What Does It Mean When We Stick Our Tongues Out?

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Body language can be a power tool for those who learn to use it. By studying body language, a person is able to figure out the emotions of those around them even if the people involved are trying to hide their true feelings. And knowing what the people around you are feeling will better allow you to connect with those people and form social relations.

One interesting body language quirk is the sticking out of the tongue. This quirk can had a wide array of connotations associated with it and can have very distinct meanings depending on where in the world you are, what age you are, the accompanying facial expression, and the direction of the tongue. The quirk is quite fascinating because of the wide set of interpretations it can conjure and at present there does not seem to be a definitive explanation on the subject of tongue protrusion. No scholar had undertaken a complete systematic analysis on the subject across a variety of cultures.

The wide range of connotations associated with the gesture can be seen by contrasting its meaning amongst the natives of Tibet and the Maori people of New Zealand. In Tibet, the gesture functions as a greeting and as a way of expressing respect. In complete contrast, amongst the Maori, the quirk has been historically used as a war chant. Sticking out the tongue was done to intimidate the enemy, assert dominance and signify strength.

An expert on the science of tongue protrusion, Laurie Patsilade, identified four common types of tongue protrusion and their meaning. Below are her identified interpretations followed by the interpretations of lay people on the meaning behind this fascinating gesture.

11 Emoticons

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Emoticons can be interpreted in two general ways as pointed out by Patsilade. Firstly, they can be viewed as “silly, flirting, or [lighthearted] teasing.” Alternatively, it can be interpreted in a less friendly, playful manner and can be seen as “mocking…like saying pfft – I don’t want to hear what you have to say.” Because of emoticons being used on social media, the gesture is not accompanied by the facial expressions of the gesture maker and because of this it can be extremely difficult to interpret which context the gesture is being used in and is often interpreted wrongly.

10 Rock N Roll

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The use of tongue protrusion had an iconic status in rock n roll. This can be seen by its use as a symbol for the Rolling Stones, and later by Gene Simmons in the band Kiss. People may stick out their tongue as a reference to these iconic bands and to mix into the rock n roll vibe.

9 Cuteness

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The gesture is typically associated with babies for whom it is “developmentally and socially appropriate” since “they’re learning how to imitate others’ communication and manipulate their mouths.” As a result the behaviour is typically seen as being cute.

8 Silliness

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Often times the gesture is used to acknowledge one’s own stupidity or silliness in a particular situation. In the words of one commentator, it is a “somewhat sheepish (but good-humored) acknowledgment of (usually one’s own) silliness, foolishness, absent-mindedness, or ineptness.”

7 Concentration

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The gesture can often be seen in children, and sometimes in adults, when they are trying to accomplish a goal. This is especially true when that goal is deemed as subjectively hard. Such a use of the gesture is usually indicative of a high level of concentration and the tongue will usually protrude towards one side of the mouth.

6 After a Joke

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Another wide usage of the gesture is after one has made a joke. It is often used by the maker of a joke to indicate that he or she has made a joke and that the comment should not be taken too seriously. As such, it can often be used to ensure that the subject of the joke does not take it to heart.

5 Dazed People

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As pointed out by one anonymous online personality, in cartoons the gesture is often made by characters who are dazed or knocked out. As the commenter puts it, “stupid/knocked-out/dazed people with their tongues limply hanging out like a dog’s tongue on a hot day.”

4 Disgust

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A tongue protrusion can also signify a feeling of distaste or disgust, especially when related to food or drink. The gesture is often used as a means of saying ‘eww’ or ‘yuck’ in a nonverbal manner. It is made when thinking about something disgusting, often times when thinking about something you do not like.

3 Nervousness

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As mentioned earlier, the quirk is often seen after doing something stupid or silly. For this reason, it can be interpreted as a response to embarrassment or nervousness. Tongue protrusion in this case can result from a dry mouth due to a lack of saliva. In order to combat the lack of saliva, a person sticks his tongue out in order to wet the lips. The dry lips are caused because emotional states may affect our secretion of saliva and so cause us to have dry lips.

2 Facial Retort

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Especially amongst kids, the gesture is often used as a nonverbal form of communication designed to insult the other party in a friendly manner. It is often used by someone who has just been proven wrong as a way of saying, as one forum poster stated, “ You may be right, but nuts to you anyway!”

1 Contempt

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Quite commonly, the gesture is used as a way of expressing contempt towards another. It can indicate a lack of politeness towards the other person especially when the tongue is stuck out directly at the other individual. This type of gesture is often made with complementary body language indicating insulting intent and can be tantamount to flipping someone off.

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