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How to Read Body Language

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Observing others' body language can be quite useful when we're trying to learn what's going on with them. In this lesson, we'll talk about some common body language cues, from the head to the feet. Then, you can test yourself on your new knowledge.

What Is Body Language?

If you watched a movie on mute, you could still interpret the characters' emotions and the nature of their relationships by observing their body language. In fact, about 55% of the messages that people convey to one another are through body language alone.

Body language is the conscious or subconscious use of body movements and gestures to communicate feelings or emotion. Knowing how to discern others' emotions through body language is an important skill in establishing, maintaining and strengthening personal and business relationships.

We're going to look at some common body language cues, but before we do, it's important to remember that body language isn't always what it seems. For example, a person who rubs his eyes may not be tired; perhaps his eye is itchy. A person who crosses her arms may not be defensive; maybe she is just cold.

It's also important to note that body language is not universal across the world. For example, a nod of the head signifies agreement in the U.S., but it means disagreement in Turkey. Let's look at some examples of body language cues that we use here in the United States, beginning with the head and moving all the way down to the feet.

The Head

As we all know, a nod of the head can signal agreement and a shake can indicate disagreement. A tilt of the head to the side, like a puppy dog, can suggest interest or confusion. A downward tilt may represent shame, sadness or embarrassment. A head that is held upright, like a string is lifting it from above, indicates confidence and poise; too upright can exhibit arrogance, though.

The body language of this girl includes propping up her head with her hand, which can mean tiredness, boredom, or stress.
Girl propping head with hand

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are one of the most widely observed and studied forms of body language. A pout of the lip can indicate sadness or pitifulness. A crinkle of the forehead can show sadness or anger. A wrinkle between the eyes can demonstrate stress.

Of course, we've all seen people try to hide their emotions by plastering on a smile or something of that nature. But if you keep an eye out, you might be able to briefly notice a micro-expression, an extremely quick, unconscious facial expression that lasts for a fraction of a second. Micro-expressions can give us a glimpse of a person's true emotions.

The Brows

Raised eyebrows indicate surprise, fear, shock, and worry. If someone compliments your new haircut when her brow is raised, it may not be sincere; she may just be in shock that you cut your hair so short!

The Eyes

There is a proverb that reads, 'The eye is the window of the soul.' The eyes are one of the most important tools in interpreting emotion. Diversion of eye contact can mean uncomfortableness, disinterest, low confidence, or dishonesty.

Frequent blinking or winking can be seen as flirtatious. Looking to the left can be indicating that someone is reminiscing or trying to remember something. A dilated pupil may signal interest or passion. Lack of crinkles around the eyes could mean that a person's smile is not sincere.

There is debate amongst psychologists on whether it's possible to discover a liar by looking at the eyes. Analyzing eye movements can be a good start in detecting a liar, but it is not an objective tool of measurement of lying behavior. Some say that liars will look to the right, because this indicates that they are using their creative right brain to make up a story. Others say that liars will often refrain from blinking and will provide deliberate eye contact in attempt to convince the other person that they are telling the truth.

Back and Shoulders

A shoulder shrug means that a person is confused, is apathetic, or does not understand. Good posture demonstrates confidence and control. Slumped posture can indicate low self-esteem or discomfort. A posture that is relaxed and leaning back signals contentment, power and control. On the contrary, a posture of leaning forward with arms hugging oneself and head slightly down is an expression of powerlessness or submissiveness.

Arms

Crossed arms could indicate anger or defensiveness. Arms relaxed by the side indicates openness and comfortableness. When a person crosses his arms or clasps his hands in front of his body, it can indicate a subconscious creation of barrier between himself and the person to whom he is speaking.

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