising when respondents see an add that doesn’t resonate (literally stinks). When you see signs of disgust, it is a clear sign that something is amiss. Something doesn’t agree with this person. So, serve them something else, so to speak. For example, you can:

  • Seek to find a common ground with the person (sports, music, arts, etc.)
  • Use humor to make them smile
  • Change the topic to one that is pleasurable and does not elicit the bunny nose
  • Understand the person’s expectations about the exchange and adjust your questions and answers accordingly.

The Merrill Institute

Stay tuned to our next blog as we individually analyze the Micro Expressions of contempt—one of the most prominent emotions that can predict the collapse of many types of relationships.

Contact The Merrill Institute to learn more about Body Language Training and Micro-Expressions

[1] Susan Heitler Ph.D. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201303/how-contempt-destroys-relationships

[2] Excerpt From: Joe Navarro. “The Dictionary of Body Language.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-dictionary-of-body-language/id1281489160

[3] The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling; Ellie Lisitsa//April 23, 2013 https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/

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