how to read body language signs and gestures – non-verbal communications
Our eyes are a very significant aspect of the non-verbal signals we send to others.
To a lesser or greater extent we all ‘read’ people’s eyes without knowing how or why, and this ability seems to be inborn.
Eyes – and especially our highly developed awareness of what we see in other people’s eyes – are incredible.
For example we know if we have eye contact with someone at an almost unbelievable distance. Far too far away to be able to see the detail of a person’s eyes – 30-40 metres away or more sometimes – we know when there is eye contact. This is an absolutely awesome capability when you think about it.
Incredibly also, we can see whether another person’s eyes are focused on us or not, and we can detect easily the differences between a ‘glazed over’ blank stare, a piercing look, a moistening eye long before tears come, and an awkward or secret glance.
We probably cannot describe these and many other eye signals, but we recognise them when we see them and we know what they mean.
When we additionally consider the eyelids, and the flexibility of the eyes to widen and close, and for the pupils to enlarge or contract, it becomes easier to understand how the eyes have developed such potency in human communications.
A note about eyes looking right and left..
(Left and right are for the person giving the signals and making the movements)
Eyes tend to look right when the brain is imagining or creating, and left when the brain is recalling or remembering. This relates to right and left sides of the brain – in this context broadly the parts of the brain handling creativity/feelings (right) and facts/memory (left). This is analysed in greater detail below, chiefly based on NLP theory developed in the 1960s. Under certain circumstances ‘creating’ can mean fabrication or lying, especially (but not always – beware), when the person is supposed to be recalling facts. Looking right when stating facts does not necessarily mean lying – it could for example mean that the person does not know the answer, and is talking hypothetically or speculating or guessing.
|signal||part of body||possible
|Left and right are for the person giving the signals and making the movements.|
|looking right (generally)||eyes||creating, fabricating, guessing, lying, storytelling||Creating here is basically making things up and saying them. Depending on context this can indicate lying, but in other circumstances, for example, storytelling to a child, this would be perfectly normal. Looking right and down indicates accessing feelings, which again can be a perfectly genuine response or not, depending on the context, and to an extent the person.|
|looking left (generally)||eyes||recalling, remembering, retrieving ‘facts’||Recalling and and then stating ‘facts’ from memory in appropriate context often equates to telling the truth. Whether the ‘facts’ (memories) are correct is another matter. Left downward looking indicates silent self-conversation or self-talk, typically in trying to arrive at a view or decision.|
|looking right and up||eyes||visual imagining, fabrication, lying||Related to imagination and creative (right-side) parts of the brain, this upwards right eye-movement can be a warning sign of fabrication if a person is supposed to be recalling and stating facts.|
|looking right sideways||eyes||imagining sounds||Sideways eye movements are believed to indicate imagining (right) or recalling (left) sounds, which can include for example a person imagining or fabricating what another person has said or could say.|
|looking right and down||eyes||accessing feelings||This is a creative signal but not a fabrication – it can signal that the person is self-questioning their feelings about something. Context particularly- and other signals – are important for interpreting more specific meaning about this signal.|
|looking left and up||eyes||recalling images truthfulness||Related to accessing memory in the brain, rather than creating or imagining. A reassuring sign if signalled when the person is recalling and stating facts.|
|looking left sideways||eyes||recalling or remembering sounds||Looking sideways suggests sounds; looking left suggests recalling or remembering – not fabricating or imagining. This therefore could indicate recalling what has been said by another person.|
|looking left down||eyes||self-talking, rationalizing||Thinking things through by self-talk – concerning an outward view, rather than the inward feelings view indicated by downward right looking.|
|direct eye contact (when speaking)||eyes||honesty – or faked honesty||Direct eye contact is generally regarded as a sign of truthfulness, however practised liars know this and will fake the signal.|
|direct eye contact (when listening)||eyes||attentiveness, interest, attraction||Eyes which stay focused on the speakers eyes, tend to indicate focused interested attention too, which is normally a sign of attraction to the person and/or the subject.|
|widening eyes||eyes||interest, appeal, invitation||Widening the eyes generally signals interest in something or someone, and often invites positive response. Widened eyes with raised eyebrows can otherwise be due to shock, but aside from this, widening eyes represents an opening and welcoming expression. In women especially widened eyes tend to increase attractiveness, which is believed by some body language experts to relate to the eye/face proportions of babies, and the associated signals of attraction and prompting urges to protect and offer love and care, etc.|
|rubbing eye or eyes||eyes||disbelief, upset, or tiredness||Rubbing eyes or one eye can indicate disbelief, as if checking the vision, or upset, in which the action relates to crying, or tiredness, which can be due boredom, not necessarily a need for sleep. If the signal is accompanied by a long pronounced blink, this tends to support the tiredness interpretation.|
|eye shrug||eyes||frustration||An upward roll of the eyes signals frustration or exasperation, as if looking to the heavens for help.|
|pupils dilated (enlarged)||eyes||attraction, desire||The pupil is the black centre of the eye which opens or closes to let in more or less light. Darkness causes pupils to dilate. So too, for some reason does seeing something appealing or attractive. The cause of the attraction depends on the situation. In the case of sexual attraction the effect can be mutual – dilated pupils tend to be more appealing sexually that contracted ones, perhaps because of an instinctive association with darkness, night-time, bedtime, etc., although the origins of this effect are unproven. Resist the temptation to imagine that everyone you see with dilated pupils is sexually attracted to you.|
|blinking frequently||eyes||excitement, pressure||Normal human blink rate is considered to be between six and twenty times a minute, depending on the expert. Significantly more than this is a sign of excitement or pressure. Blink rate can increase to up to a hundred times a minute. Blink rate is not a reliable sign of lying.|
|blinking infrequently||eyes||various||Infrequent blink rate can mean different things and so offers no single clue unless combined with other signals. An infrequent blink rate is probably due to boredom if the eyes are not focused, or can be the opposite – concentration – if accompanied with a strongly focused gaze. Infrequent blink rate can also be accompanied by signals of hostility or negativity, and is therefore not the most revealing of body language signals.|
|eyebrow raising (eyebrow ‘flash’)||eyes||greeting, recognition, acknowledgement||Quickly raising and lowering the eyebrows is called an ‘eyebrow flash’. It is a common signal of greeting and acknowledgement, and is perhaps genetically influenced since it is prevalent in monkeys (body language study does not sit entirely happily alongside creationism). Fear and surprise are also signalled by the eyebrow flash, in which case the eyebrows normally remain raised for longer, until the initial shock subsides.|
|winking||eyes||friendly acknowledgement, complicity (e.g., sharing a secret or joke)||Much fuss was made in May 2007 when George W Bush winked at the Queen. The fuss was made because a wink is quite an intimate signal, directed exclusively from one person to another, and is associated with male flirting. It is strange that a non-contact wink can carry more personal implications than a physical handshake, and in many situations more than a kiss on the cheek. A wink is given additional spice if accompanied by a click of the tongue. Not many people can carry it off. Additionally – and this was partly the sense in which Bush used it – a wink can signal a shared joke or secret.|
The mouth is associated with very many body language signals, which is not surprising given its functions – obviously speech, but also those connected with infant feeding, which connects psychologically through later life with feelings of security, love and sex.
The mouth can be touched or obscured by a person’s own hands or fingers, and is a tremendously flexible and expressive part of the body too, performing a central role in facial expressions.
The mouth also has more visible moving parts than other sensory organs, so there’s a lot more potential for variety of signalling.
Unlike the nose and ears, which are generally only brought into body language action by the hands or fingers, the mouth acts quite independently, another reason for it deserving separate detailed consideration.
Smiling is a big part of facial body language. As a general rule real smiles are symmetrical and produce creases around the eyes and mouth, whereas fake smiles, for whatever reason, tend to be mouth-only gestures.
|signal||part of body||possible
|pasted smile||mouth||faked smile||A pasted smile is one which appears quickly, is fixed for longer than a natural smile, and seems not to extend to the eyes. This typically indicates suppressed displeasure or forced agreement of some sort.|
|tight-lipped smile||mouth||secrecy or withheld feelings||Stretched across face in a straight line, teeth concealed. The smiler has a secret they are not going to share, possibly due to dislike or distrust. Can also be a rejection signal.|
|twisted smile||mouth||mixed feelings or sarcasm||Shows opposite emotions on each side of the face.|
|dropped-jaw smile||mouth||faked smile||More of a practised fake smile than an instinctive one. The jaw is dropped lower than in a natural smile, the act of which creates a smile.|
|smile – head tilted, looking up||mouth||playfulness, teasing, coy||Head tilted sideways and downwards so as to part hide the face, from which the smile is directed via the eyes at the intended target.|
|bottom lip jutting out||mouth||upset||Like rubbing eyes can be an adult version of crying, so jutting or pushing the bottom lip forward is a part of the crying face and impulse. Bear in mind that people cry for reasons of genuine upset, or to avert attack and seek sympathy or kind treatment.|
|laughter||mouth||relaxation||Laughter deserves a section in its own right because its such an interesting area. In terms of body language genuine laughter is a sign of relaxation and feeling at ease. Natural laughter can extend to all the upper body or whole body. The physiology of laughter is significant. Endorphins are released. Pain and stress reduces. Also vulnerabilities show and can become more visible because people’s guard drops when laughing.|
|forced laughter||mouth||nervousness, cooperation||Unnatural laughter is often a signal of nervousness or stress, as an effort to dispel tension or change the atmosphere. Artificial laughter is a signal of cooperation and a wish to maintain empathy.|
|biting lip||mouth||tension||One of many signals suggesting tension or stress, which can be due to high concentration, but more likely to be anxiousness.|
|teeth grinding||mouth||tension, suppression||Inwardly-directed ‘displacement’ (see body language glossary) sign, due to suppression of natural reaction due to fear or other suppressant.|
|chewing gum||mouth||tension, suppression||As above – an inwardly-directed ‘displacement’ sign, due to suppression of natural reaction. Otherwise however can simply be to freshen breath, or as a smoking replacement.|
|smoking||mouth||self-comforting||Smoking obviously becomes habitual and addictive, but aside from this people put things into their mouths because it’s comforting like thumb-sucking is to a child, in turn rooted in baby experiences of feeding and especially breastfeeding.|
|thumb-sucking||mouth||self-comforting||A self-comforting impulse in babies and children, substituting breast-feeding, which can persist as a habit into adulthood.|
|chewing pen or pencil||mouth||self-comforting||Like smoking and infant thumbsucking. The pen is the teat. Remember that next time you chew the end of your pen…|
|pursing lips||mouth||thoughtfulness, or upset||As if holding the words in the mouth until they are ready to be released. Can also indicate anxiousness or impatience at not being able to speak. Or quite differently can indicate upset, as if suppressing crying.|
|tongue poke||mouth / tongue||disapproval, rejection||The tongue extends briefly and slightly at the centre of the mouth as if tasting something nasty. The gesture may be extremely subtle. An extreme version may be accompanied by a wrinkling of the nose, and a squint of the eyes.|
|hand clamped over mouth||mouth / hands||suppression, holding back, shock||Often an unconscious gesture of self-regulation – stopping speech for reasons of shock, embarrassment, or for more tactical reasons. The gesture is reminiscent of the ‘speak no evil’ wise monkey. The action can be observed very clearly in young children when they witness something ‘unspeakably’ naughty or shocking. Extreme versions of the same effect would involve both hands.|
|nail biting||mouth / hands||frustration, suppression||Nail-biting is an inwardly-redirected aggression borne of fear, or some other suppression of behaviour. Later nail-biting becomes reinforced as a comforting habit, again typically prompted by frustration or fear. Stress in this context is an outcome. Stress doesn’t cause nail-biting; nail-biting is the outward demonstration of stress. The cause of the stress can be various things (stressors). See the stress article for more detail about stress.|
The head is very significant in body language.
The head tends to lead and determine general body direction, but it is also vital and vulnerable being where our brain is, so the head is used a lot in directional (likes and dislikes) body language, and in defensive (self-protection) body language too.
A person’s head, due to a very flexible neck structure, can turn, jut forward, withdraw, tilt sideways, forwards, backwards. All of these movements have meanings, which given some thought about other signals can be understood.
The head usually has hair, ears, eyes, nose, and a face, which has more complex and visible muscular effects than any other area of the body.
The face, our eyes and our hands, are the most powerful parts of our body in sending body language signals.
The head – when our hands interact with it – is therefore dynamic and busy in communicating all sorts of messages – consciously and unconsciously.
|signal||part of body||possible
|head nodding||head||agreement||Head nodding can occur when invited for a response, or voluntarily while listening. Nodding is confusingly and rather daftly also referred to as ‘head shaking up and down’. Head nodding when talking face-to-face one-to-one is easy to see, but do you always detect tiny head nods when addressing or observing a group?|
|slow head nodding||head||attentive listening||This can be a faked signal. As with all body language signals you must look for clusters of signals rather than relying on one alone. Look at the focus of eyes to check the validity of slow head nodding.|
|fast head nodding||head||hurry up, impatience||Vigorous head nodding signifies that the listener feels the speaker has made their point or taken sufficient time. Fast head nodding is rather like the ‘wind-up’ hand gesture given off-camera or off-stage by a producer to a performer, indicating ‘time’s up – get off’.|
|head held up||head||neutrality, alertness||High head position signifies attentive listening, usually with an open or undecided mind, or lack of bias.|
|head held high||head||superiority, fearlessness, arrogance||Especially if exhibited with jutting chin.|
|head tilted to one side||head||non-threatening, submissive, thoughtfulness||A signal of interest, and/or vulnerability, which in turn suggests a level of trust. Head tilting is thought by some to relate to ‘sizing up’ something, since tilting the head changes the perspective offered by the eyes, and a different view is seen of the other person or subject. Exposing the neck is also a sign of trust.|
|head forward, upright||head / body||interest, positive reaction||Head forward in the direction of a person or other subject indicates interest. The rule also applies to a forward leaning upper body, commonly sitting, but also standing, where the movement can be a distinct and significant advancement into a closer personal space zone of the other person. Head forward and upright is different to head tilted downward.|
|head tilted downward||head||criticism, admonishment||Head tilted downwards towards a person is commonly a signal of criticism or reprimand or disapproval, usually from a position of authority.|
|head shaking||head||disagreement||Sideways shaking of the head generally indicates disagreement, but can also signal feelings of disbelief, frustration or exasperation. Obvious of course, but often ignored or missed where the movement is small, especially in groups seemingly reacting in silent acceptance.|
|pronounced head shaking||head||strong disagreement||The strength of movement of the head usually relates to strength of feeling, and often to the force by which the head-shaker seeks to send this message to the receiver. This is an immensely powerful signal and is used intentionally by some people to dominate others.|
|head down (in response to a speaker or proposition)||head||negative, disinterested||Head down is generally a signal of rejection (of someone’s ideas etc), unless the head is down for a purpose like reading supporting notes, etc. Head down when responding to criticism is a signal of failure, vulnerability (hence seeking protection), or feeling ashamed.|
|head down (while performing an activity)||head||defeat, tiredness||Lowering the head is a sign of loss, defeat, shame, etc. Hence the expressions such as ‘don’t let your head drop’, and ‘don’t let your head go down’, especially in sports and competitive activities. Head down also tends to cause shoulders and upper back to to slump, increasing the signs of weakness at that moment.|
|chin up||head||pride, defiance, confidence||Very similar to the ‘head held high’ signal. Holding the chin up naturally alters the angle of the head backwards, exposing the neck, which is a signal of strength, resilience, pride, resistance, etc. A pronounced raised chin does other interesting things to the body too – it tends to lift the sternum (breast-bone), which draws in air, puffing out the chest, and it widens the shoulders. These combined effects make the person stand bigger. An exposed neck is also a sign of confidence. ‘Chin up’ is for these reasons a long-standing expression used to encourage someone to be brave.|
|active listening||head / face||attention, interest, attraction||When people are listening actively and responsively this shows in their facial expression and their head movements. The head and face are seen to respond fittingly and appropriately to what is being said by the speaker. Nodding is relevant to what is being said. Smiles and other expressions are relevant too. The head may tilt sideways. Mirroring of expressions may occur. Silences are used to absorb meaning. The eyes remain sharply focused on the eyes of the speaker, although at times might lower to look at the mouth, especially in male-female engagements.|
Arms act as defensive barriers when across the body, and conversely indicate feelings of openness and security when in open positions, especially combined with open palms.
Arms are quite reliable indicators of mood and feeling, especially when interpreted with other body language.
This provides a good opportunity to illustrate how signals combine to enable safer analysis.
- crossed arms = possibly defensive
- crossed arms + crossed legs = probably defensive
- crossed arms + crossed legs + frowning + clenched fists = definitely defensive, and probably hostile too.
While this might seem obvious written in simple language, it’s not always so clear if your attention is on other matters.
Body language is more than just knowing the theory – it’s being aware constantly of the signals people are giving.
|signal||part of body||possible
|crossed arms (folded arms)||arms||defensiveness, reluctance||Crossed arms represent a protective or separating barrier. This can be due to various causes, ranging from severe animosity or concern to mild boredom or being too tired to be interested and attentive. Crossed arms is a commonly exhibited signal by subordinates feeling threatened by bosses and figures of authority. N.B. People also cross arms when they are feeling cold, so be careful not to misread this signal.|
|crossed arms with clenched fists||arms||hostile defensiveness||Clenched fists reinforce stubbornness, aggression or the lack of empathy indicated by crossed arms.|
|gripping own upper arms||arms||insecurity||Gripping upper arms while folded is effectively self-hugging. Self-hugging is an attempt to reassure unhappy or unsafe feelings.|
|one arm across body clasping other arm by side (female)||arms||nervousness||Women use this gesture. Men tend not to. It’s a ‘barrier’ protective signal, and also self-hugging.|
|arms held behind body with hands clasped||arms||confidence, authority||As demonstrated by members of the royal family, armed forces officers, teachers, policemen, etc.|
|handbag held in front of body (female)||arms||nervousness||Another ‘barrier’ protective signal.|
|holding papers across chest (mainly male)||arms||nervousness||Another ‘barrier’ protective signal, especially when arm is across chest.|
|adjusting cuff, watchstrap, tie, etc., using an arm across the body||arms||nervousness||Another ‘barrier’ protective signal.|
|arms/hands covering genital region (male)||arms / hands||nervousness||Another ‘barrier’ protective signal.|
|holding a drink in front of body with both hands||arms / hands||nervousness||Another ‘barrier’ protective signal.|
|seated, holding drink on one side with hand from other side||arms / hands||nervousness||One arm rests on the table across the body, holding a drink (or pen, etc). Another ‘barrier’ protective signal.|
|touching or scratching shoulder using arm across body||arms / shoulder||nervousness||Another ‘barrier’ protective signal.|
Body language involving hands is extensive.
This is because hands are such expressive parts of the body, and because hands interact with other parts of the body.
Hands contain many more nerve connections (to the brain) than most if not all other body parts. They are extremely expressive and flexible tools, so it is natural for hands to be used a lot in signalling consciously – as with emphasizing gestures – or unconsciously – as in a wide range of unintentional movements which indicate otherwise hidden feelings and thoughts.
A nose or an ear by itself can do little to signal a feeling, but when a hand or finger is also involved then there is probably a signal of some sort.
Hands body language is used for various purposes, notably:
- emphasis, (pointing, jabbing, and chopping actions, etc)
- illustration (drawing, shaping, mimicking actions or sizing things in the air – this big/long/wide/etc., phoning actions, etc)
- specific conscious signals like the American OK, the thumbs-up, the Victory-sign, and for rude gestures, etc.
- greeting people and waving goodbye (which might be included in the above category)
- and more interestingly in unconscious ‘leakage’ signals including interaction with items like pens and cigarettes and other parts of the body, indicating feelings such as doubt, deceit, pressure, openness, expectation, etc.
Body language experts generally agree that hands send more signals than any part of the body except for the face. Studying hand body language therefore yields a lot of information; hence the hands section below is large.
There are many cultural body language differences in hand signals. The section below focuses on Western behaviour. Much applies elsewhere, but avoid assuming that it all does.
|signal||part of body||possible
|palm(s) up or open||hands||submissive, truthful, honesty, appealing||Said to evolve from when open upward palms showed no weapon was held. A common gesture with various meanings around a main theme of openness. Can also mean “I don’t have the answer,” or an appeal. In some situations this can indicate confidence (such as to enable openness), or trust/trustworthiness. An easily faked gesture to convey innocence. Outward open forearms or whole arms are more extreme versions of the signal.|
|palm(s) up, fingers pointing up||hands||defensive, instruction to stop||Relaxed hands are more likely to be defensive as if offered up in protection; rigid fingers indicates a more authoritative instruction or request to stop whatever behaviour is promoting the reaction.|
|palm(s) down||hands||authority, strength, dominance||Where the lower arm moves across the body with palm down this is generally defiance or firm disagreement.|
|palm up and moving up and down as if weighing||hands||striving for or seeking an answer||The hand is empty, but figuratively holds a problem or idea as if weighing it. The signal is one of ‘weighing’ possibilities.|
|hand(s) on heart (left side of chest)||hands||seeking to be believed||Although easy to fake, the underlying meaning is one of wanting to be believed, whether being truthful or not. Hand on heart can be proactive, as when a salesman tries to convince a buyer, or reactive, as when claiming innocence or shock. Whatever, the sender of this signal typically feels the need to emphasise their position as if mortally threatened, which is rarely the case.|
|finger pointing (at a person)||hands||aggression, threat, emphasis||Pointing at a person is very confrontational and dictatorial. Commonly adults do this to young people. Adult to adult it is generally unacceptable and tends to indicate a lack of social awareness or self-control aside from arrogance on the part of the finger pointer. The finger is thought to represent a gun, or pointed weapon. Strongly associated with anger, directed at another person. An exception to the generally aggressive meaning of finger pointing is the finger point and wink, below.|
|finger point and wink||hands/ eyes||acknowledgement or confirmation||The subtle use of a winked eye with a pointed finger changes the finger point into a different signal, that of acknowledging something, often a contribution or remark made by someone, in which case the finger and wink are directed at the person concerned, and can be a signal of positive appreciation, as if to say, “You got it,” or “You understand it, well done”.|
|finger pointing (in the air)||hands||emphasis||Pointing in the air is generally used to add emphasis, by a person feeling in authority or power.|
|finger wagging (side to side)||hands||warning, refusal||Rather like the waving of a pistol as a threat. Stop it/do as you are told, or else..|
|finger wagging (up and down)||hands||admonishment, emphasis||The action is like pressing a button on a keypad several times. Like when a computer or elevator won’t work, as if pressing the button lots of times will make any difference..|
|hand chop||hands||emphasis – especially the last word on a matter||The hand is used like a guillotine, as if to kill the discussion.|
|clenched fist(s)||hands||resistance, aggression, determination||One or two clenched fists can indicate different feelings – defensive, offensive, positive or negative, depending on context and other signals. Logically a clenched fist prepares the hand (and mind and body) for battle of one sort or another, but in isolation the signal is impossible to interpret more precisely than a basic feeling of resolve.|
|finger tips and thumbs touching each other on opposite hands (‘steepling’)||hands||thoughtfulness, looking for or explaining connections or engagement||Very brainy folk use this gesture since it reflects complex and/or elevated thinking. In this gesture only the fingertips touch – each finger with the corresponding digit of the other hand, pointing upwards like the rafters of a tall church roof. Fingers are spread and may be rigidly straight or relaxed and curved. Alternating the positions (pushing fingers together then relaxing again – like a spider doing press-ups on a mirror) enables the fascinating effect (nothing to do with body language), which after enough repetition can produce a sensation of having a greased sheet of glass between the fingers. Try it – it’s very strange. Very brainy people probably don’t do this because they have more important things to think about. It’s their loss.|
|steepled fingers pointing forward||hands||thoughtfulness and barrier||The upwards-pointing version tends to indicate high-minded or connective/complex thinking, however when this hand shape is directed forward it also acts as a defensive or distancing barrier between the thinker and other(s) present.|
|palms down moving up and down, fingers spread||hands||seeking or asking for calm, loss of control of a group or situation||Seen often in rowdy meetings the gesture is typically a few inches above the table top, but is also seen standing up. The action is one of suppressing or holding down a rising pressure. Teachers use this gesture when trying to quieten a class.|
|cracking knuckles||hands||comforting habit, attention-seeking||Usually male. Machismo or habit. Meaning depends on context. No-one knows still exactly how the noise is made, but the notion that the practice leads to arthritis is now generally thought to be nonsense.|
|interwoven clenched fingers||hands||frustration, negativity, anxiousness||Usually hands would be on a table or held across stomach or on lap.|
|index finger and thumb touching at tips||hands||satisfaction, ‘OK’||This is generally seen to be the ‘OK’ signal, similar to the ‘thumbs up’. The signal may be to oneself quietly, or more pronounced directed to others. There is also the sense of this suggesting something being ‘just right’ as if the finger and thumb are making a fine adjustment with a pinch of spice or a tiny turn of a control knob. The circle formed by the joined finger and thumb resembles the O from OK. The remaining three fingers are spread.|
|thumb(s) up||hands||positive approval, agreement, all well||In the Western world this signal is so commonly used and recognized it has become a language term in its own right: ‘thumbs up’ means approved. It’s a very positive signal. Two hands is a bigger statement of the same meaning.|
|thumbs down||hands||disapproval, failure||Logically the opposite of thumbs up. Rightly or wrongly the thumbs up and down signals are associated with the gladiatorial contests of the ancient Roman arenas in which the presiding dignitary would signal the fate of the losing contestants.|
|thumb(s) clenched inside fist(s)||hands||self-comforting, frustration, insecurity||As with other signals involving holding or stroking a part of one’s own body this tends to indicate self-comforting. Also thumbs are potent and flexible tools, so disabling them logically reduces a person’s readiness for action.|
|hand held horizontally and rocked from side to side||hands||undecided, in the balance||Signalling that a decision or outcome, normally finely balanced and difficult to predict or control, could go one way or another.|
|rubbing hands together||hands||anticipation, relish||A signal – often a conscious gesture – of positive expectation, and often related to material or financial reward, or an enjoyable activity and outcome.|
|hand(s) clamped over mouth||hands / mouth||suppression, shock||See mouth/hand clamp entry in mouth section, which is a subject in its own right.|
|touching nose, while speaking||hands / nose||lying or exaggeration||This is said to hide the reddening of the nose caused by increased blood flow. Can also indicate mild embellishment or fabrication. The children’s story about Pinocchio (the wooden puppet boy whose nose grew when he told lies) reflects long-standing associations between the nose and telling lies.|
|scratching nose, while speaking||hands / nose||lying or exaggeration||Nose-scratching while speaking is a warning sign, unless the person genuinely has an itchy nose. Often exhibited when recounting an event or incident.|
|pinching or rubbing nose, while listening||hands / nose||thoughtfulness, suppressing comment||In many cases this is an unconscious signalling of holding back or delaying a response or opinion. Pinching the nose physically obstructs breathing and speech, especially if the mouth is covered at the same time. Rather like the more obvious hand-clamp over the mouth, people displaying this gesture probably have something to say but are choosing not to say it yet.|
|picking nose||hands / nose||day-dreaming, inattentive, socially disconnected, stress||Nose picking is actually extremely common among adults but does not aid career development or social acceptance and is therefore normally a private affair. When observed, nose-picking can signify various states of mind, none particularly positive.|
|pinching bridge of nose||hands / nose||negative evaluation||Usually accompanied with a long single blink.|
|hands clamped on ears||hands / ears||rejection of or resistance to something||Not surprisingly gestures involving hands covering the ears signify a reluctance to listen and/or to agree with what is being said or to the situation as a whole. The gesture is occasionally seen by a person doing the talking, in which case it tends to indicate that other views and opinions are not wanted or will be ignored.|
|ear tugging||hands / ears||indecision, self-comforting||People fiddle with their own bodies in various ways when seeking comfort, but ear-pulling or tugging given suitable supporting signs can instead indicate indecision and related pondering.|
|hands clasping head||hands / head||calamity||Hands clasping head is like a protective helmet against some disaster or problem.|
|hand stroking chin||hands / chin||thoughtfulness||The stroking of a beard is a similar signal, although rare among women.|
|hand supporting chin or side of face||hands / chin, face||evaluation, tiredness or boredom||Usually the forearm is vertical from the supporting elbow on a table. People who display this signal are commonly assessing or evaluating next actions, options, or reactions to something or someone. If the resting is heavier and more prolonged, and the gaze is unfocused or averted, then tiredness or boredom is a more likely cause. A lighter resting contact is more likely to be evaluation, as is lightly resting the chin on the knuckles.|
|chin resting on thumb, index finger pointing up against face||hands / chin||evaluation||This is a more reliable signal of evaluation than the above full-hand support. Normally the supporting elbow will be on a table or surface. The middle finger commonly rests horizontally between chin and lower lip.|
|neck scratching||hands / neck||doubt, disbelief||Perhaps evolved from a feeling of distrust and instinct to protect the vulnerable neck area. Who knows – whatever, the signal is generally due to doubting or distrusting what is being said.|
|hand clasping wrist||hands / wrist||frustration||Clasping a wrist, which may be behind the back or in open view, can be a signal of frustration, as if holding oneself back.|
|running hands through hair||hair / hair||flirting, or vexation, exasperation||Take your pick – running hands through the hair is commonly associated with flirting, and sometimes it is, although given different supporting signals, running hands through the hair can indicate exasperation or upset.|
|hand(s) on hip(s)||hands / arms||confidence, readiness, availability||The person is emphasizing their presence and readiness for action. Observable in various situations, notably sport, and less pronounced poses in social and work situations. In social and flirting context it is said that the hands are drawing attention to the genital area.|
|hands in pockets||hands / arms||disinterest, boredom||The obvious signal is one of inaction, and not being ready for action. Those who stand with hands in pockets – in situations where there is an expectation for people to be enthusiastic and ready for action – demonstrate apathy and lack of interest for the situation.|
|removing spectacles||hands / spectacles||alerting wish to speak||For people who wear reading-only spectacles, this is an example of an announcement or alerting gesture, where a person readies themselves to speak and attracts attention to the fact. Other alerting signals include raising the hand, taking a breath, moving upwards and forwards in their seat, etc.|
|playing an imaginary violin||hands / arms||mock sympathy or sadness||The ‘air violin’ has been around a lot longer than the ‘air guitar’, and is based on the traditional use of violin music as a theme or background for sad scenes in movies and in music generally. The ‘air violin’ is not typically included in body language guides; it’s here as an amusing gesture which demonstrates our conscious practice and recognition of certain signals.|
|thumb and fingers formed into a tube and rocked side to side or up and down (mainly male)||hands||offensive – mockery, dissatisfaction, expression of inferior quality||A conscious signal, usually one-handed. Insulting gesture if directed at a person, typically male to male, since it mimics masturbation, like calling a person a ‘tosser’ or a ‘wanker’ (UK) or a jerk-off (US). This is obviously rude and not used in respectable company such as the queen or a group of clergymen. The gesture is also used as a response to something regarded as poor quality, which might be a performance or piece of work or a comment on a product of some sort. The allusion is to masturbation being a poor substitute for sex with a woman, and that those who masturbate are not ‘real men’. Unsurprisingly the gesture is mainly male, directed at other males, especially in tribal-like gatherings. Rare female use of this gesture directed at males can be very effective due to its humiliating value. For obvious reasons the gesture is unlikely to be used by females or males directed at females.|
|two-fingered V-sign, palm inward (mainly male)||hands / fingers||offensive – derision, contempt||A consciously offensive and aggressive gesture, also called ‘flicking the Vs’, widely but probably incorrectly thought to derive from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt in the Hundred Years War when the tactically pivotal Welsh longbowmen supposedly derided the beaten French soldiers’ and their threats to cut off the bowmen’s fingers.|
|two-fingered V-sign, palm outward||hands fingers||victory, peace||British 2nd World War leader Winston Churchill popularised the victory usage, although apparently, significantly if so, first used the palm inwards version until he was told what it meant to the working classes.|
Firmness of handshake is not the reliable indicator of firmness of character that many believe it to be. Firm handshakes tend to be those of confident people, especially those who have spent some time in business, and who realise that most people in business consider a firm handshake to be a good thing. Handshakes that are uncomfortably firm show a lack of respect or awareness, especially if used in cultures (Eastern especially) where firm handshaking is not normal.
Handshaking evolved from ancient times as an initial gesture of trust, to show that no weapon was being held. Naturally also the handshake offers the most obvious way to connect physically as a way to signal trust or friendship. In more recent times, especially from the 1800s onwards, a handshake became the way to confirm a commercial transaction. Handshaking by women became common practice much later, reflecting the change of social attitudes and the increasing equality of women, for whom a hundred years back such physical contact was considered improper. Women have throughout time generally been subservient to men, hence the very subservient female curtsey gesture (also spelled curtsy), which survives now only in traditional situations such as meeting royalty, or ending a stage performance.
|signal||part of body||possible
|handshake – palm down||handshake||dominance||Usually a firm handshake, the ‘upper hand’ tends to impose and/or create a dominant impression.|
|handshake – palm up||handshake||submission, accommodating||Usually not a strong handshake, the lower hand has submitted to the upper hand dominance. How all this ultimately translates into the subsequent relationship and outcomes can depend on more significant factors than the handshake.|
|handshake – both hands||handshake||seeking to convey trustworthiness and honesty, seeking to control||Whether genuine or not, this handshake is unduly physical and (often) uncomfortably domineering.|
|handshake – equal and vertical||handshake||non-threatening, relaxed||Most handshakes are like this, when neither person seeks to control or to yield.|
|pumping handshake||handshake||enthusiasm||A vigorous pumping handshake tends to indicate energy and enthusiasm of the shaker towards the other person, the meeting, situation or project, etc). There is a sense of attempting to transfer energy and enthusiasm, literally, from the vigorous handshaker to the shaken person, hence the behaviour is popular in motivational folk and evangelists, etc.|
|weak handshake||handshake||various||Avoid the common view that a weak handshake is the sign of a weak or submissive person. It is not. Weak handshakes can be due to various aspects of personality, mood, etc. People who use their hands in their profession, for example, musicians, artists, surgeons, etc., can have quite gentle sensitive handshakes. Strong but passive people can have gentle handshakes. Old people can have weak handshakes. A weak handshake might be due to arthritis. Young people unaccustomed to handshaking can have weak handshakes. It’s potentially a very misleading signal.|
|firm handshake||handshake||outward confidence||Avoid the common view that a firm handshake is the sign of a strong solid person. It is not. Firm handshakes are a sign of outward confidence, which could mask deceit or a weak bullying nature, or indicate a strong solid person. Strength of a handshake is not by itself an indicator of positive ‘good’ mood or personality, and caution is required in reading this signal. It is widely misinterpreted.|
|handshake with arm clasp||handshake||seeking control, paternalism||When a handshake is accompanied by the left hand clasping the other person’s right arm this indicates a wish to control or a feeling of care, which can be due to arrogance. To many this represents an unwanted invasion of personal space, since touching ‘permission’ is for the handshake only.|
Legs and feet body language is more difficult to control consciously or fake than some body language of arms and hands and face. Legs and feet can therefore provide good clues to feelings and moods, if you know the signs.
Men and women sit differently, which needs to be considered when reading leg body language. Partly due to clothing and partly due to sexual differences, men naturally exhibit more open leg positions than women, which should be allowed for when interpreting signals. Certain open-leg male positions are not especially significant in men, but would be notable in women, especially combined with a short skirt.
Older women tend to adopt more modest closed leg positions than younger women, due to upbringing, social trends, equality and clothing. Again take account of these influences when evaluating signals.
Also consider that when people sit for half-an-hour or more they tend to change their leg positions, which can include leg crossing purely for comfort reasons. Again allow for this when interpreting signals.
Leg signals tend to be supported by corresponding arms signals, for example crossed arms and crossed legs, which aside from comfort reasons generally indicate detachment, disinterest, rejection or insecurity, etc.
N.B. Where the terms ‘leg crossing’ and ‘crossed legs’ are used alone, this refers to the legs being crossed at both knees. The ‘American’ or ‘Figure-4’ leg cross entails the supporting leg being crossed just above the knee by the ankle or lower calf of the crossing leg. This makes a figure-4 shape, hence the name. The posture is also called the American leg cross because of its supposed popularity in the US compared to the UK, notably among males.
|signal||part of body||possible
|leg direction, sitting – general||legs/knees||interest, attentiveness (according to direction)||Generally a seated person directs their knee or knees towards the point of interest. The converse is true also – legs tend to point away from something or someone which is uninteresting or threatening. The rule applies with crossed legs also, where the upper knee indicates interest or disinterest according to where it points. The more direct and obvious the position, the keener the attraction or repellent feeling.|
|uncrossed legs, sitting – general||legs||openness||In sitting positions, open uncrossed leg positions generally indicate an open attitude, contrasting with with crossed legs, which normally indicate a closed attitude or a degree of caution or uncertainty.|
|parallel legs together, sitting (mainly female)||legs||properness||This unusual in men, especially if the knees point an angle other than straight ahead. The posture was common in women due to upbringing and clothing and indicates a sense of properness.|
|crossed legs, sitting – general||legs||caution, disinterest||Crossed legs tend to indicate a degree of caution or disinterest, which can be due to various reasons, ranging from feeling threatened, to mildly insecure.|
|crossing legs, sitting – specific change||legs||interest or disinterest in direction of upper crossed knee||Generally the upper crossed leg and knee will point according to the person’s interest. If the knee points towards a person then it signifies interest in or enthusiasm for that person; if it points away from a person it signifies disinterest in or a perceived threat from that person. Signs are more indicative when people first sit down and adopt initial positions in relation to others present. Signs become less reliable when people have been sitting for half-an-hour or so, when leg crossing can change more for comfort than body language reasons.|
|American or figure-4 leg cross||legs||independent, stubborn||The ‘American’ or ‘figure-4’ leg cross is a far more confident posture than the conventional ‘both knees’ leg cross. It exposes the genital region, and typically causes the upper body to lean back. The crossed leg is nevertheless a protective barrier, and so this posture is regarded as more stubborn than the ‘both knees’ leg cross.|
|American or figure-4 leg cross with hand clamp||legs / arm / hand||resistant, stubborn||This is a more protective and stubborn version of the plain American leg cross, in which (usually) the opposite hand to the crossing leg clamps and holds the ankle of the crossing leg, effectively producing a locked position, which reflects the mood of the person.|
|open legs, sitting (mainly male)||legs||arrogance, combative, sexual posturing||This is a confident dominant posture. Happily extreme male open-crotch posing is rarely exhibited in polite or formal situations since the signal is mainly sexual. This is a clear exception to the leg/knee point rule since the pointing is being done by the crotch, whose target might be a single person or a wider audience. Not a gesture popularly used by women, especially in formal situations and not in a skirt. Regardless of gender this posture is also combative because it requires space and makes the person look bigger. The impression of confidence is increased when arms are also in a wide or open position.|
|ankle lock, sitting||legs||defensiveness||Knees may be apart (among men predominantly) or together (more natural in women). There is also a suggestion of suppressing negative emotion.|
|splayed legs, standing||legs||aggression, ready for action||Splayed, that is wide-parted legs create (usually unconsciously) a firm base from which to defend or attack, and also make the body look wider. Hands on hips support the interpretation.|
|standing ‘at attention’||legs / body||respectful||Standing upright, legs straight, together and parallel, body quite upright, shoulders back, arms by sides – this is like the military ‘at attention’ posture and is often a signal of respect or subservience adopted when addressed by someone in authority.|
|legs intertwined, sitting (female)||legs||insecurity or sexual posing||Also called ‘leg twine’, this is a tightly crossed leg, twined or wrapped around the supporting leg. Depending on the circumstances the leg twine can either be a sign of retreat and protection, or a sexual display of leg shapeliness, since a tight leg-cross tends to emphasise muscle and tone. Assessing additional body language is crucial for interpreting such signals of potentially very different meanings.|
|legs crossed, standing (scissor stance)||legs||insecurity or submission or engagement||Typically observed in groups of standing people at parties or other gatherings, defensive signals such as crossed legs and arms among the less confident group members is often reinforced by a physical and audible lack of involvement and connection with more lively sections of the group. Where legs are crossed and arms are not, this can indicate a submissive or committed agreement to stand and engage, so the standing leg cross relays potentially quite different things.|
|knee buckle, standing||legs / knees||under pressure||Obviously a pronounced knee buckle is effectively a collapse due to severe stress or actually carrying a heavy weight, and similarly a less obvious knee bend while standing can indicate the anticipation of an uncomfortable burden or responsibility.|
|feet or foot direction or pointing||feet||foot direction indicates direction of interest||Like knees, feet tend to point towards the focus of interest – or away from something or someone if it is not of interest. Foot direction or pointing in this context is a subtle aspect of posture – this is not using the foot to point at something; it is merely the direction of the feet when sitting or standing in relation to people close by.|
|foot forward, standing||feet||directed towards dominant group member||The signal is interesting among groups, when it can indicate perceptions of leadership or dominance, i.e., the forward foot points at the leader or strongest member of the group.|
|shoe-play (female)||feet||relaxation, flirting, sexual||A woman would usually be relaxed to display this signal. In certain situations dangling a shoe from the foot, and more so slipping the foot in and out of the shoe has sexual overtones.|
The technical term for the personal space aspect of body language is proxemics. The word was devised by Edward Twitchell Hall (b.1914), an American anthropologist and writer on body language and non-verbal communications, especially relating to cross-cultural understanding. His 1963 book, Proxemics, A Study of Man’s Spacial Relationship, no doubt helped popularize the new word. Here is Edward Twitchell Hall’s website – he’s an interesting character, and one of the founding fathers of modern body language theory. His other books are listed in the body language references section below. Robert Ardrey is cited by Julius Fast as another significant expert and writer in personal space.
Proxemics – personal space – is defined as (the study of) the amount of space that people find comfortable between themselves and others.
Personal space dimensions depend notably on the individual, cultural and living background, the situation, and relationships, however some general parameters apply to most people, which for Western societies, are shown below.
There are five distinct space zones, which were originally identified by Edward T Hall, and which remain the basis of personal space analysis today. The first zone is sometimes shown as a single zone comprising two sub-zones.
|1. Close intimate||0-15cm
|lovers, and physical touching relationships||Sometimes included with the 2nd zone below, this is a markedly different zone in certain situations, for example face-to-face contact with close friends rarely encroaches within 6 inches, but commonly does with a lover.|
|physical touching relationships||Usually reserved for intimate relationships and close friendships, but also applies during consenting close activities such as contact sports, and crowded places such as parties, bars, concerts, public transport, queues and entertainment and sports spectating events. Non-consenting intrusion into this space is normally felt to be uncomfortable at best, or very threatening and upsetting at worst. Within the intimate zone a person’s senses of smell and touch (being touched) become especially exercised.|
|family and close friends||Touching is possible in this zone, but intimacy is off-limits. Hence touching other than hand-shaking is potentially uncomfortable.|
|4. Social- consultative||1.2-3.6m
|non-touch interaction, social, business||Significantly hand-shaking is only possible within this zone only if both people reach out to do it. Touching is not possible unless both people reach to do it.|
|no interaction, ignoring||People establish this zonal space when they seek to avoid interaction with others nearby. When this space is intruded by another person is creates a discomfort or an expectation of interaction.|
When body language and speech characteristics are mirrored or synchronized between people this tends to assist the process of creating and keeping rapport (a mutual feeling of empathy, understanding, trust).
The term synchronized is arguably a more accurate technical term because mirroring implies visual signals only, when the principles of matching body language extend to audible signals also – notably speech pace, pitch, tone, etc.
‘Mirrored’ or synchronized body language between two people encourages feelings of trust and rapport because it generates unconscious feelings of affirmation.
When another person displays similar body language to our own, this makes us react unconsciously to feel, “This person is like me and agrees with the way I am. I like this person because we are similar, and he/she likes me too.”
The converse effect applies. When two people’s body language signals are different – i.e., not synchronized – they feel less like each other, and the engagement is less comfortable. Each person senses a conflict arising from the mismatching of signals – the two people are not affirming each other; instead the mismatched signals translate into unconscious feelings of discord, discomfort or even rejection. The unconscious mind thinks, “This person is not like me; he/she is different to me, I am not being affirmed, therefore I feel defensive.”
Advocates and users of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) use mirroring consciously, as a method of ‘getting in tune’ with another person, and with a little practice are able to first match and then actually and gently to alter the signals – and supposedly thereby the feelings and attitudes – of other people, using mirroring techniques.
Speech pace or speed is an example. When you are speaking with someone, first match their pace of speaking, then gently change your pace – slower or faster – and see if the other person follows you. Often they will do.
People, mostly being peaceful cooperative souls, commonly quite naturally match each other’s body language. To do otherwise can sometimes feel uncomfortable, even though we rarely think consciously about it.
When another person leans forward towards us at a table, we often mirror and do likewise. When they lean back and relax, we do the same.
Sales people and other professional communicators are widely taught to mirror all sorts of more subtle signals, as a means of creating trust and rapport with the other person, and to influence attitudes.
Mirroring in this conscious sense is not simply copying or mimicking. Mirroring is effective when movements and gestures are reflected in a similar way so that the effect remains unconscious and subtle. Obvious copying would be regarded as strange or insulting.
Lots of unnecessary friction is created in work and communications situations due to ignorance and lack of thought about seating positions.
The ‘science’ of where people sit in relation to each other, and on what and around what, is fascinating and offers opportunities for improving relationships, communications, cooperation and understanding.
Here are some guidelines.
These points are generally for the purpose of a leader or someone aspiring to lead, or coach, counsel, etc. They also relate to one-to-one situations like appraisals, interviews, etc.
Sitting opposite someone creates a feeling of confrontation. For one-to-one meetings, especially with emotional potential (appraisals for example) take care to arrange seating before the meeting to avoid opposite-facing positions. If you cannot arrange the seating give very deliberate thought to seating positions before you sit down and/or before you invite the other person to sit – don’t just let it happen because commonly, strangely, people often end up sitting opposite if free to do so.
Consider the rules about personal space. Do not place chairs so close together that personal space will be invaded. Conversely sitting too far apart will prevent building feelings of trust and private/personal discussion.
Sitting opposite someone across a table or desk adds a barrier to the confrontational set-up and can create a tension even when the relationship is good and strong. It’s easy to forget this and to find yourself sitting opposite someone when there are only two of you at the table. Sitting opposite across a table is okay for lovers gazing into each other’s eyes, but not good for work, counselling, coaching, etc.
Sitting behind a work-desk (the boss behind his/her own desk especially) and having someone (especially a subordinate) sit in a less expensive lower chair across the desk emphasises authority of the boss and adds unhelpfully to the barrier and the confrontational set-up. This seating arrangement will increase the defensiveness of anyone already feeling insecure or inferior. This positioning is favoured by certain bosses seeking to reinforce their power, but it is not helpful in most modern work situations, and is not a good way to increase respectful natural authority anyway. Incidentally the expression ‘on the carpet’ – meaning being told off or ‘bollocked’ – derives from the extreme form of this positional strategy, when the victim, called into the office would stand to receive their bollocking on the carpet in front of the boss who sat high and mighty behind his desk. (The boss would typically be male, and beaten/abused/neglected as a child, but that’s another story.)
Sitting at a diagonal angle of about 45 degrees to another person is a comfortable and cooperative arrangement. This is achieved naturally by both sitting around the same corner of a square table, which also enables papers to be seen together without too much twisting.
The same angle is appropriate for and easy-chairs around a coffee-table. A table ceases to become a barrier when people are sitting at a diagonal angle, instead it becomes a common work surface for studying papers, or exploring issues together.
Sitting side by side on a settee is not a good arrangement for working relationships. It threatens personal space, and obstructs communications.
Low settees and easy-chairs and low coffee tables cause people to sink and relax back are usually unhelpful for work meetings. For this reason much seating in hotel lounges is entirely unsuitable for work meetings. People naturally are more alert and focused using higher formal table and chairs.
Interviews and appraisals can benefit from relaxed or more formal seating depending on the situation. Importantly – make a conscious choice about furniture depending on the tone of the meeting, and how relaxed you want the meeting to be.
The 45-degree rule is approximate, and anyway under most circumstances seating angles are influenced by furniture and available space. Importantly, simply try to avoid opposite or side-by-side positions. An angle between these two extremes is best – somewhere in the range of 30-60 degrees if you want to be technical about it.
Round tables are better than square or oblong tables for group and team meetings. Obviously this works well because no-one is at the head of the table, which promotes a feeling of equality and teamwork. King Arthur – or the creator of the legend (King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) – opted for a round table for this reason. The term ’round table’ has come to symbolise teamwork and fairness, etc., for a long time. Unfortunately round tables aren’t common in offices, which means thinking carefully about best seating arrangements for square or oblong tables.
A confident leader will be happy to avoid taking the ‘head of the table’ position, instead to sit among the team, especially if there are particular reasons for creating a cooperative atmosphere.
Conversely it is perfectly normal for a leader to take the ‘head of the table’ if firmness is required in chairing or mediating, etc. It is usually easier to chair a meeting from the head of the table position.
Theory suggests that when a group sits around a table the person sitting on the leader’s right will generally be the most loyal and aligned to the leader’s thinking and wishes. A (likely) mythical origin is said to be that in Roman times a leader would place their most loyal supporter to their right because this was the most advantageous position from which to attempt an assassination by stabbing (given that most people then as now were right-handed). Assassination by stabbing is rare in modern work meetings, so positioning an opponent on your right side (instead of allowing the normal opposite positioning to happen) can be a useful tactic since this indicates confidence and strength.
In large gatherings of 20-30 people or more, a ‘top table’ is often appropriate for the leader and guest speakers. While this seems like a throwback to more autocratic times, it is perfectly workable. Groups of people above a certain size are far more likely to expect firm direction/leadership, if not in making decisions, certainly to keep order and ensure smooth running of proceedings. Therefore seating arrangements for large groups should provide a clear position of control for the chairperson or event leaders.
Here are some brief pointers concerning body language variations and gestures in cultures which differ from Western (US/UK notably) behaviour.
I welcome refinements and additions to this section. Please send any you can contribute.
People in/from parts of India may to shake their head from side to side as a sign of agreement and active listening. In the UK/west we tend to nod our head to agree and affirm and to show we are listening; in India it is not unusual for people to move their heads from side to side in giving these reactions. It is also seen as respectful practice. (Thanks S Churchill. Incidentally on this point, sideways head-shaking of this sort is not a vigorous twisting movement; it is usually more of a sideways tilting of the head from one side to the other.)
This point (thanks R Fox) concerns eye contact. Eye contact (other than unwanted staring) is generally regarded as a positive aspect of body language in Western cultures, which in this context typically refers to white European people and descendents. A specific difference regarding eye contact can be found in some black Caribbean cultures however, whereby young people tend to be instructed not look at someone eye to eye when being told off or disciplined. When cultures meet obviously this provides potential for friction, given the ‘Western’ expectation in such situations, for example, “Look at me when I’m talking to you”.
Filipino people (and in fact many other people of all races) can find it offensive/uncomfortable when beckoned by a repeatedly curled index finger – the gesture evokes feelings of having done something wrong and being chastised for it.
In some Australian Aboriginal cultures, it is disrespectful to look an elder, or person of a rank above you, in the eyes. It is a sign of respect to drop your eyes, (whereas in Western culture not meeting somebody’s gaze is commonly considered to be a negative sign, indicating deceit, lying, lack of attention, lack of confidence, etc).
In Arab countries the thumbs-up gesture is rude. Showing the soles of the feet is insulting/rude in many Asian and Arab cultures, especially pointing the foot or feet at anyone. Feet are considered ‘inferior’ parts of the body compared with the dignity of the face. In Arab culture the left hand and right hands have religious connotations which generally dictate that the left hand is not used for touching (for example shaking hands) or eating. Arab handshaking tends to be more frequent and less firm – on meeting and departing, even several times in the same day.
The eyebrow flash may be considered rude or to carry sexual connotations in Japanese culture. Informal male-female touching is less common and can be considered improper in Japan.
The American-style ‘OK’ sign – a circle made with thumb and index-finger with other fingers fanned or outstretched – is a rude gesture in some cultures, notably Latin America, Germany and the Middle East.
Beckoning gestures in Eastern cultures are commonly made with the palm down, whereas Western beckoning is generally palm up.
The offensive British/Western two-fingered V-sign is not necessarily offensive in Japan and may be considered positive like the Western palm-outwards ‘victory’ or ‘peace’ V-sign in the West.
In some countries, Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria for example, moving the head up/down or from side to side may have additional or different meanings to those conventionally interpreted in the UK/US. Specifically, in Turkey, aside from using conventional (US/UK-style) head nodding and shaking, some people may also signal ‘no’ by moving their head up. (This is a refinement of previous details about head movements in body language, and I welcome more information especially from people overseas as to precise variations to US/UK conventional meanings in signally yes and no, and anything else, with head movements.)
In Japan the male bow is still commonly used, when the depth of the bow increases with the amount of respect shown, and is therefore a signal of relative status between two people.
In The Netherlands people touch the temple with the index finger in order to indicate someone (or an action) is smart or intelligent. Touching the forehead with the index finger means someone (or an action) is stupid or crazy. In Russia these meanings are reversed.
- High-pitched laughter means nervousness.
- On introduction, do not offer a handshake. Depth of bow is impossible to judge without immense experience: it is sufficient for a Westerner to bow shallowly.
- Business cards should be exchanged at the first possible opportunity. The card received should be held in both hands and examined carefully, and then stored, preferably in a wallet, on the upper half of the body. Holding a person’s identity in one hand is casual/disrespectful. The trouser pocket is a rude place.
- Blowing one’s nose into a handkerchief in public is obscene. (What other bodily waste do you wrap up in cotton and put in your pocket?..)
- Japanese businesses (unless they cannot afford it) have two types of meeting room: a Western style room with central table, and a room with sofas. The sofa room is for non-antagonistic meetings. In general, the 45 degree rule seems to apply here – better to sit on adjacent sides than across from one another. This room can be a great place to cut deals. Nevertheless, the ‘table’ room is where transactions are formalised. There the host of the meeting sits nearest to (and preferably with his back to) the door. (This is probably chivalric in origin – he is first in the way of any invader to the room.) His team sits on the same side of the table in descending rank. The chief guest sits opposite him and similarly the minions decline to the side. The head of the table is not generally used in bilateral (two parties) meetings except by people brought in to advise on components of the agenda. A great boss may spend much of the meeting with his eyes closed. He is considering what is being said by the subordinates and does not need visual distraction. However, if he has a firm steer to give, he will instruct his deputy and this will be relayed immediately.
- Loss of eye contact is quite normal with lower ranking people: if they drop their head, this indicates deep thought.
- Otherwise, pure body signals are quite similar to Western ones, with one notable exception: touching the tip of the nose from straight ahead signals ‘I/me’.
- The Japanese language does have a word for ‘no’ but it is rarely used in business for fear of causing offence or loss of face. “Yes, but…” is substantially more acceptable.
I welcome refinements and additions for body language in other cultures. Please send any you can contribute.
(Thanks to D Ofek, G van Duin, L Campbell, F Suzara, M Baniasadi, S Aydogmus, DD, and particularly to R Wilkes for the Japanese section.)
Many signals in flirting, dating and mating body language are covered in the general translation signals above, and the fundamental principles of social/work body language also apply to the development or blocking of sexual relationships.
Of course lots of flirting, and more, goes on at work, but for the purposes of this article it’s easier to keep the two situations separate.
There are some differences which can completely change the nature of a signal given in a sexual context. Sitting opposite someone is an example, which is confrontational at work, but is often intimate and enabling for sexual and romantic relationships: full constant eye-to-eye contact is helpful for intimacy, as is full frontal facing between male and female for obvious reasons.
Personal space must also be considered in a different way in social-sexual situations compared to work and non-sexual situations: At work, the primary consideration is given to respecting the personal zones and not invading closer than the situation warrants. In a sexual flirting context however, personal space becomes the arena for ritual and play, and within reason is more of a game than a set of fixed limits.
Dancing is further example of how body language operates at a different level in sexual-social situations. Different tolerances and tacit (implied) permissions apply. It’s a ritual and a game which humans have played for thousands of years.
Dancing relates strongly to the attention stage of the dating/mating/courtship process. In many ways courtship echoes the selling and advertising model AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action). This is also known as the Hierarchy of Effects, since steps must be successfully completed in order to achieve the sale at the end. For example, nothing happens without first attracting attention, a point commonly ignored by people looking for a mate. The attention stage is even more critical in crowded and highly competitive environments such as nightclubs and dating websites.
And while not technically part of body language, environment is a vital aspect of dating and mating. The environment in which the dating activity is pursued equates to market/audience-targeting in business. People seeking a mate are effectively marketing themselves. Commonly people head to where everyone else goes – to nightclubs and dating websites – but crucially these environments are highly unsuitable markets for many people, for instance those not good at dancing, and those not good at writing and communicating online. Just as a business needs to find the best markets and ways of reaching its target audience, so in dating people can seek environments where they can best display their strengths and where relevant ‘buyers’ will be.
Knowing about flirting body language becomes more useful in a favourable environment.
female indications of interest in a male
Females have very many more ways of attracting attention to themselves than males, and so are able to express interest and availability in far more ways than males tend to do.
Female interest in males is relatively selective. Male interest in females is by comparison constant and indiscriminate.
This is due fundamentally to human mating behaviour, evolved over many thousands of years, in which essentially women control the chase and the choice, and men respond primarily to female availability and permissions. These differences in behaviour perhaps mainly exist because females produce one viable egg per month, about 500 in a lifetime, whereas males make several hundred sperm every day. Do the math, as they say.
As with interpreting body language generally, beware of concluding anything based on a single signal. Clusters of signals are more reliable. Foot pointing, knee pointing, and leg-crossing signals can all be due simply to comfort, rather than expressions of interest or sexual appeal.
Aside from the specific flirting and sexual attraction signs below, females also express interest using the general signalling explained in the earlier sections, e.g., prolonged direct eye contact, active responsive listening, attentive open alert postures and body positions, etc.
Here are the most common female flirting body language signals and meanings, according to experts on the subject:
eye contact – anything more than a glance indicates initial interest.
eye catch and look away – establishing eye contact then looking away or down is said by many experts to be the standard initial signal of interest designed to hook male reaction. The reliability of the signal meaning is strengthened when repeated and/or reinforced with longer eye-contact.
eye-widening – interest, simultaneously increasing attractiveness/appeal.
eyelash flicker – subtle movement of eyelashes to widen eyes briefly.
pupil dilating – interest, liking what is seen, arousal.
looking sideways up – lowering head, slightly sideways, and looking up – also known as doe-eyes, with eyelashes normally slightly lowered – displays interest and vulnerability/coyness, most famously employed by Diana Princess of Wales, notably in her interview with Martin Bashir in battle for public sympathy following her split with Prince Charles.
shoulder glance – looking sideways towards the target over the shoulder signals availability, and hence interest.
smiling – obvious sign of welcoming and friendliness.
moistening lips – lips are significant in signalling because (psychologists say) they mimic the female labia, hence the potency of red lipstick (suggesting increased blood flow) and moistening/licking the lips.
parted lips – significant and potent attraction signal.
preening – especially of hair, which exposes the soft underarm.
flicking hair – often combined with a slight tossing movement of the head.
canting (tilting) head – also exposes neck.
showing inner wrist or forearm – a soft vulnerable area and erogenous zone.
straightening posture – standing taller, chest out, stomach in – a natural response to feeling the urge to appear more appealing.
self-touching – drawing attention to sexually appealing parts of the body; neck, hair, cleavage, thigh, etc. – additionally self-touching is said to represent transference/imagining of being touched – and of course demonstration of what it would be like for the target to do the touching; teasing in other words.
self thigh-stroking – usually while sitting down – same as self-touching.
standing opposite – normally a confrontational positioning, but in flirting allows direct eye contact and optimizes engagement. Refer also to personal space rules: less than 4ft between people is personal; less than 18 inches is intimate and only sustainable when there is some mutual interest and attraction, especially when direct facing and not in a crowded environment. N.B. Crowded environments distort the personal space rules, where implied permissions (e.g., for public transport and dense crowds or queues) override normal interpretations.
leaning forward – sitting or standing; leaning forwards towards a person indicates interest and attraction.
foot pointing – direction can indicate person of interest.
knee-pointing – as foot pointing.
leg twine – a tight-leg cross ‘aimed’ (combined with eye contact) at a target, or when sitting one-to-one, increases sexual allure since it emphasises leg shape and tone. When employed flirtatiously, female leg crossing and uncrossing also has obvious sexual connotations and stimulates basic urges in males.
shoe-dangling – positive signal of relaxation or of greater promise, especially if the foot thrusts in and out of the shoe.
pouting – pouting involves tightening the lips together; the tongue rises to the roof of the mouth as if ready to swallow. Pouting displays various emotions, not always a sexual one, for example projection of the lower lip indicates upset. An attraction pout looks more like the initial forming of a kiss.
picking fluff – removing fluff, hair, etc., from the target’s clothes is playing in the intimate personal space zone, in which the fluff picking is merely a pretext or excuse.
fondling cylindrical objects – phallic transference, for instance using pens, a dangling earring, a wine glass stem, etc.
mirroring – mirroring or synchronizing gestures and positions is a signal of interest and attraction. See mirroring.
When considering body language in such detail, remember that males and females rely greatly on conversation and verbal communication to determine mutual attraction as soon as the situation allows. Body language in flirting can be significant in indicating a strong match, but just as easily can merely be an initial filtering stage which progresses no further because other (infinitely variable) personal or situational criteria on either or both sides are not met.
Also bear in mind that a lot of flirting happens for fun with no intention of proceeding to sexual or romantic attachment.
The purpose of this page is chiefly to explain body language signals, not to explain human relationships.
male interest in females
As stated earlier there are reasons for the relative sparseness of male signals compared to female flirting signals.
Most men are interested perpetually in most women, and therefore male signals are generally designed to attract the attention of any females, rather than directed at one female in particular.
Male interest is basically always switched on and ready to respond to opportunity when female availability and interest are signalled and noticed.
Men believe they take the lead, but actually mostly women do.
Male signals of interest in females essentially follow normal body language rules, for example widening eyes, dilated pupils, forward leaning, prolonged direct eye contact, active listening reactions, and these come into play once eye contact and/or proximity is established.
The most prevalent signals males use to announce their availability and attract female attention are summarised below. Under many circumstances these might be categorised under the headings ‘pathetic’ or ‘amusing’. The male of the species, despite a couple of million years of evolution, has yet to develop much subtle body language in this area.
posturing – erect stance, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in.
wide stance – legs apart (standing or sitting) – to increase size.
cowboy stance – thumbs in belt loops, fingers pointing to genital area.
hands in pockets – thumbs out and pointing to genitals.
‘chest-thumping’ – a metaphor describing various male antics designed to draw attention to themselves, often involving play-punching or wresting other males, laughing too loudly, head-tossing, acting the fool, etc.
room scanning – males who are available and looking for females tend to scan the room, partly to look for available females, but also to indicate they are available themselves.
dress – clothing: style, fit, cleanliness, etc – is all an extension of personality and is therefore part of body language.
preening and grooming – adjusting clothes, ties, cuffs, sleeves, tugging at trouser crotch, running hands through or over hair, etc.
smell – certain smells are attractive to females but it’s a complex and highly personal area yet to be understood well. Answers on a postcard please.
tattoos – here’s an interesting one, commonly ignored in conventional body language flirting guides. Tattoos have dramatically altered in society’s perceptions in the past generation. Previously considered indicative of lower class, lower intellect, sailors, soldiers, builders, etc., nowadays they are everywhere on everyone. Tattoos have been a significant part of human customs for thousands of years. They are decorative, and also (in evolutionary terms) suggested strength and machismo, since the process of obtaining them was painful and even life-threatening. Certain females are attracted by tattoos on men, especially extensive markings. It’s a drastic step to improve one’s love life, but worthy of note, because the subject is not as simple and negative as traditionally regarded. Tattoos are significant attention-grabbers, and given the variety of subjects featured, also provide interesting talking points.
body piercings – again more complex than traditionally considered, piercings do attract attention and signify the wearer to be different.
dancing – dancing, in a suitable place of course, has for thousands of years been an opportunity for males and females to display their physical and sexual potential. With the exception perhaps of pogo-ing and head-banging most dance styles replicate sexual movements – lots of rhythmic hip and leg work, contorted facial expressions, sweating and occasional grunting, etc. For those blessed with a level of coordination dancing offers an effective way of attracting attention, especially in crowded competitive situations. For the less rhythmic, the lesson is to find a different environment.
stages of courtship
The initial stages of a (usually) male-female sexual relationship are commonly represented as quite a structured process, summarised below.
Incidentally courtship traditionally refers to the early stages of a male-female relationship leading up to sex, babies, marriage and family life, (followed for many by mutual tolerance/indifference/loathing and acrimonious break-up). Flirting is a common modern term for the early stages of courtship, or the beginnings of extra-marital affairs, which is misleading since most flirting happens for fun and rarely progresses beyond non-sexual touching.
If considering flirting/courtship body language in the context of dating and mating, it’s useful to recall the selling and advertising model AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), and especially that nothing happens without first attracting attention.
Significantly, women are said generally make the first move – by signalling interest through establishing eye contact, and then confusingly for men, looking away.
The process can disintegrate at any moment, often before it begins, because most men are too interested in themselves or the bloody football on the pub telly to notice the eye contact.
Where the process reaches past the first stage, here broadly is how it is said by body language experts to unfold:
- Eye contact (females typically lower or avert their eyes once firm contact is made).
- Returned eye contact (by male).
- Mutual smiling.
- Preening, grooming, posturing (male and female).
- Moving together as regards personal space (male typically walks to female).
- Attentive active listening (or simulation of this, sufficient mutually to retain sense of mutual interest).
- Synchronizing/mirroring each other’s body language.
- Touching (more significantly by the female; subtle touching can happen earlier, and at this stage can become more intimate and daring).
A generation ago this process took a little longer than it does today. Alcohol accelerates things even more.
You’ll see variations of the above sequence in body language books, and no doubt in real life too.
Males tend to react to obvious signs of availability shown by females but miss many subtle signals.
Females give lots of subtle signals, tend not to repeat them too often, and infer lack of interest in a male failing to respond.
It’s a wonder that anyone gets together at all.
The fact that most people do confirms that courtship is more complex than we readily understand.
Although now rare in Western society bowing and curtseying are interesting because they illustrate the status and relationship aspects of body language, which are so significant in one-to-one situations.
Bowing – Bowing is mainly a male gesture. Bending the upper body downwards towards another person or group is a signal of appreciation or subservience. The bow was in olden times a standard way for men to greet or acknowledge another person of perceived or officially higher status. The bow is also a gesture of appreciation and thanks which survives in entertainment and performance. Male bowing traditionally varied from a modest nod of the head, to a very much more pronounced bend of the body from the hips. Depth of bend reflects depth of respect or appreciation. For added dramatic effect the feet may be moved tightly together. A very traditional Western bow involves a deeper bend combined with the (normally) right-leg pushing backwards or ‘scraping’ on the ground, hence the expression ‘bowing and scraping’. The effect can be augmented by the bower’s hand pressing horizontally on the stomach, and the other arm extended, or sweeping extravagantly in a circular motion, made all the more dramatic if combined with removing a hat. Such behaviour is rare outside of Christmas pantomimes these days, however interestingly even in modern times you will see men slightly nodding their heads in an involuntary ‘semi-bow’ when meeting a person and wishing to show respect or admiration. As such, the small nod or bow of a head can be a clue to perceived seniority in relationships. Bowing has long been more significant and complex in Eastern cultures, where the gesture carries a similar deferential meaning, albeit it within more formal protocols and traditions. The fundamental body language of bowing is rooted in showing subservience by lowering one’s gaze and body, literally putting the bower at a lower level than the other person. Bowing remains significant in Japanese culture.
Curtsey/curtsy – The curtsey is the female equivalent of the male bow, and in their most extreme versions curtseying and bowing gestures are quite similar. A curtsey is a bend of the knees, combined with a slight bow of the head, and sometimes a lifting of the skirt or dress at each side, at knee-height, by both hands. This skirt-lift dates from olden times when this prevented a long skirt from touching wet or muddy ground. The female curtsey gesture survives in traditional situations such as meeting royalty, or ending a stage or dance performance, in which you might see an older more flamboyant and deeper curtsey entailing one knee bending sideways and the other leg bending behind. Curtseying has effectively now been replaced by handshaking, although as with male bowing it is possible sometimes to see small head bows by women when meeting and shaking hands with someone regarded as superior or important.
Bowing and curtseying as conscious intentional gestures have effectively disappeared from Western behaviour, but importantly people’s body language continues to give much smaller unconscious signals which can be linked to these old formal gestures and their meanings.
This is not an exhaustive collection of body language terminology – just a summary of the main and most interesting definitions.
absorbed actions – actions stimulated through unconscious mirroring.
active listening – listening very attentively and empathizing and reflecting back understanding through body language and usually words too.
adaptors – small signals given when anxious or when behaving in a way that does not comfortably match the feelings, for example lip-biting or face-touching, which are self-comforting signals.
alerting/announcement gestures – indicating need to speak, for example raising a hand, or taking a breath and lifting the shoulders.
american leg cross – the ‘American’ or ‘Figure-4’ leg cross entails the supporting leg being crossed just above the knee by the ankle or lower calf of the crossing leg. This makes a figure-4 shape, hence the name. The posture is called the American leg cross because of its supposed popularity in the US compared to the UK, notably among males.
anthropology – the study of humankind in all respects – especially culturally, socially and in evolutionary terms, and how these key aspects inter-relate. The word anthropology is from Greek anthropos meaning human being. Anthropology, like psychology and ethnology and ethology, is a science which over-arches the study of body language, and provides useful (and for serious students, essential) context for understanding the reasons and purposes of body language. Anthropology has been studied one way or another for thousands of years and became established under that name in the 1500s. The Human Genome project, which basically mapped the human genetic code (started 1990, completed in 2003, and ongoing) is probably the largest anthropological study ever performed.
asymmetric/asymmetry – describing gestures or facial expressions, especially a smile, that are not symmetrical (equal on both sides), which tends to indicate incongruence or a mixed signal and not what it might initially seem to mean.
auto-contact – describing self-touching gestures and actions.
autonomic/automatic signals – effectively involuntary stress-induced physiological behaviours, such as crying, shaking, blushing, quickened pulse-rate, and in extreme cases retching, vomiting, fainting, etc. Involuntary in the sense that it is virtually impossible to control these signals because they are controlled by the very basic part of the brain responsible for our most basic bodily functions. Breathing rate is perhaps the exception, which while in many cases will speed as a physiological response to stress, can often be controlled and slowed or deepened given suitable conscious effort.
back-channel signals – positive body language reactions to a speaker.
baton signals – gestures which reinforce the rhythm of speech.
barrier – describing signals in which the hands or arms or a table, or adjusting clothing, etc., form a defence or obstruction between two people, such a folded arms.
buttress stance – weight bearing leg is straight, while the front leg is forward, usually with the foot pointing outwards from the body. Regarded as a signal of reluctance or readiness to depart.
cluster – term for a group of body language signals, which more reliably indicate meaning or mood than a single signal.
cognitive dissonance – conflicting understanding or feelings – cognition is understanding things through thought; dissonance is disharmony or conflict. This is a widely used term in psychology and the effect arises very commonly in relationships and communications. Conflicting body language signals can sometimes indicate this attitude or reaction in a person.
compliance – submissive behaviour, hence compliance signals or signs, which indicate this.
courtship – an old term for (typically) male-female relations from initial meeting through to going-out relationship stage. Courtship in olden times (broadly since the middle ages up until the mid-late 1900s) referred to quite formal steps of increasing familiarity between male and female, through to intimacy, perhaps with a little touching of hands or kissing, and lots of going out for walks and visits to the cinema or theatre, etc. Sex might not rear its scary head for weeks, months or years; and sometimes, especially if the female was from an elite or religiously obsessed family, not until the wedding night. Nowadays ‘courtship’ is a much speedier affair and among modern young people can be started, fully consummated and effectively forgotten in a matter of minutes.
denial – signals of denial effectively undo or contradict more conscious typically false or manufactured body language, thereby betraying true feeling or motive.
displacement – a stress signal typically prompted by suppression of natural reaction due to fear or other inhibition, for example biting fingernails, picking at finger(s) or thumb.
distraction – signalling prompted by stress, usually quite inappropriate to the needs of the situation, for example stretching and relaxing, or pausing to take a drink when an emergency arises.
emotional intelligence – also known as EQ, Emotional Intelligence is based on ‘feeling intelligence’ (rather than IQ – Intelligence Quotient – based on logical intelligence), and the capability to understand and communicate with others very empathically, which requires awareness of emotional behaviour and ability to deal with people sensitively. See Emotional Intelligence.
emphatic/emphasizing gestures – gestures which reinforce the meaning of spoken words, e.g., jabbing fingers, weighing hands.
erogenous zone – any part of the human body particularly sensitive to touching and sexual arousal – the word erogenous first appeared in the late 1800s which suggests when the effect was first analysed and recorded in any serious sense. The word erogenous derives from Eros, the Greek god of love (Cupid is Roman), from which the word erotic also derives. Erogenous zones contain high concentration of nerve endings and are significant in flirting and sex. Aside from the obvious genital areas and bottoms and breasts, erogenous zones include necks, inner side of arms and wrists, armpits and lips. Incidentally the G in G-spot is named after Ernst Grafenberg (1881-1957) a German-born gynaecological doctor and scientist who as well as being an expert on the female orgasm, was first to invent and commercially market a IUD (intrauterine device or coil) for female birth control.
ethnology – the study of different ethnic people and their differences and relationships. Ethnology is a branch of anthropology, concerned with ethnic effects, and where this involves behaviour it certainly relates to body language. The word ethnology is derived from Greek ethnos meaning nation. The establishment of the science and word ethnology is credited to Slovakian/Austrian Adam Franz Kollar (1718-1783), a nobleman, professor and librarian who became a Court Councilor for the Habsburg Monarchy of the Kingdom of Hungary, as it once was. The modern study and awareness of ethnology is arguably hampered by sensitivities around racism. Ethnic differences between people obviously exist, and ironically where over-sensitivity to racism and equality obstructs debate, society’s understanding of these issues remains clouded and confused.
ethology – ethology is primarily the science of animal behaviour, but increasingly extends to human behaviour and social organization. The word ethology first appeared in English in the late 1800s, derived from the Greek word ethos meaning character or disposition. Ethology became properly established during the early 1900s. Austrian zoologist and 1973 Nobel Prizewinner Konrad Lorenz (1903-89) was a founding figure. Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, is an ethologist. So is the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Where ethology considers animal evolution and communications, it relates strongly to human body language. Charles Darwin’s work pioneered much ethological thinking.
eye flash – a sudden direct glance to attract attention or warn, usually followed by some other more specific signal.
eyebrow flash – quickly raising and lowering both eyebrows – typically in greetings, recognition, acknowledgement, or surprise. An eyebrow flash can therefore also be a signal of positive interest.
eye shrug – upwards eye-roll signalling frustration.
face frame – framing the face with the hands to hold or attract listeners’ attention.
haptics – the study of human touch, from the Greek word haptikos, meaning able to touch. The word haptics in this sense entered the English language in the 1800s, which indicates when human touch began to be a serious area of study.
hybrid expression – a term apparently originated by Charles Darwin, it refers to a facial expression which combines two seemingly different or opposing meanings, for example a smile with a head-turn away from the person the smile is meant for. Hybrid expressions provide further emphasis of the need to avoid reading single signals. Combinations of signals and context are necessary, especially to make sense of hybrid expressions which contain different meanings.
illustrative gesture – gestures which shape or describe the physical dimensions of something by using the hands in the air.
index finger – first finger of the hand – usually the most dominant and dexterous finger, hence used mostly in pointing gestures.
kine – an obscure term describing a single body language signal (devised by body language expert Dr Ray Birdwhistell, c.1952, from the longer term kinesics).
kinesics – the technical term for body language. Kinesics is pronounced ‘kineesicks’ with stress on the ‘ee’). The word kinesics was first used in English in this sense in the 1950s, from the Greek word kinesis, meaning motion.
labial tractors – a wonderful term for the muscles around the mouth. The word labial in phonetics means closure or part closure of the mouth, and additionally refers to the resulting vowel sounds produced, like w, oo, etc.
leakage – leakage signals are the small signs which are most difficult to control or mask, and which therefore offer clues even when someone is generally in good control of their outgoing body language signals.
mask/masking – using body language, usually intentionally, to deceive others as to true feelings or motives.
metronome/metronomic signals – these are any rhythmic tappings or movements which indicate a readiness or self-prompting to speak or take action- a termed devised by body language expert Judi James.
micro-gestures – tiny body language ‘leakage’ signals, often unconsciously sent and interpreted, more likely to be seen and reacted to unconsciously rather than consciously, unless concentrating determinedly.
mime/miming gestures – gestures used consciously to convey a specific message, such as extending the thumb and little finger by the ear to say “Phone me,” or wiping imaginary sweat from the brow to express relief after a crisis subsides.
mirroring – the synchronizing or matching of body language (and speech characteristics), usually between two people, which helps build feelings of trust and empathy. Mirroring works like this because similar signals produce unconscious feelings of affirmation. When a person’s signals are mirrored the unconscious mind thinks, “This person is like me and agrees with the way I am. I like this person because we are similar, and he/she likes me too.” See NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), and Empathy. Pacing refers to the mirroring of someone’s speed of movements.
NLP/Neuro-linguistic programming – a branch of psychology developed in the 1960s which combines language, body movement and thought to optimise self-control and development, and relationships and communications with others. NLP research has fuelled much of the analytical aspects of modern popular body language, notably mirroring and eye movements.
palm – inside surface of the hand – significant in body language because an open palm has for thousands of years indicated that no weapon is concealed, which survives as perhaps a genetically inherited signal of peace, cooperation, submissiveness, etc.
phallus/phallic – phallus means penis, from the ancient Greek word phallos of the same meaning. Phallic refers to something which looks like or represents a penis, often called a phallic symbol. Phallic symbols are prevalent in psychology and aspects of flirting or sexual body language. The female equivalent term is a yonic symbol, from yoni, Hindu for vulva and a symbolic circular stone representing divine procreation. Yoni was originally an old Sanskrit word, meaning source or womb.
physiognomy – an obscure yet related concept to body language. Physiognomy refers to facial features and expressions which indicate the person’s character or nature, or ethnic origin. The word physiognomy is derived from medieval Latin, and earlier Greek (phusiognominia), meaning (the art or capability of) judging a person’s nature from his/her facial features and expressions.
physiology – the branch of biology concerned with how living organisms function, notably parts of the human body.
physiological signals – body language produced by the unconscious basic brain which controls bodily functions, which in body language can be signals such as sweating, blushing, breathlessness, yawning, weeping, feeling faint, nauseous, repulsion, etc.
primary emotions – first identified by Charles Darwin, typically represented as happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, surprise, and linked to universal facial expressions and recognition.
proxemics – the technical term for the personal space aspect of body language. The word and much of the fundamental theory was devised by Edward Twitchell Hall, an American anthropologist in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The word is Hall’s adaptation of the word proximity, meaning closeness or nearness.
pseudo-infantile gestures – gestures of childlike vulnerability, often made to avert attack, attract sympathy, or to induce feelings of compassion, attention, etc.
pupil – the round black centre of the eye which enlarges or contracts to let more or less light into the eye. The pupil generally enlarges (dilates) in the dark, and contracts in brightness. Enlarged pupils are also associated with desire and allure. Enlarged pupils are not a symptom of smoking drugs as commonly believed. This is probably a confusion arising from the fact that conditions are relatively dark when such judgements are made.
rictus – a fixed grimace, usually resulting from shock or nervousness. From Latin word meaning ‘open mouth’.
scissor stance – standing leg cross. Various meanings very dependant on context and other signals.
self-motivating gestures – gestures signalling attempting to increase mental work-rate or activity, like tapping the head repeatedly or making circular motions with the hands, as if winding the body up.
show – (noun) – a ‘show’ is term recently adopted by body language commentators referring to a body language signal. The term is slang really, not technical. For terminology to become casually ‘hip’ in this way reflects the mainstream appeal of body language as a subject.
steepling – forming the fingers into a a pointed roof shape, often signalling elevated thinking or arrogance.
submission/submissive – describing body language which signals inferiority feelings towards another person. May be conscious and formal as in bowing, or unconscious as in slightly lowering the head and stance.
synchronizing – a technical term equating to mirroring or matching of body language between two people. Synchronizing is technically more appropriate since it naturally includes audible signals (voice pace and pitch, etc), whereas the mirroring term normally makes people think of visual signals only. The principles of synchronized body language definitely include audible signals in addition to physical visual signs. See mirroring.
tell – (noun) – a ‘tell’ – a slang term similar to ‘a show’ recently adopted by body language commentators which means a signal.
tie signs/signals – signals between lovers or intimate couples which discreetly convey messages to each other and which are not usually intended for anyone else.
Some of the older books listed here have since been republished by different publishers.
Willhelm Wundt, The Language of Gestures, 1921
Charles Darwin, The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872, Murray
Edward Twitchell Hall, The Silent Language, 1959, Doubleday
E T Hall, Proxemics – A Study of Man’s Spatial Relationship, 1963, International Universities Press
E T Hall, The Hidden Dimension, 1966, Doubleday
J S Bruner and R Taquiri, The Perception of People, 1954, Handbook of Social Psychology, Addison Wesley
Robert Ardrey, The Territorial Imperative, 1966, Dell
Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape, 1967, Cape
Julius Fast, Body Language, 1971, Pan
D Hartland and C Tosh, Guide to Body Language, 2001, Caxton
P Ekman, E R Sorenson and W V Friesen, Pan-Cultural Elements in Facial Displays of Emotion, Science Vol 164, No 3875, 4 Apr 1969
C Boyes, Need to Know Body Language, 2005, Harper Collins
E Kuhnke, Body Language for Dummies, 2007, Wiley
Judi James, The Body Language Bible, 2008, Random House
Other significant and founding body language writers include:
Tinbergen, N; Watchtel, P L; Schlefen, A E; Ortega Y Gasset, J; Carpenter, C R; Cherry, C; Dittman, Parloff & Boomer; Frank, L K; Goffman, E; Kinzell, A F; Mehrabian & Wiener; Nielsen, G; Lorenz, K; Mahl, G F.
The author Roger E Axtell writes entertainingly and informatively about international body language and behaviours.
This section is not particularly scientific. It’s more for interest and to make a general point:
Body language and the spoken words themselves do not provide all the clues, there are others.
Other audible signals (apart from the words themselves) also give lots of clues about feeling, mood, motive and personality.
Words themselves convey their own meaning, which is another subject, not least when we think about vocabulary, grammar, word-choice, etc. But what about all the other noises and silences from people’s mouths?
Other audible signals which are not generally regarded as part of body language or non-verbal communications include for example:
- pitch (the contant musical note of the voice)
- pace (speed or rate of talking)
- volume – from whispering to shouting
- volume variation (how volume changes in phrases or longer passages of speech)
- intonation and ‘musicality’ (how the pitch changes according to what is being said)
- timbre (quality or sound of the voice, and how this changes)
- emphasis (of syllables, words or phrases)
- projection (where the voice is being projected to – for example lots of projection, as if talking to a big group, or none, as if mumbling)
- pauses, silences and hesitation
- ‘erm’s and ‘erh’s
- gasps, tuts, and other intakes and exhalations of breath
- habits, such as “I think…,” “You know…,” “Like…,”
- laughing and giggling (which can be interspersed within speech, or separate signals, such as nervous laughter)
and all sorts of other audible/vocal effects, including:
- accents and dialects
- accent affectations (‘received’ or conditioned, false or exaggerated – permanent or temporary, for example social climbers, and ordinary people who have a ‘telephone voice’, or a voice for talking to authority figures)
- mistakes (spoonerisms, malapropisms, mispronunciation)
- drying up, being lost for words, stuttering (as distinct from a stammer)
- overtalking (feeling the need to fill a silence)
- holding back (someone has something to say but isn’t saying it)
- coughs and grunts (some types of coughing suggest something other than a tickly throat)
- belching and burping
- tongue clicking, teeth-sucking, raspberries, etc
Technically these signals are not body language or non-verbal communications, but all of these sounds (and silences) are quite different from the spoken words, and they can all convey more and/or different meaning compared to the spoken words themselves.
All of this audible signalling happens for a purpose. We might not easily know what the purpose is, but being aware of it is the start of being able to understand it better, in others, and possibly also in ourselves.
Commonly the more noticeable unnecessary signals are embellishments or defensiveness – a kind of showing-off or protection.
Other aspects can be more subtle indicators of social background or aspiration, and thereby of relationship and attitude towards other people.
These other audible signals represent a big and complex area which seems yet to have been researched and analysed to the extent that body language has. Also cultural differences are potentially influential, which hinders translation and specific interpretation.
Despite this, initially simply being aware of these signals will begin to shape an appreciation of their significance, and in many cases their underlying meanings.
Johari enthusiasts might enjoy seeking feedback and asking others about what their own signals mean, that is if you/they are aware of the behaviours.
Certain principles of graphology (handwriting analysis) are helpful in understanding how people use words and language in a wider sense. The style and nature of our written and vocal expressions inevitably provide a reflection of our feelings and personality.