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Did you know spoken language isn’t the only way we communicate with each other? Our bodies move and sway in sync with our words, and continue to speak even when we stay quiet.
What is Body Language?
Body language is how the body speaks. We use our bodies intentionally when we do things like shrug our shoulders, clap our hands, shake our heads, or roll our eyes. Other times, our bodies go behind our backs to reveal our moods or thoughts without our awareness, such as when we unknowingly point our feet in one direction, make our bodies take up less space, or touch our neck and face.
David Lambert points out three key purposes to body language: As a conscious replacement for speech, such as when we wink or give the thumbs up; to reinforce speech, as in when we use hand gestures to help articulate a point we’re making orally; and as a reflection of mood, such as our facial expression, body pointing, and dilated pupils.
Body language was likely the means by which we communicated in the ages before the human capacity for language even evolved. British zoologist Desmond Morris suggested in 1969 that we owe our nonverbal communication to our animal nature.
Earlier still, in 1872, Charles Darwin claimed that humans and apes express similar facial expressions inherited from a common ancestor.
It’s not only humans and apes; other animals, from lizards to birds and dogs, all puff up their chests when they want to establish dominance. We know a dog feels guilty when he lowers his head, but we also know that we, too, can give those puppy dog looks.
Different animals and people dance to attract mates and shrink down when they’re rejected or defeated. Our bodies appear to be powerful, universally expressive tools that say much more than we realize when we want them to and when we’re oblivious to it.
The Physical Thought
Something strange has come to light in the last few decades — the idea that our bodies express our minds and that the body can directly influence the mind in its own way. This is a two-way street.
There is an emerging field in psychology known as embodied cognition, whose main premise is that our bodies and the world around us don’t only influence us but are intimately woven within our thoughts. Our experiences are part of our thinking.
Studies within this field have brought us some incredible findings — sitting in a hard chair makes people less willing to compromise than if they were in a soft chair; holding a heavy clipboard caused people to take their jobs more seriously; holding a warm drink made people judge another as more generous and caring than those holding cold drinks.
It’s putting a new spin on what we make of our minds. The typical idea that our consciousness sits inside our brains and observes the world, controlling the body to do its deeds, is only half the story.
Much of our body language happens without our awareness; we just go along with it. But, if we look at this idea of embodied cognition, we might find that by becoming aware and using the mind’s power to volitionally choose our form and motion, we can purposefully alter our minds and moods. Let’s explore the possibilities.
Types of Body Language to Be Aware Of
Here are some types of body language you want to be aware of and recognize. Once you learn the body language types to watch for, we will show you how to read body language to determine if it is open and positive or negative and closed behavior.
You’ve probably been told to sit up straight a few times in your life, turns out there’s a good reason to follow that advice. Sitting or standing with a slouch can lead to abnormal spine alignment, affecting our overall health and leaving us with problems for the rest of our lives.
There are short-term effects too. Positioning your body with a slouch can cause you to feel sad and depleted of energy, as a study from San Francisco State University found. They also discovered that changing your body posture to an upright position can cause an improvement in mood and energy.
Slouching may also be a sign that you are undervaluing yourself, but it’s one of the body language examples you can easily reverse with conscious action.
2. Crossed Arms
Folding the arms is a defense mechanism used to protect the heart and lungs. We often resort to it when we feel nervous, insecure, or negative towards something or someone. Monkeys have also been observed making the same gesture in similar threatening situations.
We might not want that strong attitude when dealing with other people, however, as the physical barrier it represents could not only give the impression that you’re not open to the other person’s opinion, but you might literally become less open to them.
Smiling is contagious. We have these things called mirror neurons in our brains that fire both when we perform an action, and when we see someone else perform it.
When we see a smile, our brains create the same pattern of activity that it would do if we smiled, and in doing so, we feel the same emotions that accompany a smile – It’s the same idea behind those contagious yawns.
The good news is you don’t need to see someone else smiling, you can just do it yourself. Doing this can pick you up out of a negative mood and lower your stress levels, while sticking with furrowed eyebrows and negative expressions causes you to see the world in a more cynical light.
Mimicking someone is the simple act of copying the actions of another. It doesn’t need to be full body mimicry, even just the small actions of where the hands are placed constitutes mirroring.
This often happens unconsciously through those mirror neurons, but the effect remains if we do it intentionally. Mirroring has been shown to help create rapport with others, to help people solve disagreements with more ease, and can also foster empathy.
If you’re looking for more ways to create rapport with others, also read these 8 Conversation Hacks to Make People Like You.
5. Power Poses
Like the animals that puff up their chests to establish dominance, taking up space is a powerful display. Those that take up more space are associated with ratings of confidence, self-assurance, and generally of a higher social class.
The power pose, in which we take up space through a posture of confidence, alters our testosterone levels and cortisol.
Practicing a simple pose for 2 – 3 minutes a day has been shown to increase our feelings of power by boosting testosterone by as much as 20%, while those that feel defeated through low-power poses suffer a decrease.
The stress hormone cortisol decreases in those that simply look confident and increases in those with an unconfident body posture.
6. Eye Contact
There’s a power to eye contact. Staring into another’s eyes creates arousal — good or bad depending on circumstances. It also makes you better at interpreting fake from real smiles and could give away your lies.
A study conducted in 1989 found that if two acquainted people gazed into each other’s eyes for two minutes, that was enough to create higher feelings of affection and passion. Another study found that we become more self-aware under the gaze of anthers eye contact.
How to Read Body Language
As you can probably tell, body language can speak volumes about a person and is a valid form of communication. For this reason, you want to learn how to read each nonverbal cue and will find it a valuable skill to practice.
Start With the Eyes
Eye behavior can speak volumes. See if the person you are communicating with makes and maintains direct eye contact or if they look away. If someone cannot make direct eye contact, they may be bored, uninterested, or deceitful. Dilated pupils can also tell if someone favors you or not. However, pupil dilation is much harder to detect unless the right conditions exist.
Next, check their blinking rate. If they increase their blinking rate, the eye movement could signify they are lying, especially if they also touch their face. They may even glance at a door, meaning they are trying to find a way to leave the room and the conversation.
Some body language experts have also found that looking up and to the right can also be a sign of lying, while looking upward and to the left could mean that they are telling the truth. Looking up and to the right often may be a body language cue that means they are searching their imagination for a lie, while looking to the left typically means they are searching instead for a memory.
Move to the Face
Next, we are going to move to the person’s face. Many people can control their facial expressions, but it is important to understand a few nonverbal signals you will notice when paying close attention. Look at the mouth. A smile is a body language technique that can also prove to be a powerful gesture. It is an important nonverbal cue to watch for.
If someone is genuinely smiling, they will smile with their whole face. A fake smile typically only involves the mouth. A half smile could signify sarcasm or could mean the person is uncertain. A grimace can indicate they are dissatisfied with the conversation and are trying to hide this with a fake smile.
If they tighten and purse their lips, this could be their way of expressing displeasure, while a positive attitude would involve more of a relaxed smile.
Finally, if they cover their mouth when speaking, it could mean they are lying.
Another aspect of body language you want to learn to read has to do with the distance that is put between you and the person you are conversing with. How close do they stand to you?
If they are right next to you, it could mean they favor you. However, if they put distance between you or back up or move away when you try to get closer, this could mean that there may not be a mutually positive connection.
However, this can be harder to read since many people like to put a little distance between themselves and someone they are interacting with, so it can’t be considered an accurate indicator of someone’s dislike.
A good indicator of a person’s level of patience is the speed at which their head moves. If someone slowly nods, they may be interested in what you are saying, and the nod is to encourage you to continue talking.
However, if they nod fast, it may mean they are done listening and have heard enough. They may want their turn to speak. Head tilting is another sign of interest in the conversation, while tilting the head backward may show some suspicion in what is being said.
Look at the Feet
A lot of nonverbal cues come from the feet. They often use their feet when they are so focused on controlling their facial expressions and how they position their upper body. People typically point their feet in the direction they want to go. If they are pointed in your direction, it could mean they feel favorably toward you.
If they are engaged in conversation with you, but their feet are turned away, it could mean they would rather be talking to someone else, even if the position of their upper body tells a different story.
Hands also throw out nonverbal communication cues. Watch for hands in pockets and hand signals. People tend to point in the direction of those they favor. You will often see this hand signal in business communication, such as during meetings or in a group setting.
If the person holds up an object between you and them, this could indicate they are trying to set up a barrier between the two of you, or they want to block you out.
If sitting and holding their head in one hand with their elbow resting on the table, they may be listening to you but need to hold their head to stay focused. However, if they hold their heads in both hands, they may be disinterested and bored.
Finally, when learning how to read body language, you want to look into arm positions. If someone crosses their arm during an interaction, this body movement can sometimes be looked at as a defensive move or a blocking technique. It can also signify anxiety or vulnerability. If the crossed arms come with a genuine smile and a relaxed body posture, they may exert a more positive and confident attitude.
Hands on the hips can mean dominance and is a move often used by more men than women.
Why Body Language Is Important
Body language can assist us in understanding and decoding what a person is really saying. It helps interpret others’ moods and emotions and can enhance our conscious understanding of how people react to what we say and do.
Nonverbal behavior is an essential element of communication. Studies conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian show that 55% of communication is conveyed through facial expressions, gestures, and body posture. In the same respect, only 38% is conveyed through tone, and 7% comes from actual words and verbal communication.
We need to understand body language signs because positive body language can show how excited or committed someone is and exudes confidence, friendliness, and sincerity. In the workplace, positive body language shows you are a collaborative team player who knows how to communicate with others.
Negative Body Language
Poor stance, no direct eye contact, barriers, inappropriate spacing, sweating, frowning, rigidity, covering the mouth, touching or fixing hair, and the overuse of gestures are all examples of what negative body language looks like. Each of these gestures indicates a different feeling.
Psychology Today says that body language is a silent orchestra. People are constantly providing clues to what they are thinking and feeling. They also say that most nonverbal behavior does serve a purpose. Many nonverbal behavior cues are innate, but others can be considered self-soothing behaviors or freeze responses.
We are social animals and have evolved to display emotions, thoughts, and intentions. So, body language can reveal a person’s feelings just as well, if not more, than verbal communication and spoken language.
Making Use of the Loop
Body language has been around for longer than we have, and it’s a remarkably universal function. That being said, not everything we say with our bodies occurs between everyone.
Negative body language is also known as closed body language.
We should all be aware that different hand gestures can mean one thing where you live and something entirely different to another culture. There are also some striking differences between both men and women, particularly when one is trying to attract the other.
Even with the differences, we give away a great deal of information about our inner thoughts and feelings through our bodies, and we also interpret a great deal from the body language and human behavior of others.
This language, like spoken language, is not only between people. We speak to ourselves all the time, and so do our bodies. Body signals help shape our experiences, moods, and thoughts through embodied cognition.
It would appear that the way we feel emotions isn’t just restricted to our brain—there are parts of our bodies that help and reinforce the feelings we’re having, It’s like a feedback loop.Michael Lewis
This behavioral and cognitive loop defines much of what we do. The actions and expressions we engage in alter our thoughts, and these thoughts then create emotions that affect our bodies.
By learning to hack this loop, we can design the best thoughts and emotions for the situation, not to mention portray the right body language to those around us.
How does your body language differ from the words you say? And how might it be affecting your thoughts?