Everyone is familiar with some aspects of non-verbal communication since we all have at least a modicum of skill in interpreting the body language of other people. There are very common displays and movements that loudly publicize our intentions and inner emotions. A smile, a nod, shaking your head up and down or side to side; these are clear messages and are rarely ever misinterpreted. Or are they?
Each of these gestures alone send a very obvious signal, however, even some of the most perceptive people do not realize that body language indicative of our innermost thoughts manifests in clusters of displays, not just in solitary displays. For example, imagine yourself talking to a beautiful woman at a party, bar, or equivalent social setting. You see that she is smiling at you and nodding her head as you talk. “She’s totally digging me!” you think to yourself. A few more minutes go by and you decide to make your move. You ask for her phone number or screen-name (for those of you who are hopeless technophiles), but much to your surprise, she shoots down your request like a seasoned fighter pilot. What went wrong?
It’s possible you were too busy staring into her pretty eyes to notice her arms and legs were folded. Maybe you didn’t notice her body was facing toward the nearest exit, and saw that only her head was turned your way. Did you notice her gradually inching away in an attempt to increase the gap between yourselves? That’s doubtful.
This hypothetical example is very important to keep in mind before you read the following information in this article because it succinctly shows gestures and behaviors SHOULD NOT be analyzed individually. You must pay attention to and take into account any and all signals that can be perceived before you can come to a reasonable conclusion about the person you are interacting with or observing. Wrongfully attributing a motivation or attitude to another person based on poor analysis can have socially disastrous consequences. Please keep this in mind. Remember also that when you read body language, keep context in mind. If you are talking with another person outside on a cold day, their crossed arms do not necessarily indicate that they are disinterested or defensive toward you. It could simply mean they are cold and trying to keep their upper body warm. Even Sigmund Freud acknowledged, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
I’d like to briefly talk about gender differences in perceptive abilities. This article will be geared mainly toward men, although much of it will still be useful information for a woman. However, women are naturally better than men at recognizing body language in men and other women. The most popular explanation for this mismatch in perceptive ability has its roots in evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology studies human cognition and behavior from the perspective of the species’ history, meaning how we think and act today is wholly or in part a product of how we’ve adjusted ourselves mentally to surviving over the ages. For example, there are some people who develop intense phobias of snakes, but without ever having encountered one! An evolutionary psychologist would say that a fear of snakes is a psychological mechanism that has, over a long period of time, become entrenched in our psyche for the sole purpose of ensuring we do not interact with a potentially poisonous snake that could deliver a fatal bite. Furthermore, the randomly developed phobia is not so random when you consider that this inborn instinct, this fear of snakes, can still exist as a vestige in our minds.
To apply this principle to understand why a woman would be more perceptive than a man, we would ask, “How would being perceptive of body language help a woman to ensure the survival of herself or of her offspring?” We would come to the conclusion (and evolutionary psychologists already have) that since infants require intensive care during the first precious years of their life, years in which they do not possess any spoken language, and since women had the sole responsibility of taking care of the child, the woman would have to be very perceptive of the infant’s non-verbal communication in order to know when to provide food or other care. The baby obviously cannot ask for food or water, or indicate that it sick or distressed, so it must rely on instinctual body language and a mother who can recognize when it is in need of something.
Men, rest assured that the non-verbal signals you send to a woman, especially the ones you don’t intend to (when you lie, for example) are received. It doesn’t work the other away around all the time, though. There are of course those fortunate men who are born with an innate perceptive ability, but the majority of men need articles like this one to reach an even keel. Ladies: the above information doesn’t mean this article isn’t written for women, but I’m pretty sure that men will get the most out of this by learning to recognize body language, and women will learn a little bit more about a subject they’re already an expert at.
We think we can spot liars by having them look us in the eye when they speak, or we stare into a lover’s eyes intently to show our affection and connection with them. If popular expressions are any indicator, then the eyes can be a powerful indicator of emotion and attitude.
When we see an object that interests us, our pupils widen to take in more light and more detail of whatever it is that we’re looking at. Early research into pupillometry, the measurement of size changes in the pupil, led researchers to believe sexual stimulus caused pupil dilation. However, recent research, such as that done by Aboyoung & Dabbs (1998) indicates pupil dilation occurs during general arousal, not just sexual arousal. Regardless of whether or not it has a sexual component to it, pupil dilation is an important indicator of interest. When a person sees something novel, or something they like, their pupils expand. If you are conversing with a member of the opposite sex (or of the same sex), and can see that their pupils are noticeably larger, that is a pretty good sign of interest. I must reiterate it is not necessarily a sexual interest, but nonetheless when observed with a cluster of other positive signals; it can be interpreted as such.
You will have to take in account the lighting of the area in which you are interacting with the person or persons. Pupils, first and foremost, shrink and expand in response to low or high light levels. If you’re in a low-light environment, the person’s pupils will expand to let in more light, or in a very bright environment, their pupils will contract to a small size. Remember, we read body language in clusters; one signal alone is not sufficient to make an accurate analysis.
Gazing behavior, or how often and for how long there is eye contact (or a lack of it), is another eye-related indicator of mood or attitude. Research done by Argyle et al (1974) affirmed that responses to gaze amount is curvilinear, meaning that too little eye contact is poorly received, and too much eye contact is poorly received as well. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot. If we think about it, it’s a bit obvious why too little or too much eye contact is perceived negatively. When we are disinterested in something, we simply ignore it or we don’t bother looking at it. If it’s not worthy of our attention, then we will not waste our time visually processing it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, staring is perceived as an aggressive gesture.
Now, we have to examine the term “aggressive” in greater detail for this example. I prefer to define “aggressive” in the realm of body language as “boldly assertive” to avoid any connotation that would associate “aggression” with “violence”. In this sense, aggression is not a bad thing; it’s just a matter of context. If you’re with a man or a woman who you’ve just met, then aggressive and continuous eye contact will not be received well. On the other hand, if it’s a man or woman who you’ve spent a lot of time with, and have developed a rapport with, then aggressive and continuous eye contact will be perceived as intimate.
Since you won’t be continuously holding a mutual gaze, you and the person you’re interacting with will have to look away to something else, and then after a few moments, re-establish eye contact. Do not mistake this for disinterest, although it can be a sign for one. If the person you’re talking to continuously looks around the room, particularly at exits, then it’s an indicator that he or she is wildly uninterested in talking to you and would rather sprint to the nearest door or window.
To review, our eyes can give a lot of our innermost attitudes away. Our pupils dilate when we see something that interests us. Research in gazing behavior shows that too little and too much eye contact makes you look bad in the eyes (no pun intended) of another person. You want to find a happy medium where you have a consistent and comfortable mutual gaze to put yourself and the other person at ease during interaction, and, after some rapport is established, longer durations of eye contact indicate increasingly intimate feelings.
There aren’t many better indicators of a good social connection than smiling and laughter. We naturally float towards others who are cheerful and exude pure happiness with wide-grinned smiles and deep-belly laughing. Why though? Smiling and laughter are contagious, and rightfully so because they release endorphins and elevate mood. Furthermore, smiling and laughing is something that we rarely do outside of social settings. Try to remember how often you laugh at a funny movie when you are watching it alone. Now try to remember how often you laugh when you watch a funny movie with friends or other people. I’m sure you’ll find there’s a vast discrepancy between the two. Smiling and laughter is mainly done as a display for other people, and as such, they are ripe for analysis in a social setting.
We’ll start with smiles. Pease & Pease in The Definitive Book of Body Language (2004) provide a dynamite method of discerning a real smile from a fake smile. First, you have to understand that there are two muscle groups involved in smiling. The zygomatic major muscles pull the corners of the mouth during a smile, while the orbicularis oculi narrow the eyes and produce wrinkles on the outside corners. There is an important distinction between the two: the orbicularis oculi muscles are not under conscious control and therefore fake smiles do not normally produce wrinkling on the outside corners of the eyes. Simply put, if you see a person smile with just their mouth and not their eyes, it is a fake smile. The Definitive Book of Body Language is an incredible collection of expert knowledge about body language and I highly recommend you read it.
You should also beware of smiles that are authentic, but do not indicate interest, such as one where the lips are held closed. Without the show of teeth, the smile indicates the person is holding something, usually a negative opinion. Look for a smile that shows teeth and wrinkles the corners of the eyes. Smile duration is important as well. Quickly fleeting smiles are not genuine, but rather just to appease you. A smile made from real enjoyment in what you say forms slowly, and then remains for a while.
Many people pride themselves on their sense of humor, especially men, and for good reason too. Provine (2004) found that in a conversation, women are more likely to laugh at men’s jokes than men are to laugh at a woman’s jokes. A sense of humor is a top trait that women look for in a man, so it’s no wonder that you can tell how much a woman likes you by paying attention to how much she laughs at your jokes. Conversely, women can tell how much a guy is interested in them by how hard he tries to make them laugh. Earlier research performed by Provine & Fischer (1989) showed that a joke wasn’t even the necessary stimulus for laughter, but instead, another person was! You don’t even have to be that funny to make someone laugh! With this in mind though, if he or she is not laughing at all, then that means either they don’t like you at all, or they’re asleep.
Owren & Bachorowski (2003) have found evidence leading them to believe that laughter is both a combination of conveying some internal information and to influence those who perceive the laughter, meaning laughter may serve a two-fold purpose: 1) To let others perceive your mood, and 2) To influence the mood of others. Since we’ve established that laughing attracts other people in a social setting, then you can safely assume that if someone laughs at your jokes, then they are trying to emotionally pull you in.
The neck is a vital area of the body because it houses the carotid arteries. As we all know, the carotid arteries traffic the majority of the blood to and from the brain, and the trachea which allows us to breathe. In the animal kingdom predatory animals often go for the throat because of these two vital structures and rupturing or impinging on either can be fatal.
With this in mind we can start to analyze some head positions and what they should convey to you. If someone has their chin down, covering their throat, this can be interpreted as a fear response or insecurity. An intense reaction of this sort is accompanied by the person hunching their shoulders up to protect the sides of their neck. If you’re speaking to someone and they exhibit this pattern of behavior, then you’re either waving some sort of weapon at them or there’s a scary monster standing behind you and you’re not aware of it. Outside of those two scenarios, you’re not likely to see this in a conversation.
During intimate conversations, you may notice that your partner leans their head to one side exposing one side or the other of their neck. This is a sign of submission and of trust. Needless to say, this is a very positive sign barring any neck injury that prevents the person from keeping their neck erect.
Sometimes showing your neck is a sign of dominance, and not submission. When people hold their chin up high, and “look down their nose at you”, it’s a sign of dominance. They’re non-verbally telling you, “I don’t put stock in what you say because I disapprove of you, and I will make my neck vulnerable to show you that I’m in a dominant enough position to think this way.” This is why most people walk with their shoulders back and chin up. It gives them an air of confidence and authority.
Not all head movements and positions stem from submission/dominance cues involving the neck. Nodding your head “yes” or moving it back and forth to indicate “no” do not always match up with what you say verbally. This is something that you must watch for. If a person says “yes” but they’re actually nodding their head back and forth a bit, then there’s a good chance they’re not being wholly honest with you. The same goes for verbally saying “no” but non-verbally saying “yes”. You’ll want to keep an eye out for these mismatches.
Lastly, you’ll want to make sure that the person is not resting their head on their fist or palm because this usually indicates boredom. A variant on this is when the person holds their thumb under their chin, their pointer finger by their ear, and the rest of their fingers bent near their bottom lip. This is sure sign that they’re making evaluative judgments as you speak. It’s a good because it lets you know that they’re actually listening to you, but it can be bad because this usually means they’re being critical about what you say or how you’re acting.
I’ve often heard the criticism that knowledge and use of body language in this regard is an unethical tactic; an exploit in human behavior that people will only take advantage of. I have to disagree. I propose that if we could interpret each other better than we already do, then we’ll come one step closer to a harmony in our daily interactions. How many times have you been bored out of your mind by a conversation and prayed for something akin to a large scale alien invasion to put an end to your suffering? How many people have you pestered, or have pestered you, just because they “couldn’t get the message”?
I understand that this topic matter can seem threatening because in this current day and age of mega-technology and a waning sense of privacy we feel that our only retreat, our only real privacy is what we hold in our minds. Then some guy writes a book or an article that teaches other people how to read you like the kid’s menu in a local restaurant; it seems very distressing. The problem is we’ve been taught to hide our emotions and true feelings since we’ve been young so we don’t offend others and to save face. Non-verbal communication is the last level of emotional conveyance where you can tell someone how you REALLY feel without suffering a backlash in the same manner you would if you spoke your mind. That’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s nothing to fear.
Argyle, M., Cook, M. & Lefebvre, L. (1974) The meaning of five patterns of gave. European Journal of Social Psychology, 4(2), pp. 125-136.
Dabbs, J. M. (1998) Testosterone and pupillary response to auditory sexual stimuli. Physiology & Behavior, 62(4), pp. 909-912.
Owren, M. J. & Bacharowski, J. (2003) Reconsidering the evolution of non-linguistic communication: The case of laughter. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 27(3), pp. 183-200.
Pease, A. & Pease, B. (2004) The Definitive Book of Body Language. New York, New York: Bantam Books.
Provine, R. R. (2004) Laughing, tickling, and the evolution of speech and self. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 13(6), pp. 215-218.
Provine, R. R. & Fischer K. R. (1989) Laughing, smiling, and talking: Relation to sleeping and social context in humans, Ethology. 83(4), pp. 295-305.
The experiences of our members with the methods presented in this article are contained here.