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How to Read Body Language

Our bodies have a language of their own. Learning to “read” and interpret this language requires both a basic knowledge of human behavior and attention to detail.

Communication can be difficult at times, and human nature likes to hide its true feelings. While some personalities are more outgoing than others, our body posture often speaks before our voices do, if we even choose to voice our opinions at all. Simple things such as body placement or where a person rests his arms can tell you a lot about that person.

1. Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication is as important as verbal communication. In communication, there is always a sender and a receiver. Our body language can, at times, send a completely different message than the one we are trying to convey. It’s important to learn how to keep both nonverbal and verbal communication in consonance with each other at all times.

There are four functions of non-verbal communication: repetition, substitution, complementing, and accenting.

Repetition is when our body language repeats and enforces what we are verbally saying. Substitution body language does just what its name suggests: it substitutes a gesture in place of further verbal communication to better convey what we are trying to say.

Complementing can back up or add to the verbal message, such as a thumbs up sign coupled with verbally commending an employee who has done a good job.

Accenting is the punctuation of body language. It emphasizes the words being said, such as perhaps pointing a finger to the face of someone we are reprimanding.

Using non-verbal communication requires careful thought if we want the message to remain clear. It is too easy to contradict our words with the wrong gestures or looks, mostly because they can’t be faked. One way to make sure your communication remains consistent is to pay attention to yourself when speaking to someone. If your mind begins to wander during a conversation, you will not be as careful with your gestures. The same is true if you’re the receiver. If you are thinking about something else, you could miss the subtler cues in communication, possibly leading to misunderstanding.


Managing stress is also important. When you’re uptight or worried, you are more likely to misinterpret communication or send confusing nonverbal signals. Another thing to keep in mind is that emotions are contagious. If you’re already upset, it could very well make the other person also upset, which will make an already tense situation even worse. If you feel stressed, take a moment to unwind before you try to communicate.

Be aware of yours and other people’s emotions. Emotions influence different people in different ways and learning to be aware of the intensity of emotions will help you accurately read people. You may even be able to predict how a person will react to certain words if you have a good grasp of the nonverbal messages they are conveying.

2. Basic Emotional Gestures

Different emotions will manifest themselves through various forms of body language. Some of them are similar to each other while others are markedly different. Emotional responses are important to pay attention to in both verbal and nonverbal communication. Here are some examples of various emotions and their corresponding non-verbal responses:

Offense

When a person is offended, he or she tends to get defensive. A very common gesture for this emotion is crossing the arms, and if seated, possibly crossing the legs as well. When we are offended, the subconscious mind feels attacked and automatically prepares to protect itself by closing in around vital parts of the body (the core).

The ability to recognize these signals can aid in defusing a potentially confrontational situation before it becomes a bigger problem.

Introspection

A common gesture of introspection is steepling, i.e., the fingers are pressed towards the sky in an almost prayer-like position. Pinching the bridge of the nose with eyes closed is another gesture of introspection. Tugging at an ear, stroking a beard (even an imaginary one), furrowing the brow, and narrowing the eyes are also common signs of introspection.

Unease

The posture of an uneasy person is much the same. The subconscious is uncomfortable in a given situation, and the body reacts accordingly. The arms or legs cross in a natural display of self-preservation. If a person is uneasy, he may tend to distance himself from the cause of his unease, whether that cause is a person or situation. In social situations, it is easy to observe this body language among people who are strangers to each other.

While different emotions can elicit similar physical responses or body language, it is important to take the context of the situation into account. It will most likely be fairly obvious when a person is offended rather than uncomfortable if you pay close attention.

Amusement

Amusement is shown most often with a smile or a laugh. Some people may clap their hands or slap their thighs. They may even shake their head, as if in disbelief at the hilarity of the situation.

Embarrassment

Blushing is perhaps the best telltale sign that a person feels embarrassed or humiliated. He will probably cover his face with one or both hands while bowing the head. It will be difficult for him to make eye contact and will either look away or down.

Excitement and Anticipation

An excited individual will have no problems smiling. He may even rub his hands together, lick his lips, or even jump up and down.

Shock

A person in a state of shock or astonishment will either drop his mouth and gasp or cover it with his hand. He may freeze in one place, open his eyes really wide and raise his eyebrows.

Distress

Distress shows in wide-open eyes and handwringing. A distressed person may start breathing rapidly, especially if he is having a panic attack. In extreme cases, they may even beat the walls with their hands, huddle or rock in a corner, and clasp his hands over his head as a way to protect himself from a perceived threat.

Confidence

There are actually several key gestures that indicate confidence, many of which involve simple hand placement.

Hands in front: a confident person will often clasp his hands together in front of him. This gesture is very common among confident individuals and is often noticeable in the way prominent people stand.

Hands behind the back: standing with the hands clasped behind the back can also indicate a confident person, whether they are naturally sure of themselves or have just achieved something major.

Hands behind the head: hands behind the head, sometimes also referred to as the “superiority position” is a good indicator of a confident individual. This position is usually done while seated and with legs crossed. It is relaxed and can be viewed as being over-confident at times.

Touching fingertips: someone who is confident in what they are speaking about will often touch their fingertips together at some point in the conversation, as is sometimes seen in interrogations.

Other “tells” of a confident person: stands straight, fidgets very little (if at all), has no problem making eye contact and makes very few mistakes when speaking.

Dishonesty

A liar can be very easy to spot at times. He is often unable to control nervous gestures such as touch areas on his face and head (nose, neck, ears). His eyes shift a lot, and he cannot maintain eye contact. He may shrug and blink a lot and lick his lips (signs of a dry mouth), or even cover his mouth.

Jealousy

If a person is jealous, he might purse his lips and/ or narrow his eyes at the person he is jealous of in an attempt to stare that person down. Some of the body language will be the same as in other negative emotions like anger and frustration.

Shyness

A shy person will avoid eye contact. Maintaining eye contact is often an invitation to begin or continue a conversation. A shy or introverted person will want to avoid such situations. He will keep his distance and automatically step back if someone else moves closer. He will keep his arms crossed, and his head bowed in order to remain unnoticed.

Anger and Aggression

An angry person will most likely use gestures that vary in their intensity to show their displeasure. Some will be fairly severe such as shaking one or both fists, slamming a fist into something like a desk or a table, clenching the fists at the side of the body, extending the neck, and pointing a finger. The skin becomes flushed and may even appear blotchy, the teeth may bare, and the jaw may clench. In a more aggressive move, they might also invade the other person’s space, actually forcing that other person to retreat.

Boredom

Boredom is evident in someone who is resting his head in his hand, tapping his fingers, doodling or fidgeting, or staring blankly out of a window or at any other object that might be more interesting.

Confusion

A very obvious sign of confusion is scratching the head. We do it subconsciously, but it is often a body language we resort to when a given topic or situation does not make sense. A confused person is going to take more time to learn or overcome a difficult situation making this gesture very important to watch out for.

Disgust

When disgusted, a person’s nose will crinkle as if experiencing a bad smell or some other distasteful thing. The upper lip will curl up and might briefly show the tip of the tongue. Depending on the situation, a disgusted person may also cover his nose, pretend to gag, and close his eyes.

Frustration

A frustrated person may be seen scratching or rubbing the back of his head. Other gestures include rubbing the hands vigorously or scratching other parts of the body such as the face. A frustrated person might also tap his feet or move his legs vigorously.

Contempt

To show contempt, a person may actually look down his nose at something or someone and sneer. One classic gesture of contempt is extending the neck backward to either the left or right and look away. This communicates the message that he is not interested at all in something or someone.

Hand Shaking

The act of shaking someone’s hand, to greet an old or new acquaintance, seems simple enough but it actually contains a language all its own. Is it a firm shake or a limp one?

Is the palm facing up or down? Are two hands used or just one? A firm handshake with an appropriate amount of pressure shows a confident person. However, excess pressure could give the impression that the person feels the need to assert superiority over the other. A limp handshake could just be normal for that particular person, or it could indicate unease or intimidation.

Some people may have the palm either facing up or down. When the palm is facing up, it could indicate an innate desire for domination. The palm facing down could indicate a submissive nature.

The two-hand shake is not very common. This is when a person takes the offered hand then brings his other hand to complete the handshake. It requires more effort and could indicate deeper emotions. It could mean a desire to show more affection. In another version of this greeting, the other hand may touch another part of the other person’s arm, rather than supporting the other person’s other hand. This is significantly more intimate and also indicates stronger emotions than just the usual one-handed shake.

Lying

No one enjoys being lied to, but there are some people who are very good at hiding the truth. Thankfully, there are a couple of different methods you can use to catch a lie. Detecting lies based on the person’s body language is the simpler method. There are also facial cues that are considerably more difficult to identify, but we will discuss those in the next article.

Body posture: a person who is lying will rarely keep their posture straight; there will usually be a slight bend of the back and a hunch in the shoulders.

Keeping palms hidden when we are nervous or anxious, our palms usually sweat. When lying, a person will often subconsciously keep their hands (and palms) from plain view.

Touching the nose: negative evaluation postures often include touching of the nose or ears. Not all liars are comfortable with their decision to be dishonest. Touching the nose is a good indicator that the person is not only lying but that he is perhaps doing so out of extreme pressure or duress.

Other signs of an inexperienced liar are similar to those discussed above regarding unease: lots of fidgeting, lack of eye contact, and fumbling words.

Micro Expressions

Many people will be able to hide their emotions, but even the best cannot do it 100% of the time. The subconscious will betray them, which is where micro expressions come into play.

These microexpressions could be anything: a slight movement of the foot as if indicating a desire to flee, minute movements of facial muscles while hands and feet remain still.

The minute outward signs of intense inner turmoil or emotion are hard and sometimes impossible to detect using the naked eye. An experienced individual might be able to detect some of them, but often they require audio or video recording that can be played back and possibly even slowed down. This technique is extremely useful in law enforcement especially during interrogations and even court trials.

3. Romantic Interest Gestures

These gestures can be encountered as commonly in a workplace as in a more informal social setting. Some of them can be more gender specific than the other body language we previously talked about. In other words, a man romantically or sexually interested in a woman will use body language different from a woman who is interested in a man.

Male body language

Unless a man is very self-confident and straightforward with his intentions, it can be very difficult to know what he really thinks, unless you know what you are looking for. But thankfully, body language does not lie.

Smiles – In a group setting, if a man is interested in a particular woman, he will often smile at her and not at the other women in the group.

Body direction – If a man is truly interested in a woman, he will sit with his entire body facing towards her, with his knees, feet, and shoulders oriented to her in an almost straight line. This shows that he wants to get to know her better.

Last minute grooming – He will often tidy up his appearance when a woman he is interested in enters the room. He may do things like straighten his clothes or run his hand through his hair in an effort to look his best.

Positive body language – Our body language consists of positive and negative gestures. Slouching is a sign of a relaxed state of being. If a romantic interest suddenly appears, the man will probably straighten his posture immediately. Positive reaction to touch – If we are touched unexpectedly, no doubt the natural reaction will be to flinch. If a woman he likes touches him, however, he will not pull away or flinch if she happens to brush by him.

“Manly” posturing – Men will sometimes, and often unconsciously, tuck their stomachs in and push their chests out when around a woman they are interested in. This is an instinctive gesture to try to get attention.

Attention to words – His facial expression will show alertness whenever she speaks. He shows he is interested in everything she has to say. Body position – He will never turn his back on the woman he is interested in unless he is leaving the room.

Eyebrows – He may raise his eyebrows when she enters the room, showing he is interested in what she says and does. Negative facial expressions – If he sees her talking to another man, he will show annoyance and displeasure.

Mirroring – He will mirror her movements for approval. He might lean forward when she does or take a drink at the same time.

Leaning in – There is a natural “bubble” of space that we keep between ourselves and people we are not close to. A man will probably disregard that space if he likes a woman and will lean in a bit closer than what social norms dictate.

Touching the throat – Some experts say that if a man touches his throat, he is mostly likely displaying communication and vulnerability. Bear in mind, however, that this gesture could also show dishonesty.

Parted lips – If he is interested, his lips may subconsciously part when he first sees or meets a woman.

“Open” face – His whole face will “open up”: lips part, nostrils flare, and eyes will open wide. Feet position – Just like with the body, he will often subconsciously point his feet in her direction.

Female body language

Women have some of the same body language as men, but there are a few different ones as well. They can be much subtler and harder to catch unless you know what you are looking for. Back arching – Arching the back makes the legs and chest more prominent and noticeable. This may not always be an unconscious reaction, but often it is.

Blushing – This is perhaps the most annoying body language for anyone, really. It is the universal sign of unease or excitement, and it never lies.

Shrugging – She might move closer to her romantic or sexual interest and shrug her shoulders indicating a desire for physical closeness.

Hands on hips – There could be a variety of reasons a woman stands with her hands on her hips, making this gesture a bit ambiguous. But in the right context, it could indicate an unconscious attempt to accentuate the hips.

Crossing the legs – Crossing the legs is a sign of unease, and if she is doing it constantly it could mean she is interested but nervous. Lip pout – This is not just a selfie pose. It could be an unconscious way to communicate romantic interest.

Fiddling with jewelry – Fidgeting is another gesture of unease or nervousness. If a girl cannot stop fiddling with jewelry or clothing during a conversation it might mean she is interested.

Head nod – If she is interested, she might nod three times during a conversation or even show different facial expressions, such as a nod, then a tilt, then perhaps a frown.

The purpose of looking at body language used to convey romantic or sexual interest is not to provide a how-to guide on finding a mate. Understanding these gestures could help avoid unwanted or inappropriate attention in the workplace or in any other social setting. If you know someone is attracted to you and it is not a positive situation you will know how to act. You can temper your behavior around them and limit the time you spend alone with them. This will also help avoid conflicts and confrontations, which can be especially damaging in the workplace and could put your career in jeopardy.