Body language – basics and introduction
Body language is a powerful concept which successful people tend to understand well.
So can you.
The study and theory of body language has become popular in recent years because
psychologists have been able to understand what we ‘say’ through our bodily gestures and facial
expressions, so as to translate our body language, revealing its underlying feelings and
Body Language is also referred to as ‘non-verbal communications’, and less commonly ‘nonvocal communications’.
The term ‘non-verbal communications’ tends to be used in a wider sense, and all these terms
are somewhat vague.
For the purposes of this article, the terms ‘body language’ and ‘non-verbal communications’ are
broadly interchangeable. This guide also takes the view that body language/non-verbal
communications is the study of how people communicate face-to-face aside from the spoken
words themselves, and in this respect the treatment of the subject here is broader than typical
body language guides limited merely to body positions and gestures.
If you carry out any serious analysis or discussion you should clarify the terminology in your
own way to suit your purposes.
Does body language include facial expression and eye movement? – Usually, yes.
What about breathing and perspiration? – This depends on your definition of body language.
And while tone and pitch of voice are part of verbal signals, are these part of body language
too? – Not normally, but arguably so, especially as you could ignore them if considering only the
spoken words and physical gestures/expressions.
There are no absolute right/wrong answers to these questions. It’s a matter of interpretation.
A good reason for broadening the scope of body language is to avoid missing important signals
which might not be considered within a narrow definition of body language.
Nevertheless confusion easily arises if definitions and context are not properly established, for
It is commonly and carelessly quoted that ‘non-verbal communications’ and/or ‘body language’
account for up to 93% of the meaning that people take from any human communication. This
statistic is actually a distortion based on Albert Mehrabian’s research theory, which while itself is
something of a cornerstone of body language research, certainly did not make such a sweeping
Mehrabian’s research findings in fact focused on communications with a strong emotional or
‘feelings’ element. Moreover the 93% non-verbal proportion included vocal intonation
(paralinguistics), which are regarded by many as falling outside of the body language definition.
Care must therefore be exercised when stating specific figures relating to percentages of
meaning conveyed, or in making any firm claims in relation to body language and non-verbal
It is safe to say that body language represents a very significant proportion of meaning that is
conveyed and interpreted between people. Many body language experts and sources seem to
agree that that between 50-80% of all human communications are non-verbal. So while body
language statistics vary according to situation, it is generally accepted that non-verbal
communications are very important in how we understand each other (or fail to), especially in
face-to-face and one-to-one communications, and most definitely when the communications
involve an emotional or attitudinal element.
Body language is especially crucial when we meet someone for the first time.
We form our opinions of someone we meet for the first time in just a few seconds, and this
initial instinctual assessment is based far more on what we see and feel about the other person
than on the words they speak. On many occasions we form a strong view about a new person
before they speak a single word.
Consequently body language is very influential in forming impressions on first meeting someone.
The effect happens both ways – to and from:
• When we meet someone for the first time, their body language, on conscious and
unconscious levels, largely determines our initial impression of them.
• In turn when someone meets us for the first time, they form their initial impression of us
largely from our body language and non-verbal signals.
And this two-way effect of body language continues throughout communications and
relationships between people.
Body language is constantly being exchanged and interpreted between people, even though
much of the time this is happening on an unconscious level.
Remember – while you are interpreting (consciously or unconsciously) the body language of
other people, so other people are constantly interpreting yours.
The people with the most conscious awareness of, and capabilities to read, body language tend
to have an advantage over those whose appreciation is limited largely to the unconscious.
You will shift your own awareness of body language from the unconscious into the conscious by
learning about the subject, and then by practising your reading of non-verbal communications in
your dealings with others.
Body language is more than body positions and
Body language is not just about how we hold and move our bodies.
Body language potentially (although not always, depending on the definition you choose to
• how we position our bodies
• our closeness to and the space between us and other people (proxemics), and how this
• our facial expressions
• our eyes especially and how our eyes move and focus, etc
• how we touch ourselves and others
• how our bodies connect with other non-bodily things, for instance, pens, cigarettes,
spectacles and clothing
• our breathing, and other less noticeable physical effects, for example our heartbeat and
Body language tends not to include:
• the pace, pitch, and intonation, volume, variation, pauses, etc., of our voice.
Arguably this last point should be encompassed by body language, because a lot happens here
which can easily be missed if we consider merely the spoken word and the traditional narrow
definition of body language or non-verbal communications.
Voice type and other audible signals are typically not included in body language because they
are audible ‘verbal’ signals rather than physical visual ones, nevertheless the way the voice is
used is a very significant (usually unconscious) aspect of communication, aside from the bare
Consequently, voice type is always important to consider alongside the usual body language
Similarly breathing and heartbeat, etc., are typically excluded from many general descriptions of
body language, but are certainly part of the range of non-verbal bodily actions and signals
which contribute to body language in its fullest sense.
More obviously, our eyes are a vital aspect of our body language.
Our reactions to other people’s eyes – movement, focus, expression, etc – and their reactions to
our eyes – contribute greatly to mutual assessment and understanding, consciously and
With no words at all, massive feeling can be conveyed in a single glance. The metaphor which
describes the eyes of two lovers meeting across a crowded room is not only found in old
romantic movies. It’s based on scientific fact – the strong powers of non-verbal communications.
These effects – and similar powerful examples – have existed in real human experience and
behaviour for thousands of years.
The human body and our instinctive reactions have evolved to an amazingly clever degree,
which many of us ignore or take for granted, and which we can all learn how to recognize more
clearly if we try.
Our interpretation of body language, notably eyes and facial expressions, is instinctive, and with
a little thought and knowledge we can significantly increase our conscious awareness of these
signals: both the signals we transmit, and the signals in others that we observe.
Doing so gives us a significant advantage in life – professionally and personally – in our dealings
Body language is not just reading the signals in other people.
Importantly, understanding body language enables better self-awareness and self-control too.
We understand more about other people’s feelings and meanings, and we also understand more
about these things in ourselves.
When we understand body language we become better able to refine and improve what our
body says about us, which generates a positive improvement in the way we feel, the way we
perform, and what we achieve.
Body language definitions
As explained, the terms body language and non-verbal communications are rather vague.
So what is body language? And more usefully, what might we regard it to be, if we are to make
the most of studying and using it?
The Oxford English Dictionary (revised 2005) definition is:
“body language – noun – the conscious and unconscious movements and postures by which
attitudes and feelings are communicated [for example]: his intent was clearly expressed in his
The Oxford Business English Dictionary offers a slightly different definition. Appropriately and
interestingly the Oxford Business English Dictionary emphasizes the sense that body language
can be used as a tool, rather than it being an involuntary effect with no particular purpose:
“body language – noun – the process of communicating what you are feeling or thinking by the
way you place and move your body rather than by words [for example]: The course trains sales
people in reading the customer’s body language.”
The OED dictionary definition of kinesics – the technical term for body language – depends on
the interpretation of ‘non-verbal communication’:
“kinesics – the study of the way in which certain body movements and gestures serve as a
form of non-verbal communication.”
Body language is more than those brief descriptions.
• Body language certainly also encompasses where the body is in relation to other bodies
(often referred to as ‘personal space’).
• Body language certainly also includes very small bodily movements such as facial
expressions and eye movements.
• Body language also arguably covers all that we communicate through our bodies apart
from the spoken words (thereby encompassing breathing, perspiration, pulse, blood-pressure,
In this respect, standard dictionary definitions don’t always describe body language fully and
We could define body language more fully as:
“Body language is the unconscious and conscious transmission and interpretation of
feelings, attitudes, and moods, through:
• body posture, movement, physical state, position and relationship to other
bodies, objects and surroundings,
• facial expression and eye movement,
(and this transmission and interpretation can be quite different to the spoken
Words alone – especially emotional words (or words used in emotional situations) – rarely reflect
full or true meaning and motive.
We find clues to additional or true meaning in body language.
Being able to ‘read’ body language therefore helps us greatly:
• to know how people feel and what they mean, and
• to understand better how people might be perceiving our own non-verbal signals, and
• to understand ourselves better, deeper than the words we hear ourselves saying.
Body language – background and history
Philosophers and scientists have connected human physical behaviour with meaning, mood and
personality for thousands of years, but only in living memory has the study of body language
become as sophisticated and detailed as it is today.
Body language studies and written works on the subject are very sparse until the mid-1900s.
The first known experts to consider aspects of body language were probably the ancient Greeks,
notably Hippocrates and Aristotle, through their interest in human personality and behaviour,
and the Romans, notably Cicero, relating gestures to feelings and communications. Much of this
early interest was in refining ideas about oration – speech-making – given its significance to
leadership and government.
Isolated studies of body language appeared in more recent times, for example Francis Bacon in
Advancement of Learning, 1605, explored gestures as reflection or extension of spoken
communications. John Bulwer’s Natural History of the Hand published in 1644, considered hand
gestures. Gilbert Austin’s Chironomia in 1806 looked at using gestures to improve speechmaking.
Charles Darwin in the late 1800s could be regarded as the earliest expert to have made serious
scientific observation about body language, but there seems little substantial development of
ideas for at least the next 150 years.
Darwin‘s work pioneered much ethological thinking. Ethology began as the science of animal
behaviour. It became properly established during the early 1900s and increasingly extends to
human behaviour and social organization. Where ethology considers animal evolution and
communications, it relates strongly to human body language. Ethologists have progressively
applied their findings to human behaviour, including body language, reflecting the evolutionary
origins of much human non-verbal communication – and society’s growing acceptance of
evolutionary rather than creationist theory. Austrian zoologist and 1973 Nobel Prizewinner
Konrad Lorenz (1903-89) was a founding figure in ethology. Desmond Morris, author of The
Naked Ape, discussed below, is an ethologist, as is the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins
(b. 1941) a leading modern thinker in the field. Ethology, like psychology, is an over-arching
science which continues to clarify the understanding of body language.
The popular and accessible study of body language as we know it today is very recent.
In his popular 1971 book ‘Body Language’, Julius Fast (1919-2008) wrote: “…kinesics [body
language] is still so new as a science that its authorities can be counted on the fingers of one
Julius Fast was an American award winning writer of fiction and non-fiction work dealing
especially with human physiology and behaviour. His book Body Language was among the first
to bring the subject to a mainstream audience.
Significantly the references in Julius Fast’s book (Birdwhistell, Goffman, Hall, Mehrabian,
Scheflen, etc – see body language references and books below) indicate the freshness of the
subject in 1971. All except one of Julius Fast’s cited works are from the 1950s and 1960s.
The exception among Fast’s contemporary influences was Charles Darwin, and specifically his
book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, written in 1872, which is commonly
regarded as the beginnings of the body language science, albeit not recognised as such then.
Sigmund Freud and others in the field of psychoanalysis – in the late 1800s and early 1900s –
would have had good awareness of many aspects of body language, including personal space,
but they did not focus on non-verbal communications concepts or develop body language
theories in their own right. Freud and similar psychoanalysts and psychologists of that time were
focused on behaviour and therapeutic analysis rather than the study of non-verbal
communications per se.
A different view of human behaviour related to and overlapping body language, surfaced
strongly in Desmond Morris‘s 1967 book The Naked Ape, and in follow-up books such as
Intimate Behaviour, 1971. Morris, a British zoologist and ethologist, linked human behaviour –
much of it concerned with communications – to human ‘animalistic’ evolution. His work remains
a popular and controversial perspective for understanding people’s behaviours, and while his
theories did not focus strongly on body language, Morris’s popularity in the late 1960s and
1970s contributed significantly to the increasing interest among people beyond the scientific
community – for a better understanding of how and why we feel and act and communicate.
An important aspect of body language is facial expression, which is arguably one part of body
language for which quite early ‘scientific’ thinking can be traced:
Physiognomy is an obscure and related concept to body language. Physiognomy refers to
facial features and expressions which were/are said indicate the person’s character or nature, or
The word physiognomy is derived from medieval Latin, and earlier Greek (phusiognominia),
which originally meant (the art or capability of) judging a person’s nature from his/her facial
features and expressions. The ancient roots of this concept demonstrate that while body
language itself is a recently defined system of analysis, the notion of inferring human nature or
character from facial expression is extremely old.
Kinesics (pronounced ‘kineesicks’ with stress on the ‘ee’) is the modern scientific or technical
word for body language.
The word kinesics was first used in English in this sense in the 1950s, deriving from the Greek
word kinesis, meaning motion, and seems to have first been used by Dr Ray Birdwhistell, an
American 1950s researcher and writer on body language. (See references).
The introduction of a new technical word – (in this case, kinesics) – generally comes after the
establishment of the subject it describes, which supports the assertion that the modern concept
of body language – encompassing facial expressions and personal space – did not exist until the
Proxemics is the technical term for the personal space aspect of body language. The word
was devised in the late 1950s or early 1960s by Edward Twitchell Hall, an American
anthropologist. The word is Hall’s adaptation of the word proximity, meaning closeness or
nearness. (See personal space.)
From the word kinesics, Ray Birdwhistell coined the term kine to refer to a single body
language signal. This is not to be confused with the ancient and same word kine, meaning a
group of cows. Neither word seems to have caught on in a big way, which in one way is a pity,
but in another way probably makes matters simpler for anyone interested in the body language
The Greek word kinesis is also a root word of kinaesthetics, which is the ‘K’ in the VAK (‘see
hear feel’) learning styles model.
Kinaesthetics (also known as kinesthetics) in the study of learning styles, is related to some of
the principles of body language, in terms of conveying meaning and information via physical
movement and experience.
Body language is among many branches of science and education which seek to interpret and
exploit messages and meaning from the ‘touchy-feely’ side of life.
For example, the concepts of experiential learning, games and exercises, and love and
spirituality at work – are all different perspectives and attempts to unlock and develop people’s
potential using ideas centred around kinaesthetics, as distinct from the more tangible and easily
measurable areas of facts, figures words and logic.
These and similar methodologies do not necessarily reference body language directly, but there
are very strong inter-connections.
Bloom’s Taxonomy, and Kolb’s Learning Styles are also helpful perspectives in appreciating the
significance of kinaesthetics, and therefore body language, in life and work today.
The communications concepts of NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) and Transactional Analysis
are closely dependent on understanding body language, NLP especially.
Body language – nature or nurture?
Body language is part of human evolution, but as with many other aspects of human behaviour,
the precise mixture of genetic (inherited) and environmental (learned or conditioned) influences
is not known, and opinions vary.
Julius Fast noted this, especially regarding facial expressions. To emphasise the shifting debate
he cited for example:
• Darwin‘s belief that human facial expressions were similar among humans of all cultures,
due to evolutionary theory.
• Bruner and Taguiri‘s (see references) opposing views – in the early 1950s, after thirty
years of research, they largely rejected the notion that facial expressions were inborn.
• and Ekman, Friesan and Sorensen’s findings (see references) – in 1969, having
discovered consistent emotional-facial recognition across widely diverse cultural groups,
which supported Darwin’s evolutionary-centred ideas.
The discussion has continued in a similar vein to the modern day – studies ‘proving’ genetic or
environmental cause – ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ – for one aspect of body language or another.
The situation is made more complex when one considers the genetic (inherited) capability or
inclination to learn body language. Is this nature or nurture?
Body language is partly genetic (inborn – ‘nature’) – hugely so in certain aspects of body
language – and partly environmental (conditioned/learned – ‘nurture’).
Some body language is certainly genetically inherited and consistent among all humans. Other
body language is certainly not.
The use and recognition of certain fundamental facial expressions are now generally accepted to
be consistent and genetically determined among all humans regardless of culture.
However the use and recognition of less fundamental physical gestures (hand movements for
example, or the winking of an eye), and aspects of personal space distances, are now generally
accepted to be environmentally determined (learned, rather than inherited), which is
significantly dependent on local society groups and cultures.
Certain vocal intonation speech variations (if body language is extended to cover everything but
the spoken words) also fall within this environmentally determined category. (See the ‘other
audible signals’ section.)
In summary, we can be certain that body language (namely the conscious and unconscious sending and receiving of non-verbal signals) is partly inborn, and partly learned or conditioned.
Body language is part ‘nature’ and part ‘nurture’.
Body language and evolution
The evolutionary perspectives of body language are fascinating, in terms of its purpose and how
it is exploited, which in turn feeds back into the purpose of body language at conscious and
Human beings tend to lie, deceive, manipulate, and pretend. It’s in our nature to do this, if only
to a small degree in some folk.
For various reasons people intentionally and frequently mask their true feelings. (TransactionalAnalysis theory is very useful in understanding more about this.)
In expectation of these ‘masking’ tendencies in others, humans try to imagine what another
person has in their mind. The need to understand what lies behind the mask obviously increases
according to the importance of the relationship.
Body language helps us to manage and guard against these tendencies, and also – significantly
especially in flirting/dating/mating rituals – body language often helps people to communicate
and resolve relationship issues when conscious behaviour and speech fails to do so.
Body language has evolved in spite of human awareness and conscious intelligence: rather like
a guardian angel, body language can help take care of us, connecting us to kindred souls, and
protecting us from threats.
While the importance of body language in communications and management, etc., has become
a popular interest and science in the last few decades, human beings have relied on body
language instinctively in many ways for many thousands of years.
Early natural exponents of interpreting body language were for example the poker players of the
American Wild West. The winners had not only to be handy with a six-shooter, but also skilled in
reading other people’s non-verbal signals, and controlling their own signals.
Before these times, explorers and tribal leaders had to be able to read the body language of
potential foes – to know whether to trust or defend or attack.
Earlier than this, our cavemen ancestors certainly needed to read body language, if only
because no other language existed.
Humans have also learned to read the body language of animals (and vice-versa), although
humans almost certainly had greater skills in this area a long time ago. Shepherds, horse-riders
and animal trainers throughout time and still today have good capabilities in reading animal
body language, which for many extends to the human variety. Monty Roberts, the real life
‘Horse Whisperer’ is a good example.
Body language, and the reading of non-verbal communications and feelings, are in our genes.
Were these factors not in our genes, we would not be here today.
On which point:
Women tend to have better perception and interpretation of body language than men. This is
perhaps a feature of evolutionary survival, since females needed good body language skills to
reduce their physical vulnerability to males and the consequential threat to life, limb and
offspring. Females might not be so physically vulnerable in modern times, but their body
language capabilities generally continue typically to be stronger than the male of the species.
Thus, women tend to be able to employ body language (for sending and interpreting signals)
more effectively than men.
Katherine Benziger‘s theories of brain types and thinking styles provides useful additional
perspective. Women tend to have more empathic sensitivity than men, which naturally aids
body language awareness and capabilities. Aside from gender differences, men and women with
strong empathic sensitivity (typically right-basal or rear brain bias) tend to be better at picking
up body language signals.
The six universal facial expressions – recognized around the world
It is now generally accepted that certain basic facial expressions of human emotion are
recognized around the world – and that the use and recognition of these expressions is
genetically inherited rather than socially conditioned or learned.
While there have been found to be minor variations and differences among obscurely isolated
tribes-people, the following basic human emotions are generally used, recognized, and part of
humankind’s genetic character:
These emotional face expressions are:
Charles Darwin was first to make these claims in his book The Expressions of the Emotions in
Man and Animals, published in 1872. This book incidentally initially far outsold The Origin of
Species, such was its wide (and controversial) appeal at the time.
Darwin’s assertions about genetically inherited facial expressions remained the subject of much
debate for many years.
In the 1960s a Californian psychiatrist and expert in facial expressions, Paul Ekman, (with
Sorenson and Friesen – see references) conducted and published extensive studies with people
of various cultures to explore the validity of Darwin’s theory – that certain facial expressions and
man’s ability to recognize them are inborn and universal among people. Ekman’s work notably
included isolated tribes-people who could not have been influenced by Western media and
images, and essentially proved that Darwin was right – i.e., that the use and recognition of facial
expressions to convey certain basic human emotions is part of human evolved nature,
genetically inherited, and not dependent on social learning or conditioning.
Body language analysis
Body language is instinctively interpreted by us all to a limited degree, but the subject is
potentially immensely complex. Perhaps infinitely so, given that the human body is said to be
capable of producing 700,000 different movements (Hartland and Tosh, 2001 – see references).
As with other behavioural sciences, the study of body language benefited from the development
of brain-imaging technology in the last part of the 20th century. This dramatically accelerated
the research and understanding into connections between the brain, feelings and thoughts, and
body movement. We should expect to see this effect continuing and providing more solid
science for body language theory, much of which remains empirical, i.e., based on experience
and observation, rather than scientific test.
Given the potential for confusion, here are some considerations when analysing body language:
Body language also depends on context: body language in a certain situation might not mean
the same in another.
Some ‘body language’ isn’t what it seems at all, for example:
• Someone rubbing their eye might have an irritation, rather than being tired – or
disbelieving, or upset.
• Someone with crossed arms might be keeping warm, rather than being defensive.
• Someone scratching their nose might actually have an itch, rather than concealing a lie.
A single body language signal isn’t as reliable as several signals:
As with any system of evidence, ‘clusters’ of body language signals provide much more reliable
indication of meaning than one or two signals in isolation.
Avoid interpreting only single signals. Look for combinations of signals which support an overall
conclusion, especially for signals which can mean two or more quite different things.
Certain body language is the same in all people, for example smiling and frowning (and see the
six universally recognizable facial expressions above), but some body language is specific to a
Culture or ethnic group.
See examples of cultural body language differences below.
Awareness of possible cultural body language differences is especially important in
today’s increasingly mixed societies.
Management and customer service staff are particularly prone to misreading or reacting
inappropriately to body language signals from people of different ethnic backgrounds, a
situation made worse because this sort of misunderstanding tends to peak when emotions are
Personal space preferences (distances inside which a person is uncomfortable when someone
encroaches) can vary between people of different ethnicity.
In general this article offers interpretations applicable for Western culture.
If you can suggest any different ethnic interpretations of body language please send
them and I’ll broaden the guide accordingly.
Body language is relative to age and gender
Many body language signals are relative.
A gesture by one person in a certain situation can carry far more, or very little meaning,
compared to the same gesture used by a different person in a different situation.
Young men for example often display a lot of pronounced gestures because they are naturally
energetic, uninhibited and supple. Older women, relatively, are less energetic, adopt more
modest postures, and are prevented by clothing and upbringing from exhibiting very
So when assessing body language – especially the strength of signals and meanings – it’s
important to do so in relative terms, considering the type of person and situation involved.
Some people artificially control their outward body language to give the impression they seek to
create at the time.
A confident firm handshake, or direct eye contact, are examples of signals which can be quite
easily be ‘faked’ – usually temporarily, but sometimes more consistently.
However while a degree of faking is possible, it is not possible for someone to control or
suppress all outgoing signals.
This is an additional reason to avoid superficial analysis based on isolated signals, and to seek
as many indicators as possible, especially subtle clues when suspecting things might not be
what they seem. Politicians and manipulative salespeople come to mind for some reason.
Looking for ‘micro gestures’ (pupils contract, an eyebrow lifts, corner of the mouth twitch) can
help identify the true meaning and motive behind one or two strong and potentially false
These micro gestures are very small, difficult to spot and are subconscious, but we cannot
control them, hence their usefulness.
Boredom, nervousness and insecurity signals
Many body language signals indicate negative feelings such as boredom, disinterest,
anxiousness, insecurity, etc.
The temptation on seeing such signals is to imagine a weakness on the part of the person
This can be so, however proper interpretation of body language should look beyond the person
and the signal – and consider the situation, especially if you are using body language within
personal development or management. Ask yourself:
What is causing the negative feelings giving rise to the negative signals?
It is often the situation, not the person – for example, here are examples of circumstances which
can produce negative feelings and signals in people, often even if they are strong and confident:
• dominance of a boss or a teacher or other person perceived to be in authority
• overloading a person with new knowledge or learning
• stress caused by anything
• cold weather or cold conditions
• lack of food and drink
• illness or disability
• alcohol or drugs
• being in a minority or feeling excluded
• unfamiliarity – newness – change
Ask yourself, when analysing body language:
Are there external factors affecting the mood and condition of the individual concerned?
Do not jump to conclusions – especially negative ones – using body language analysis alone.
Body language – translation of gestures, signs and other factors – quick reference guide
When translating body language signals into feelings and meanings remember that one signal
does not reliably indicate a meaning.
Clusters of signals more reliably indicate meaning.
This is a general guide. Body language should not be used alone for making serious decisions
Body language is one of several indicators of mood, meaning and motive.
This is a guide, not an absolutely reliable indicator, and this applies especially until you’ve
developed good capabilities of reading body language signs.
Some of these signs have obvious meanings; others not so.
Even ‘obvious’ signs can be missed – especially if displayed as subtle movements in a
group of people and if your mind is on other things – so I make no apology for
including ‘obvious’ body language in this guide.
Also remember that cultural differences influence body language signals and their interpretation.
This guide is based on ‘Western World’ and North European behaviours. What may be ‘obvious’
in one culture can mean something different in another culture.
Body language signs translation
The body language signals below are grouped together according to parts of the body.
Left and right are for the person giving the signals and making the movements.
This is a summary of the main body language signals. More signals and meanings will be added.
Suggest any other signals that you wish to know, and I’ll add them.
Body language warning
Body language is not an exact science.
No single body language sign is a reliable indicator.
Understanding body language involves the interpretation of several consistent signals to
support or indicate a particular conclusion.
eyes | mouth | head | arms | hands | handshakes | legs and feet | personal space
Eyes – body language
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 –
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.
Mouth – body language
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
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
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.
Head – body language
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
The head – when our hands interact with it – is therefore dynamic and busy in communicating all
sorts of messages – consciously and unconsciously.
Arms – body language
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
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.
Hands – body language
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.