Albert Mehrabian identified the so-called 7-38-55 principle back in the 1970s: just 7% of all messages are verbal. 38% are communicated via intonation, tone of voice, and other vocal elements. The majority of messages are communicated nonverbally, including through body language.
Mehrabian was an engineer. Even someone who’s far from the behavioral sciences can learn how to read body language!
What is body language?
Body language is an outer signal of someone’s inner emotional state. It reflects what you feel and think. There are hundreds of thousands of nonverbal cues and signals, some of which include:
- posture (sitting up straight, leaning over)
- facial expressions (frowning, raising brows, scowling)
- hand gestures (waving, pointing, thumbs up)
- nonverbal cues (nodding or shaking your head)
- too much or too little eye contact
Ways to Read Body Language
If you can read body language accurately, you can tell if a person feels comfortable, engaged in your conversation, satisfied, or put off. Here are some common body language cues and what they can potentially mean.
Balanced eye contact
Balanced or sufficient eye contact means someone is sincerely interested in talking to you. By sufficient, we mean a few seconds at a time. Excessive eye contact and avoiding eye contact can both have negative implications.
Those versed in the art of lying know that avoiding direct eye contact is considered a telltale sign, so they try to compensate by making excessive eye contact. There might be other ambiguous body language or verbal indications of deception, like contradictory statements. There are ways to find out for sure whether someone is lying.
How to read posture
When someone sits upright or stands erect, making the most of the physical space available to them, it conveys authority and power. It probably also means they are interested in talking to you.
On the other hand, crossed arms or legs can mean someone is not interested in communicating, even if they are sending a positive verbal message.
Detect a fake smile
If a smile is genuine, there will be a slight crinkle in the corner of the eyes. A smile with eyes is a real smile. Imagine a smile with the mouth only, where the eyes remain cold – it can be chilling.
Watch for excessive nodding
Don’t ignore excessive nodding. It rarely means something positive. Usually, the person is impatient for a chance to speak or feels nervous or unconfident around you.
If someone stands or sits close to you, this reflects comfort in your presence.
The eyebrows move closer together, and the forehead wrinkles up. This is a sign that someone feels anxious or confused.
Playing around with objects or elements of their clothing or making small, nervous hand movements means the person is bored with what you are saying.
How to start understanding body language
Body language can be crucial in navigating intimacy, professionalism, and other aspects of life, like giving information. However, it takes time and can be very challenging to grasp. Here is some advice to make your nonverbal communication skills better.
Observe subtle movements
To learn how to read nonverbal communication correctly, you need to pay close attention to subtle movements, such as small shifts of the eyes and slight tilts of the head. Watching someone’s body or face for subtle signs can reveal what they are expressing.
Body language is context-based
Body language can depend on the setting and culture. It’s one thing to make eye contact with a coworker when discussing a project and quite another to make the same kind of eye contact with a stranger in the park.
People can make automatic assumptions about others’ body language. A blank stare might be read as a lack of interest or, worse, low intellectual capacity. However, some people express contentment that way. If you’re unsure what someone’s body language might mean, ask for clarification to match emotions. If they get an anxious look, ask if what you just said made them nervous, for example.
Finally, don’t disregard the impact of distractions, illnesses, or outright bad days on a person’s body language.
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