Learning to decode body language is powerful and one of the most important nonverbal communication skills.
This guide is your key to reading people AND having confident body language.
Watch our video below to learn how to read people and decode 7 body language cues:
In this article, we’re going to cover the essential must-knows to mastering your body language skills.
Before we dive in, be sure to take our body language quiz here to find out how good you are at reading body language!
What is Body Language?
Body language is the science of nonverbal signals such as gestures, facial expressions, and eye gaze that communicate a person’s emotions and intentions. In total, there are 11 types of body language that we use to communicate. Unlike words, body language is often done subconsciously and constitutes a large part of our communication.
Our founder at Science of People has identified 97 cues you should know. Get started with the 23 in this article. Want to learn them all? Check out:
Unlock the Secrets of Charisma
Control and leverage the tiny signals you’re sending – from your stance and facial expressions to your word choice and vocal tone – to improve your personal and professional relationships.
Why is Body Language So Important?
Body language is a key part of how we communicate with each other. It helps show our feelings and attitudes, even when our words say something different. Being good at understanding body language can make conversations better and help people get along well.
People who are good at reading body language typically excel in their careers, have great relationships, and get “freebies” in life.
If you want to learn more about the importance of body language, I recommend checking out my article here: 5 Powerful Reasons Why Body Language is Important.
Body language can be broken down into 2 major categories—positive or open body language and negative or closed body language.
And just like how they sound, these 2 broad categories of cues signal just how open (or closed) someone is from their external environment. Whether at a networking event talking to a random stranger you’ve just met, giving a presentation or speech or on a first date, knowing how to read these cues is key to knowing how receptive others are to you or the situation.
Reading body language is as close to mind reading as we can get.
Open Body Language Examples
The Eyebrow Flash
When someone does an eyebrow flash, you’ll typically see their eyebrows raise slightly for less than ⅕ of a second.
What it Means: The eyebrow raise is a great sign of interest. People tend to use the eyebrow flash in 3 main ways:
- The eyebrow flash can show interest professionally, as when giving approval, agreeing to something, thanking someone, or seeking confirmation. It’s used as a nonverbal “yes” during conversation.
- The eyebrow flash can also show interest romantically.
- Or the eyebrow flash can show interest socially, as when 2 people recognize each other. It signals to the other person that you are happy to see them.
Whenever we use the eyebrow flash, we call attention to our face. Teachers and speakers often use it as a way to say, “Listen to this!” or “Look at me!”
Interestingly, some cultures like the Japanese find this cue indecent and avoid itnchi.
The Science: According to researchers1https://www.researchgate.net/publication/243768681_Human_facial_expressions_as_adaptations_Evolutionary_questions_in_facial_expression_research at the University of Pittsburgh, the eyebrow flash is a universally recognized form of greeting and can be found all over the world, suggesting that this gesture is common among all cultures.
This gesture is even used by monkeys and apesPeases!
How to Use it: There are so many ways to use the eyebrow flash. Here are a few:
- To Show Liking: When you see someone you like or who you want to like you, give them a quick eyebrow flash followed by a warm smile.
- To Increase Engagement: If you want someone to listen to something you are about to say, raise your eyebrows right before you deliver.
- To Show Interest: Are you curious? Your eyebrows are the best way to show it!
The Equal Handshake
An equal handshake has these 7 elements:
- good eye contact
- a warm, genuine smile
- an extended arm with a slight bend at the elbow
- fingers pointing downward while approaching the other person’s hand
- this one’s the big one—EQUAL pressure during the hand clasp
- slight forward lean toward the other person
- a slow release after 1–2 seconds
What it Means: This handshake is a breath of fresh air and signals mutual respect for both parties.
An equal handshake signals confidence, openness, and power during an interaction and leaves both participants feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
How to Use it: Before shaking hands, consider the context. Salespeople learned early on that an uninvited or surprise handshake from nowhere was damaging to their sales—the buyers obviously didn’t welcome them, and they felt forced to shake hands.
Handshakes also aren’t universal—some cultures commonly bow as a greeting, as they do in Japan, and people in other cultures give a kiss on the cheek, as they do in Italy or Spain.
A good rule of thumb is to only shake hands when you know the other person will warmly reciprocate it. Otherwise, a head nod is a good option—or wait for the other person to initiate the handshake.
On another important note, older people require less pressure, so avoid crushing an older person’s hand with your firm grip. When shaking hands with a higher-status individual, allow them to set the length and pressure of the handshake first, and follow up with an equal exchange for maximum bonding.
Displaying similar body language to other participants during a social situation.
What it Means: Mirroring is a highly rapport-building cue that signals a desire to connect with someone else. People tend to mirror only whom they like, and seeing someone else mirror our own body language creates a feeling of similarity and likeness.
The Science: Mirroring is powerful. Studies have shown that mirroring leads to the following:
- Greater compliance2https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21375122/ with requests. So mirror if you want to persuade someone.
- Higher sales numbers3https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251630934_Retail_salespeople%27s_mimicry_of_customers_Effects_on_consumer_behavior. So be sure to mirror if you are in sales.
- Positive evaluations. So mirror your manager to build rapport.
- Even larger tips4http://j.b.legal.free.fr/Blog/share/M1/Articles%20INC/Mimicry/Mimicry%20for%20money.pdf from customers!
Mirroring others is literally hardwired into our brains. Professor Joseph Heinrich5https://henrich.fas.harvard.edu/files/henrich/files/henrichcv2017_oct.pdf from the University of Michigan explains that mirroring others helps us cooperate—which leads to more food, better health, and economic growth for communities.
How to Use it: Make sure to mirror subtly. If someone nods their head vigorously in agreement, and you do the same, you may come off as too obvious—this can lead to suspicion or decreased rapport.
You can also avoid mirroring someone entirely if you’re disinterested in them or want to create boundaries.
If the other person is displaying negative body language cues, try displaying open positive language cues yourself to get them to open up, instead of copying their closed gestures.
Eye contact that is mutual—neither lacking eye contact nor being a little too interested.
What it Means: Longer eye contact, especially from people who are high-status, makes us feel favored. This is especially true when receiving eye contact from celebrities or movie starsNav.
Increased eye contact also indicates the other person may be curious as when people are more attentive to their surroundings, their blink rate will generally decrease ¹(nchi).
Warning: Do not make 100% eye contact! That is actually a territorial signal and shows aggression. People often do it before a fight.
You want to do mutual gazing. Eye contact when you agree, when you are listening, when you are exchanging ideas, or when staring at your amazing self in the mirror!
The Science: Making eye contact just 30% of the time has been shown6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16081035/ to significantly increase what people remember you say.
You can also give a boost to your perceived persuasiveness, truthfulness, sincerity, and credibility just by mutual eye gazing¹(nchi).
Interestingly, certain personality traits were found to relate to more mutual gazing—namely, extraversion, agreeableness, and openness ¹(nchi).
How to Use it: Increase your eye gaze to bond. However, make sure to glance away occasionally, since too much eye contact can be seen as threatening and make people feel uncomfortable.
Pop Quiz: Real vs. Fake
Take a look at the photo below. Can you tell if this is a real or fake smile?
Click to Reveal Answer
This is a fake smile. This smile lacks the characteristic “crow’s feet” wrinkles around the corners of the eyes.
Lack of Barriers
Keeping objects (like phones, bags, or glasses) out of the way when talking signals that you are fully present and open to the interaction.
What it Means: Removing physical barriers between you and the other person indicates that you’re giving them your full attention.
Objects—anything from your notebook, coffee mug, or even a desk—can act as distractions or shields, so keeping the space clear demonstrates your interest in a meaningful exchange.
Even having your smartphone nearby can reduce your cognitive function7https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/691462!
How to Use it: When you’re in a conversation, be mindful of any objects you may be holding or actions you might be performing that could create a barrier. Put your phone down or away, keep bags or other items to the side, and make sure your hands are free to gesture naturally. This will not only make you appear more open but will also encourage the other person to do the same.
The Duchenne smile is a smile that signals true happiness and is characterized by the “crow’s feet” wrinkles around the corners of the eyes along with upturned corners of the mouth.
The opposite is a fake smile:
*Avoid at all costs*
What it Means: When you see a Duchenne smile, this likely indicates genuine happiness.
It is difficult, but not impossible, to fake a real smile. In most cases, we smile dozens of times in normal conversation, but many of these smiles are given out of politeness or formality.
The Science: Research shows that babies several weeks old will already use the Duchenne smile for their mothers only while using a more polite, social smile for othersNavarro.
People also tend to smile more with others than when alone—in fact, when we see a smiling face, endorphins are released into our systemPeases.
Studies show that athletes will smile noticeably differently, whether they finish in first, second, or third place. This distinction was the same even in congenitally blind athletes who never even saw a smile beforePeases.
How to Use it: When smiling, remember to “smile with your eyes” instead of just your mouth. It also helps to smile widely enough to bring the cheeks up, helping activate the muscles around your eyes. Remember to maintain the smile even after an encounter—in fake happiness encounters, you may often see an “on-off” smile that flashes and then vanishes quickly after 2 people in the interaction go their separate waysPeoplewatching.
Example: In this example, George W. Bush flashes a childish Duchenne smile (“Oops, I got caught!”) when he tries to open a door, but fails:
Simultaneous laughter shared between individuals in response to a joke or funny observation.
What it Means: When you crack a joke and the other person shares a laugh with you, this is a good sign that they are open to connecting with you. Laughter is meant to establish potential relationships8http://www.mysmu.edu/faculty/normanli/Lietal2009.pdf or maintain existing ones, especially if the joke wasn’t particularly funny.
Laughter is also an indication that someone is relaxed, since stiff and nervous people usually do not laugh genuinely or instead may give a tense laugh if they feel nervous.
The Science: Neurologist Henri Rubenstein found that just one minute of laughter provides up to 45 minutes of subsequent relaxationPeases! The relaxation boost you get certainly justifies watching your favorite comedians on TV.
As we age, we usually laugh less. Adults laugh an average of only 15 times per day, while preschoolers laugh 400 times dailyPeases.
A great way to boost your laughter is to get more social! Robert Provine found that laughter is more than 30x more likely to occur in social situations than when a person is alone. In his study, participants were videotaped watching a funny video clip in 3 different situations:
- with a same-sex stranger, and
- with a same-sex friend.
Those who watched alone had significantly less laughter than those who watched with a stranger or friend.
How to Use it: Try incorporating humor into your conversations such as giving the opposite answer to a yes/no question.
Example: If people are expecting you to say yes, say no; if people are expecting you to say no, say yes instead. It’s simple but effective.
This is Jennifer Lawrence’s go-to strategy.
The World’s Funniest Joke
In 2001, Richard Wiseman set out to find the world’s funniest joke. In his experiment, Wiseman set up a website named LaughLab, in which users could input their favorite joke, and participants could rate them.
By the end of the project, which garnered 40,000 jokes and had over 350,000 participants from 70 countries, one joke was found to stand out above the rest:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “OK, now what?”
When using hand gestures, make sure you display your palms and don’t hide them from others. Pockets, hands behind back, and closed fists can all act as barriers against open palms.
What it Means: People who display open palms are seen as honest and sincere. It can also be used as a questioning gesture.
Have you ever been in a situation where you met someone, and they seem nice, but something inside you felt a bit… off? It might have been that their palms weren’t showing.
Evolutionarily, when we see closed palms, our brains receive signals that we might be in danger—after all, the other person could be brandishing a weapon or hiding something dangerous.
How to Use it: When gesturing with your hands, make sure your hands are open most of the time and that people can see your open palms. It is also a good idea to keep the palms facing upward most of the time rather than facing downward.
Leaning slightly toward the person you are communicating with shows that you are engaged and interested.
What it Means: Leaning in while talking to someone usually signals that you are fully present and interested in the conversation. This action draws you physically closer to the other person, building a sense of intimacy and focus. It can be a strong indicator of attentiveness and a desire to understand or connect with the other person.
The Science: Studies9https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259128505_Inclined_to_better_understanding-The_coordination_of_talk_and_’leaning_forward’_in_doing_repair have shown that leaning in can actually facilitate better understanding and communication. It creates what psychologists call “proximity,” or closeness, that encourages more open sharing of information.
How to Use it: Leaning in should be a natural and subtle move, not an exaggerated lunge! Use this body language cue when you truly want to engage with someone—whether you’re trying to understand what they’re saying or show that you agree with them.
However, it’s crucial to gauge the other person’s comfort level; leaning in too aggressively or when the other person is leaning away can create major discomfort.
Appropriate touches like a gentle pat on the back or arm can convey openness and empathy.
What it Means: Using a warm touch, such as a pat on the back or a light touch on the arm, often signals that you’re emotionally present and attuned to the other person’s needs or feelings. This gesture can create an immediate bond, break tension, or offer comfort.
The Science: Touch triggers the release of oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone,” which plays a significant role in social bonding and attachment. This can also depend on the context (some people may not like to be touched), but oxytocin-increasing effects can even last after a conversation10https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/05/230509122117.htm.
Research11https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1088868316650307 has shown that appropriate touch can reduce stress hormones, lower heart rate, and increase feelings of trust and security.
How to Use it: Warm touch can be a powerful way to connect, but it’s essential to be aware of the other person’s comfort zone and cultural norms. A well-timed pat on the back can enhance a friendly conversation or provide consolation in a more serious moment. Use warm touch judiciously, always being aware of cues that indicate whether the other person is receptive to this level of contact.
Closed Body Language Examples
The feet are crossed, and one ankle lies on top of the other. This can be done whether sitting or standing—or even with the feet on the table.
What it Means: A person crossing their ankles might feel uncomfortable and closed-off, although there is an exception (I’ll talk about that below). The tighter their ankles are locked, the more anxiety or stress the person may be experiencing.
Women often sit with their ankles lockedNavarro, especially if they are wearing a skirt. However, it is unnatural to sit like this for a prolonged period of time and should be considered strange, especially if done by males.
When taken a step further, people may lock their feet around the legs of a chair under high-stress situations. I call this the “ejection seat” position because it’s something many people would do if they were about to be launched out of their seat.
The big exception to this rule is if you see the ankles crossed while legs are outstretched on the floor. This can be a relaxed posture with the legs taking up space.
The Science: In a study of 319 dental patients by the Peases1, ankle locking was a common body language cue done by most patients: 68% of patients getting a checkup locked their ankles, 89% of patients locked their ankles as soon as they sat in their chair to get some dental work done, and a whopping 98% of them ankle-locked when they received an injection.
It’s safe to say that these patients felt de-feeted during this situation!
When we don’t have someone else to hold onto, we might choose to hold our own hand. Sometimes we interlace our fingers, and other times we hug one hand on top of the other.
Here’s an interesting fact: every time we interlock our fingers, one thumb is on top, and this is our dominant thumbPeoplewatchig. For most people, it feels super weird if we switch thumbs and put our dominant one underneath!
What it Means: Interlaced fingers are a form of “self-hug.” Essentially, people who perform this gesture are comforting themselves with their hands, and it acts as a nostalgic reminder of the security we felt when holding hands with our parents as kids.
As adults we do this when we’re insecure—you’ll find this during overly formal events or when meeting a nervous client at work.
How to Use it: Use this gesture if you want to conclude a meeting or end an interaction with someone. If you want to appear confident, you can even use this cue but with your thumbs stuck out—this signals confidence instead of stress.
If you see someone with interlaced fingers and want to open them up, try humor. Once they start laughing, you’ll see their body language start opening up!
Have you ever seen a fencing bout before? These guys are on their feet, constantly moving back and forth in a game of who-can-stab-the-other-guy-first. It’s basically chess but with swords.
But the way that fencers use their stance is exactly what people do when closing off. When blading, the torso is turned away, maximizing reach, while minimizing damage to the oh-so-vulnerable frontal parts in the event of contact.
Since up to 90%12https://www.livescience.com/what-causes-left-handedness.html of people are right-handed, when you see blading, the left foot (which is also non-dominant in most cases) is usually the one that steps forward, or the right foot may step backward.
What it Means: Blading can commonly be seen right before a fight begins. You can see it before a bar fight breaks loose, during a boxing match, or if you made a statement your conversation partner doesn’t agree is correct.
If you’re talking to a buddy in a front-to-front situation, and you see him blade all of a sudden, he might be feeling a bit defensive or threatened.
An exception to blading is when both people are observing an event and square up shoulder-to-shoulder such as sitting on the couch and watching TV together.
The thumbs are hidden away from view such as inside pockets or even wrapped around the other fingers.
What it Means: Usually a display of lower self-confidence, hiding thumbs usually signals concern, insecurity, or feelings of threat. High-status people have been observed to do this sometimes when relaxingNavarro but never when they’re “on.”
Dogs also perform a similar cue by hiding their ears during times of stress. They do this in order to streamline themselves in case they need to make a mad dash… like if they manage to bite a hole through their $50 doggy bed while you were out dining with your partner (oddly specific?).
How to Use it: Around close friends and trusted others it’s totally fine to relax your hands in your pockets once in a while. But if you want to make the other person feel a bit insecure for whatever reason, sticking your hands deep in your pockets is a surefire way to do it!
Pop Quiz: Thumbs Out
In the picture below, the person has their hands in their pockets, but their thumbs are sticking out. What does this likely indicate?
2. nervousness or anxiety
Click to Reveal Answer
a) confidence. Even though the hands are inside the pockets, the big difference here is that the thumbs are sticking out. Thumbs are also the most powerful digits of your hand. When they are displayed confidently, this can often indicate confidence or power in a given situation.
When people rub their necks they’ll usually do it on the side or back of the neck. In more extreme cases, you’ll see the suprasternal notch, which is the part where your neck meets your clavicle, being touched (usually more in women).
What it Means: People usually rub their neck when feeling insecure or stressed. For some people this is their go-to method to relieve stress:
Those who habitually rub the neck also have a tendency to be more negative or criticalPeases than others.
The Science: When the nerve on the side of the neck called the vagus nerve is massaged, acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that sends signals to the heart, causes the heart rate to go down.
A Deadly Example: Warning: This example contains graphic content.
In the formal interview of a Canadian-born Chinese-Vietnamese woman named Jennifer Pan, she told detectives that her parents were murdered in her house by 3 unknown thugs.
However, the interview officially turned into an interrogation when the detectives became suspicious. They noticed her story didn’t line up, and the nonverbal cues she displayed weren’t quite normal for her situation. It turns out that she actually staged the murder herself, and she was faking her story the entire time!
One nonverbal cue she consistently displayed that signaled high stress was touching her suprasternal notch (timestamp 36:47):
Stepping back or leaning away from someone suggests you may be disinterested or uncomfortable.
What it Means: If you find yourself stepping back or leaning away during a conversation, it usually indicates a desire for more personal space, which could stem from discomfort, disinterest, or even distrust. This physical retreat serves as a subtle cue that you’re not fully engaged in the interaction.
The Science: A physical retreat often triggers psychological mechanisms related to the fight-or-flight response, such as increasing adrenaline13https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0924977X20302546, signaling to others that you are in a defensive or guarded state, or even want to run away.
How to Use it: Being aware of your own tendencies to step back or lean away can help you better understand your feelings in a given situation. If you notice yourself retreating, it might be worth asking yourself why you feel the need to create more physical distance. On the flip side, if you notice someone else retreating, it could be a signal for you to reassess the situation and perhaps change your approach.
How Do You Cross
Here’s a simple self-test you can do right now: cross your arms. Now let me take a guess… Did you cross your left arm over your right one?
Research has found that 7 out of 10 people cross their left arm over their right arm1. This implies that this gesture might be genetic, with the less dominant left arm protecting the more useful right one. If you try crossing your arms the other way, you might be surprised that it feels completely wrong!
And we all cross differently. Take a look at the chart below and see a handful of the quirky ways we tend to cross our arms!
How many times have you heard “shoulders back, head straight!”
Believe it or not, hunched shoulders are becoming even more common nowadays, as you’ll see people slumped over, looking at their cellphones. Over time this might even become the norm as people develop chronically-hunched shoulders from staring at smartphones and hunched over laptops all day.
All kidding aside, people who are super submissive in social situations like those with clinical depression or self-proclaimed “social failures” may also walk with a permanent stoop and with shoulders rounded and their neck hunched forward.
Meaning: This is a naturally defensive posture. Forward shoulders may indicate that someone is trying to hide something or feeling vulnerable, since this posture closes off your vulnerable neck and chest areas.
You’ll also rarely see this in fashion shows and magazines, as it instantly drops your attraction value. This cue literally reminds me of a turtle withdrawing into its shell.
Perhaps a better name for this cue would be “turtling!”
People who rub their eyes usually use their index finger, middle, or thumb to get in on that eyelid action. It can range either from a gentle, split-second touch to more obvious rubbing.
What it Means: Rubbing the eyelids really helps people calm down as it acts like a “visual reset.” Essentially what you’re saying when you rub your eyes is this: “Look, please go away. I wish everything in front of me would just vanish!” You’ll typically see this gesture with high-stakes poker players as soon as they lose a hand or during an argument between an angry and frustrated couple.
Of course, people naturally do this to get those nasty eye boogies out so always take into account how tired someone is before placing a negative label on them.
The Science: Rubbing the eyelids stimulates a special nerve in the eyelids called the vagus nerve14https://www.livescience.com/vagus-nerve.html which helps slow down heart and breathing rates when it’s massaged.
You can also see people rub their eyelids during conversations and interrogations when they are asked a difficult or stress-inducing question. They want to cut off eye contact to reduce their own stress or anxiety.
You may often see this gesture more in men than women because women might be conditioned to avoid rubbing their eyes, especially if they wear eye makeup.
How to Use It: Having a hard day at work? Try closing your eyes in a safe space and gently rubbing your eyelids while taking a breath. I’ve found just 30 seconds of this helps immensely and gives a sense of calm during a stressful day.
Fidgeting with Objects
Fidgeting involves playing with nearby objects, such as keys, coins, a pen, a ring, or a necklace. And yes, even with the infamous fidget spinner.
What it Means: Fidgeting typically signals boredom. Bored of talking, bored of sitting down, and yes—even bored of you (ouch!).
People who fidget may be subconsciously desiring sensory reassurance15https://books.google.com/books?id=7xzhVIwIqSMC&lpg=PA180&ots=BWWFrFNWBP&dq=desmond%20morris%20putting%20objects%20mouth&pg=PA180#v=onepage&q=desmond%20morris%20putting%20objects%20mouth&f=false. This is similar to how babies hold onto their favorite toy. Other times, it may mean that people are anxious or short on time—and in some cases, even disappointed.
The Science: Observations at railway stations and airports revealed that there are 10x as many displacement activities in flying situations than in ordinary circumstances. In other words, people fidget a lot when they’re about to fly. These behaviors include the following:
- checking tickets
- taking out passports and putting them away
- rearranging hand baggage
- making sure their wallet is in place
- dropping things and picking them up
In contrast only 8% of people boarding a train showed signs of fidgeting compared to 80% of people at a check-in desk of a jumbo-jet flight across the AtlanticDesmong People.
How to Use it: If you want an easy out to a conversation just start jangling your keys or coins in your pocket or hands. It might be a bit rude, but if you’ve really gotta go, this is a great way to end a conversation.
Historic Example: In 1969 when Elvis Presley made his first public stage appearance in 9 years, he displayed signs of fidgeting. What do you think he was feeling, judging by this picture?
The ear is rubbed, pulled, scratched, touched, picked at, or rubbed vigorously.
What it Means: OK, you might have noticed a trend by now—touching yourself basically means anxiety. Not in all cases, but unless you’ve just got an itch that won’t go away, repetitive self-touch in all forms is a way to ease tension throughout your body.
People generally scratch behind their ears, says Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen16https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2004-16480-000, as a way to ease tension during stressful situations—such as when you’ve made a public speaking blunder in front of thousands of people.
Effectively, people who touch their ears this may be trying to “block” information that they’ve just heard—whether it’s a prodding question, or even if they’ve been accused.
Example: You may be familiar with the American actress Carol Burnett, who was famous for tugging on her left ear. She did this at the end of each show to let her grandmother know she was doing well and loved her. After her grandmother’s passing, she continued tugging her ear as a tradition and in memory of her beloved grandmother.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
Have you heard of the old Japanese maxim of the Three Wise Monkeys? You know, the picture of the three monkeys covering their eyes, ears, and mouth?
It turns out this picture is a GREAT example for explaining many blocking behaviors. Generally, touching the eyes, ears, or mouth are unconscious ways that people try to block out information… or prevent it from escaping—which is why you’ll often see these cues during intense interrogation sessions!
Keeping hands in pockets may indicate disinterest or discomfort in revealing one’s thoughts and feelings.
What it Means: Having your hands in your pockets during a conversation generally signals a reserved or closed-off attitude. It might mean you’re uncomfortable, disinterested, or unwilling to engage fully with the other person. This gesture often hampers open communication and can make you appear unapproachable.
The Science: Psychological research17https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304151618_Body-Language-Communication_194_Aproprioception_The_IW_case suggests that hand gestures contribute significantly to communication. Therefore, pocketed hands limit this expressive capability, often leading to misinterpretation or a lack of connection during interactions.
How to Use it: If you notice yourself resorting to this stance, it may be helpful to ask yourself: “Am I nervous, uncomfortable, or disengaged?” Likewise, if you observe someone else with pocketed hands, it might be a sign to approach the situation with greater sensitivity.
Example: In many crime dramas, like “Law & Order,” suspects or witnesses often put their hands in their pockets when being questioned, which immediately makes them appear more guarded and less trustworthy to the detectives.
What Are the 11 Types of Body Language?
Besides open and closed, body language can be further broken down into 11 different channels, including facial expressions, body proxemics, and ornaments.
Researcher Dr. Paul Ekman discovered 7 universal microexpressions which are short facial gestures every human makes when they feel an intense emotion. We are very drawn to looking at and observing the face to understand someone’s hidden emotions.
Proxemics is a term for how our body moves in space. We are constantly looking at how someone is moving—are they gesturing? Leaning? Moving toward or away from us? Body movements tell us a lot about preferences and feelings.
The most common gestures are hand gestures. We often use our hands to express our emotions, tell a story, or comfort ourselves. My team even did an experiment on TED talks and found the most popular speakers also used the most hand gestures.
Clothes, jewelry, sunglasses, and hairstyles are all extensions of our body language. Not only do certain colors and styles send signals to others, how we interact with our ornaments is also telling. Is someone a fidgeter with their watch or ring?
Interest cues can be signs of attraction or general interest that usually don’t involve touch. From obvious cues like winking and smiling, to more subtle ones like a flick of the hair or displaying the wrist, knowing which cues to give and recognizing them is key to building rapport.
Eye movements and changes tell us a lot about others’ intentions. During an interaction, we can often see changes such as longer eye gaze, sideways glances, and blocked eyes. These cues can indicate emotions like attraction, skepticism, or stress.
Pacifying behaviors consist of a wide range of self-soothing behaviors that serve to calm us down after experiencing something unpleasant. This can be seen with fidgeting, bouncing feet, and arm rubbing. As a general rule of thumb, any repetitive behavior is likely pacifying.
Haptics refers to body language cues that involve touch. These include handshakes, touching another’s arm, hugs, a pat on the shoulder, and kissing. Since we interact with the world through touch, we can observe how others touch us to get an insight on their preferences.
Blocking cues are performed to magically “vanish” the cause of people’s stress or anxiety. Like the three wise monkeys—“see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”—these cues consist of barriers like touching the mouth or crossing the arms to block out the environment.
Paralanguage is the nonverbal communications of your voice, such as pitch, tone, and cadence. Often, we can hear how confident or anxious one feels by simply listening to their voice. By learning paralanguage, we can even master our own voices and give power to our words.
Emblems, or symbolic cues, represent messages that are consciously understood by others, and are often used in place of words. There are over 800 emblems, from your “OK” sign and “thumbs up,” and they are heavily dependent on a person’s culture and geographic location.
Understanding & Interpreting body language
Body language isn’t just about seeing a body language cue. It’s also about interpretation and knowing what to look for. If you really want to take a deep dive into body language, check out the most advanced book on cues:
Unlock the Secrets of Charisma
Control and leverage the tiny signals you’re sending – from your stance and facial expressions to your word choice and vocal tone – to improve your personal and professional relationships.
In the world of body language, there are 2 camps:
Absolutists believe that whenever a body language cue appears, it 100% has the interpreted meaning. For example, if a person crosses their arms, it means they are feeling blocked off in all cases.
Contextualists believe that body language depends on the situation. If a person crosses their arms, it could mean that they’re cold, or it’s simply more comfortable for them.
The key to understanding body language is to be a contextualist, not an absolutist. Learning about body language cues without knowing how to apply them may skew your opinions about others for the worse, rather than improving them for the better.
Body Language Mini FAQ
Here are some other questions I’ve been asked about body language, which I’ve compiled into a mini FAQ:
Is body language a science?
Yes! Body language cues and their consistency have been scientifically proven time and time again by researchers such as Paul Ekman, Joe Navarro, Barbara and Allan Pease, Desmond Morris, and Carol Kinsey Goman. However, it’s important to note that everyone has their individual quirks that may be different from the norm.
Is body language universal?
No. While many cues are universal, such as the eyebrow flash and 7 facial microexpressions, many body language cues are specific to a culture or geographic location. For example, many Western cultures prefer a handshake as a greeting; however, some Spanish or Latin cultures may kiss, Thai culture often employs the “wai” greeting, and the Japanese may prefer to bow.
What is a nonverbal cue?
A nonverbal cue is anything that is done nonverbally during an interaction, such as a hand gesture or bodily movement. Many body language cues can be interpreted to reveal a person’s intentions or feelings during a situation.
What do you do when a person’s body language and words don’t match?
When there is a mismatch between a person’s words and body language, it is generally preferred to rely on their body language for an accurate interpretation of their true feelings. Most people make a conscious effort to choose their words carefully; however, body language is much harder to consciously control and therefore more reliable in most cases.
What is the difference between body language and nonverbal communication?
Nonverbal communication is the broad term used to describe all types of communication without using words. Body language is a category of nonverbal communication that focuses on all parts of the body, such as facial expressions and gestures.
Can body language be misread?
Absolutely! Many people, especially those who are new to reading body language, will make the mistake of attempting to read body language but get it wrong. They may read a certain body language cue and forget to take into consideration the context or environment. They may also read a cue but miss out on other, more important cues that signal the opposite of their interpretation.
What body language indicates lying?
Common body language cues that indicate lying are touching the nose, increased eye contact, licking the lips, uncertain vocal tonality, and a frozen posture. There are many lying cues that may indicate deception. However, there is no single cue that definitively means a person is lying.
How long does it take to become good at reading body language?
It depends. Some people are naturally gifted at reading body language and can pick up on it readily. For others, it may take months in order to get a basic grasp of body language. The amount of time spent observing cues, a person’s perceptiveness, and the amount of training and research one does all affect a person’s body-language-reading abilities.
I hope this article has been useful to you! To continue the guide, please click on the next article link below. And if you have any other questions about body language, please leave a comment below so I can potentially add it to the mini FAQ!
To your success,
Crack The Code on Facial Expressions
The human face is constantly sending signals, and we use it to understand the person’s intentions when we speak to them.
In Decode, we dive deep into these microexpressions to teach you how to instantly pick up on them and understand the meaning behind what is said to you.
Don’t spend another day living in the dark.
Sources:1 Pease, A. (2017). The definitive book of body language: How to read others’ attitudes by their gestures. London: Orion. 2 Navarro, J., & Karlins, M. (2015). What every BODY is saying: An ex-FBI agent’s guide to speed-reading people. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 3 Knapp, M. L., & Hall, J. A. (2014). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 4 Morris, D. (2012). Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language. London: Vintage Digital.
Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!
This article is part of our body language guide. Click here for more.
- Reading Body Language 101
- Body Language at Work
- Body Language of Emotions
- Hidden Opportunities
- Body Language for Rapport
- Head Behavior
- Read The Torso
- Lower Body Language
- Flirting Body Language
How to Deal with Difficult People at Work
Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.