Body Language

Body language, also known as kinesics, is one of the great interpretation tools.  Body language refers to the nonverbal signals that we use to communicate. According to experts, these nonverbal signals make up a huge part of daily communication. According to various researchers, body language is thought to account for between 50 to 80 percent of all communication.  This form of human communication is nonverbal, and it is based on body language, expressions, and movements.  From our facial expressions to our body movements, the things we don’t say can still convey volumes of information.

Understanding body language is important, but it is also essential to remember to note other cues such as context and to look at signals as a group rather than focusing on a single action.  It’s partly instinctive, partly learned.  The human face, for example, has more muscles than most of the rest of the body.  Facial expression is always a signal to others.

Think for a moment about how much a person is able to convey with just a facial expression.  A smile can indicate approval or happiness, while a frown can signal disapproval or unhappiness.  In some cases, our facial expressions may reveal our true feelings about a particular situation.  While you may say that you are feeling fine, the look on your face may tell people otherwise.

Emotions Expressed Through Facial Expressions

Just a few examples of emotions that can be expressed via facial expressions include:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Confusion
  • Excitement
  • Desire
  • Contempt

Universal Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are also among the most universal forms of body language. The expressions used to convey fear, anger, sadness, and happiness are similar throughout the world.

The eyes are frequently referred to as the “windows to the soul” since they are capable of revealing a great deal about what a person is feeling or thinking.   As you engage in conversation with another person, taking note of eye movements is a natural and important part of the communication process.  Some common things you may note is whether people are making direct eye contact or averting their gaze, how much they are blinking, or if their pupils are dilated.

In some ancient cultures, like the Australian Aboriginal cultures, eye contact is considered rude and intrusive.  In Western culture, it’s considered a direct contact, a sign of honesty or confrontation.   In general eye contact is considered to be the Western version, where a stare or a look is made in context.  A stare, in a friendly situation, is a friendly form of body language, but in a hostile situation may be considered an actual challenge.

When evaluating body language, pay attention to the follow eye signals:

Eye gaze
When a person looks directly into your eyes when having a conversion, it indicates that they are interested and paying attention.  However, prolonged eye contact can feel threatening.  On the other hand, breaking eye contact and frequently looking away may indicate that the person is distracted, uncomfortable, or trying to conceal his or her real feelings.


Blinking is natural, but you should also pay attention to whether a person is blinking too much or too little.  People often blink more rapidly when they are feeling distressed or uncomfortable.  Infrequent blinking may indicate that a person is intentionally trying to control his or her eye movements.  For example, a poker player might blink less frequently because he is purposely trying to appear unexcited about the hand he was dealt.

Pupil size

One of the most subtle cues that eyes provide is through the size of the pupils.  While light levels in the environment control pupil dilation, sometimes emotions can also cause small changes in pupil size.  For example, you may have heard the phase “bedroom eyes” used to describe the look someone gives when they are attracted to another person.

Mouth expressions and movements can also be essential in reading body language.  For example, chewing on the bottom lip may indicate that the individual is experiencing worry, fear, or insecurity.

Covering the mouth may be an effort to be polite if the person is yawning or coughing, but it may also be an attempt to cover up a frown of disapproval.  Smiling is perhaps one of the greatest body language signals, but smiles can also be interpreted in many ways.  A smile may be genuine, or it may be used to express false happiness, sarcasm, or even cynicism.

When evaluating body language, pay attention to the following mouth and lip signals:

Pursed lips
Pursed lips might be an indicator of distaste, disapproval, or distrust.

Lip biting
People sometimes bite their lips when they are worried, anxious, or stressed.

Covering the mouth
When people want to hide an emotional reaction, they might cover their mouths in order to avoid displaying a smile or smirk.

Turned up or down
Slight changes in the mouth can also be subtle indicators of what a person is feeling. When the mouth is slightly turned up, it might mean that the person is feeling happy or optimistic.  On the other hand, a slightly downturned mouth can be an indicator of sadness, disapproval, or even an outright grimace.

Gestures can be some of the most direct and obvious body language signals. Waving, pointing, and using the fingers to indicate numerical amounts are all very common and easy to understand gestures.  Some gestures may be cultural, however, so giving a thumbs-up or a peace sign might have a completely different meaning than it might in the United States.

The following examples are just a few common gestures and their possible meanings:

A clenched fist can indicate anger or solidarity.

A thumbs up and thumbs down are often used as gestures of approval and disapproval.

The “Okay” gesture, made by touching together the thumb and index finger in a circle while extending the other three fingers can be used to mean okay.  In some parts of Europe, however, the same signal is used to imply you are nothing. In some South American countries, the symbol is actually a vulgar gesture.

The V sign, created by lifting the index and middle finger and separating them to create a V-shape, means peace or victory in some countries.  In the United Kingdom and Australia, the symbol takes on an offensive meaning when the back of the hand is facing outward.

The arms and legs can also be useful in conveying nonverbal information.  Crossing the arms can indicate defensiveness.  Crossing legs away from another person may indicate dislike or discomfort with that individual.  Other subtle signals such as expanding the arms widely may be an attempt to seem larger or more commanding, while keeping the arms close to the body may be an effort to minimize oneself or withdraw from attention.

When you are evaluating body language, pay attention to some of the following signals that the arms and legs may convey:

Crossed arms might indicate that a person is feel defensive, self-protective, or closed-off.

Standing with hands placed on the hips can be an indication that a person is ready and in control, or it can also possibly be a sign of aggressiveness.

Clasping the hands behind the back might indicate that a person is feeling bored, anxious, or even angry.

Rapidly tapping fingers or fidgeting can be a sign that a person is bored, impatient, or frustrated.

Crossed legs can indicate that a person is feeling closed off or in need of privacy.

How we hold our bodies can also serve as an important part of body language.  The term posture refers to how we hold our bodies as well as overall physical form of an individual.  Posture can convey a wealth of information about how a person is feeling as well as hints about personality characteristics, such as whether a person is confident, open, or submissive.

Sitting up straight, for example, may indicate that a person is focused and paying attention to what’s going on.  Sitting with the body hunched forward, on the other hand, can imply that the person is bored or indifferent.

When you are trying to read body language, try to notice some of the signals that a person’s posture can send.

Open posture involves keeping the trunk of the body open and exposed. This type of posture indicates friendliness, openness, and willingness.

Closed posture involves keeping the obscured or hidden often by hunching forward and keeping the arms and legs crossed. This type of posture can be an indicator of hostility, unfriendliness, and anxiety.

Have you ever heard someone refer to their need for “personal space”?  Have you ever started to feel uncomfortable when someone stands just a little too close to you?  The term proxemics refers to the distance between people as they interact.  Just as body movements and facial expressions can communicate a great deal of nonverbal information, so can this physical space between individuals.

Intimate distance – 6 to 18 inches
This level of physical distance often indicates a closer relationship or greater comfort between individuals.  It often occurs during intimate contact such as hugging, whispering, or touching.

Personal distance – 1.5 to 4 feet
Physical distance at this level usually occurs between people who are family members or close friends.  The closer the people can comfortably stand while interacting can be an indicator of the intimacy of the relationship.

Social distance – 4 to 12 feet
This level of physical distance is often used with individuals who are acquaintances. With someone you know fairly well, such as a co-worker you see several times a week, you might feel more comfortable interacting at a closer distance.  In cases where you do not know the other person well, such as a postal delivery driver you only see once a month, a distance of 10 to 12 feet may feel more comfortable.

Public distance – 12 to 25 feet
Physical distance at this level is often used in public speaking situations.  Talking in front of a class full of students or giving a presentation at work are good examples of such situations.

It is also important to note that the level of personal distance that individuals need to feel comfortable can vary from culture to culture.  People from Latin countries tend to feel more comfortable standing closer to one another as they interact, while those from North America need more personal distance.

Here are some further examples of emotions that are often conveyed with the use of body language:

  • Self-confidence
  • Defensive
  • Assertion
  • Impatience
  • Anger
  • Relaxation
  • Withdrawal
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Indecision
  • Decision
  • Tension
  • Anxiety
  • Arrogance
  • Restlessness
  • Friendliness
  • Hostility
  • Distrust
  • Calmness
  • Disbelief

That’s quite a range of expressions. It’s not a simple form of interpretation, and it’s necessary to consider body language in context with a certain situation.

You’ll notice that some of these body language signs go together. A person can be calm and friendly, or angry and showing distrust.

One of the most interesting things about body language is that some people’s body language, when seen without any particular pre conceived notion of how they’re feeling, is just plain weird. A person may seem to be exhibiting a set of conflicting body language expressions, hunched up in a defensive mode, but seemingly quite calm otherwise.

This is where body language works as an interpreter. The appearance the person is trying to give is in direct contradiction of their presentation of themselves. They’re not feeling calm, they’re very tense.

The irony is that people recognize many odd things about others, but often don’t know when they’re looking odd themselves.

Upright, standing   straight. Self-confidence Strong, certain,   walking briskly
Hunched, cringe   position, arms cover body Defensive Moves aside or away,   may remain in single posture without movements
Sitting, leaning   forward Standing, at full height Assertion Decisive hand   movements, chopping cuts in the air
Shifting balance,   walking back and forth Impatience Short, quick   movements, meaning ‘hurry up’
Tense posture, with or   without expression, looks tight and ready to spring Anger Movements tend to   amplify tense posture, literally signs of aggression.
Comfortable position,   not inclined to move much, tendency to recline Relaxation Movements are   leisurely, no great effort used
Stillness, watchful,   seems to be backing away even when sitting in the same place Withdrawal Minimal movement
Fixed attention,   observing mentally, rather than physically Thoughtfulness Set expression, body   movements minimal, not looking at objects
Distracted, shifting   focus, eyes moving around Indecision Gestures like   questions, very noticeable if in state of real indecision
Firm posture in either   standing or seated position, focused look Decision Authoritative   gestures, dismissive of interruptions
Alert, ready to move,   posture, often doesn’t stand still for more than a few seconds Tension Movements are rapid,   similar to impatience and anger, but not aggressive or threatening
Highly defensive,   posture, alert and very reactive Anxiety Gestures are sometimes   wild, as if out of control, or pleading open palm hand movements
Stance is invasive of   others space, confident Arrogance Aggressive, insulting,   gestures dismissive of others
Seems about to move at   any moment, changes into different postures often, looks uncomfortable with   sitting still Restlessness Irritable, energetic,   unfocused movements like walking around the same area for no obvious reason
Mainly positive facial   expressions, but posture may reflect protective and / or reassuring elements,   attentiveness Friendliness Generally relaxed   movements, considerate of senses of others, peaceful gestures
Tense, ready to   spring, aggressive or withdrawn, facial expression may be neutral or angry Hostility Tense movements,   short, cutting hand movements, often staccato
Similar to withdrawal,   watchful, negative or impassive expression Distrust Hand movements may   look similar to Halt or Stop
A mix of confidence   and relaxation, upright, firm stance Calmness Similar to relaxation,   but may include gestures of authority or peaceful signals
Attentive, but curious   expression, stance neutral withdrawn or firm Disbelief Palm movements, either   down, meaning to reduce something, or upward, meaning give something

It should be noted that not everyone reacts or behaves in identical ways.  Body language interpretation always has a context, and that context may not always appear clear.  Body Language can reflect conflicting emotions, or even a progression of emotions.  Some people are extremely impassive, and make appoint of being hard to read.  This is the Poker Face effect, applied to the whole body.  The body language is trying hard to say nothing.  While others, can be excitable, hyperactive, and overstate their movements and exaggerate their posture and their behavior.  They can be interpreted as being irrational, when they’re merely being reactive.

Humanity is now learning consciously a language it was born with that communicates subconsciously.