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10 Takeaways: The Definitive Book of Body Language Summary

This is a summary of Allan and Barbara Pease’s “The Definitive Book of Body Language done by Malaz Mohamad, one of our interns!

“It’s how you looked when you said it, not what you actually said.”

Our words are feeble, but our body movements radiate meaning. Every glance reveals something about our emotional state and thoughts. We negotiate interpersonal attitudes through a delicate and often subconsciously orchestrated dance. We would all benefit immensely in our social lives from sharpening our perceptive skills, and bringing these subconscious cues to the forefront of our minds. Life will begin to unfold before us in high-definition.

Below, I have summarized the top-ten aha moments from Allan and Barbara Pease’s trailblazing book: “The Definitive Book of Body Language.” Let these points integrate with what you already know about body language and soon you’ll find yourself living a crisper reality.

10 Body Language Tips:

1. Always Cluster, Congruence and Context!

  • Cluster

Body language derives meaning in clusters like words derive meaning in a sentence. We need at least three signals to form a cluster just as three words are needed to form a sentence. Taking one gesture and attempting to read meaning from it is one of the most common mistakes and can quickly lead you astray.

  • Congruence 

Always look for incongruence between the spoken word and the nonverbal clusters the body is revealing. What the body reveals is closer to the truth as humans cannot actively control all body language signals.

“Being perceptive means being able to spot the contradictions between someone’s words and their body language.”

Being charismatic means being able to tailor your approach to what you learn from these contradictions.

  • Context

Always remember the context in which you are reading someone’s body language. A grimace could mean you made a huge social misstep with the guy behind the counter or it could be he stubbed his toe. Crossed arms could indicate a defensive attitude or it could be due to the falling snow.

2. The Double-Edged Magic of Smiles and Laughter

“Evidence shows conclusively that smiles and laughter build the immune system, defend the body against illness and disease, medicate the body, sell ideas, teach better, attract more friends and extend life.”

  • Smiling

Smiling is a contagious submission signal that states: “I am no threat” and requests the person to accept you on a personal level. It creates positive feelings and encourages trust. Smile after you first make eye contact with someone to reap the benefits studies have indicated. Your encounter will run more smoothly, last longer and have more positive outcomes.

Smiling is inherently submissive and thus those seeking to appear powerful rarely smile. To increase their credibility, especially with men, women should smile less. Optimally, in business, your smiling should mirror those around you. Any more than that and you will appear easy-to-please, submissive, and less credible. Any less and you might appear stand-offish.

  • Laughter

Laughing is a social act that fosters bonding, but also carries the double-edged power implications. Outside of social and mutual laughter, a superior person will make a subordinate laugh without laughing himself to maintain his superiority, and a subordinate will laugh to appease the superior. That’s why everyone always laughs at the boss’s jokes.

3. When the Body Closes, So Does the Mind

“When you fold your arms, your credibility dramatically decreases.”

Research reveals that when volunteers listening to a lecture fold their arms, not only did they learn and retain 38% less than the volunteers who maintained their uncrossed arms, but they also had more critical opinions of the lecturer.

You may argue that folding your arms across your chest simply feels comfortable. But any gesture will feel comfortable if you have the corresponding attitude, and research shows that crossed arms encourage critical thoughts and make you appear unapproachable even if you are as comfortable as you claim.

If you are trying to convince someone and they have their arms crossed, help ease them into a more willing attitude by giving them something to hold on to, for example, a drink or a brochure.

4. Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil

…or how the Three Wise Monkeys can help you catch deceit.

These hand-to-face gestures form the basis of deceit gestures. When we lie or hear untruths, we feel the urge to cover our ears, eyes or mouths to symbolically stop the input or output of information. Children have not yet learned to repress these give-away signs and you will frequently see children lie and partially cover their mouths. These signs become more repressed versions, like the quick nose rub, eyebrow caress, or ear tug, in adults.

5. And If You Gaze for Long into the Abyss…

The power of the eyes is undeniable. They can communicate the extent of the emotional spectrum. They can cajole, intimidate, tease and more.

Extended mutual gazing creates intimate feelings. Aggressive intent is communicated with piercing eye contact that triangulates between the two eyes and the forehead. The pupils subtly communicated interest or lack thereof. For that, eye contact is very important and very telling.

All of us gaze at each other as a form of social appraisal. Many of us are taught the importance of strong eye contact, and we are advised to maintain it especially during first-impressions. This creates a problem as the strong eye contact hinders the appraisal process we naturally go through upon meeting someone new. This can create a source of unspoken discomfort. To fix this, Pease advises that you allow the other person two or three seconds of uninterrupted time for the process of looking you over so that comfort and trust can be maintained.

6. Need More Space

Your spatial space preferences mirror the density of the area in which you grew up. If you grew up in a less populated place, you would need more social space. If you grew up in a more densely-populated area, you would need less social space. This creates the bulk of inter-cultural body language discomfort. One of the most amusing examples to watch is the waltz across the room that happens when two people of different spatial space preferences communicated. The one needing less space steps forward to create more intimacy and to decrease his feelings of distance. The other, needing more space, steps backward to regain composure and comfort. The other steps forward and the dance continues.

7. The Legs Reveal What the Mind Wants to Do

“The farther away from the brain a body part is positioned, the less awareness we have of what it is doing.”

The human brain is hardwired for two objectives:  to go toward what we want and to move away from what we don’t want. The way a person uses his or her legs and feet reveals where they want to go. In other words, they show a person’s commitment to leaving or staying in a conversation.

For example, in a group each person’s feet typically point to the person they are most interested in. And before ending a conversation, a person thinking about leaving will point their feet to the nearest exit.

8. Mirror, Mirror Here I Stand

Mirroring is the secret of rapport. The more in-tune emotionally and intellectually two individuals are, the more they mirror each other’s movements. Empathy derives its strengths from the natural tendency for humans to mirror the emotional expressions they see around them. Once they copy those facial expressions, they begin to feel certain emotions and can thus empathize with the person experiencing those emotions.

Herein lies a common gender difference, men and women are socialized to express emotions differently. For the most part, women express emotions freely and vividly. Men, on the other hand, tend to suppress facial expression of emotion and signal their attitudes using their bodies. This creates a problem for women who expect to see cues of empathy on men’s faces.

“The key to mirroring a man’s behavior is understanding that he doesn’t use his face to signal his attitudes – he uses his body.”

9. Stand at an Angle

The angles between us reveal a lot about our relationships.  To avoid being seen as aggressive, we stand at 45-degree angles to each other. For example, two men talking, both point their feet at an imaginary third point. For exclusivity and intimacy, we face each other. Our body angles change from 45-degrees to 0-degrees. This position is charged, ensures a captive audience and could be perceived as highly aggressive.

A common gender difference here causes miscommunication. Women tend to communicate by directly facing each other in friendly and intimate encounters. Whereas, men tend to use the 45-degree angle for friendly encounters and reserve the face-to-face angling for intimacy or aggression.

This can cause miscommunication as women who use the face-to-face angle with men are perceived with sexual undertones regardless of their intended purpose.

10. Sit at an Angle

There is a hidden power of influence in seating arrangements. The way you seat two people or more can encourage different attitudes.  The general guideline to follow is that the less physical barriers (like a desk) between two people, the more open and cooperative their conversation. There are also power dynamics at play. The general guideline here is that the person with the most access to eye contact has the most power starting with the person furthest away from the door.

For example, in the table above: If the door is behind B, then A has the most power followed by B and then D and then C and finally E. Positions A and B are perceived as being task-oriented whereas position D is perceived as being an emotional leader. The most interesting part of this is that you can orient people in different positions to dictate who steers the conversation (by being perceived as having the most power or the least).

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Now you’re armed with some of the best takeaways from a trailblazer of a book. These new guidelines will help you see social interactions in a new light. For many more delightful “aha” moments, read the whole book here.

In the meantime, which of the above takeaways is most meaningful to you? Which have you seen in action?

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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