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How to Read Body Language

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Expert Body Language Reading Tips

At any age, body language communicates as much, or more in some cases as the spoken word. Parents can easily observe when a young baby is irritated her body language.

Speaking to a baby in a harsh tone will usually result in the child showing a sad or fearful facial expression, while smiling at a baby will usually result in a reciprocal smile or laugh. Even coming from little ones, these expressions “speak” volumes.

A toddler turns away as a means of showing distaste for a particular food. When a child breaks one his parent’s prized possessions, and is questioned about it, he may look down while explaining that he does not know how it happened.

This may indicate that the child is afraid to tell the truth, or ashamed of what has happened. A teen who is bored in the classroom, or one who may not want to hear a parent’s advice may “roll” her eyes as if to express that she are tired what is being said. Likewise adults use various elements of body language to communicate their feelings.

Body Language and Adults

Adults often rely on body language to measure what a partner or potential love interest may be thinking. This is often seen in male and female relationships. One partner declares feelings for the other, yet the body language communicates something different.

If one partner attempts to have a serious conversation, and the other appears to ignore it by continuing to watch television, this may communicate a lack of concern and genuine love.

The single person who is seeking companionship may send subtle signals that indicate interest in another. Some of these include winking, glancing, smiling or even staring.

Common Types of Body Language

Some of the common types of gestures and body movements that communicate true feelings include

  • Facial expressions, including eye contact, and mouth movements
  • "Kinesic Communication": Body movements , gestures, and postures
  • Vocalization: Laughter, Moans and Sighs, Crying
  • Tone of voice
  • "Haptic" Communication or Touch
  • Space

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions may be the most common type of body language observed during communication. Many people express what is on their minds unconsciously. Facial expressions are natural responses to conversations or situations. For example, a child receives a new toy and smiles because he is pleased with it. This facial expression indicates happiness.

One friend is excited about meeting another friend for lunch. The other friend explains when they meet that she has something she needs to talk about. The friend who was excited about the lunch date notices that the other friend appears sad, and fears that bad news is looming. Anger is easily expressed through facial expressions.

Frowning and clenched teeth are often signs that a person is angry, irritated or not pleased with a situation. Surprise is seen on the face of the person who walks into a room and hears the words “happy birthday” yelled from a large crowd when it was unexpected.

Eye Contact

Eye-contact is important in communication. This body language says a lot about how engaged a person is in a conversation, how comfortable they are in a situation and whether they are being completely honest.

People who stand close to other people while making direct eye contact can appear intimidating. Those who look away while talking sometimes give the appearance of not being truthful or being uncomfortable in the ability to hold a conversation, or disengaged from the person who is talking.

In a situation where one party is fails to look up from a task while talking with another, the impression given is that what is being said by the other person is not as important as the task at hand. In this case, failure to make eye contact can be perceived as rude.

Windows to the Soul

The eyes are sometimes described as the windows of the soul, and what the reveal about what a person may be thinking is interesting, even to the casual observer. Direct contact is usually considered a sign of honesty or directness, however people have learned that direct eye contact is expected.

As a result some may used direct eye contact as a means of pretending to be honest. A person who engages in direct eye contact when listening shows interest in what the other person is saying. However, looking away while another is talking or showing interest in what might be going on in the immediate environment shows disinterest and the desire to be somewhere else.

What Different Looks Mean

Looking away from a person while speaking may indicate insecurity, or discomfort. Looking to the right is associated with not telling the truth. A person who looks to the right may be fabricating information or trying to guess.

Looking to the left is a sign that a person is engaged in thinking or trying to recall facts.

Looking up may indicate that an individual is thinking or trying to recall information. Presenters sometimes look up when they are trying to remember something that they want to share. It appears that they are visualizing what they intend to say.

The person who looks down may be showing signs of submission. Looking down might also signal guilt. It should be noted that in some cultures, looking a person in the eye while talking to them may be considered rude, so looking down is not always a sign of subservience or low self-esteem.

A person who gazes may be very interested in the subject of the gaze. Gazing is sometimes seen as rude, especially when the gazer focuses on a particular part of the body which might indicate sexual interest.

Staring

Staring is similar to gazing, but staring and is sometimes done to intimidate another person. However someone might stare at an object or person in disbelief.

A glance might be used when a person cannot stare or gaze. Sometimes it might be used in a crowd to catch another person’s attention. At other times it might be used when an individual wants to observe some characteristic or action but does not want to be caught staring.

Eye movements that indicate that a person may be suspicious include peering over glasses or squinting while looking at or listening to another.

Elevator Eyes

Elevator-eyes, also known as looking a person up and down can make an individual feel uncomfortable. People may practice this mode of eye contact for various reasons.

For example if a person has a sexual interest in another, he or she might look the person up and down as a means of examining his or her body. In another situation the one with traveling eyes might look at a person as if to say “I am better or more important than you.”

This type of look is meant to intimidate or make a person feel uncomfortable, as if to say “I don’t approve of how you dress, or how much you weigh.”

Mouth Movements

The mouth, like the eyes, is a part of the body that can act independently. Not a word needs to be spoken to communicate messages with the mouth. One of the simplest body language forms initiated by the mouth is the smile. On the surface a smile usually means something positive.

Most people perceive smiles to mean that an individual is pleased, happy or friendly. However there may be more to a smile than just a friendly face. Almost everyone has observed the smile that comes on quickly and leaves as soon as the smiling person is out of view of others.

body language tips

This is generally seen as a fake or pasted smile. A fake smile might be used when someone is facing the media or in the presence of someone they might not be fond of, but want to impress. The tight-lipped smile, like the quick, fake smile, is also a smile that sends a message. The person with this type of smile has no intention of disclosing much information.

Kinesic Communication: Body Movements, Gestures and Postures

Certain body movements suggest that an individual might be defensive. Tightly crossing the arms or legs may mean that a person is being protective, defensive or guarded, as does a rigid body.

Such closed body postures can also mean that the individual feels inferior or suffers from low self-esteem. A person in a defensive mode might clench the fists. There are also body movements that indicate that a person is open, such as speaking while gesturing with open hands. Removing a coat or jacket can signal openness or informality.

Open body movements can also indicate domination or assertiveness. Leaning in close of leaning forward to speak, and sitting with uncrossed legs are also signs of a person who is open to others ideas and wants to actively engage in dialogue.

Vocalizations

Vocalizations may also be described as non-speech sounds. Laughing, moaning, sighing, and crying are all examples of vocalization.

People who are unable to speak often use vocalize or make sounds that communicate with others. Those sounds vary and include grunting, groaning, whining, and even screaming, and though they are non-verbal, they are understood family, close friends or caregivers.

Laughter is not silent, but is generally considered a means of non-verbal communication. Laughter in which a person lets go and enjoys the moment is usually sincere. Sometimes it can be inappropriate, such as when a person falls and a group bursts out into laughter.

Spontaneous Laughter

However, spontaneous laughter is usually a sign that a person is happy, enjoying themselves, or finds something very funny. This type of laughter can be relaxing.

The person may engage in nervous laughter when he or she is uncomfortable in a situation. Laughter can signal sarcasm or dislike of another. Unnatural laughter may be done to appease another person, or to hide inability to accomplish a challenging task.

For example, if an individual is asked to complete a task such as answering a questions in class, he might laugh at his inability to answer the question to hide his embarrassment. If a person is with a group that seems to be having fun, he might laugh with the group to avoid criticism or ridicule.

An exempt of this behavior, it the person who detests dirty jokes, but finds that she is outnumbered when in a group that laughs hysterically when a dirty joke is told. To avoid being singled out as a prude, she might pretend to laugh and enjoy the joke while being very much offended by it.

Moans and Sighs

Other forms of vocalization include moaning, which can be a sign of pleasure when two people are engaged in physical intimacy. Moaning can also signal that a person is in pain. Sighing can indicate exhaustion or tiredness. It can also indicate relief, especially when a stressful situation is overcome.


Crying

Like laughter, crying can be genuine or fake. Sometimes young children learn to make the vocal sounds of crying but no tears follow. This may be to gain attention. Some adults are said to be able to turn on the tears. This type of crying is manipulative and done to gain attention or to curry favor with others

Crying usually means that a person is very sad or hurting in some way. The hurt could be physical pain brought on by injury or illness. Crying is also a means of showing emotional pain such as sadness, disappointment or grief from loss. For a young baby, crying is a means of communicating needs such as hunger, time for a diaper change, discomfort or the need to be loved and nurtured.

Crying can also be a sign of happiness, pleasant surprise; or mixed or bittersweet feelings. A person who wins the lottery cries when learning of the win. The high school graduate cries upon achieving a major milestone in life. New parents cry when a baby is born. A mother cries at her daughter’s wedding. People cry after overcoming illness, accidents and adversity in life because they are thankful to be spared pain and suffering.

Tone of Voice

Tone of voice might not be considered body language by some, however the old adage “it is not what you say, but how you say it,” puts voice in the body language category. A listener can learn a lot about a person by observing inflection, pitch, voice rhythm, volume and how fast a person speaks.

One person may speak in a tone of voice that may come across as condescending, while another individual can say the same thing in a different voice pattern and seem very compassionate and sincere. The person who speaks with a shaky voice may give the impression that he or she is intimidated by talking in front of groups.

Haptic Communication or Touch

Touch, also known as “haptic” communication is another form of body language or non-verbal communication. Touch has meaning different meanings. There is the sympathetic hug given to an individual who is sad or grieving. A slap, punch, push or shove is an aggressive form of touch that is meant to punish or intimidate. A pat on the back may be seen as a sign of encouragement, camaraderie, or approval.

Touch can send the wrong message, depending upon the person initiating the touch and to whom it is done. A wife may rub her husband’s shoulder while he is sitting in a chair. This touch would communicate intimacy or closeness and could lead to sexual arousal. However if she rubbed her male supervisor’s shoulder in the same manner, the gesture could be perceived as flirtatious or as sexual harassment.

In many cultures, touch in the form of handshakes, kisses or hugs used to greet people. A person with a limp hand shake, or one who is hesitant to hug may give the impression of being non-assertive or unwilling to shake another individual’s hand.

Space

Touching or otherwise getting too physically close to another may be seen as invasion of personal space. Invasion of personal space is a form of body language that makes some people uncomfortable.

The person who stands very close to another during conversation may communicate that he or she is getting too familiar or intimate. This close contact could also signal dominance or aggression, which can be intimidating.

Why Read Body Language?

The individual with a talent for reading body language will be successful at determining whether an individual’s speech is in line with his or her actions. The old cliché “actions speak louder than words” holds much truth. The mouth may say one thing, but body movements often reveal what an individual is really thinking.

Those who work in environments where they conduct job interviews, criminal investigations and similar operations find that the ability to read body language can help them gather essential information needed for decision making. The criminal investigator who observes body language might change the direction of questioning based on the suspects facial expressions and movement.

A job interviewer might determine that a candidate is not suitable for a position based on the body language exhibited during the interview. For example if a question is asked that a person does not want to answer for answer fully, the immediate response might be a pause.

This nonverbal form of communication suggests that the person is being careful or thinking about how they might answer the question without divulging too much information. An astute interviewer will pick up on this behavior immediately. However, it is not always the case that the person is trying to hide information. The action could mean that the interviewee wants to be careful about how he or she states the answer.

Being Aware of Your Own Body Language

Whether in a business or personal situation, you can benefit from knowing what various body cues mean. Think about your responses to other people. Does your tone of voice make you seem angry or bitter, or does it convey friendliness, excitement or enthusiasm? Do your gestures and body movements communicate dominance or intimidation?

In some settings this might be appropriate. If you are a guard in a jail or prison, your non-verbal cues or body language should suggest that you are not a pushover, since you are in a position of authority. However, if you are a counselor, your body language should reflect openness, acceptance, and respect for those of those you are charged with helping.

Cultural Aspects of Body Language

Last but not least, culture influences body language and responses to body language. In a global society, people from many cultures cross paths each day. Symbols like a thumbs up or thumbs down could mean something offensive in other cultures.

Kissing on the cheek as a means of greeting can offend those who prefer verbal greetings or shaking hands. Direct eye contact, gazing or staring may be considered extremely rude in some cultures. Body language that portrays low-self esteem or dishonesty according to American standards may be signs of respect in other cultures.


An example would be looking down when talking with someone of prominence. The individual who engages in international travel or does international business would do well to learn about cultural aspects of body language prior to interacting with persons from different cultures.

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This page was last modified on 16 August 2013, at 23:13.
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