Body language constitutes a large part of human communication. In fact, research suggests that 55 percent of communication is based on body language, the nonverbal messages people convey through postures and body movements.
When you meet someone, you can’t read their minds to know what they are thinking or feeling. But their body language often provides some potential insight into their inner workings. Similarly, you are constantly communicating your emotions as well, usually without realizing it.
When it comes to reading body language, there are no absolutes. Judging the meaning of a single gesture is unwise. Ideally, you should look for a cluster of gestures to interpret body language. So, take time to observe people, including yourself - postures, gestures, and facial expressions - and get to know your baseline behaviors.
Here are some basic cues you can watch to evaluate what your body language may be communicating to others. And remember, these are only general tips for how people tend to interpret body movements, it doesn’t necessarily mean those interpretations are always accurate.
- Crossed arms and legs can signal resistance. In some cultures, women are expected to sit with their legs crossed as a matter of etiquette. But often, crossed arms and legs convey a message that the person is not open to what you are saying. It shows a defensive attitude. Crossed legs may also mean that the person is nervous or withdrawn.
Crossed legs with the feet pointing toward an exit or moving in a kicking motion suggests boredom.
On the other hand, splaying the legs carelessly out in front of the body may make a person look either sloppy or simply relaxed.
- Gesturing while speaking shows warmth and energy. People who use gestures while speaking often seem energetic, agreeable and warm, whereas those who do not can sometimes be seen as logical and analytical. Open arms can be read as showing honesty and allegiance. It also suggests an openness to new ideas to some people. Palms facing down and clenched fists show a strong position.
- Raised arms show excitement and happiness. When people are happy and excited, they tend to raise their arms, chin, and head. This movement signals an outpouring of emotion which is generally positive. However, in some cultures raised arms and hands can also signal feelings of sadness and despair.
- Hands on the hips can be interpreted as authority and superiority. When a person puts their hands on their hips, it can be read as assertiveness, taking control of the situation, or dominance. Sometimes, it can also be a position of readiness.
- Shifting weight from one foot to the other can be seen as anxiety. Constantly transferring one’s weight from one foot to the other, or rocking forward and backward, suggests that you might be anxious or upset. It is a representation of one’s state of mind. When the mind is fluctuating between many unsettling thoughts, a person’s body might appear unsettled as well.
- Fidgeting can show discomfort and restlessness. Making small movements with one’s body reflects discomfort and a wandering mind. To release tension, people will tap their feet, heels or fingernails; slide in and out of their shoes; move their feet up and down, and similar types of movements.
Fidgeting can indicate that a person is uncomfortable.
- Clasped hands with interwoven fingers can indicate anxiety and frustration. This is often a self-pacifying gesture.
When a person is nervous or uncomfortable, they tend to do this to reassure themselves.
- Genuine smiles light up the eyes. A genuine smile usually creates wrinkles at the corners of the eyes and mouth. Sometimes even the forehead head, eyebrows, and eyelids turn upward. People can often tell the genuineness of your smile by these other subtle signs even if they don’t realize it.
- Raised eyebrows can be a sign of discomfort or surprise. Three emotions are the main reasons that can cause people to raise their eyebrows – worry, fear, and surprise. Don’t be surprised if you are asked if you are OK when you are seen with your eyebrows raised consistently.
- Massaging one’s forehead or rubbing one’s legs show uneasiness. Hugging one’s sides, massaging the forehead, playing with the earlobes or rubbing the legs are soothing actions that are sometimes used to counter feelings of uneasiness. It has been observed by some that stroking the pressure points of these body parts reduces blood pressure, thereby reducing the effects of stress.
- Good posture projects confidence. A straight body posture, as well as open and expansive gestures, shows confidence and power. As the person seems to take up more space, they appear more powerful. Good posture often commands respect. Whereas slouching can make you look nervous, scared or intimidated. You may appear to take up less space and therefore project less power.
- Torso turned away shows disinterest. A turned torso can be viewed as disinterest or a desire to leave. Alternately, facing someone straight on can communicate engagement and interest.
- Clenched jaws and a tightened neck is a sign of stress. A clenched jaw tightened neck and furrowed brow signal stress.
Some people also start touching their neck when tensed.
- Pursed lips are a sign of discomfort. When stressed or uncomfortable, you may find yourself pursing your lips tightly. This can be a sign to others of stress or worry.
- Shaking legs while sitting signals anxiety. For many, seeing someone shaking their legs while sitting is a sign of nervous energy.
- Hands behind the back show confidence. People tend to read hands behind the back differently. Sometimes it is interpreted as a sign of confidence and self-assuredness. Other times it can be interpreted as nervousness or uncertainty. Generally, the interpretation tends to depend on other visible elements of body language present.
- Excessive nodding can be a sign of anxiety. Nodding when someone is speaking shows encouragement, attentiveness or agreement. Lack of nodding can show disinterest or a lack of understanding of what the other person is saying. However, when you nod excessively, it can be a sign that you are worried about how you are coming across, whether you can follow the instructions or some other matter.
- Tilting the head can indicate interest in the conversation. To some, cocking the head to one side during a conversation suggests that you are listening carefully and are interested in the conversation.
- Nail picking suggests timidity or anxiety. Messing with your cuticles or nails can make some people feel you are timid and lacking in self-confidence. Others may ignore this behavior altogether.
- The effects of eye contact. Eye contact is one of the most important forms of body language. Both too much and too little eye contact tend to communicate messages to others, whether this is fair or not. When people fail to make eye contact or look away from others, people tend to think of them as uninterested, untrustworthy or lacking in confidence. Conversely, when people maintain eye contact too long (i.e., staring) people can tend to think of them as strange, overly fixated, or even creepy/dangerous. Because we each measure the “right” amount of eye contact differently, it is impossible to define it exactly. But generally, it’s good to shoot for what feels like a moderate amount of eye contact to you.
- The walk defines the person. The way you walk can say a lot about you. Fast walkers come across as energetic, confident and courageous. Although they sometimes also come across as anxious, depending on the rest of their body language. Slow walkers can be taken as laid back, relaxed and calm. People with a bounce in their step are often perceived as having upbeat personalities. Individuals who stomp can be viewed as agitated, angry and frustrated.