The commonest mistake is trying to read body language in isolation, and making too hasty an assessment. Thus, don't try to learn individual signals. Instead, look at body language in terms of scenarios.
- Scratching your nose:
could mean lying and disbelief, but often means itchy
back in a chair: could mean superiority and arrogance, but
often means the person feels relaxed and tired.
- Hands in
pockets: could mean secretive, withdrawn, perhaps
depressed, but often means hands feel cold or feeling for a
- Folded arms: could mean the person is defensive, uncertain, in need of reassurance, but often means it's cold, it feels comfortable.
- Crossed legs: could mean defensive, repressed, possibly hostile person but often means it's comfortable (men) and it's feminine (women).
- Yawning: could mean difficult situation and bored, but often means tired and poor air supply.
Body language has three uses: as a conscious replacement for speech; to reinforce speech; and as a mirror of mood. We have to bear in mind that the meanings attributed to certain actions can vary from culture to culture.
POSITIVE BODY LANGUAGE
When people feel positive about someone or something they often express it by an intentional gesture of agreement, reassurance, appreciation or interest. The body has its own secret ways of revealing such feelings.
Instead of saying "yes", people might make a conscious gesture that means the same thing. A "yes" gesture can involve the head or hand.
- Nodding: Most of us nod our heads up and down to signal agreement. In conversation, though, tests show that what nodding means depends on how it's done.
- A single brief nod often means "I agree".
- Nodding briefly now and then while someone is talking tends to show that the listener is paying attention.
- A prolonged nod could mean "Yes, but
…", or, in other words, "I disagree".
- Nodding twice in succession seems to have the effect of making the speaker change pace or return to a topic already agreed on.
- Nodding three times in succession tends
to confuse the speaker, who might dry up.
- Smiling: Like nodding often, giving brief, frequent smiles at someone who is talking encourages that person to continue. Smiling is normally a positive gesture conveying welcome, happiness, agreement or appreciation, although it can also express sympathy, regret and even displeasure. The message conveyed depend upon how the smile is delivered.
- Mimicking: Two people talking to one another might unconsciously mimic each other's posture and gestures to show they agree on what is being discussed. Here are some movements that might be mimicked wherever friends meet.
Shifting weight from one foot to the other; leaning one elbow on a drinks bar; clasping a glass in both hands; shifting most body weight onto one foot; uncrossing the arms; crossing the legs; uncrossing the legs; gesturing with open hands; putting a hand on your hip.
Deliberately mimicking another person's posture and gestures can help them to feel friendlier towards the one mimicking. According to some researchers, skillful salespeople know and exploit this, but take care not to make their copying obvious. They do not move every time the potential customer moves, and when that person makes an "openness" gesture they might signal the same message in a different way. For instance, if a seated person uncrosses the legs, instead of doing the same an experienced mimicker might gesture with both hands, palms up.
People consciously use several gestures that signal "all's well" or "all will be well".
- Thumbs up: Throughout North America and Europe, raising a clenched fist with the thumb sticking up signals "everything's fine". But alternative meanings of this gesture can also mean: a sexual insult in parts of Africa, Australia, Southern Europe and the Middle East; the number 1 in Germany, for example, a German might stick up a thumb to order one beer; and the number 5 in Japan.
- Signing OK: Originally North American, the OK ring signal is also found in Europe. To make it, the forearm is raised, the tips of the thumb and first finger touching to form a ring. The remaining fingers are extended and held slightly apart, the hand positioned so that the fourth finger is nearest the person being signaled to. Usually, as the hand is raised, it is jabbed forward, as if the signaler were throwing a dart. Alternative meanings of this gesture can also mean that the user thinks something is worthless (worth zero) in Belgium and France; an insult in Tunisia, Sicily and Southern Italy where the "worthless" ring is combined with a karate chopping gesture to mean "You are so despicable, I shall kill you" or "I want my change in coins" in Japan.
- V for Victory: The palm faces outwards, a V is made with the first and second fingers, with the thumb and remaining fingers tucked into the palm. In Britain, anyone wanting to signal "we'll win" or "peace" should make sure they do it this way, not palm inwards (which is an insult).
SHOWING INTEREST SUBCONSCIOUSLY
The following actions may subconsciously signal "I am interested".
- Tell-Tale eyes:
Dilation of the eyes' pupils: In normal lighting and conditions that are found only moderately interesting, the eyes' pupils are moderate in size. In dim light or if a person sees something fascinating the eyes' pupils expand.
Blink rate: When people see something fascinating their blink rate is likely to speed up.
- Head Attitude: The attitude of a person's head can
also indicate if they are interested in what someone is
- Showing mild interest: When an individual is neither bored nor stimulated, he or she might hold the head up.
- Showing interest: When a person is interested in what another is saying, his or her head tends to tilt a little to one side. He or she might also nod in agreement.
- Head and Hand Attitudes combined:
and hand attitudes combined can signal
- Interested evaluation: When one person is interested in what another says and is weighing up what he or she has heard, the person might raise one hand to the cheek, first finger and thumb pointing up, and three fingers curled in on the palm.
- Signs of making a decision: If someone asks another to come to a decision, the second individual's hand might automatically slide down and begin to stroke the chin.
- Protruding tongue: A person may poke the tip of the tongue out or into one side of the mouth without even noticing what they are doing. The individual's protruding tongue may signal a mild rejection to others because he or she does not want to be interrupted or distracted from the task in hand.
- Body and Legs: People standing or sitting in a group tend to point the torso and/or feet (and if seated, knees or one knee) at the person who most strongly arouses their interest.
NEGATIVE BODY LANGUAGE
Body language has dozens of ways of expressing negative commands, feelings and inclinations. Negation includes denial, ignorance, indifference, mistrust, refusal, rejection, boredom, sarcasm, impatience and disbelief. There are many subconscious cues, warning, for instance, that an audience is losing interest in a speaker, a party-goer is fed up with the party bore, or a person is rejecting another's advances.
There are more ways of signaling "no" than might be imagined.
- Head shaking: The head is turned from side to side. This gesture occurs worldwide, though in an Ethiopian variant the head turns abruptly to one side only, then faces forward again.
- Head wobbling: This, confusingly, looks like head shaking but is used by Bulgarians, Indians and Pakistanis to mean "yes".
- Head jerking: The head is jerked sharply backwards. People signal "no" like this in southern Italy, Greece, Turkey and Arabic-speaking countries. In Ethiopia, though, the same signal means "yes".
- Flicking the chin: The head is tilted back and the chin is repeatedly flicked with the backs of the fingertips of one hand. This way of saying "no" is common in southern Italy and neighbouring islands.
- Rocking a hand: The hand is held up, palm outwards, and rocked quickly from side to side. The face is generally unsmiling and the head might be shaken, too. People sometimes do this to signal "No more, thank you," across a crowded room. An amplified version involves crossing both hands, palms outwards, in front of the chest.
- Waving: The Japanese sign "no" by holding the right hand, turned sideways, in front of the face while waving the forearm and hand from side to side.
DON'T DO IT!
- First finger wag: The thumb and three fingers of one hand are curled inwards, while the hand is held palm outwards and the first finger is held erect and wagged from side to side. Wagging a first finger is a worldwide negative gesture which means "Stop doing that".
There are at least three popular gestures that convey some form of this negative message.
- Thumbs down: An arm is held out with thumb projecting but fingers tucked into the palm. The thumb is pointed downwards, either held still or jabbed down repeatedly. The thumb-down sign means "bad news" or "no good".
- Holding the nose: this is a widespread action in which the nostrils are pinched between the thumb and first finger of one hand, as if trying to shut out a horrible smell. People do this to show that some object or idea is so bad it metaphorically stinks.
- Wrinkling the nose: The nose is wrinkled as if trying to shut out a nasty smell. This is another widespread way of displaying a low or negative opinion of something or someone.
Shrugging is how we sign "I don't know", "I don't understand", "I can't help" or "It's none of my business". The full shrug mimics the hunched attitude assumed by someone who feels under threat, thought he or she offers no opposition. But shrugging takes several forms.
- Hunching the shoulders: This widespread jerky action is made while raising the eyebrows, pulling down both corners of the mouth, and holding the hands out palm upwards. The head might be tilted to one side.
- Turning down the corners of the mouth: This abbreviated shrug is common in France.
- Holding out both the hands: Here the palms face upwards, with fingers slightly curled. This is widespread.
- Raising an open hand: The hand is raised, palm outwards, to shoulder height, while both shoulders shrug slightly.
LACK OF INTEREST:
- Contradiction of the eyes' pupils: this is a subconscious signal. A person whose pupils shrink probably is not interested in the situation or person he or she is currently involved with.
- Indifference: Indifference can be betrayed by a seemingly relaxed attitude. For example, a man (it is usually a man) who is indifferent to a person or situation might sit very casually, with one leg flung over the arm of his chair).
The following examples occur when two people are talking to each
other but one is not paying attention to what the other is saying.
- Scanning away: The individual who is not paying attention probably spends less time looking at the other person than in other directions.
- Head turning: The individual who is not paying attention might keep turning the head away from the other person.
- Asymmetrical smiling: The individual not paying attention might respond to the other's remarks with lopsided smiles.
If someone is buttonholed at a meeting or party by another person they would rather avoid, the first person is likely to give stronger hints of rejection than by merely showing lack of attention. The second person will probably realize they are being rejected by the first, if he or she: half turns the body and head away; assumes a blank expression; stares pointedly into the middle distance so that the other person cannot catch his or her eye to try to keep the talk flowing; puts a hand up to the mouth to stifle a pretended (or genuine) yawn; openly yawns, pouts or sneers; fidgets, picks fingernails or teeth, or makes finger joints crack; openly disagrees with the bore by shaking the head; and, ultimately, turns away and walks off.
When seated people are bored by a dry talk or a dull television programme, they assume tell-tale postures that give away what they are feeling. The head turns to one side now and then. The head begins to need some support from a hand. The trunk becomes straighter. The legs become straighter.
Losing interest: The
following sequence illustrates how declining interest might be
- The head is completely propped up by a hand. The person leans back.
- The legs are fully stretched.
- A bored individual trying not to look bored might lean forward.
- If boredom is extreme, the person might
close their eyes and assume a very slumped posture.
Signs of boredom:
- Twiddling the thumbs: A widespread, subconscious gesture of boredom, the fingers are interlocked and the thumbs circle each other.
- Measuring an imaginary beard: This is done with the hand and implies that the speaker has droned on long enough for the listener to grow a beard. Bored men sometimes do this in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
- Rubbing the cheek: The backs of the fingers are rubbed to and fro against the cheek, as if feeling stubble. This is largely a French gesture.
- Tapping the chest slowly with one hand: The hand is held sideways, pointing down, with the thumb facing the body. Bored Italians sometimes do this to indicate that someone's talking is giving them indigestion.
impatience are often given away by fidgety movements involving
fingers, thighs or feet.
- Drumming the fingers: An individual who is sitting with a hand resting on a table or arm of a chair might signal impatience by drumming his or her fingers in rapid succession.
- Foot fidgeting: A standing person might repeatedly tap his or her foot on the ground. Alternatively, if sitting with legs crossed, the individual may twitch the suspended foot up and down.
- Slapping a thigh: A person standing might repeatedly slap an open hand against the outside of one thigh.
Sarcastic gestures are mocking ways of showing approval or enthusiasm.
- Distorted smiling: One corner of the mouth is pulled in so strongly that the cheek is puckered. This lopsided smile could betray that a person is pretending to show friendly approval when he or she is really feeling hostile and contemptuous. In the Western world, people can express sarcasm like this. This kind of smile can also signal inattention.
- Clapping with thumbnails: the thumbnails are repeatedly patted together as if clapping the hands in miniature. In Latin America, Spain and the Netherlands thumbnail clapping is a form of ironic applause, which tends to be used when the real thing would normally be expected.
- The pursed hand: Lowering a pursed hand once is a sarcastic Maltese way of saying "good", when an individual really means "You idiot!"
- Stroking the throat: A Southern American gesture of disbelief involves stroking the front of the neck up and down repeatedly with a first finger. The action implies that the remarks coming from an associate's throat are rubbish.
- Pointing at a hand: The first finger of one hand is pointed at the other, which is held open, palm upwards. This Jewish gesture means "My hand will sprout grass before what you say comes to pass".
- Raising a trouser leg: Holding one trouser leg above the thigh, a man delicately lifts it as if he has just stepped in a heap of dung. American men might do this as a playful way of saying that what they have just been told is a load of manure.
SHARING NEGATIVE INFORMATION
Friends or acquaintances often use gestures when they want to share negative information or an opinion about another individual, without letting them or others know what they are saying. Several examples of types of gesture from around the world used to hint at complicity, suspicion or contempt of another, and to make derogatory sexual comments. Certain signs, however, have more than one meaning which depends upon where they are used.
- Hints of complicity:
- Winking one eye: is how many Europeans and North Americans show they are sharing a secret (or a light-hearted deception).
- Tapping one side of the nose with an index finger: can mean "Keep this quiet - just between the two of us". It is common in Britain and Italy. This, like winking, does not necessarily mean that the secret shared is negative.
Alternative meanings of tapping the nose can be used to: warn another person that someone is nosey in Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands; mean "Mind your own business" in The British Isles, Austria and Belgium; mean "I'm on to you!" or "I know what's going on" in northern Belgium and, rarely, in other parts of Europe; and praise someone else's alertness or shrewdness in Sicily and Southern Italy.
- Signs of suspicion:
- Pulling the lower eyelid down to make the eye appear bigger is how an Italian or Spaniard might say "Watch out: be on your guard". This gesture does, however, have a positive meaning in South America.
- Patting the elbow with the hand of the other arm: is Dutch for "Don't rely on him."
- Disparaging comments:
Rolling the eyes to show
the whites and raising the eyebrows: means "Would you believe
it?", or, when a forgetful person starts repeating an often-told
anecdote, "There she goes again."
Tapping the temple or forehead: can mean "He's crazy". The exact spot can vary from country to country.