The head tilt

Noticed in the NYT Magazine on Sunday, an ad for the “NYT Global Forum: Thomas L. Friedman’s The Next New World” (6/20/13, City View at Metreon, San Francisco), with photos of 10 of the 19 scheduled speakers, including this one of Cynthia Breazeal (Associate Professor, Media Arts and Sciences, M.I.T.):


Not only smiling — many of the speakers pictured on the event’s website are smiling — but doing a head tilt, a characteristically feminine gesture subject to a variety of interpretations, most not appropriate for someone who wants to be taken seriously as an authority.

There are four women speakers in the set of 19. Here are the other three:


Beth Comstock (Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer, GE)


Sharmila Shahani-Mulligan (C.E.O. & Founder, ClearStory Data)


Marina Gorbis (Executive Director, Institute For The Future)

Two more smiles, but no head tilts. None of the 15 men pictured (listed in an appendix to this posting) is doing a head tilt.

On the head tilt, from a website on “The 13 Most Common Gestures You’ll See Daily”:

Tilting the head to one side is a submission signal because it exposes the throat and next and makes the person look smaller and less threatening.

… Charles Darwin was one of the first to note that humans, as well as animals – especially dogs – tilt their heads to one side when they become interested in something. Women will use this gesture to show interest in men they fancy

… Studies of paintings from the last two thousand years show that women are depicted three times as often as men using the Head-Tilt and women are shown in advertisements tilting their heads three times as often as men.

From another site, adding uncertainty or query:

Tilting the head sideways can be a sign of interest, which may be in what is said or happening. It can also be a flirting signal as it says ‘I am interested in you!’

Tilting can similarly indicate curiosity, uncertainty or query, particularly if the head is pushed forward, as if the person was trying to look at the subject in a different way in the hope of seeing something new. The greater the tilt, the greater the uncertainty or the greater the intent to send this signal.

… The tilted head exposes the carotid artery on the side of the neck and may be a sign of submission and feelings of vulnerability.

From the TV Tropes site, on the Quizzical Tilt:

It is common in all forms of animation, as well as in Real Life, for a character to tilt his head sideways in confusion. In anime, this is often accompanied by a “…” while it is more often accompanied by a “…huh?” in western animation. A raised eyebrow is common in every genre.

Common in Animal Reaction Shots, especially with dogs (although animals who behave like dogs may do it too), accompanied by a Quizzical (or Disapproving) Whimper.

Finally, from yet another popular advice site, this time on “Seven Common Body Language Mistakes”:

The head tilt is an ancient sign of listening, yet it is often seen in the workplace as a sign of agreement. It also can be misconstrued as acquiescence or flirting. [Carol] Kinsey Goman [a business coach specializing in body language] recommends practicing saying something with your head tilted and then straight in front on the mirror — you will notice how much authoritative you’ll appear when your head isn’t cocked to one side.


(Compare this what-not-to-do photo with #1 above.)

The set of head-tilt messages then includes all these possibilities:

attentiveness; curiosity, interest; uncertainty, confusion; query; agreement; acquiescence; submission, vulnerability; flirting

It’s routine, of course, for a gesture to be subject to many interpretations, but in this case most of the messages undercut authority. So Breazeal’s photo really caught my eye.

Appendix. Male speakers at the Forum:

– Nick Bilton (Lead Blogger, Bits Blog, The New York Times)

– Erik Brynjolfsson (Director, M.I.T. Center for Digital Business)

– David Carr (Business Columnist and Culture Reporter, The New York Times)

– Barry Diller (Chairman and Senior Executive, IAC and Expedia, Inc.)

– Patrick Doherty (Director, Smart Strategy Initiative; Deputy Director, National Security Studies Program)

– Thomas L. Friedman (Foreign Affairs Columnist, The New York Times)

– Quentin Hardy (Deputy Technology Editor, The New York Times)

– Reid Hoffman (Executive Chairman of LinkedIn; Partner at Greylock Partners)

– John Gregory Markoff (Senior Correspondent, Science, The New York Times)

– Andrew McAfee (Principal Research Scientist, M.I.T.)

– Mark Mykleby (Senior Fellow, Smart Strategy Initiative)

– Moisés Naím (Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

– Slava Rubin (C.E.O. and Co-Founder, Indiegogo)

– Dov Seidman (Founder and C.E.O., LRN)

– K. R. Sridhar (C.E.O., Bloom Energy)

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