How to read body language
Beginner guide to body language
It’s often said that actions speak louder than words — and this rings especially true when it comes to body language. As a non-verbal form of communication, body language can be a powerful tool, as you can use it to put people at ease, make friends, or even persuade people to do things for you.
Being able to read body language can also allow you to detect things such attraction, truth, confidence and shyness. You can read body language by carefully watching the facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, and other movements made by another person. All of us — whether we realise it or not — use body language in our everyday lives. With this in mind, here are a few common body language behaviours and gestures, and given the common interpretations of their possible meanings — which will help to make you fluent in the art of reading body language!
A failure to look someone in the eyes or rapidly shifting eye movements can often be interpreted as trying to hide something or lying. It can also be a sign of shyness or lack of confidence.
Smiling can demonstrate confidence, friendliness, and a positive attitude, and also gives the impression that you’re someone that people would want to be around. On the other hand, a ‘nervous’ or ‘false’ smile can demonstrate the opposite.
Often you can tell what a person is like by noticing their attention span. For example, if someone quickly loses focus and clearly is not listening then this makes them appear disinterested, bored, and possibly even uncaring — whereas a longer attention span is likely to indicate more interest.
Head shaking or nodding
Frequently, without realising they are doing it, people nod or shake their head to signal whether they are in agreement or not. You can give your approval to someone just with a nod of the head, and your disapproval either by not nodding or by shaking your head.
Touching another person during social interaction, if done appropriately, can convey a strong message to them. For example, it can be used in a flirtatious manner to show romantic interest, or can simply be a way of calming or reassuring someone.
Arms folded/legs crossed
This can be seen as a defensive posture or can signal that the conversation is at an end as far as that person is concerned. Sitting tightly folded up indicates that you are closed to communication, as your crossed limbs effectively form a physical barrier to keep other people away from you.
Standing with hands on hips
This demonstrates a readiness to act in a situation, or can even indicate aggression. It is not the most welcoming of gestures and you may often see it displayed by teenagers wishing to show their defiance.
You can tell a lot from a handshake. A firm handshake is usually given by a person who is confident of themselves, while a limp handshake is usually given by nervous, shy, or insecure people. Also, watch out for the ‘hand crusher’ given by someone trying to intimidate you!
Sitting with legs crossed/legs apart
People frequently sit with their legs crossed, often with one or both feet kicking slightly, and this can be seen as a sign of boredom or impatience. Sitting in a position with your legs apart shows that you’re more relaxed and open.
Touching the nose
Touching or rubbing your nose can often be seen as a sign of doubt or a signal that you’re lying. Pinching the bridge of your nose, which you’ll often do with your eyes closed, can often be seen as a negative response to something you have just done for another person.
We’re all familiar with the old ‘rubbing the hands in anticipation’ thing. It’s usually something that we tend to do when we’re awaiting the arrival of something that we are really looking forward to!
An open palm gesture is often one of sincerity, openness, or innocence. For example, if you truthfully say ‘It wasn’t me’ or ‘I haven’t done anything’, you’ll probably also use an open palm gesture.
Tapping or drumming fingers on a surface such as a table or desk is a sure-fire way of letting someone know you are bored. It displays a degree of impatience in a given situation, and is often our way of telling someone else to get a move on!
Playing with hair
Patting or fondling hair often indicates insecurity or a lack of self-confidence. Certainly, people who are nervous will frequently do it. Try watching an interview with a young sportsperson who is new to being interviewed, and you’ll see what we mean.
When a person tilts their head to one side, it’s often because they’re interested in something. We probably most commonly notice it with dogs, which quite clearly tilt their head when something takes their interest — but we do it to a lesser degree too.
When you lean forward — either when you’re sitting down or standing up — you are indicating that you’re interested in something. In other words, an interested listener leans toward the speaker. Conversely, leaning away is a clear sign of disinterest.
Biting your nails is invariably an indication of nervousness or insecurity. People often refer to ‘nail-biting moments’ when watching sports matches or films — in other words, moments that are very tense and cause viewers to be nervous.
Pacing the floor
Nervousness can also be displayed by someone’s inability to stay still. A person can be up and down and pacing about, and many of us will interpret this as them being nervous or tense. For example, if you see someone waiting for an impending birth, don’t be surprised to see them wearing out their shoe leather!
Interpreting body language …
Although some behaviour and gestures have clear-cut meanings, reading people’s body language is not always an exact science because some actions can have multiple meanings. For example, if you fold your arms it doesn’t necessarily mean you are being defensive — you could just be physically cold!
Our advice is not to get in to a habit of scrutinising your and everyone else’s movements and gestures for hidden meaning. However, if a person uses several behaviours or gestures at the same time (such as biting their nails and pacing) that have the same common interpretation (nervousness), then this is a good indicator of how they are feeling at a given time.