Picture this: You’re on a date with a potential partner, but the vibe feels… off. It’s not what they said or what they ordered off of the menu that gave you this impression, but how they acted. Maybe they were glancing at their watch while you were talking, or they were constantly fidgeting with their fork. Sound familiar? If so, you may have experienced their form of nonverbal communication, also known as body language. Don’t worry — we all experience some form of body language from other individuals; however, by learning to read body language, we can better understand the feelings of others.
It’s the most universal form of communication shared by humans. Body language can be described as nonverbal communication, or communication displayed through physical behaviors or gestures. Body language can be an important indicator of what a person is thinking or feeling, but not explicitly saying. According to some researchers, body language makes up more than 60% of what we communicate. Therefore, learning to recognize key nonverbal cues can be a useful tool in understanding others.
As with any other language, learning to recognize and interpret nonverbal cues can take practice. In this post, we will review the science of body language, as well as common nonverbal cues to keep in mind.
Body Language & Biology:
Body language is not just an assumption made about others; rather, it is a scientifically supported concept that provides insight into the psyche of others. Body language begins in the limbic system, an area of the brain involved in emotional responses and reinforcing behavior. The limbic system is also related to judgement and decision making and is responsible for all nonverbal communication. It is our limbic brain that conducts the movements that characterize body language, such as pressing our lips together in response to bad news or relaxing our muscles when in the presence of someone we enjoy. Thus, from a scientific standpoint, body language is as biologically necessary as breathing.
Body Language & Love:
Body language can be a valuable tool in providing insight into another’s inner thoughts and feelings — this can be especially valuable when applied to one’s dating life. Body language can be broken down into positive and negative cues. Positive body language can be interpreted as signs of interest, such as leaning forward when someone is talking, maintaining eye contact, sitting comfortably with legs uncrossed, or nodding at another’s words. Negative body language presents itself in opposite ways, including leaning back from someone as they are speaking, crossing one’s arms, fidgeting limbs, or lack of eye contact.
The phrase “the eyes are a window to the soul” rings true in regard to body language. Maintaining eye contact can show confidence and interest in the other individual; on the other hand, lack thereof can be a sign of discomfort or dishonesty. The behavior of the eyes can also serve as a clue into what a person is feeling. Studies have shown that an increased rate of blinking may suggest that the individual is stressed or even lying. Glancing at an object can suggest a desire for that object; or, if the individual is glancing at their watch or the door, it may be an indication that they may want to leave.
While it may seem obvious, smiling is an important nonverbal cue that, when correctly interpreted, can be useful when dating. Certain subtleties can help differentiate between genuine and fake smiles; for instance, genuine smiles involve the entirety of the facial muscles, while a fake smile only involves the mouth. Recognizing the difference in smiles could tell how others may be feeling about the situation.
Another common nonverbal cue is mirroring or mimicking the behaviors of another. For example, if your date begins to mirror your actions, such as changing postures, it could be a sign that the person is interested in you. In fact, mirroring is a common sales technique used to convey interest and build a rapport with clients. Additionally, mirroring behaviors can be seen among different species of animals, which explains why cats tend to circle each other when meeting.
Body Language & Work:
Nonverbal communication can play a crucial role in understanding interactions between coworkers and employers. In addition, body language can create an impactful impression in the workplace.
Gestures of the hands, arms, and legs can be an important indicator of how a person may be feeling, which can be especially useful in the workplace. For example, handshakes can make a lasting impression if they convey confidence and trust. The ideal handshake involves maintaining eye contact, grasping firmly, but not squeezing the other person’s hand—squeezing can come off as an assertion of dominance rather than a sign of confidence. Arm gestures can also express certain emotions; for instance, crossed arms can implicate that an individual is feeling anxious or closed off. On the other hand, if someone crosses their arms as an act of mirroring, it could mean they are attempting to establish a rapport with you. Feet placement can indicate where a person intends to go; thus, if someone’s feet are pointed towards you, it can be interpreted as a sign of interest.
Microexpressions are brief, involuntary facial movements that express some emotion. Microexpressions can be a valuable professional tool, as they cannot be faked and express true emotion. Scientists have identified seven universal microexpressions to look for when analyzing another person: surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, and contempt/hate. While each microexpression has its certain nuances, there are some key signs of each that you are most likely already familiar with. For example, if someone is feeling surprised, their eyebrows may raise, or their jaw may drop. If an individual is experiencing fear, they may widen their eyes, or their mouth may become tense. Like most other aspects of body language, it may take practice to decode another’s feelings through their microexpressions. To better understand your abilities to read microexpressions, the Science of People created a quick test that you can access here: https://scienceofpeople.typeform.com/to/deQ6VT. Reading microexpressions can be a beneficial skill in the workplace, as it can aid in understanding the true emotions of others.
Body Language & You:
To better understand others’ nonverbal communication, it is important to be aware of your own body language and its meaning. Being aware of how you present yourself, and what your body is conveying to others, is crucial to fully understanding the impact of body language.
When in doubt, ask yourself:
- What is my body trying to say that my mouth is not?
- Is my body language consistent with what I am feeling?
- Would my thoughts be better expressed through words rather than actions?
Overall, understanding body language can increase the value of your relationships, as well as improve your abilities as a professional communicator. Furthermore, increasing awareness of one’s own body language, as well as others’ nonverbal cues, can help an individual become more empathetic and observant to their own and others needs and desires.
So, next time you’re on a date, and you see them glance toward the door or look away while you’re speaking, maybe it’s time to call your girlfriends to come pick you up instead.
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Navarro, J. (2009). The key to understanding body language. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/spycatcher/200910/the-key-understanding-body-language
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