Understanding the Body Language

Body language is an important part of communication, which, according to at least one study, constitutes around 55% of what we are communicating. If you wish to communicate well, then it makes sense to understand how you can (and can’t) use your body to say what you mean. A significant cluster of body movements is used to signal aggression. This is actually quite useful as it is seldom a good idea to get into a fight, even for powerful people. Fighting can hurt you, even though you are pretty certain you will win. In addition, with adults, fighting is often socially unacceptable and aggression through words and body language is all that may ever happen.

1. Threat

Facial signals: Much aggression can be shown in the face, from disapproving frowns and pursed lips to sneers and full snarls. The eyes can be used to stare and hold the gaze for long period. They may also squint, preventing the other person seeing where you are looking.

Attack signals: When somebody is about to attack, they give visual signal such as clenching of fists ready to strike and lowering and spreading of the body for stability. They are also likely to give anger signs such as redness of the face.

Exposing oneself: Exposing oneself to attack is also a form of aggression. It is saying ‘Go on – I dare you. I will still win.’ It can include not looking at the other person, crotch displays, relaxing the body, turning away and so on.

2. Invasion

Invading the space of the other person in some way is an act of aggression that is equivalent to one country invading another.

False friendship: Invasion is often done under the cloak of familiarity, where you act as if you are being friendly and move into a space reserved for friends, but without being invited. This gives the other person a dilemma of whether to repel a ‘friendly’ advance or to accept dominance of the other.

Approach: When you go inside the comfort zone of others without permission, you are effectively invading their territory. The close you get, the greater your ability to have ‘first strike’, from which an opponent may not recover.

Touching: Touching the person is another form of invasion. Even touching social touch zones such as arm and back can be aggressive.

3. Gestures

Insulting gestures: There are many, many gestures that have the primary intent of insulting the other person and hence inciting them to anger and a perhaps unwise battle. Single and double fingers pointed up, arm thrusts; chin tilts and so on are used, although many of these do vary across cultures (which can make for hazardous accidental movements when you are overseas).

Mock attacks: Gestures may include symbolic action that mimics actual attacks, including waving fingers (the beating baton), shaking fists, and head-butts and so on. This is saying ‘Here is what I will do to you!’. Physical items may be used as substitutes, for example banging of tables and doors or throwing. Again, this is saying ‘This could be you!’

Sudden movements: All of these gestures may be done suddenly, signaling your level of aggression and testing the other person’s reactions.

Large gestures: The size of gestures may also be used to signal levels of aggression, from simple finger movements to whole arm sweeps, sometimes even with exaggerated movements of the entire body.

Submissive gestures: There are many gestures that have the primary intent of showing submission and that there is no intent to harm the other person. Hands out and palms up shows that no weapons are held and is a common pleading gesture. Other gestures and actions that indicate tension may indicate the state of fear. This includes hair tugging, face touching and jerky movement. There may also be signs such as whiteness of the face and sweating.

Small gestures: When the submissive person must move, then small gestures are often made. These may be slow to avoid alarming the other person, although tension may make them jerky.

4. Boredom

When a person is bored, they whole body is telling you. So if you are trying to persuade them, don’t bother (unless you are trying to bore them into submission).

Distraction: A bored person looks anywhere but at the person who is talking to them. They find other things to do, from doodling to talking with others to staring around the room. They may also keep looking at their watch or a wall clock.

Repetition:Bored people often repeat actions such as tapping toes, swinging feet or drumming fingers. The repetition may escalate as they try to signal their boredom.

Tiredness: A person who feels that they are unable to act to relieve their boredom may show signs of tiredness. They may yawn and their whole body may sag as they slouch down in their seat, lean against a wall or just sag where they are standing. Their face may also show a distinct lack of interest and appear blank.

Reasons for boredom

  • Disinterest: If the person is not interested in their surroundings or what is going on, then they may become bored. The disinterest may also be feigned if they do not want you to see that they are interested. Watch for leaking signs of readiness in these cases.
  • Readiness: A bored person may actually be ready for the actions you want, such as closing a sale. Sales people are known to keep on the sales patter long after the customer is ready to sign on the dotted line.

5. Deception

When a person is seeking to trick or deceive you, they there are many different body signals they may use. A deceptive body is concerned about being found out — and this concern may show.

Anxiety: A deceptive person is typically anxious that they might be found out (unless they are psychopathic or good at acting), so they may send signals of tension. This may include sweating, sudden movements, minor twitches of muscles (especially around the mouth and eyes), changes in voice tone and speed.Many of us have hidden anxiety signals. These signals are almost impossible to stop as we start them very young.

Control: In order to avoid being caught, there may be various signs of over-control. For example, there may be signs of attempted friendly body language, such as forced smiles (mouth smiles but eyes do not), jerky movements and clumsiness or oscillation between open body language and defensive body language.

Distracted: A person who is trying to deceive needs to think more about what they are doing, so they may drift off or pause as they think about what to say or hesitate during speech. They may also be distracted by the need to cover up. Thus their natural timing may go astray and they may over- or under-react to events. Anxiety may be displaced into actions such as fidgeting, moving around the place or paying attention to unusual places.

Reasons for deception

There can be many good reasons for deception.

  • Persuading: Deception may be an act that is intended to get another person to say or do something.
  • Avoiding detection: Deception also may be more self-oriented, where the sole goal is to get away with something, perhaps by avoiding answering incriminating questions.

6. Defending from attack

When a person is feeling threatened in some ways, they will take defensive body postures. The basic defensive body language has a primitive basis and assumes that the other person will physically attack, even when this is highly unlikely.

Covering vital organs and points of vulnerability: In physical defense, the defensive person will automatically tend to cover those parts of the body that could damage by an attack. The chin is held down, covering the neck. The groin is protected with knees together, crossed legs or covering with hands. The arms may be held across the chest or face.

Fending off: Arms may be held out to fend off attacker, possibly straight out or curved to deflect incoming attacks.

Becoming small: One way of defending against attack is to reduce the size of the target. People may thus huddle into a smaller position, keeping their arms and legs in.

Rigidity: Another primitive response is to tense up, making the muscles harder in order to withstand a physical attack. Rigidity also freezes the body, possibly avoiding movements being noticed or being interpreted as preparing for attack.

Seeking escape: Flicking the eyes from side to side shows that the person is looking for a way out.

Pre-empting attack

  • Giving in: Pre-empting the attack, the defensive person may reduce the, generally using submissive body language, avoiding looking at the other person, keeping the head down and possibly crouching into a lower body position.
  • Attacking first: Aggressive body language may also appear, as the person uses ‘attack as the best form of defense’. The body may thus be erect, thrust forward and with attacking movements. Where attack and defense both appear together, there may be conflicting signs appearing together. Thus the upper body may exhibit aggression whilst the legs are twisted together.

7. Emotions

With careful observation, emotions may be detected from non-verbal signs. Remember that these are indicators and not certain guarantees. Contextual clues may also be used; in particular what is being said to the person or what else is happening around then.

Anger: Anger occurs when achievement of goals are frustrated.

  • Neck and/or face is red or flushed.
  • Baring of teeth and snarling.
  • Clenched fists.
  • Leaning forward and invasion of body space.
  • Other aggressive body language.
  • Use of power body language.

Fear, anxiety and nervousness: Fear occurs when basic needs are threatened. There are many levels of fear, from mild anxiety to blind terror. The many bodily changes caused by fear make it easy to detect.

  • A ‘cold sweat’.
  • Pale face.
  • Dry mouth, which may be indicated by licking lips, drinking water, rubbing throat.
  • Not looking at the other person.
  • Damp eyes.
  • Trembling lip.
  • Varying speech tone.
  • Speech errors.
  • Voice tremors.
  • Visible high pulse (noticeable on the neck or movement of crossed leg.
  • Sweating.
  • Tension in muscles: clenched hands or arms, elbows drawn in to the side, jerky movements, legs wrapped around things.
  • Gasping and holding breath.
  • Fidgeting.
  • Defensive body language, including crossed arms and legs and generally drawing in of limbs.
  • Ready body language (for fight-or-flight)
  • Other symptoms of stress

Sadness: Sadness is the opposite of happiness and indicates a depressive state.

  • Drooping of the body.
  • Trembling lip.
  • Flat speech tone.
  • Tears.

Embarrassment: Embarrassment may be caused by guilt or transgression of values.

  • Neck and/ or face is red or flushed.
  • Looking down or away from others. Not looking them in the eye.
  • Grimacing, false smile, changing the topic or otherwise trying to cover up the embarrassment.

Surprise: Surprise occurs when things occur that were not expected.

  • Raised eyebrows.
  • Widening of eyes.
  • Open mouth.
  • Sudden backward movement.

Happiness: Happiness occurs when goals and needs are met.

  • General relaxation of muscles.
  • Smiling (including eyes).
  • Open body language

8. Relaxed body

A relaxed body generally lacks tension. Muscles are relaxed and loose. Movement is fluid and the person seems happy or unconcerned overall.

Torso: The torso may sag slightly to one side (but not be held there by irregular tension). It may also be well balanced, with the shoulders balanced above the pelvis. It does not curl up with fear, though it may curl up in a restful pose. Shoulders are not tensed up and generally hang loosely down.

Breathing: Breathing is steady and slower. This may make the voice a little lower than usual.

Color: The color of the skin is generally normal, being neither reddened by anger or embarrassment, nor pale with fear. There are no unusual patches, for example on the neck or cheeks.

Relaxed limbs: Relaxed limbs hang loosely. They do not twitch and seldom cross one another, unless as a position of comfort.

Arms: Tense arms are rigid and may be held close to the body. They may move in suddenly, a staccato manner. Relaxed arms either hang loosely or move smoothly. If arms cross one another, they hand loosely. Any crossing, of course can indicate some tension. Folding arms may just be comfortable.

Hands: When we are anxious, we often use our hands to touch ourselves, hold ourselves or otherwise show tension. Relaxed hands hang loose or are used to enhance what we are saying. They are generally open and may shape ideas in the air. Gestures are open and gentle, not sudden nor tense.

Legs: Legs when sitting may sit gently on the floor or may be casually flung out. They may move in time to music, with tapping toes. They may be crossed, but are not wound around one another. Note, that position of the legs can be a particular sign of hidden tension when the person is controlling the upper body and arms. When they are sitting at a table, what you see may be relaxed, but the legs may be held tense and wrapped.

Relaxed head: There are major signs of a relaxed person in their face.

Mouth: The person may smile gently or broadly without any signs of grimacing. Otherwise the mouth is relatively still. When talking, the mouth opens moderately, neither with small movements nor large movement. The voice sounds relaxed without unusually high pitch and without sudden changes in pitch or speed.

Eyes: The eyes smile with the mouth, particularly in the little creases at the side of the eyes. A relaxed gaze will look directly at another person without staring, and with little blinking. The eyes are generally dry. Eyebrows are stable or may move with speech. They do not frown.

Other areas: Other muscles in the face are generally relaxed. The forehead is a major indicator and lines only appear in gentle expression. The sides of the face are not drawn back. When the head moves, it is smoothly and in time with relaxed talk or other expression.

A significant cluster of body movements has to do with romance, signaling to a person of the opposite sex that you are interested in partnering with them.

From afar: From afar, the first task of body language is to signal interest (and then to watch for reciprocal body language).

Eyes: The eyes do much signaling. Initially and from a distance, a person may look at you for slightly longer than normal, then look away, then look back up at you, again for a longer period.

Preening: There are many preening gestures. What you are basically saying with this is ‘I am making myself look good for you’. This includes tossing of the head, brushing hair with hand, polishing spectacles and brushing or picking imaginary lint from clothes.

Self-caressing: Remote romantic language may also include caressing oneself, for example stroking arms, leg or face. This may either say ‘I would like to stroke you like this’ or ‘I would like you to stroke me like this’.

Leaning: Leaning your body towards another person says ‘I would like to be closer to you’. It also tests to see whether they lean towards you or away from you. It can start with the head with a simple tilt or may use the entire torso. This may be coupled with listening intently to what they say, again showing particular interest in them.

Pointing: A person who is interested in you may subtly point at you with a foot, knee, arm or head. It is effectively a signal that says ‘I would like to go in this direction’.

Other displays: Other forms of more distant display that are intended to attract include:

  • Sensual or dramatic dancing (too dramatic, and it can have the opposite effect).
  • Crotch display, where (particularly male) legs are held apart to show off genitalia.
  • Faked interest in others, to invoke envy or hurry a closer engagement.
  • Nodding gently, as if to say ‘Yes, I do like you.’

Up close: When you are close to the other person, the body language progressively gets more intimate until one-person signals ‘enough’.

Close in and personal: In moving closer to the other person, you move from social space into their personal body space, showing how you would like to get even closer to them, perhaps holding them and more…Standing square on to them also blocks anyone else from joining the conversation and signals to others to stay away.

Lovers’ gaze: When you are standing close to them, you will be holding each other’s gaze for longer and longer periods before looking away. You many also use what are called ‘doe eyes’ or ‘bedroom eyes’, which are often slightly moist and with the head inclined slightly down. A very subtle signal that few realize is that the eyes will dilate such that the dark pupils get much bigger (this is one reason why dark-eyed people can seem attractive).

Touching: Touching signals even closer intimacy. It may start with ‘accidental’ brushing, followed by touching of ‘safe’ parts of the body such as arms or back.

9. Body positions

The body in fearful stances is generally closed, and may also include additional aspects.

Making the body small: Hunching inwards reduces the size of the body, limiting the potential of being hit and protecting vital areas. In a natural setting, being small may also reduce the chance of being seen. Arms are held in. A crouching position may be taken, even slightly with knees slightly bent. This is approaching the curled-up regressive fetal position.

Motionlessness: By staying still, the chance of being seen is, in a natural setting, reduced (which is why many animals freeze when they are fearful). When exposed, it also reduces the chance of accidentally sending signals, which may be interpreted as being aggressive. It also signals submission in that you are ready to be struck and will not fight back.

Head down: Turning the chin and head down protects the vulnerable neck from attack. It also avoids looking the other person in the face (staring is a sign of aggression).

Eyes: Widening the eyes makes you look more like a baby and hence signals your vulnerability. Looking attentively at the other person shows that you are hanging on their every word.

Mouth: Submissive people smile more at dominant people, but they often smile with the mouth but not with the eyes.

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