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What Does It Mean When We Stick Our Tongues Out?

Depending on context—and placement—tongue protrusion can imply almost anything.

Key points

  • Tongue protrusion can signify one thing in one culture and the opposite in another.
  • In Tibet, sticking one's tongue out functions both as a greeting and a sign of respect.
  • The Maori people of New Zealand have historically stuck their tongues out as part of a war chant preceding battle.

Questions relating to sticking out one’s tongue can turn out to be surprisingly complicated. Its meaning in babies and children may be quite different from adults who do the same thing. Nuances abound: Is the tongue sticking straight out? To the left? Right? Hanging down? Or might it actually be curled? What’s the accompanying facial expression and context in which it occurs? To add to the question’s complexity, tongue protrusion can signify one thing in one culture and the opposite in another.

This body language quirk is fascinating because of how variable its connotations can be. Exploring the subject on the Internet, I could find no definitive explanation of it. That is, no scholar appears to have covered tongue protrusion systematically, comprehensively, and cross-culturally. It’s safe to say that no ultimate, authoritative source yet exists to account for the phenomenon.

Many writers have noted some fascinating cross-cultural diversities. For example, in Tibet, sticking your tongue out functions both as a greeting and a sign of respect. In sharp contrast, as noted by Laurie Patsalides and others, the Maori People of New Zealand have historically used this gesture as part of a war chant preceding battle. Contrived to intimidate the enemy, it signifies strength and ferocity.

The meaning of this facial gesture can, depending on context and tongue position, vary enormously. Still, while its import is undeniably subject to interpretation, very few of us would struggle to grasp what a tongue protrusion was meant to convey. As research in this area has repeatedly shown, the great majority of us are primed, as part of our basic social intelligence, to accurately identify facial expressions. Unless we’re autistic, such a “gift” seems hard-wired into our highly evolved brains. And why would this not be so? For the native capacity to understand others’ non-verbal motives and intentions has obvious survival value.

To be honest, my initial desire to write something illuminating about tongue protrusion originated from the circumstance that, in adults at least, I’ve typically found such “displays” to be silly, immature, and offensive. Or, in a word, obnoxious. While to others they might seem playful or childlike, too often they've appeared to me to have a certain defiant “f*** you” quality to them.

In examining the literature on the subject, I first came upon a post by Dr. Eowyn entitled “The Meaning of Miley Cyrus’ Tongue”, who also became curious about the meaning of this phenomenon. In her case, it was linked specifically to Miley Cyrus’ famously—or infamously—“performing” it on TV. A 2005 New York Times article cites the University of San Francisco psychology professor, Maureen O’Sullivan:

“The gesture of sticking out one’s tongue can have multiple meanings. It can be an act of rudeness, disgust, playfulness, or outright sexual provocation. . . . It’s like the eyes. An eye gaze can be aggressive to an enemy, but eye gaze can also be the height of intimacy.’”

Doubtless, Cyrus’ exhibitionist act is nothing if not flirtatious and erotically provocative. Nor is there any questioning its intentionality—though whether it’s meant simply to titillate us, or to taunt us with its cock-teasing suggestions of totally unabashed sexual (or bluntly, oral) availability, is perhaps a tad ambiguous.

Returning to Laurie Patsalides, besides distinguishing between the meaning of tongue protrusion among Tibetan people vs. a kindred gesture in Maori warriors, she also discusses:

1. Emoticons, as they’ve been used in the past and today on computers—as in :-P or =)~ —noting that this emblem can be intended as “silly, flirting, or teasing.” Or, sharply contrasting to this, “mocking: . . . like saying ‘pfft’—I don't want to hear what you have to say". The author’s conclusion: “Without seeing body language and hearing the tone of voice on the computer, it is easily interpreted wrongly,” advising readers “to be careful and use the rules of netiquette”

2. The use of tongue protrusion in rock ’n roll, citing its well-known—even iconic—presentation in The Rolling Stones, and later by Gene Simmons in the band KISS

3. It is being “developmentally and socially appropriate” in babies since they’re learning how to imitate others’ communication and manipulate their mouths

Einstein's Sticking Tongue Out/Wikipedia
Source: Einstein's Sticking Tongue Out/Wikipedia

4. Einstein’s “trademark” of teasingly sticking out his tongue when photographed, which he himself whimsically described as “reflect[ing] his political views” (!).

What do laypeople have to say about this most curious of facial phenomena? My source derives from several online forums centering on the manifold interpretations this gesture is subject to. Invited to weigh in on their thoughts and feelings about this anomalous, but always attention-grabbing, non-verbal display, here—adapted—are some of their responses:

  • It’s a way of being cute, for it’s implicitly associated with behaviors of children meant to tease or amuse.
  • It’s used to highlight the act of having just done something really silly or stupid—as in, “Jeez, I just emailed the wrong person!” As one commenter aptly summarizes it, it’s a “somewhat sheepish acknowledgment of silliness, foolishness, absent-mindedness, or ineptness."
  • Done unconsciously, it can hint at how hard an individual [usually a child, but sometimes an adult as well] is trying to accomplish something—especially when, subjectively, the pursuit is experienced as challenging. In this context, it also signifies a high level of concentration being devoted to the task. Plus, tongue protrusion in such instances is likely to be directive.
  • It’s used to connote that one has just made a joke. And, speaking of jokes, here’s an unusually scatological one—to me, at once absolutely repulsive and utterly hilarious. Offered comically by a forum respondent, he recalls: “When we were little kids and someone stuck their tongue out, we would say, “No, thanks—I use toilet paper.”
  • In cartoons, it’s historically depicted “stupid/knocked-out/dazed people with their tongues limply hanging out like a dog’s tongue on a hot day.”
  • It can signify distaste or disgust—a non-verbal way of saying “ew” or “yuck” when eating or drinking something personally abhorrent. One forum discussant adds that a more profound revulsion can be expressed using the emoticon “XP,” contrived “to depict a hanging tongue but [with] eyes squinted shut or nearly shut.”
  • It can signify feelings of nervousness or embarrassment (as in, “Oops! I made a mistake.”).
  • It can be a way of apologetically taking back what was said earlier (as in, “What I told you was a lie.”).
  • It can emphasize or accentuate a categorical rejection or refusal (i.e., I mean “No!”).
  • It can convey disagreement or anger with another [though, undeniably, such an expression would seem a rather childish way of expressing dissent].
  • Perhaps most commonly, it can be used as a gesture of contempt, the very height of impropriety or impoliteness, especially when one’s tongue is taut and stuck out directly—with blatantly insulting intent.
  • It can relate to proving someone wrong, the accompanying tongue protrusion demonstrating a prideful, or taunting, smugness—an air of superiority.
  • In reverse situations—that is, when you’ve just been proven wrong—it can be seen as an almost comical “facial” retort. As one forum respondent put it: “I see is as a funny little piece of non-verbal communication, always reserved for use amongst friends and often with a meaning something like ‘You may be right, but nuts to you anyway!”—describing such a reaction, paradoxically, as “a friendly insult.”
  • Comically complementing the above, another commenter offers his own tongue-protruding experience: “I stuck my tongue out at a woman at a party once, to say ‘I have no logical response to your argument, but I declare victory anyway.’ To which she said, ‘Don’t point that at me unless you intend to use it.’ Ended up being quite a fun evening.” [!]

Though it’s probably not necessary to add this, by way of qualification I might note that on occasion sticking out one’s tongue represents nothing symbolic at all—as in, complying with the directive of your physician during an exam, or extending your tongue outward simply to clean something off your lips. Additionally, tongue extensions in French kissing plainly link to erotic arousal. A common act in sexual foreplay, it’s far too expressively “overt” to require any metaphorical interpretation.

Miley Cyrus, Wikipedia Commons
Source: Miley Cyrus, Wikipedia Commons

Much earlier I mentioned the flagrantly erotic nature of Miley Cyrus’s tongue displays. Beyond all the sexual innuendo already described, I’ll end this tongue-protrusion “catalog” with some additional postings “intimately” connecting the gesture to sexual enticement:

  • “In the area of Chicago’s Westside . . . it is a gesture that streetwalking prostitutes use to signal male motorists that they are hookers and soliciting a quick blow-job.”
  • “ . . . adding a wagging gesture [is] a simulation of cunnilingus, combining the rebelliousness of the tongue-out gesture with a boast of sexual prowess.”
  • “[When] the tongue is extended in a flattened shape, with the tip gracing an arc upwards . . . it means, “I want to perform cunnilingus/fellatio upon you.”

And finally—to conclude this, I hope, informative and entertaining “organ review”—one respondent had this to say about tongue protrusion:

  • “On a couple occasions, I have had women use the gesture as an erotic ‘I’d like to get to know you better,’” adding—pointedly—“typically after 1 a.m. in a bar.”

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

References, 11/23/13

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