Verbal language is the way we communicate between each other but there is a whole plethora of messages we do not express with words while talking to someone. Body language tells the audience perhaps even more (if correctly interpreted) than spoken words.

What is body language?

“body language – noun – the conscious and unconscious movements and postures by which attitudes and feelings are communicated” [The Oxford English Dictionary]

“body language – noun – the process of communicating what you are feeling or thinking by the way you place and move your body rather than by words” [The Oxford Business English Dictionary]

Either in a subtle or evident way, every part of our body talks: eyes, face (even the skin color), arms, hands, legs, feet, our whole posture and all the gestures we make!

Body language is not an exact science and you have also to consider the cultural context. It may also depend on the current conditions – crossed arms are usually associated with defensiveness but what if someone is just cold?

In this post, I’ll explain some of the main aspects of body language in order for you to understand it, control it and benefit from it.

Body Language for Dummies

How we act in front of someone is crucial if we want to reach a certain goal. We can be very persuasive with words but if our hands telegraph insecurity, then it will be hard to come across as a confident person. Especially when we meet people for the first time – first impressions last.

A high power behavior would look like this:

  • Solid eye contact in a smiling and serene face
  • A moderate tone of voice
  • A slow but clear speech
  • Pertinent gestures with hands and arms
  • Proper posture (i.e. standing tall, shoulders back)

A defensive, bored or insecure person will generally act like this:

  • Uses minimal facial expressions
  • Maintains little eye contact
  • Turns the body away (even slightly) from you
  • Minimal hand/arm gestures and prefers keeping them close to his/her body

If you ever watched Lie to Me, you know that even FBI specialists use their knowledge on body language to detect if someone is lying. It’s one of the most interesting applications of this imperfect science – recognizing if someone is trying to conceal a lie:

  • The eyes tend to maintain little or no contact with rapid movements
  • The pupils are constricted
  • The mouth is hidden by hand or fingers
  • Frequent throat clearing
  • Chin dimpling
  • The body could be slightly turned away or with unnatural movements
  • The breathing rate is increased
  • Sweating could be observed
  • Redness of face or neck area.

These signs are similar to the ones exhibited by a nervous person, so as stated before it depends on the context –is the interlocutor concealing the truth or just not completely at ease? [1]

For reference, here follows a brief list of body language meanings related to specific parts of the body. [2]

Eyes

  • Arched eyebrows: interest with what the person is saying
  • Direct eye contact when speaking: honesty or fake honesty (in practiced liars)
  • Direct eye contact when listening: interest, attraction
  • Blinking too much: nervousness, anxiety, excitement
  • Widening eyes: interest, appeal, invitation
  • Squinting: feeling of threat or unhappiness

Head:

  • Lowering your head: shame, shyness, hiding something
  • Head held high: superiority, fearlessness, arrogance
  • Head forward, upright: interest
  • Head tilted downward: criticism, admonishment

Arms:

  • Hands on hips with elbows out: dominance, authority, self-confidence
  • Crossed arms: defensiveness, arrogance, reluctance, feeling uncomfortable annoyed, irritated, happy, confused, worried
  • One arm across body clasping other arm by side: nervousness, defensiveness
  • Holding a drink/pen/any object in front of body with both hands: nervousness

Hands:

  • Biting nails: frustration, suppression
  • Palms up or open: submissive, truthful, honest person
  • Palms down: authority, strength, dominance
  • Cracking knuckles: attention seeking
  • Thumbs clenched inside fist: self comforting, frustration, insecurity
  • Rubbing hands together: anticipation, relish
  • Hands in pockets: disinterest, boredom
  • Removing spectacles: alerting wish to speak

Lower limbs:

  • Shaking legs: nervousness, anxiety, impatience
  • Feet faced directly towards someone: interest in what someone is saying
  • Uncrossed legs (while sitting): openness
  • Crossed legs (while sitting): caution, disinterest

Last but not least comes the mirroring or a sort of imitation of the interlocutor’s moves, that means that you are interested in that person and you feel comfortable with his/her presence. It is like saying “This person is like me”.

With all these tips you should be able to recognize your audience reactions to your speech and adapt it and also you would be better in improving yourself how to control your movements in front of an important occasion.

References:

[1] Pinker, S., How the Mind Works. 2009, New York: Norton

 
Elalim Zen Vukovic

Author Elalim Zen Vukovic

An Italian medicine student and Science geek. Elalim participated in several science fairs worldwide and is passionate about solving the problems that affect Humanity the most. Apart from Medicine, she likes Maths, Technology, Entrepreneurship, History, Astronomy, Travelling, Music and Art.

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