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Body Language – technically known as kinesics (pronounced ‘kineesicks’) – is a significant aspect of modern communications and relationships.
Body Language is therefore very relevant to management and leadership, and to all aspects of work and business where communications can be seen and physically observed among people.
Body language is also very relevant to relationships outside of work, for example in dating and mating, and in families and parenting.
Communication includes listening. In terms of observable body language, non-verbal (non-spoken) signals are being exchanged whether these signals are accompanied by spoken words or not.
Body language goes both ways:
- Your own body language reveals your feelings and meanings to others.
- Other people’s body language reveals their feelings and meanings to you.
The sending and receiving of body language signals happens on conscious and unconscious levels.
Body Language – basics and introduction:
Body language is a powerful concept which successful people tend to understand well.
So can you.
The study and theory of body language has become popular in recent years because psychologists have been able to understand what we ’say’ through our bodily gestures and facial expressions, so as to translate our body language, revealing its underlying feelings and attitudes.
Body Language is also referred to as ‘non-verbal communications’, and less commonly ‘non-vocal communications’.
The term ‘non-verbal communications’ tends to be used in a wider sense, and all these terms are somewhat vague.
For the purposes of this article, the terms ‘body language’ and ‘non-verbal communications’ are broadly interchangeable. This guide also takes the view that body language/non-verbal communications is the study of how people communicate face-to-face aside from the spoken words themselves, and in this respect the treatment of the subject here is broader than typical body language guides limited merely to body positions and gestures.
If you carry out any serious analysis or discussion you should clarify the terminology in your own way to suit your purposes.
Does body language include facial expression and eye movement? – Usually, yes.
What about breathing and perspiration? – This depends on your definition of body language.
And while tone and pitch of voice are part of verbal signals, are these part of body language too? – Not normally, but arguably so, especially as you could ignore them if considering only the spoken words and physical gestures/expressions.
There are no absolute right/wrong answers to these questions. It’s a matter of interpretation.
A good reason for broadening the scope of body language is to avoid missing important signals which might not be considered within a narrow definition of body language.
Nevertheless confusion easily arises if definitions and context are not properly established.
It is safe to say that body language represents a very significant proportion of meaning that is conveyed and interpreted between people. Many body language experts and sources seem to 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 involve an emotional or attitudinal element.
Body language is especially crucial 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.
The effect happens both ways – to and from:
- When we meet someone for the first time, their body language, on conscious and unconscious levels, largely determines our initial impression of them.
- In turn when someone meets us for the first time, they form their initial impression of us largely from our body language and non-verbal signals.
And this two-way effect of body language continues throughout communications and relationships between people.
Body language is constantly being exchanged and interpreted between people, even though much of the time this is happening on an unconscious level.
Remember – while you are interpreting (consciously or unconsciously) the body language of other people, so other people are constantly interpreting yours.
The people with the most conscious awareness of, and capabilities to read, body language tend to have an advantage over those whose appreciation is limited largely to the unconscious.
You will shift your own awareness of body language from the unconscious into the conscious by learning about the subject, and then by practising your reading of non-verbal communications in your dealings with others.
Body Language is more than body positions and movements:
Body language is not just about how we hold and move our bodies.
Body language potentially (although not always, depending on the definition you choose to apply) encompasses:
- how we position our bodies
- our closeness to and the space between us and other people (proxemics), and how this changes
- our facial expressions
- our eyes especially and how our eyes move and focus, etc
- how we touch ourselves and others
- how our bodies connect with other non-bodily things, for instance, pens, cigarettes, spectacles and clothing
- our breathing, and other less noticeable physical effects, for example our heartbeat and perspiration
Body language tends not to include:
- the pace, pitch, and intonation, volume, variation, pauses, etc., of our voice.
Arguably this last point should be encompassed by body language, because a lot happens here which can easily be missed if we consider merely the spoken word and the traditional narrow definition of body language or non-verbal communications.
Voice type and other audible signals are typically not included in body language because they are audible ‘verbal’ signals rather than physical visual ones, nevertheless the way the voice is used is a very significant (usually unconscious) aspect of communication, aside from the bare words themselves.
Consequently, voice type is always important to consider alongside the usual body language factors.
Similarly breathing and heartbeat, etc., are typically excluded from many general descriptions of body language, but are certainly part of the range of non-verbal bodily actions and signals which contribute to body language in its fullest sense.
More obviously, our eyes are a vital aspect of our body language.
Our reactions to other people’s eyes – movement, focus, expression, etc – and their reactions to our eyes – contribute greatly to mutual assessment and understanding, consciously and unconsciously.
With no words at all, massive feeling can be conveyed in a single glance. The metaphor which describes the eyes of two lovers meeting across a crowded room is not only found in old romantic movies. It’s based on scientific fact – the strong powers of non-verbal communications.
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.
Our interpretation of body language, notably eyes and facial expressions, is instinctive, and with a little thought and knowledge we can significantly increase our conscious awareness of these signals: both the signals we transmit, and the signals in others that we observe.
Doing so gives us a significant advantage in life – professionally and personally – in our dealings with others.
Body language is not just reading the signals in other people.
Importantly, understanding body language enables better self-awareness and self-control too.
We understand more about other people’s feelings and meanings, and we also understand more about these things in ourselves.
When we understand body language we become better able to refine and improve what our body says about us, which generates a positive improvement in the way we feel, the way we perform, and what we achieve.
Body Language Definition:
“Body language is the unconscious and conscious transmission and interpretation of feelings, attitudes, and moods, through:
- body posture, movement, physical state, position and relationship to other bodies, objects and surroundings,
- facial expression and eye movement,
(and this transmission and interpretation can be quite different to the spoken words).”
Words alone – especially emotional words (or words used in emotional situations) – rarely reflect full or true meaning and motive.
We find clues to additional or true meaning in body language.
Being able to ‘read’ body language therefore helps us greatly:
- to know how people feel and what they mean, and
- to understand better how people might be perceiving our own non-verbal signals, and (often overlooked)
- to understand ourselves better, deeper than the words we hear ourselves saying.
The Six Universal Facial Expressions – recognized around the World:
It is now generally accepted that certain basic facial expressions of human emotion are recognized around the world – and that the use and recognition of these expressions is genetically inherited rather than socially conditioned or learned.
While there have been found to be minor variations and differences among obscurely isolated tribes-people, the following basic human emotions are generally used, recognized, and part of humankind’s genetic character:
These emotional face expressions are:
Charles Darwin was first to make these claims in his book The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. This book incidentally initially far outsold The Origin of Species, such was its wide (and controversial) appeal at the time.
Body Language Analysis:
Body language is instinctively interpreted by us all to a limited degree, but the subject is potentially immensely complex. Perhaps infinitely so, given that the human body is said to be capable of producing 700,000 different movements (Hartland and Tosh).
Body language also depends on context: body language in a certain situation might not mean the same in another.
Some ‘body language’ isn’t what it seems at all, for example:
- Someone rubbing their eye might have an irritation, rather than being tired – or disbelieving, or upset.
- Someone with crossed arms might be keeping warm, rather than being defensive.
- Someone scratching their nose might actually have an itch, rather than concealing a lie.
A single body language signal isn’t as reliable as several signals:
As with any system of evidence, ‘clusters’ of body language signals provide much more reliable indication of meaning than one or two signals in isolation.
Avoid interpreting only single signals. Look for combinations of signals which support an overall conclusion, especially for signals which can mean two or more quite different things.
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 of possible cultural body language differences is especially important in today’s increasingly mixed societies.
Management and customer service staff are particularly prone to misreading or reacting inappropriately to body language signals from people of different ethnic backgrounds, a situation made worse because this sort of misunderstanding tends to peak when emotions are high.
Personal space preferences (distances inside which a person is uncomfortable when someone encroaches) can vary between people of different ethnicity.
Body Language is relative to age and gender:
Many body language signals are relative.
A gesture by one person in a certain situation can carry far more, or very little meaning, compared to the same gesture used by a different person in a different situation.
Young men for example often display a lot of pronounced gestures because they are naturally energetic, uninhibited and supple. Older women, relatively, are less energetic, adopt more modest postures, and are prevented by clothing and upbringing from exhibiting very pronounced gestures.
So when assessing body language – especially the strength of signals and meanings – it’s important to do so in relative terms, considering the type of person and situation involved.
Some people artificially control their outward body language to give the impression they seek to create at the time.
A confident firm handshake, or direct eye contact, are examples of signals which can be quite easily be ‘faked’ – usually temporarily, but sometimes more consistently.
However while a degree of faking is possible, it is not possible for someone to control or suppress all outgoing signals.
This is an additional reason to avoid superficial analysis based on isolated signals, and to seek as many indicators as possible, especially subtle clues when suspecting things might not be what they seem. Politicians and manipulative salespeople come to mind for some reason.
Looking for ‘micro gestures’ (pupils contract, an eyebrow lifts, corner of the mouth twitch) can help identify the true meaning and motive behind one or two strong and potentially false signals.
These micro gestures are very small, difficult to spot and are subconscious, but we cannot control them, hence their usefulness.
Boredom. Nervousness and Insecurity Signals:
Many body language signals indicate negative feelings such as boredom, disinterest, anxiousness, insecurity, etc.
The temptation on seeing such signals is to imagine a weakness on the part of the person exhibiting them.
This can be so, however proper interpretation of body language should look beyond the person and the signal – and consider the situation, especially if you are using body language within personal development or management. Ask yourself:
What is causing the negative feelings giving rise to the negative signals?
It is often the situation, not the person – for example, here are examples of circumstances which can produce negative feelings and signals in people, often even if they are strong and confident:
- dominance of a boss or a teacher or other person perceived to be in authority
- overloading a person with new knowledge or learning
- stress caused by anything
- cold weather or cold conditions
- lack of food and drink
- illness or disability
- alcohol or drugs
- being in a minority or feeling excluded
- unfamiliarity – newness – change
Ask yourself, when analysing body language:
Are there external factors affecting the mood and condition of the individual concerned?
Do not jump to conclusions – especially negative ones – using body language analysis alone.
Body Language – Translation of Gesture – Quick Reference Guide:
When translating body language signals into feelings and meanings remember that one signal does not reliably indicate a meaning.
Clusters of signals more reliably indicate meaning.
This is a general guide. Body language should not be used alone for making serious decisions about people.
Body language is one of several indicators of mood, meaning and motive.
This is a guide, not an absolutely reliable indicator, and this applies especially until you’ve developed good capabilities of reading body language signs.
Some of these signs have obvious meanings; others not so.
Eyes – Body Language:
Our eyes are a very significant aspect of the non-verbal signals we send to others.
To a lesser or greater extent we all ‘read’ people’s eyes without knowing how or why, and this ability seems to be inborn.
Eyes – and especially our highly developed awareness of what we see in other people’s eyes – are incredible.
Eyes tend to look right when the brain is imagining or creating, and left when the brain is recalling or remembering. This relates to right and left sides of the brain – in this context broadly the parts of the brain handling creativity/feelings (right) and facts/memory (left). This is analysed in greater detail below. Under certain circumstances ‘creating’ can mean fabrication or lying, especially (but not always – beware), when the person is supposed to be recalling facts. Looking right when stating facts does not necessarily mean lying – it could for example mean that the person does not know the answer, and is talking hypothetically or speculating or guessing.
||part of body
| Left and right are for the person giving the signals and making the movements.
|looking right (generally)
||creating, fabricating, guessing, lying, storytelling
||Creating here is basically making things up and saying them. Depending on context this can indicate lying, but in other circumstances, for example, storytelling to a child, this would be perfectly normal. Looking right and down indicates accessing feelings, which again can be a perfectly genuine response or not, depending on the context, and to an extent the person.
|looking left (generally)
||recalling, remembering, retrieving ‘facts’
||Recalling and and then stating ‘facts’ from memory in appropriate context often equates to telling the truth. Whether the ‘facts’ (memories) are correct is another matter. Left downward looking indicates silent self-conversation or self-talk, typically in trying to arrive at a view or decision.
|looking right and up
||visual imagining, fabrication, lying
||Related to imagination and creative (right-side) parts of the brain, this upwards right eye-movement can be a warning sign of fabrication if a person is supposed to be recalling and stating facts.
|looking right sideways
||Sideways eye movements are believed to indicate imagining (right) or recalling (left) sounds, which can include for example a person imagining or fabricating what another person has said or could say.
|looking right and down
||This is a creative signal but not a fabrication – it can signal that the person is self-questioning their feelings about something. Context particularly- and other signals – are important for interpreting more specific meaning about this signal.
|looking left and up
||recalling images truthfulness
||Related to accessing memory in the brain, rather than creating or imagining. A reassuring sign if signalled when the person is recalling and stating facts.
|looking left sideways
||recalling or remembering sounds
||Looking sideways suggests sounds; looking left suggests recalling or remembering – not fabricating or imagining. This therefore could indicate recalling what has been said by another person.
|looking left down
||Thinking things through by self-talk – concerning an outward view, rather than the inward feelings view indicated by downward right looking.
|direct eye contact (when speaking)
||honesty – or faked honesty
||Direct eye contact is generally regarded as a sign of truthfulness, however practised liars know this and will fake the signal.
|direct eye contact (when listening)
||attentiveness, interest, attraction
||Eyes which stay focused on the speakers eyes, tend to indicate focused interested attention too, which is normally a sign of attraction to the person and/or the subject.
||interest, appeal, invitation
||Widening the eyes generally signals interest in something or someone, and often invites positive response. Widened eyes with raised eyebrows can otherwise be due to shock, but aside from this, widening eyes represents an opening and welcoming expression. In women especially widened eyes tend to increase attractiveness, which is believed by some body language experts to relate to the eye/face proportions of babies, and the associated signals of attraction and prompting urges to protect and offer love and care, etc.
|rubbing eye or eyes
||disbelief, upset, or tiredness
||Rubbing eyes or one eye can indicate disbelief, as if checking the vision, or upset, in which the action relates to crying, or tiredness, which can be due boredom, not necessarily a need for sleep. If the signal is accompanied by a long pronounced blink, this tends to support the tiredness interpretation.
||An upward roll of the eyes signals frustration or exasperation, as if looking to the heavens for help.
|pupils dilated (enlarged)
||The pupil is the black centre of the eye which opens or closes to let in more or less light. Darkness causes pupils to dilate. So too, for some reason does seeing something appealing or attractive. The cause of the attraction depends on the situation. In the case of sexual attraction the effect can be mutual – dilated pupils tend to be more appealing sexually that contracted ones, perhaps because of an instinctive association with darkness, night-time, bedtime, etc., although the origins of this effect are unproven. Resist the temptation to imagine that everyone you see with dilated pupils is sexually attracted to you.
||Normal human blink rate is considered to be between six and twenty times a minute, depending on the expert. Significantly more than this is a sign of excitement or pressure. Blink rate can increase to up to a hundred times a minute. Blink rate is not a reliable sign of lying.
||Infrequent blink rate can mean different things and so offers no single clue unless combined with other signals. An infrequent blink rate is probably due to boredom if the eyes are not focused, or can be the opposite – concentration – if accompanied with a strongly focused gaze. Infrequent blink rate can also be accompanied by signals of hostility or negativity, and is therefore not the most revealing of body language signals.
|eyebrow raising (eyebrow ‘flash’)
||greeting, recognition, acknowledgement
||Quickly raising and lowering the eyebrows is called an ‘eyebrow flash’. It is a common signal of greeting and acknowledgement, and is perhaps genetically influenced since it is prevalent in monkeys (body language study does not sit entirely happily alongside creationism). Fear and surprise are also signalled by the eyebrow flash, in which case the eyebrows normally remain raised for longer, until the initial shock subsides.
||friendly acknowledgement, complicity (e.g., sharing a secret or joke)
||Much fuss was made in May 2007 when George W Bush winked at the Queen. The fuss was made because a wink is quite an intimate signal, directed exclusively from one person to another, and is associated with male flirting. It is strange that a non-contact wink can carry more personal implications than a physical handshake, and in many situations more than a kiss on the cheek. A wink is given additional spice if accompanied by a click of the tongue. Not many people can carry it off. Additionally – and this was partly the sense in which Bush used it – a wink can signal a shared joke or secret.
Mouth – Body Language:
The mouth is associated with very many body language signals, which is not surprising given its functions – obviously speech, but also those connected with infant feeding, which connects psychologically through later life with feelings of security, love and sex.
The mouth can be touched or obscured by a person’s own hands or fingers, and is a tremendously flexible and expressive part of the body too, performing a central role in facial expressions.
The mouth also has more visible moving parts than other sensory organs, so there’s a lot more potential for variety of signalling.
Unlike the nose and ears, which are generally only brought into body language action by the hands or fingers, the mouth acts quite independently, another reason for it deserving separate detailed consideration.
Smiling is a big part of facial body language. As a general rule real smiles are symmetrical and produce creases around the eyes and mouth, whereas fake smiles, for whatever reason, tend to be mouth-only gestures.
||part of body
||A pasted smile is one which appears quickly, is fixed for longer than a natural smile, and seems not to extend to the eyes. This typically indicates suppressed displeasure or forced agreement of some sort.
||secrecy or withheld feelings
||Stretched across face in a straight line, teeth concealed. The smiler has a secret they are not going to share, possibly due to dislike or distrust. Can also be a rejection signal.
||mixed feelings or sarcasm
||Shows opposite emotions on each side of the face.
||More of a practised fake smile than an instinctive one. The jaw is dropped lower than in a natural smile, the act of which creates a smile.
|smile – head tilted, looking up
||playfulness, teasing, coy
||Head tilted sideways and downwards so as to part hide the face, from which the smile is directed via the eyes at the intended target.
|bottom lip jutting out
||Like rubbing eyes can be an adult version of crying, so jutting or pushing the bottom lip forward is a part of the crying face and impulse. Bear in mind that people cry for reasons of genuine upset, or to avert attack and seek sympathy or kind treatment.
||Laughter deserves a section in its own right because its such an interesting area. In terms of body language genuine laughter is a sign of relaxation and feeling at ease. Natural laughter can extend to all the upper body or whole body. The physiology of laughter is significant. Endorphins are released. Pain and stress reduces. Also vulnerabilities show and can become more visible because people’s guard drops when laughing.
||Unnatural laughter is often a signal of nervousness or stress, as an effort to dispel tension or change the atmosphere. Artificial laughter is a signal of cooperation and a wish to maintain empathy.
||One of many signals suggesting tension or stress, which can be due to high concentration, but more likely to be anxiousness.
||Inwardly-directed ‘displacement’ sign, due to suppression of natural reaction due to fear or other suppressant.
||As above – an inwardly-directed ‘displacement’ sign, due to suppression of natural reaction. Otherwise however can simply be to freshen breath, or as a smoking replacement.
||Smoking obviously becomes habitual and addictive, but aside from this people put things into their mouths because it’s comforting like thumb-sucking is to a child, in turn rooted in baby experiences of feeding and especially breastfeeding.
|chewing pen or pencil
||Like smoking and infant thumbsucking. The pen is the teat. Remember that next time you chew the end of your pen…
||thoughtfulness, or upset
||As if holding the words in the mouth until they are ready to be released. Can also indicate anxiousness or impatience at not being able to speak. Or quite differently can indicate upset, as if suppressing crying.
||mouth / tongue
||The tongue extends briefly and slightly at the centre of the mouth as if tasting something nasty. The gesture may be extremely subtle. An extreme version may be accompanied by a wrinkling of the nose, and a squint of the eyes.
|hand clamped over mouth
||mouth / hands
||suppression, holding back, shock
||Often an unconscious gesture of self-regulation – stopping speech for reasons of shock, embarrassment, or for more tactical reasons. The gesture is reminiscent of the ’speak no evil’ wise monkey. The action can be observed very clearly in young children when they witness something ‘unspeakably’ naughty or shocking. Extreme versions of the same effect would involve both hands.
||mouth / hands
||Nail-biting is an inwardly-redirected aggression borne of fear, or some other suppression of behaviour. Later nail-biting becomes reinforced as a comforting habit, again typically prompted by frustration or fear. Stress in this context is an outcome. Stress doesn’t cause nail-biting; nail-biting is the outward demonstration of stress. The cause of the stress can be various things (stressors). See the stress article for more detail about stress.