Body Language

To advance your personal relationships and professional career, study body language.  After covering a set of guiding principles, I will take you through reading body language from head to toe.

Develop personal body language awareness and alter bad habits

On a personal level, you should not struggle to control your own body language.  That is a lost cause, since most behaviors come from parts of the brain over which you have little or no control.  Moreover, you are more likely to be seen as manipulative rather than wise if you manufacture body language.

Instead, you should strive to do two things.  The first is to develop body language awareness.  This means understanding the resonance between what you are thinking and how you are expressing your feelings.  The second is to alter habits that you have that unintentionally communicate negative body language.  The classic example is people that have developed a habit of crossing their arms for reasons of comfort.

Understand that body language reveals stress and comfort, not truth and lies

There is a common fallacy that having the ability to read body language makes you into a human lie detector.  Though not entirely incorrect, the accurate assessment is that the ability to read body language makes you a human mood ring.  Specifically, body language reveals the absence or presence of stress and discomfort.

Find baseline behaviors and look for clusters of dissonance

In most situations where you are going to be actively reading body language, the person you are observing will be in an environment with an elevated level of pressure or excitement.  In personal settings, this might be a first date or a heated argument.  In professional ones, this might be a negotiation or a critical meeting.  Moreover, from day to day, people may be in a good or a bad mood due to events that have nothing to do with your immediate interaction.  Consequently, you should strive to establish a set of baseline behaviors that are specific to both the person and to the situation.  Since people aim to be at ease, you can assume that the baseline is the comfortable state.

Once you have determined the set of baseline behaviors, your job is to detect changes that show evidence of stress.  If someone who ordinarily crosses their arms braces them on their chair, you have one piece of evidence.  As in any investigation, one piece of evidence alone does not make the case.  Hence, to be great at reading body language, you need to find clusters of behaviors.  Remember that although many clusters are purely physical, you should also look for dissonance between words and behaviors.  A good example is when people shake their head “no” or look down when they say “yes.”  One of my all-time favorites is discord in words such as when a person says “No, I agree with you.”

Read the head and neck

Body language begins with the very top of the head.  When people touch their own hair, they are either subconsciously preening themselves or trying to sooth themselves.  The preening angle, particularly by women, is why hair touching is considered flirtatious in social situations.  It subtly communicates that a person is available and willing to relax some degree of control.  In contrast to the social interpretation, people in more stressful circumstances touch their hair to capture a soothing tactile response and release negative energy.  Individuals that develop a hair touching habit have become addicted in large and small ways to this comfort.

Progressing to the forehead, signs of stress include furrowing the forehead by contracting facial muscles as well as rubbing one’s forehead.  The interpretation of a furrowed forehead ranges from confusion to outright disagreement.  From the situation itself and clusters of other behaviors, you will learn to know where in that spectrum the person lies.  Rubbing one’s forehead stimulates blood flow to the brain.  Again, the meaning can vary from mere tiredness to true stress.

The eyes are where most people look for body language.  Stress is evidenced by variation from the baseline in squinting, closing, shielding, averting, and blinking.  With respect to blinking, for example, you may detect either a faster than normal or slower than normal blink rate.  The completely false conventional wisdom is that people break eye contact when they are lying.  Since virtually everyone believes this is true, you are wise, actually, to look for abnormally direct eye contact when someone is uncomfortable and possibly lying.  This preternaturally direct gaze is often coupled with restricted motion because it takes everything a person has to maintain eye contact with lying.  Lest you believe you can control this yourself, think again.  If you are lying, then odds are you will either have too little or too much eye contact and there is nothing you can do about it.  A better approach is never to lie in the first place.  On a positive note, high arched eyebrows and “flashbulb” eyes communicate genuine interest.

There are multiple signs of stress in the cheeks.  The more obvious include rubbing the inside of the cheeks with the tongue or biting.  Since many people have an oral fixation of one kind or another, these behaviors are more often than not simply baseline habits that provide little useful information.

The mouth is one of the most expressive parts of the body.  The oral fixation that afflicts the tongue also afflicts the mouth so be careful to not over-interpret the meaning of lip and nail biting.  However, pursing the lips is a telltale sign of discomfort.  Additionally, mechanisms that increase the supply of oxygen to the blood are signs of stress.  These include slow exhales as well as excessive yawning.  Of course, the mouth has the ability to display one of the most positive behaviors – the smile.  Unlike a fake grin or smirk, a genuine smile includes mouth corners turned up and “crow’s feet” emanating from the eyes.

Your examination of body language in the head ends with the chin and neck.  When people are stressed, they often tilt their head forward, forcing their chin down.  This often subconscious action protects the vital arteries in the neck.  This protection instinct also is sometimes coupled with a soothing instinct of gently stroking the front or back of one’s neck.

Read the upper torso and arms

The majority of stress revealing behaviors in the upper body involve the entire upper torso.  All of the relevant expressions of body language link to a preprogrammed need to protect the internal organs from harm.  The offending deeds include:

  • Turning one’s torso away from the other person
  • Self-administering a body hug
  • Hunching over or bowing (which are viewed as submissive)
  • Covering the body with an object such as a pillow or a purse

Consider next the shoulders.  When someone is stressed, particularly if they are afraid, you may see their shoulders elevated slightly upward toward their ears.  Another interesting tip is what people do with their shoulders when they say “no.”  Imagine that you are in a negotiation or other situation in which you are asking a person to do something.  If they say “no” with a half shoulder shrug, then there is a good chance their refusal is weak.  A strong refusal is accompanied by a full shoulder shrug.

Behaviors in the arms and hands are typically intertwined.  A confident, comfortable person (possibly making a territorial display) may interlace his or her hands behind the head or spread his or her arms out over adjacent chairs.  A more nervous person may touch jewelry or clothing and wring their hands.  If a person is aware of his or her behavior, the individual may move to hide discomfort by hiding their hands either in pockets or under thighs.

Here are two final tips on the hands, dealing with the palms and the thumbs.  A display of the palms is simultaneously a show of openness and supplication.  To that end, if somebody is asking you to do something with palms up, you can let down your guard a little.  Though you should only use this technique for good rather than for evil, you can use this method consciously, and in all good conscience, when you are making a request.  As for the thumbs, if you have ever injured these fingers, then you know how important they are.  Opposable thumbs give humans and precious few other species the gift of fine motor skills.  Consequently, people are reflecting comfort when they show their thumbs.  Examples include flashing a thumbs-up gesture or having one’s hands in one’s pockets with the thumbs sticking out.

Read the lower torso

You may be surprised to learn that the lower torso reveals more behavioral information per square inch than any other part of the body.  The generally acceptable biological reason for this is that the legs and feet are the farthest parts of the body from the brain.  As a result, movement and positioning of the lower torso is the last thing people are able to control.  Though most people are oblivious of this fact, criminal investigators are well aware.  The best interviewers position themselves in full view of a suspect’s lower torso, going so far as to remove tables completely from the equation.

From thighs to knees to feet, the catalog of stress signaling behaviors in the lower torso include:

  • Legs directed away from another person
  • Rubbing the thighs
  • Hands braced on the knees
  • Feet locked behind chairs
  • Feet positioned toward the exit or in a “starter position” (for a rapid escape)
  • Feet close together (viewed as submissive due to the inability to move quickly)
  • Feet jiggling or kicking

The last one, jiggling feet, is probably the one that requires the most confirmation from clusters of other behaviors.  In a positive situation, these can easily be a sign of happy feet.

Just as with all other parts of the body, there are manifestations of positive body language in the lower torso beginning with opposites of the behavior described above.  A fun additional one is noticing which way people cross their legs.  In particular, individuals tend to cross their legs with their raised foot in the direction of the person they favor.  Finally, the leg splay joins the arm splay as a sign of comfortable, albeit territorial, body language.


Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become adroit at reading body language:

  • Develop personal body language awareness and alter bad habits
  • Understand that body language reveals stress and comfort, not truth and lies
  • Find baseline behaviors and look for clusters of dissonance
  • Read the head and neck
  • Read the upper torso and arms
  • Read the lower torso

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