Airport Security, The Body Language of New Pat Downs and Scanning

I love my country. I wanted to make sure I said that first as I am about to analyze the nonverbal factors that may be causing passengers to have trouble with the new scanning and pat down procedures at the airport.

In the last two weeks I have gone through the new screening procedures eight times in five different cities, Atlanta, Cincinnati, San Antonio, Ft. Lauderdale, and Tyler Texas. I went through the scanner each time and oddly, each time I was patted down, extensively. Apparently, little blonds with glasses fit the terrorist profile. The new security checks are more than a little intrusive. In fact, if they did it any better they would have to buy me dinner first. However, I am certainly willing to do it, to insure we are secure while flying. There are nonverbal issues with the procedure. We can talk about “personal freedoms and profiling but truly we just don't like our personal space invaded. Americans sense of self, their personal space, is external rather than internal. In the US and most of North America we feel that our body, our space, does not end at the external body. It does not stop at skin and hair, but extends out from the body a good sixteen inches or more. When we are in any crowd, and especially long lines like the security at Airports like Atlanta Hartsfield or Chicago O'Hara we already have to be inside the body bubble wall of dozens of people so we may be fearful, or defensive before we even get to the main check point. Our intimate body bubble is bigger in front than it is in back and smaller around our feet. So people can stand closer to us when they are behind us queuing in line than when they are facing us. This kind of queuing is unique because we know we may already be stressed about traveling, we know we are going to be evaluated and go through the stress of mini checks and handing over our personal artifacts to the conveyor belt where it may be lost or evaluated and taking off our shoes and feeling quite vulnerable as bare or sock footed we gingerly step toward strangers in uniforms.

To be scanned, you lift up your arms above your head and hold them with palms flat out. This again makes you feel extremely vulnerable to attack. All your body windows are exposed. Anyone can hurt your very easily when you're in this position. In that same vulnerable moment you know there is someone looking at your body on a screen even more exposed. Then there is a pat down where you stand in similar position and have someone not just invade your space but touch you. It is all very stressful. The word stress that evolved from Latin word "districtia" means "to draw or pull apart." The Romans even used the term to describe "a being torn asunder." Most of us who have been through a busy airport's security check can probably relate to this description.

0—18 inches. The "Intimate Zone" we normally reserve for friends and family. It’s what I call “kissy face” distance. We also allow others to encroach this zone in a few other situations; contact sports, dancing and in greeting and goodbyes. In North American culture this space is almost like an extension of your body. Standing 18 inches from someone you can only see their face their hands and feet are out of vision range. If you get closer than 18 inches everything blurs. This makes you vulnerable to attack. At this distance. you will be able to smell and touch the other person and they can smell and touch you. So at this distance you want to make sure you have used your deodorant and brushed your teeth. This distance is used for sexual contact,comforting someone or attack. Whenever you perceive a threat, imminent or imagined, your limbic system immediately responds via your autonomic nervous system. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and other hormones that increase breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. This moves more oxygen-rich blood faster to the brain and to the muscles needed for fighting or fleeing. Adrenaline causes a rapid release of glucose and fatty acids into your bloodstream. Also,your senses become keener and your memory sharper. So the event of going through security is heightening your perception. Other hormones shut down functions unnecessary during the emergency. For example, the immune system goes on hold. That's why chronic stress increases your chances of getting sick. With your mind and body in this temporary state of metabolic overdrive, you are now prepared to respond to a life-threatening situation and or a security check. No wonder we resent it. After you go through a perceived danger your body would typically try to return to normal, but once your stress response is activated the system wisely keeps you in a state of readiness for the next saber tooth tiger, or gets you ready to get to your gate, get on the plane and sit next to a stranger for several hours.

Patti Wood, MA, Certified Speaking Professional - The Body Language Expert. For more body language insights go to her website at Also check out the body language quiz on her YouTube Channel at

Posted by Patti Wood MA CSP Corporate Speaker and Trainer