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body language factsWhat do we say with our hands, our posture, or our faces? What are the basics of nonverbal communication? These body language facts can help you interpret the ways in which people are communicating without saying a word. Unlocking the secrets of body language is a talent you can learn. You will learn more about what others are telling you, and you will realize what image you are projecting yourself. Whether it’s showing confidence or detecting lies, knowing more about body language is useful.

You can become better at reading the emotional states of others based on their physicality. You will be able to interpret their body language and understand what they are not actually saying in words. Is this person stressed? Is this person romantically interested in me? Is this person lying to me?

Psychological researcher and professor Albert Mehrabian says that when someone is communicating with you – especially when they are not being wholly honest – that 55% of his or her communication is from body language. 38% of his or her communication is based on the tone of voice. And just a measly 7% is the actual words that are being said!

Mehrabian wrote in his book, Nonverbal Communication, that “When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred.”

That is to say, when someone’s lying to you, check out the body language! The words spoken might literally say “I’m not mad at you!” but that person’s closed off body language and scowling countenance might tell you a different story. People tend to believe what the non-verbal communication is saying and ignore the words, Mehrabian concluded.

Learning to read body language for relationships is also a great skill for you to learn. You will be better able to gauge someone’s interest in you, if you are looking for love. From the inviting gaze of eyes with dilated pupils, to the crossed arms of someone who’s not interested, you can find someone to be with. And you will become better at communicating and being honest with your partner, if you are in a relationship already, as you learn to tell when someone is angry, sad, or happy to see you.

Knowing body language facts can also help your business career. You want to put forth the most confident and persuasive body language that you can in a business scenario. Being trustworthy and persuasive is a key strategy for sales. Appearing confident and calm is important when you are making a presentation. Knowing how you appear to others through body language will help you put forth your best self. Researcher Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School has conducted studies that find simply enacting powerful and confident postures can lead to hormonal results that actually boost your aggressiveness and confidence. Nonverbal communication may be even more powerful than we realize.

The Head

Let’s start at the top! What does a person’s hair tell you about his or her inner state? Perhaps your hair is sleek and well styled, which tells us that you are a careful and conscientious person who cares about appearances. A carefully smoothed and tightly wound bun shows that you are controlled and meticulous. Or maybe your wild and untamed locks tell us you’re an iconoclastic individual who does not care about looks – like Einstein – or maybe you are stressed and too distracted to bother with hair – like a new parent who has had too little sleep. Whatever your coiffure, it is sending out signals to those around you.

Facial Expressions

The human face is wildly expressive. We communicate so much with our eyes and our mouths, from stern furrowed brows to broad beaming smiles. Even people born blind make facial expressions that match up to emotions, showing that this is an innate genetic method of expression and not a behavior that is learned by modeling after visual examples.

For instance, one psychological study examined the facial expressions of seeing and blind athletes after a win or loss. The smiles of victory and the grimaces of defeat were the same for all the athletes, regardless of an ability to see.

Psychologist Paul Ekman studied human facial expression across cultures, and found that some emotional responses – like those for anger, happiness, disgust, sadness, fear, and surprise – are universally understood across different societies. Ekman concluded that the human face can register thousands of different expressions.

Anger, for instance, is signaled by wide and staring eyes. The eyebrows tend to pull down, especially towards the middle. Your nostrils may flare, and the mouth flattens out. Teeth may be clenched, and the jaw set forward, with the chin jutting out in a challenging position.

Happiness, on the other hand, involves an open or closed mouth pulled up into a smile. When it’s genuine happiness, the crow’s feet wrinkles at the side of sparkling open eyes will form. The eyebrows will raise slightly. And your face will be held level.

The tiniest movements around the eyes and the mouth can signal much of what we are thinking and feeling. These small “microexpressions” are often the most revealing of our true thoughts. You might be trying to be positive, but your face is blaring out signals of negativity as your mouth pulls downwards or your eyes narrow. We tend to raise our eyebrows when we are being deceitful.

The muscles surrounding your mouth can pull your face into a smile as the corners of your mouth head upwards. A grimace signals fear or displeasure. Pursed lips can signal impatience or dissatisfaction. Chewing on and biting your lips suggests you are nervous or uncertain.

The mouth may signal our feelings more than the eyes – those who accurately read others’ emotions focus most on the former. If you are giving off a genuine smile then your eyes will crinkle and react as well. When you are just being polite or masking your feelings, the eyes do not match the mouth’s smiling. Studies have shown that this is because these different expressions are controlled by utterly different parts of the brain! The genuine smile – the combination of the muscles around the mouth and eyes both – comes from the limbic system. The limbic system is the emotional center of the brain. The polite smile is controlled by the motor cortex, so it is just a physical movement.

Eye Contact

People signal their interest in your conversation and in you by maintaining eye contact. This action shows that they are paying attention. However, too much eye contact can feel threatening. It feels like you are being “stared down.” So most human conversation that is engaged and amiable involves a mixture of eye contact and shifting the gaze to other parts of the face, including the mouth. A complete lack of eye contact signals either dishonesty or a distinct lack of interest.

We also tend to blink more when we are nervous and excited. Nervousness can come from a stressful situation, like public speaking, or from telling a lie. Knowing this, some people can consciously control their urge to blink – like a card player trying to maintain her “poker face” when dealt great cards. (Now you know why some top players skip the whole ordeal and just wear sunglasses instead!)

Looking up happens often when we are recalling facts or when we are creating stories. For most people – but not all – recollection of facts and memories sends the eyes to the left side. And, conversely, making things up sends the eyes up and to the right. Test it out with someone. Ask them to recall a fact and see which way their eyes go, and you will know which is the recollection side and which is their fiction side.

The Upper Body

How you hold your head up – that is, how you posture your neck – sends signals, as well. You can “hold your head high” and signal confidence and pride. You can tilt to the side and signal confusion. Or if you are turning your head – and avoiding eye contact – you come off as untrustworthy.

Your arms and hands are some of the biggest giveaways when it comes to body language. Crossing your arms across your body signals a closing off of your emotions – you are feeling defensive or wanting the conversation to end. Placing your hands on your hips is a bold move – you signal that you are in charge and ready to take action. Fidgeting with your fingers signals impatience and even frustration.

Unlike our most primal facial expressions, hand and arm gestures can have wildly different cultural meanings. One society’s thumbs up gesture has the exact opposite meaning elsewhere in the world. Before traveling or conducting business in other cultures, do your research on what your hands might be saying without you realizing it!

Of course, the hands are just one part of your upper body. The torse itself sends signals, too. Holding your torso’s posture in an upright position – with your shoulders back and your body straight – shows confidence. Sagging posture and slumping are a sign of weakness – they signal that you need help, or perhaps do not feel very good about yourself. Think of how an open and eager person can signal that with a literally open posture. Someone with things to hide, or feelings to protect, will close himself off with a slumping posture and crossed arms.

The Lower Body

Although the face and hands tell us so much about a person’s personality and mood, the rest of the body can send off communicative signals, too. Crossing your legs as you sit shows a certain level of closing yourself off or controlling your emotions. Splaying your legs wide signals a relaxed – perhaps too relaxed – mood. Jiggling your legs is a sign of anxiety. This habit makes you appear jittery. Tapping your toes does the same thing – it sends off a sign that you are bored, impatient, or brimming over with anxious feelings.  Keeping your feet in movement – for instance, under the table – even as you are seated is a sign of either anxiety or deception.

As you move, as well, you send off signals. A strong and even gait shows confidence as you walk. Shuffling or dragging the feet suggests that you are reluctant or lethargic.

Learning more about nonverbal communication will help you project the image of yourself that you want to show others, and it will help you understand those around you.

Page Last Updated: April 2014

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