When I opened the kitchen door to take out the trash, I saw the trashcan lid on the ground. I approached the can and saw a large possum resting on top of the trash.

The possum looked at me and then lifted the rear of his upper lip. By this, he revealed several sharp teeth. I had no problem reading his lips and his message. It was very effective, non-verbal intimidation. I got back behind the kitchen door to figure my next move.

Reading “looks”

Most of us can read looks of hostility or contempt from people and animals. Sneers, glares, and stares of hostility or contempt are often mentioned by respondents to surveys on abusive conduct in the workplace.

When that possum lifted the rear of his upper lip towards me, it was to show me he could hurt me. (I know he could.) Now, lift the rear portion of your upper lip on one side and draw it back a little. If you look in a mirror, you will see an unmistakable look of hostility mixed with contempt and distain.

Darwin on expressions

Charles Darwin wrote about the expressions of humans and animals, based on his observations and the observations of naturalists, missionaries, and military officers around the world, in “The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” (1872). He discussed sneers with looks of hatred and anger in chapter 10. (I use the Oxford University Press edition of 1998.)

Fierce looks are intended to intimidate. They communicate readiness to attack. The animals and people that grasped the message were more likely to survive and reproduce. People and animals who made it to this age typically know when a person or an animal is visibly threatening or hostile to them.

In Chapter 14, Darwin wrote, “…we still uncover the canine tooth on one side when we sneer at or defy anyone, and we uncover all of our teeth when furiously enraged."

Psychological harassment or bullying

Most anti-bullying programs speak of verbal and physical abuse. Many are not explicit about nonverbal expressions of hostility. The best programs do address non-verbal harassment and intimidation.

For example, Minnesota’s “HR/LR Policy #1432 Respectful Workplace” states:

“Examples of disrespectful and/or unprofessional behavior include but are not limited to:

  •  Exhibiting aggressive behaviors including shouting, abusive language, threats of violence, the use of obscenities or other non-verbal expressions of aggression;
  •  Behavior that a reasonable person would find to be demeaning, humiliating, or bullying…”

Even small children and many animals know how, without words, to communicate hostility, contempt, or distain. A curled upper lip may be all that is necessary. Paul Ekman, Ph.D, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at UCSF, found that this look was almost universally understood to express contempt. A sneer showing one or more teeth is even more aggressive.

In the workplace, such expressions harass, demean, intimidate, and freeze out the targets of such looks. They degrade the target. And they degrade the target’s morale, commitment to work, and productivity. So, anti-bullying policies should address non-verbal (non-physical) harassment.

If people didn’t get the message intended by sneers, glares, and stares, no one would send those non-verbal cues. In Chapter 14, Darwin wrote, "It has often struck me as a curious fact that so many shades of expression are instantly recognized without any conscious process of analysis on our part." 

Verbal and non-verbal harassment

In my research on workplace violence with public and private sector entities, a few people have questioned whether bullying or harassment should be in workplace violence programs. They are reluctant to associate psychological harassment with physical acts.

So ask yourself: which affects you longer, a slap in the face in private or humiliation in public?  And which hurts more?

This subject is quite old. Almost 1,500 years ago, an author of the Babylonian Talmud wrote that: to humiliate a person in public was equal to a physical attack that drew blood. They noted that the humiliated person’s face becomes pale, as if the blood was rushing away from it. (If readers know of older references on this, please share them in online comments to this article.)

Harassment as violence—the effects

Psychological stress has the same effect on the body as physical stress (per discussions with Dr. Arnold Sherman, retired professor of neurological pharmacology, U. of Iowa). Among other things, the stress of recurring verbal and non-verbal harassment can cause sleeplessness, fatigue, headaches, rashes, immunodeficiency, anxiety, depression, heart disease, and even suicide. These effects are physical. They hurt the employee and have costs to the employer. For more on this, search with all of the terms in the brackets: ["psychological stress" disease “site: NIH.GOV”].

Averting psychological violence

Proactively addressing verbal and non-verbal violence has clear benefits for the company:

  • Higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and lower turnover of staff. This reduces the costs of hiring and training employees.
  • Better customer service. This improves customer loyalty and pays dividends.
  • Lower costs for workers’ compensation; lower costs for health insurance. Environments with less psychological stress leave people better able to fight off colds and flu, better able to sleep at night, etc.
  • Environments with respect and civility prompt employees to speak well of the company, in person and on social media. This makes the company a more attractive place to work.


In Chapter 14, Darwin also wrote, "The movements of expression give vividness and energy to our spoken words. They reveal the thoughts and intentions of others more truly than do words, which may be falsified." Non-verbal expressions of hostility, contempt, or disdain will be disruptive in the workplace and should be addressed in a good workplace violence program.