Updated: Nov 14, 2021
Body Language is an important part of who we are and how we communicate.
Whether we like it or not, it influences our communication just as much as the words we speak. It’s very relevant to relationships inside and outside of work, for example in dating, mating, and in families and parenting. Body Language is also very relevant to management and leadership and to all aspects of work and business where communications can be seen and physically observed among people.
This article will not be an exhaustive or detailed description of body language basics, but it will be a good reference to turn to when you are trying to figure things out. If you notice a person consistently acting a certain way when you talk to them, but you cannot figure out why, this basic description of body language basics may help.
Whether they are accompanied by spoken words or not, non-verbal signals are being exchanged and observed all of the time. And these signals are very important to how the receiver responds. Body language is a two way communication process and often it is very unconscious, however through this amazing medium we still reveal our feelings and meanings to others and other people reveal their feelings to us.
Please be aware that Body Language is not totally reliable, and to interpret the signals, they must be taken in consideration with other signals including speech. I tend to cross my legs one way, then the other, but this has nothing to do whether I am more or less drawn to someone, but more to do with the fact that I have a bad back and sitting in one position is very difficult for me. So take care when interpreting body language.
The study of ‘Body Language’ has become something that Psychologists have taken an interest in over the last few years. They have tried to interpret our bodily gestures and facial expressions, so as to understand our underlying feelings and attitudes.
It is now safe to say that body language represents a significant proportion of meaning that is conveyed and interpreted between people. Many agree that that between 50-80% of all human communications are non-verbal. So while body language statistics vary according to situation, it is generally accepted that non-verbal communications are very important in how we understand each other (or fail to), especially in face-to-face and one-to-one communications, and most definitely when the communications involves an emotional or attitudinal element.
Body language is especial unforgiving when we meet someone for the first time.
We form our opinions of someone we meet for the first time in just a few seconds, and this initial instinctual assessment is based far more on what we see and feel about the other person than on the words they speak. On many occasions we form a strong view about a new person before they speak a single word.
Consequently body language is very influential in forming impressions on first meeting someone. Think for a few seconds. If you're around people, stop and look around. Take a moment and observe the people walking by you or sitting at the tables near you. Most of the time, you don't need to listen to their conversations or ask them what they're thinking or trying to communicate. Directly or indirectly, everybody's body language speaks louder than words. Take for example, someone that is sad. You can easily tell by their demeanour that they are not happy. Their whole body sulks and they walk about as if a dark cloud follows is hung over them. On the other hand, someone that is happy walks about as if they are sunshine incarnate. They beam with joy and their body radiant with every step. This is body language.
You are definitely at an advantage if you are aware of, and have the capability of reading the body language of other people.
It’s not all about body position and movement –
It can be about a matrix of different signs such as: how close someone stands to us, our facial expression, how your eyes move and focus, how we touch ourselves and others, even down to how we connect with items such as pens, clothing and phones.
I believe our eyes are windows to our soul and much can be discovered if we know what to look out for. Our reactions to other people’s eye movement and the reaction to our eyes contribute greatly to our mutual assessment of each other.
The metaphor which describes the eyes of two lovers meeting across a crowded room is not only found in old romantic movies. With no words at all, deep feeling can be conveyed in a single glance
These effects - and similar powerful examples - have existed in real human experience and behaviour for thousands of years.
The human body and our instinctive reactions have evolved to an amazingly clever degree, which many of us ignore or take for granted, and which we can all learn how to recognize more clearly if we try.
Understanding body language enables better self-awareness and its helps us to refine and improve what our body says about us.
Very often people try and mask their true feelings but understanding and interpretation of body language can help us see what lies behind the mask. However when considering body language you must also consider the context in which it was displayed.
Typically someone rubbing their eye could be perceived as someone who is being unbelieving, when in reality they could be upset. Someone with crossed arms could be perceived as being defensive whereas they may just be cold. And one of the gestures most people know - when someone scratches their nose, rather than concealing a lie, they could have an itch.
A single signal isn’t as reliable as several signals, so look for more than one to validate the meaning from body language.
Certain body language is the same in all people for example smiling and frowning, but some body language is specific to a culture or ethnic group. Awareness and knowledge of these differences are very important if you are conducting business with overseas companies. Misunderstandings can fuel situations and make them worse if you don’t understand and respect gestures and body language encompassed by culture. All across the planet in every country and in every tribe, there are seven universal body language expressions. The seven expressions are Happiness, Sadness, Boredom, Fear, Anger, Surprise and Disgust.
Personal space is one aspect of body language which differs from West to East and one that must be understood. Arab nations in particular have less area of personal space and as a consequence seem to encroach on ours when they speak to us. This can make us feel very uncomfortable and sometimes vulnerable.
During part of my cross-cultural travels, I have seen each of these nonverbal expressions true and consistent. Also, when I expressed these body language signs, I have been understood in cultures that did not know my primary language. My body language spoke loud and clear what I was feeling, experiencing or thinking.
Some people try and fake their outward body language to try and hide what they are saying or feeling, such as giving a strong handshake or direct eye contact when they feel nervous and this will work for a short time but it is not possible for someone to control or suppress all outgoing signals.
Many body signals indicate negative feelings such as boredom, disinterest, anxiousness, insecurity etc. But how are these signals interpreted? Are they perceived as some kind of weakness or do you look beyond the person and the signal and consider the situation?
Though in some cases I did not understand or hear what was being said, I could see that people were happy to see me by these happy universal body language expressions.
The same is true with sadness of course. Eyes can become wet and teary, there are no happy signals, and the face can look defeated or devastated. When it was time to leave a village after working on acts of kindness, such as fixing homes, etc., I could see that people had sullen sad body language. They could see my similar expression too as I tried to mirror what they felt, though I was happy internally to be returning home.
Boredom can be easily identified. Often, I was responsible for mentoring and teaching my team on certain skills. I could tell when nationals and team members where past the point of receiving by the universal body language of Boredom. When someone is bored, they begin looking at their watches, tapping their fingers of moving their legs. Yawning may take place or a look of distraction settles on the face. You can also tell when someone is distracted due to boredom when they focus or look at other things instead of the speaker.
The universal body language of fear is evident when someone cowers at the object of their fear. They sometimes put their hands up to their face to avoid seeing what it is that makes them afraid. Sometimes, they will also attempt to signal to others to do what they do, and hide or run.
Anger is a universal body language that expresses itself with symptoms like a red face, clinched fists, eyes fixed at the object one is mad at, etc. The body is often times in what could be called a, Ready Position. Meaning, the body is posed for a next step. An example of this is if someone is sitting in a chair and is leaning forward with their legs ready to lift their body at any second.
Surprise and disgust are almost similar. In both body language expressions, the mouth and eyes can open wide. But, when someone is surprised, it is like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. When someone is disgusted, the body and face reject what their experiencing, be it food or an intangible occurrence.
Why Knowing Body Language is Important
Some people are aggravating with their comments about your body language. It seems that they only use these observations to make you feel uncomfortable or inferior. These people make knowing body language seem like an obnoxious habit. However, there are some very important reasons why it is good to know about body language.
One reason to know body language is to evaluate situations. For one thing, it's good to know when you are being lied to. Sometimes the person wants to avoid telling you an unpleasant truth. At these times, you may find it necessary to get to the bottom of things. It would be a good time to know body language to determine if the person is being honest.
At other times, the lie poses some sort of threat to you. When this happens, you need to sort out fact from fiction so you will know how to protect yourself. Body language will help you to do this.
In any kind of business, it is necessary to size up the competition. It is also essential to know the attitude of your customer. Usually these people won't tell you what's on their minds. The rival will hide this to dominate you, while the customer might not really know his/her own mind.
If you know body language in these situations, you will get much further than if you don't. The opposition can't blind-sight you. You'll be ready for him/her because you understand the situation. You will be able to work with the customer since you can tell when the person has reservations.
Creating a good first impression can be aided by knowing a few things about body language. This can help you in any situation where you meet people. It may be in a job interview. Your body language may help you land the job.
You could meet people at a party. You could even meet new people at church or a club. Whenever you do, attention to body language can leave them with a favourable impression.
If you are placed in a position of responsibility for other people, knowing body language can again come to your aid. You can try methods of converting body language into a posture of authority and confidence. Projecting these attributes is important in leading people.
The dance of meeting, courting, and love all revolve around body language. You can attract a certain person using the right gestures and body movements. You can show what you want to show them about your feelings if you have the body language skill.
Every aspect of life is filled with expressions of body language by you and those around you. It's important to understand both the world and the feelings you are displaying towards it.
Why Body Language Isn't an Exact Science
You might be told that you are expressing something through body language that you haven't said. Maybe you don't agree that you were saying that, even non-verbally. Many mistakes can be made when trying to interpret body language.
The most notorious mistake people make is to tell someone that he/she is showing defensive body language because he/she is crossing the arms over the chest. While that may be true, there could be other explanations that could be just as accurate.
It may just mean that the air in the room is cold. Or, he/she may simply be more comfortable with the arms in that position, especially if there are no arms on the chair the person is sitting in. What's more, if you tell a person that he/she is being defensive, his/her body language will definitely become so.
Eye contact is another shady area when it comes to body language. Most people assume that you should engage the other person with as much eye contact as possible. While eye contact is important, it can be overdone. Staring is considered an aggressive move. However, it may just mean that the person is being overzealous at trying to keep eye contact.
Another instance of trying to interpret the body language of eye contact is to determine honesty. It seems obvious that a person who is lying to you will not be able to look you square in the eye. The truth is that there are many reasons why a person might feel the need to look away. These might include their shyness or a feeling that you are being aggressive in your body language.
The body language of a person who is actually lying to you may be quite different than what you expect. Since most people have heard that lying people look away, a person who is lying will often stare. Obviously, they don't want to get caught and they will use what they know about body language to help them.
If a person pinches the bridge of the nose with the eyes closed, people who pay attention to body language will most likely explain that this person is demonstrating a negative evaluation. However, the person could just have a headache. How many times have you seen a person who has a migraine in just this posture?
Eye-rubbing is usually seen as some form of doubt or disbelief. There are really several reasons why a person would rub an eye. The person might have something in the eye. They might be sleepy. Or, they might be suffering from allergies. The body language may simply be a physical reaction, in other words.
Putting your hands and fingers in a steeple or pyramid shape is often thought to convey an attitude of authority and confidence. Sometimes, that's just what it is. Sometimes, though, the person is only trying to project these images even if they are not true. If a person knows a little about body language, they can certainly confuse things.
Probably the best way to identify the meaning of body language is to look for overall patterns. While one behaviour may point you towards a belief that the person has one attitude, patterns tell more. A group of behaviours appearing together will give you a better read on someone's body language.
How to Read Body Language
Everyone instinctively knows about body language. People constantly evaluate the body movements and facial gestures of those around them. They might have even heard some tips about identifying certain body language signals. However, it may not be that simple.
If you are trying to determine what a person's body language is telling you, consider everything. Try to get an overall picture, not just a snapshot. If you focus on groups of behaviours you are more likely to get an accurate read.
Notice their posture first to see if they are sitting in a confident upright position. Or, they could be slouching, showing with their body language that they have little self-confidence. Be aware of whether they are leaning toward you in a gesture of intimacy or leaning back reservedly.
Take a look at the angle they have set up between the two of you. If it is not side by side or across, it probably means they are uncomfortable with you. Note the position of their head. If it is tilted as you speak, they are showing interest by their body language. If they are looking down, they care little for what you have to say.
Pay attention to what they are doing with their limbs. If they are crossing their arms in front of their chest, they might be feeling defensive. If they stand or sit with open palms, their body language displays openness.
This feeling can also be presented by sitting with legs apart. The legs can show boredom in their body language when the person crosses the legs and kicks with the foot. If they are apprehensive, the ankles might be locked together.
Take in the movements of their eyes. Observe if they are looking at you overly long. This could indicate hostility or flirting, depending on other body language that accompanies it.
Notice whether they have trouble maintaining eye contact. This could mean that they are nervous, insecure, or don't like what you're saying. Their body language, in this case, can help you to problem-solve about what the person needs from you.
Make yourself aware, through body language, when someone is showing dominance over you. They may do this by standing while you are in a position where you must sit. They may do this by sitting back with their hands clasped behind their head. They may simply do it by the way they shake your hand. Palm down means dominance.
If any of these individual body language signals is present, look for more that denote the same. For instance, if a person is touching or rubbing his/her nose, don't assume dishonesty. Instead, look for other clues to back it up. The person might look up and to the right. They might also have micro-gestures that give them away, such as a nose wrinkle.
Looks can be deceiving. It's an old saying, and it can be true for those who try to decipher the body language of others. Reading body language is more complex than identifying a single behavior. It involves thought and consideration.
Some Common Body Language Signals
Everyone is constantly sending nonverbal information to the world through body language. It has been shown that even people blind from birth exhibit complex expressions of body language. Since it is so much a part of the human condition, it is important to know at least a little of this language.
Body language tells others how you feel. If you walk briskly and erect, you exude confidence. If you sit back with your hands behind your head and your legs crossed, it can mean confidence too. However, it can also mean that you feel superior or are arrogant.
Many different body language cues point to a lack of self confidence. If you are patting your hair or playing with it, you seem less self assured. Most people see nail-biting as a nervous behaviour. Yet, it can also suggest a feeling of inferiority.
Body language can help a person to tell if you are interested or bored. If you are bored, you might sit with your legs crossed and you might kick one leg slightly. You could rest your head in your hands and look down. This body language would make you appear bored.
Your body language can show others if you are thinking. If you hold your hand to your cheek you might be evaluating a situation. If you pinch the bridge of your nose with your eyes closed you might feel a negative evaluation. Making a decision might come when you are stroking your chin. Indecision could be shown by your body language when you tug at an ear.
If you stand with your hands on your hips, your body language indicates that you are at the ready, and maybe even aggressive. If you steeple your fingers, you are showing the body language of authority. If you show an open palm, you are signaling sincerity and openness. Sit with your legs apart and you will also show that you are open and relaxed.
If you are lying, be aware that you will probably show it with your body language. You will most likely rub or touch your nose. You can hardly help it because lying causes blood to rush there. You will also tend to look up and to the right. This body language corresponds to thinking about the future, which you are doing as you think up your lie.
Doubt or disbelief can be shown through your body language as well. You might find yourself rubbing your eye as if you can't believe what you're seeing. You might also turn your head completely away, or even look down, as if you want no part of this tale.
Learning what you do in displaying body language can be very important to you. It can keep you from leaving a bad impression. It can help you to get a point across. Even more than that, it is wise to be aware of the same behaviours in other people. Their body language can alert you to problems before any words can ever come close.
Facial Body Language
I can share stories of facial body language that stir within me strong emotions both good and bad. After many years of working directly with people, I have sharpened my interpersonal skills. I have gotten really good at reading peoples body language, especially when it comes to their facial expressions.
I'm really grateful to God that I can understand facial body language in the work place. There have been times with my superiors when they would say something with their words, but their facial body language was telling me something different. In one meeting, my supervisor asked me questions that I truthfully answered.
She remained silent but I noticed her nose pinching up and she would look away to her right. This facial body language told me she didn't believe me. I was able to point out that it didn't seem she believed me. This opened the door for her to share her opinion and feelings. Otherwise, she would have never told me exactly how she felt; allowing friction to build up between us.
In one of my meetings with a subordinate, I could tell the person was burning out and tired. I would give him opportunities to share how he feels and what he thought he needed to be refreshed. Instead, he displayed denial in his facial expressions.
He was too proud to admit to his tiredness. I explained I could tell by his face that he was both tired and in denial about his energy level at work. I gave him some time off and asked him to consider a different position in the company. He gladly accepted and also thanked me for being a good leader.
How to Improve Your Body Language
Sometimes it's not what you say, but how you say it that turns people off to you. You may be looking to make a sale or to make a friend. If your body language skills are poor, you won't get far.
In general, it's good to have a positive attitude. If you have this, your body language will show it naturally. However, you can't possibly be positive every single day. Some days, you must show your overall positive outlook even though that day's attitude isn't good.
Also, if you improve your body language, your attitude usually follows. Psychologists know that acting happy will go a long way towards making you happy. It isn't always obvious which comes first.
So, use your body language to project the image you want others to see. Don't worry about the "truth." When you use your body language to model behaviours that are positive ones, the truth is, you will become more positive.
If, for instance, you feel like walking slowly with your head down, you might be feeling down. Make the effort to walk erect, hold your head up, and go out to face the day. This body language change will initiate a change in your attitude if you are able to do it.
You might get the urge, during a college class or a job interview, to impatiently drum your fingers. At times like these, let a feeling of calm wash over you by focusing your body language on relaxing. This might include uncrossing locked ankles or letting the muscles in your hands go soft, for example.
If people complain that you don't show enough interest in them, you can remedy this by using body language. The next time they are telling you something they see as important, look at their face as they speak. Look into their eyes, but look away occasionally so as not to stare.
You can show more interest by your body language in other ways as well. Lean towards the other person when they are sharing something especially important or intimate. Tilt your head to show that you are listening. You can even mirror their body language behaviours if you do it in a subtle way. All this will show that you are in tune with their ideas.
You can improve your body language by studying it. If you are planning to make a presentation before a group of people, you might try it out first in front of a mirror. You could even make a video record of it. Then you could review it at your leisure and take notes about mistakes you are making.
If you are going to look for a job, you will benefit from practice in job interview skills. The best way to do this, if you have someone to do it with, is to role play. Have someone fake interview you and record it so you can see how you're doing. You will catch body language you never knew you displayed.
There are all kinds of ways to improve your body language skills. If you do, you will find that work relationships and personal relationships will be easier. It just takes a little time, effort, and observation.