GeneralScience

The 2-minute guide to understanding body language

Understanding body language is like being able to read minds. According to "Psychology Today," around 55% of communication is done through body language, 38% through tone of voice, and only 7% by the actual words spoken. People have a harder time controlling their body movements compared to their speech, making it a great way to discover a person’s true feelings. Here’s a quick guide to understanding body language to help you in important social situations. But be careful because body language can have different meanings across cultures and even genders.

Eyes

Up close view of woman's green eye and dark lashes against a blurry green backdrop
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Everyone has heard the expression “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” In the case of body language, that’s true! The eyes can tell a lot about what a person is thinking and feeling. Keeping regular, but not too much, eye contact is a sign of honesty in most Western societies. Avoiding eye contact can mean shame, either from the situation or from dishonesty. Too much eye contact can be a display of dominance and usually makes people feel uncomfortable.

When someone is thinking of a response, pay close attention to the direction they look. If they look to the left, it means they’re trying to remember something and probably about to tell the truth. Looking to the right indicates creative thought and is associated with lying.

Facial expressions

Woman laughing and looking off camera in front of a bright yellow background
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The mouth can also provide important insights into a person’s thoughts. There are several different kinds of smiles that mean different things. A full, genuine smile uses the entire face, showing joy and happiness. If the smile is fake, only the mouth is involved. A fake smile means that the person is trying to show interest and be nice, but it’s not entirely how they feel. Half-smiles are when someone moves just part of their mouth. Those fluent in sarcasm should be familiar with half-smiles as it usually means someone is joking or that they aren’t sure about the situation.

Microexpressions are fast, involuntary expressions people make that convey their true feelings. What makes them extra helpful is that they are universal to all people regardless of cultural background or gender. Unfortunately, they are very hard to detect without the use of a slow-motion camera. These expressions last only for 1/25th of a second! You can train yourself to detect them, but it’s not always accurate. The seven universal microexpressions are:

  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Happiness
  • Surprise
  • Contempt

Hand signals

Two people conversing at a table and using hand gestures for emphasis
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Hands are versatile communicators. They can greet people with a handshake or give a reassuring touch to our loved ones. They can also give away our true feelings. Keeping your hands hidden is typically seen as a sign of deceit. If the hands are out in the open, it is seen as more truthful. When asking a friend for a favor, it might be beneficial for you to keep your palms facing up. Palms facing upward is seen as a simple, non-threatening request. If palms are facing down, it is taken as authoritative and demanding.

Touching is another important aspect of hand body language. If someone touches you with their whole hand, like a firm hand on the shoulder, it means they like you more than if they touch you with just the fingertips. If someone touches their own face during a conversation, particularly the eyes or mouth, it is a good indicator that they are lying.

Arm position

Woman speaking to a crowd and using a broad arm gesture to communicate
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If eyes are the windows to the soul, then arms are the doorway to the body. In general, if someone puts an object in between himself and the speaker, it is seen as a type of blocking. He is trying to protect himself. Crossing your arms is viewed as a defensive gesture whereas a relaxed posture shows more friendliness and openness. If someone places her hands on her hips like Superman, it is typically a display of dominance or confidence.

Feet

Point-of-view of a person's shoes standing on concrete with a painted arrow facing forward
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While everyone is focused on keeping their faces and arms in check, trying not to reveal any important information, they often forget about their feet, which makes them a valuable tool for reading body language. The feet usually point the direction that a person wants to go. If you’re talking to a coworker and their feet are pointing toward the door, you might want to wrap up your story because they’re probably bored and want to leave. If their feet are pointed right at you, they are interested in you and what you have to say. If someone’s body is facing a different direction than his feet, trust the feet over the body.