Table of Contents
- What is Body Language?
- Why is Body Language So Important?
- What Are Some Body Language Examples?
- What Are the 11 Types of Body Language?
- Facial Expressions
- Body Proxemics
- Eye Gaze
- Understanding & Interpreting body language
- Body Language Mini FAQ
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
Did you know that we can only spot lies with 54% accuracy?
Did you know there are over 20 muscles in the face that make up over 10,000 facial expressions?
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.
In this article, we’re going to cover the essential must-knows to mastering your body language skills:
- What is body language?
- How to make yourself look approachable and relaxed during conversations.
- 10 negative cues to avoid (that you might be using regularly!).
- The 11 types of body language you’ll encounter.
Before we dive in, be sure to take our body language quiz here to find out how good you are at reading body language!
Can You Read Body Language? (Quiz)
How good are your body language skills? Take our free body language quiz to find out!
What is Body Language?
Body Language Definition
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.
Why is Body Language So Important?
What if I told you there’s a way to get almost anything you want? Things like…
- secretly knowing what someone’s thinking
- getting a raise without working any harder
- having your date never forget you and wanting more
People who are good at reading body language typically excel in their careers, have great relationships, and get “freebies” in life.
But if you’re not good at body language, don’t fret!
Body language is a skill ANYONE can learn.
If you want to learn more about the importance of body language, I recommend checking out my article here:
What Are Some Body Language Examples?
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
Description: 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 intersest 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 it3.
The Science: According to researchers 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.
Yes, this gesture is even used by monkeys and apes1 .
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
Have you ever had a cold, clammy handshake?
Or an overly dominant handshake?
Or even… a really awkward one?
Yuck! These handshakes are NOT great for building mutual rapport. Enter: the equal handshake.
Description: 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 interactants 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 buyer obviously didn’t welcome them, and they felt forced to shake hands.
Handshakes also aren’t universal—some cultures, like Japan, commonly bow as a greeting, and other cultures, like Italy or Spain, give a kiss on the cheek.
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 first.
On another important note, older people require less pressure, so avoid crushing their 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.
Description: Displaying similar body language to other interactants 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 those 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:
- Greater compliance from requests. So mirror if you want to persuade someone.
- Higher sales numbers. So be sure to mirror if you are in sales.
- Positive evaluations. So mirror your manager to build rapport.
- Even larger tips from customers!
Mirroring others is literally hardwired into our brains. Professor Joseph Heinrich 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 even lead to suspicion or decreased rapport.
Best friends often mirror without even realizing it!
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.
Description: Eye contact that is mutual—neither lacking eye contact or being a little… err, 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 stars2.
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 decrease3.
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 shown 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 gazing3.
Interestingly, certain personality traits were found to relate to more mutual gazing—namely, extroversion, agreeableness, and openness3.
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.
Description: The Duchenne smile is a smile characterized by the “crow’s feet” wrinkles around the corners of the eyes along with upturned corners of the mouth. This is a real smile.
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 others2.
People also tend to smile more with others than when alone—in fact, when we see a smiling face, endorphins are released into our system1.
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 before1.
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 go their separate ways4.
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:
THE HEAD TILT
Description: The head tilts to one side, exposing the neck.
What it Means: A head tilt is a sign of openness. Your neck is one of your most vulnerable areas. Neck skin is much thinner and requires protection. And exposing your neck and throat opens you up.
When someone tilts their head, they are showing that they’re comfortable enough to let their neck be exposed. You can often see the head tilt (especially from women) when others are attracted to someone, although this can also be used to indicate platonic interest.
It can also show that someone is curious about what you’re saying, especially if you get the head tilt and head nod cluster:
The Science: Studies of paintings from the last 2,000 years show that women are depicted 3 times as often as men using the head tilt1. Today, you can also see women tilting their heads 3 times more than men in modern advertising:
How to Use it: Since this is a very powerful disarming behavior, you can tilt the head to the side, along with other open body language cues, to ease a tense situation or get someone to open up.
The head tilt is a very warm cue—it softens you. You want to be careful not to use it too much during sales pitches or meetings.
Example: In The Bachelor, you can often see the head tilt during romantic encounters. Watch this scene as Cassie tilts her head during their first date before she sleeps with Colton (timestamp 2:46):
Description: 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 relationships 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 give a tense laugh if they are in a nervous situation.
The Science: Neurologist Henri Rubenstein found that just one minute of laughter provides up to 45 minutes of subsequent relaxation1! The relaxation boost you get certainly justifies watching your favorite comedians on TV. And you know who’s great at laughing? Will Smith. In this funny “insult” episode of Will Smith vs. Margot Robbie, Will’s laughter is so contagious that his laughter even makes others laugh!
As we age, we usually laugh less. Adults laugh an average of only 15 times per day, while preschoolers laugh 400 times daily1.
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 rather than when 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 when watching 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?”
Description: 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:
And 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, they could be brandishing a weapon or hiding something even more dangerous…
How to Use it: When gesturing with your hands, make sure your hands are open most of the time and people can see your open palms. It is also a good idea to keep the palms facing upward most of the time, rather than downward.
Closed Body Language Examples
Description: 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 locked2, 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!
Description: You know that affectionate, tender feeling of holding hands with a significant other?
Well, sometimes we don’t have that option (there’s no shame in that!). In these cases, 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 thumb4. 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!
Description: 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 in case violence occurs, while minimizing damage to the oh-so-vulnerable frontal parts.
Since up to 90% 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 disagrees with.
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.
Description: 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 relaxing2 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 your $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.
Description: 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, or 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 critical1 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:
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:
Description: Chances are, you know this one. Practically everyone has crossed their arms at some point or another.
What it Means: Most people who do this are projecting anger, anxiety, or stress—it’s also known as the “self-hug”2.
That’s why people will usually cross their arms only in public and not when alone. You’ll see it often in public, such as in line at the DMV, in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms, or with first-time air travelers1.
People who are feeling angry, hostile, or defensive may clench their fists and even combine this gesture with a tight-lipped smile or clenched teeth1.
The Science: Research on over 1,500 volunteers was conducted by the Peases1 to find out exactly how the crossed-arms gesture made people feel. The volunteers, asked to attend a series of lectures, were divided into 2 groups:
- One group was asked to keep their legs uncrossed, arms unfolded, and take a relaxed sitting position.
- The second group did the same, except they were asked to cross their arms throughout the lectures.
The result? The second group learned and retained 38% less information than the group with unfolded arms. They also gave more critical opinions of the lecturers and the lecturer.
How to Disarm it: If you see someone with this gesture, you can break their barrier by giving them something to hold onto1—a pen, book, coffee, or brochure will work just fine. You can also ask them to lean forward to look at something to open their arms up.
Example: Right before a tug-of-war competition, most of the men on a tug-of-war team face off against 4 big Strongman competitors. Their crossed arms are a dead giveaway that they’re feeling tension from the upcoming struggle:
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!
Description: 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.
We may all literally end up like the Hunchback of Notre Dame:
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, 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 you are closing 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!”
Description: 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, to a very obvious, angry, it’s-raw type of face/eye 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: “Look, please go away. I wish everything in front of me just “vanished.” 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, too, 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 nerve, which helps slow down heart and breathing rates when it’s massaged.
You can also see people do this during conversations and interrogations when they are asked a difficult or stress-inducing question, and if 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, as 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
Description: Fidgeting involves playing with nearby objects, such as keys, coins, a pen, a ring, or a necklace.
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 reassurance, 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 (Robert Herzegovina definitely knows about that):
Yes, people even fidget with their fingers!
The Science: Observations at railway stations and airports revealed that there are 10x as many displacement activities in flying situations. In other words, people fidget a lot when they’re about to fly. These behaviors include:
- 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 Atlantic4.
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?
Description: 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 Tinbergen, 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 do 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.
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!
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—or 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 nervousness.
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 and
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.
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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