Body language refers to communication without words. It relates to the gestures and mannerisms by which we express our emotions and attitudes.
Studies conducted in the 1970s by Professor Albert Mehrabian of the University of California, revealed that body language, tone of voice, and words, respectively account for 55%, 38% and 7% of all personal communication.
Mehrabian’s work suggests that we overwhelmingly convey our feelings not through spoken words, but through physical signals and the manner in which we impart our words. These signs are often unconsciously expressed, but they can greatly influence the way in which our message is received.
A person’s posture, gestures and mannerisms reveal much about their temperament and disposition. Those who are trained in the art of reading body language can easily pick up on the subtle cues that others may overlook.
By learning to recognise the following patterns, you can improve your empathy and enhance your emotional intelligence. You’ll develop an intuitive understanding that will help you to strengthen your personal relationships with friends, colleagues, and family members.
But be mindful that even as you’re reading other people, they may also be reading you.
Posture refers to the way you carry yourself. Those with good posture keep their body aligned with its own centre of gravity. Shoulders and back are straight. The head is held high. When you stand tall, you portray an air of self-confidence.
There are several causes of poor posture. These can include medical conditions, too much time spent hunched over a desk or computer, or simply lack of confidence. If you find yourself slouching, with drooping shoulders and your head looking down, then make a conscious effort to straighten your back and assume a strong, confident posture. If you get into the habit of automatically correcting your pose, then it will become second nature in time.
Eyes are the windows to our soul. They’re one of our most revealing emotional indicators. Our eyes betray every sentiment, from joy to sorrow, distrust, anger, fear, and determination. They’re one of the first things we notice and remember about a face.
A confident and interested person will maintain eye contact when conversing. But poor eye contact can reflect disinterest in the speaker or subject. It may also be a sign of nervousness, or lack of confidence.
Staring refers to a penetrating, unwavering gaze, and is usually an aggressive or threatening sign. So from time to time, it’s natural to break eye contact briefly, in order to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of glaring at each other. And when multiple parties are involved in the discussion, our eyes instinctively dart from one speaker to the next.
The handshake, used as a sign of greeting and good will, dates back thousands of years to when weapons were carried in the right hand. Shaking hands demonstrated that you carried no weapon, and meant no ill will.
A handshake should be firm and confident, lasting for a couple of seconds. While shaking, it’s important to smile warmly and make eye contact. In the business world, it‘s appropriate to shake hands with both men and women, but your grip should be adjusted depending on whom you’re meeting.
With practice, you should be able to maintain consistency. But when you’re nervous or excited, your handshake can go badly wrong. Have you ever experienced a bone-crunching handshake? Or even worse, the wet fish? These forms of handshake can reveal aggression, uncertainty, or a lack of interest in building connections. Also try to avoid the sanitiser handshake – a quick, minimal contact shake followed by a rapid withdrawal and wipe of the hand.
Perhaps you’re folding your arms because you’re cold, but to another person it might mean you’re feeling defensive. The folded arm posture can portray a range of attitudes, depending on how you hold the rest of your body.
If you’re cold, then you might also be rubbing your arms, fidgeting, or moving on the spot. If you’re deep in thought, then your folded arms may be accompanied by pursed lips and a furrowed brow.
But if you’re leaning away from the person talking, and exhibiting a harsh or blank stare, then this reflects hostility or opposition. This closed position builds an unconscious barrier between yourself and the speaker.
In general, it’s best not to fold your arms when conversing with someone. Instead, adopt an open, confident stance with your hands behind your back, or if seated then place your hands loosely clasped on your lap.
While your hands are connected to your arms, they still convey their own messages. In fact, hands are one of the most expressive parts of the body, being used for pointing, directing and gesticulating. Sign language practitioners can communicate entirely non-verbally, using only hand signals.
Fidgeting with your hands, for example by constantly adjusting your watch, twisting your hair, or playing with a pen, can reflect feelings of boredom and disinterest. Biting your fingernails, or continually scratching and picking your nails, displays a degree of nervousness or insecurity.
Placing your hands on your hips can indicate frustration, anger or impatience, especially when accompanied by tapping of your foot. Resting or cradling your hands on your knees can portray readiness, confidence, or comfort with the current situation.
Interlocking your hands behind your head or back, in a relaxed manner, suggests self-control. But clasping your hands behind your back, with a pout or tightly pursed lips, conveys anger, frustration or apprehension. And walking with your hands in your pockets, shoulders hunched, can reflect either dejection or laziness.
Your head moves frequently when communicating or listening to a speaker, even though you’re not always consciously aware of those movements. We nod to indicate interest or agreement, and to punctuate key points in the discussion. We shake our head to reflect disagreement or disbelief.
However, continual unconscious bobbing of the head may indicate impatience, or that the listener has tuned out. Leaning the head back and yawning imparts a similar message.
Your face can betray your true feelings, even when you’re trying to hide them. Most people can tell the difference between a genuine smile or laugh, and a fake or strained one.
A person who is listening and attentive will maintain eye contact, raise their eyebrows from time to time, and nod their head intermittently. But when a person disagrees, they tend to frown and flick their head in a downward motion. If you don’t trust the speaker, or dislike their message, you might squint your eyes and look to the side.
We express shock and disbelief by raising our eyebrows, widening our eyes, and opening our mouth. Alternatively, a blank stare or wandering eyes can reflect disinterest. A person who feels uncomfortable with the information they’re imparting, or who is behaving deceptively, will tend to touch their face, scratch their chin, fiddle with their ears, or play with their nose during conversation. They may also blink excessively and find it difficult maintain eye contact.
Next time you’re talking to someone, tune in to the subtle clues that their face is revealing, and to the unconscious changes in your own body. You may be surprised how little control you have over your own display of emotions.
We often feel uncomfortable when people stand nearby, and our tolerance of proximity depends on whom we’re talking to. Close friends and family are accepted more readily than strangers and business colleagues.
When someone steps into your personal space, you may begin to feel differing levels of discomfort, depending on your relationship with that person. If you’re interested in a speaker or topic, you might move closer, and this will generally be viewed as positive body language, as long as you don’t invade the speaker’s personal space.
If you’re not conscious of the non-verbal cues that your body exhibits, then you may unintentionally send the wrong message. But by applying what you’ve learned about body language, you can better control the signals you’re presenting, and you can more easily read the signals displayed by others.
This skill may be crucial if you’re trying to sell your product or service, if you’re being interviewed for a job, or even when you’re simply working in a team environment. It’s also important to bear in mind that those from other countries and cultures, or those with certain disabilities, may use and understand body language in a different manner to yourself. Under these circumstances, common sense, politeness, and open verbal communication can overcome the challenge.