Understanding Body Language: Definition & Signs

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  • 0:03 What Is Body Language?
  • 1:31 The Context of Gestures
  • 2:31 Interpreting Discomfort
  • 3:31 Interpreting Position
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Our body language can be a more effective means of communication than verbal or written language. In this lesson, we'll learn about types of human body language and what they convey to others. Test your knowledge with a short quiz after the lesson.

What Is Body Language?

Imagine that you're at a party and your friend wants you to meet his new girlfriend. As you shake her hand, she enthusiastically tells you how wonderful it is to meet you and how she's heard so much about you. Yet the whole time the three of you are talking, your friend's girlfriend is standing quite a distance away from you, has her arms crossed, and is constantly looking around the room to avoid eye contact. What would you make of this situation?

Your friend's girlfriend is displaying body language, which is the non-verbal communicating that we do with our bodies. In this instance, she is telling you one thing with her speech but she's actually saying something very different with her body. Her proximity to you, crossed arms, and refusal to make eye contact all indicate that she's not really telling you the truth or that she's uncomfortable with the situation. She might just be a very shy person or simply more interested in other things. She might even be displaying some sort of conflicting emotions regarding you or her boyfriend because she's trying to be friendly albeit unconvincingly. You'll never really know, but her body language makes it at least possible to reasonably guess.

It may be hard to believe, but we communicate far more often, and sometimes far more effectively, with our bodies than we do with our speech. Sometimes we use body language consciously, like when we hug someone to show affection. Other times, our body language is beyond our control, like if we wince when we feel pain.

The Context of Gestures

Gestures are a type of body language which involve communication via body movement. Context is an essential consideration for correctly interpreting gestures. One example is eye contact. If you were engaged in a conversation with a friend, you'd probably make eye contact with her to demonstrate that you're listening and giving her your full attention. Now imagine that you made the same level of eye contact with a stranger across a bar. How do you think this would be interpreted? Eye contact can demonstrate to a person that she has your attention and respect, but in another context it could make someone feel uncomfortable (or even intimidated). Sometimes, the body language that a person uses has more than one meaning and can be misunderstood, too. A good example of this is the peace sign, which is considered a friendly greeting in the United States. A person holds up an index and middle finger on the same hand to indicate well wishes and a desire for harmony. However, this same gesture is considered to be an insult in the United Kingdom, so you'll want to be careful if you are over in England making hand gestures!

Interpreting Discomfort

You probably know why you use certain kinds of conscious body language (hugging, laughing, etc.); therefore, you probably know what it means when other people use them as well. Unconscious body language, on the other hand, can be a little harder to interpret. These are usually manifestations of feelings that we're either actively trying to hide or simply don't feel comfortable expressing. These are usually feelings that would not be appropriate or socially acceptable to display in public, like fear or anger.

Let's go back to the party where you met your friend's new girlfriend. Imagine that while she's talking to you, she's twirling her hair or stroking her own hand. These are common self-soothing techniques, which suggest that the person is in some way uncomfortable. Unconscious self-soothing usually works because, among other things, it replicates ways that we reduced anxiety or were comforted when we were younger. Unconscious self-soothing is something like having a loved one rub your back or pat your knee to reassure you except that you're soothing yourself.

Interpreting Position

The third type of body language is the ways in which we position our body in proximity to other people. Imagine that you're on a first date at a movie theater. While you're sitting in the theater, you notice that your companion leans in his chair so that he's a little closer to you. This is an expression of interest or affection that suggests he's enjoying your company and wants to be closer to you.

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