How to interpret people’s body language (kinesics) is a minefield. Let me give you an example. My first landlady in Naples used to beckon to me with her palm facing downwards. I misinterpreted this as being a dismissal. But it was an invitation to approach her because she wanted to give me a coffee. I was expecting a beckoning palm-up signal. I had to rewire my brain to get used to these Neapolitan gestures!

Apart from cultural differences, there are all sorts of traps that can be misleading and it is wise to be cautious. We do need to be able to read people’s body language because it will help us in personal and professional relationships. Not to mention parenting, family relationships, which politician to vote for, and dating.

We know the human species (that’s you and me!) use sophisticated techniques to pretend, deceive, lie, convince, manipulate, charm and mesmerize. Body language is just one of the techniques used. Studies by Albert Mehrabian (UCLA) show that we convey a message by relying on words (7%), tone of voice (38%), while the non-verbal communication makes up all the rest (55%).

So, here are 15 tricks to read these signals. Try to think of these as not individual signals but rather as a group of indicators which will give you a more reliable reading. Don’t worry; you’re in very good company. The study of non-verbal communication has been around for a long time. Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Charles Darwin and Desmond Morris (author of “The Naked Ape” and “Manwatching”) were just a few of the people who were fascinated by body language.

1. Eye contact

If the person makes eye contact, it is usually a sign of willingness to engage, make friends, or even more. But intense staring can be interpreted as curiosity, aggression or hostility. We have a saying in our family which we use at the beach for people who stare for too long:

“Try taking a photograph – it lasts longer” – Anon

2. Eye movement

When talking to people, notice their eye direction. If they are consistently moving towards the right, it may be a sign that they are inventing, lying or simply being creative. If they are generally looking left, it could be a sign they are remembering facts.

3. Smiling

Again, mixed signals. In order to judge the genuineness of the smile, look at the crows’ feet surrounding the eyes. If these are involved, it is usually a genuine gesture of friendliness, kindness or gratitude. These are now called ‘joy lines’ which is an improvement on ‘crows’ feet.’ If it is a twisted smile, there may be an element of sarcasm. A tight-lipped smile may be a signal of mistrust or dislike.

4. Shaking hands

Most people interpret a limp or unenthusiastic handshake as negative. As the handshake is an important sign of friendship or trust, it is usually a key indicator. But bear in mind that musicians, surgeons and arthritis sufferers will be extra cautious to avoid using a bone crusher. A firm handshake is usually reassuring, although this too can be faked.

5. Crossing arms

Crossing arms is usually a sign of defensiveness, but not always. It are often a sign the person is cold or feeling uncomfortable in a situation where he or she has no idea of what to do with his or her arms.

Job interviewers are trained to watch for crossed arms when asking about a particular point on the candidate’s curriculum vitae (CV). It could be a warning signal that something is being hidden.

But when you are in front of a person with crossed arms with a frown and clenched fists, then this may not only be defensive but hostile!

6. Open leg cross

If you look at the video of Lance Armstrong talking with Oprah Winfrey in the video below, you will notice body language which reveals a certain aggressiveness in the open leg cross seating position. At times, he displays arrogance, defiance and narrows his eyes in anger which are all very revealing about what he really thinks, rather than his actual words.

7. Who’s lying?

Now, it is extremely difficult to tell whether a person is lying and there have been many attempts at lie detectors when body language lets the investigators down. Often, touching the nose is interpreted as lying or an exaggeration and is based on the Pinocchio story where the wooden puppet grows a longer and longer nose with each lie he tells.

8. Dating and mating

It is fascinating to observe both female and male behavior when sending signals which indicate sexual attraction. Despite the evolutionary process which has taken millions of years, the human species is not yet using subtle body language here.

The female will be using lip moistening, preening and flicking of hair as well as self touching to indicate that she wants these actions reciprocated.

The male may use hands in pockets with thumbs out which are pointing to the genitals. There may be an exaggerated stance to increase height, chest width and so on.

9. Personal space

Have you ever noticed on a crowded bus how people seek out the maximum personal space and try to preserve this as best they can? This is the defense mechanism from our anthropological past in which we defend our territory or our lair. This is mentioned by Edward T. Hall’s Book, “The Silent Language.” There are certain limits in personal space to be observed too when meeting colleagues and we instinctively respect these, although cultural differences may vary.

10. Posture

Notice how colleagues enter the office. Look at how they hold themselves and how they move. An erect and poised posture is often a sign they are confident, self-assured, assertive and successful. Angry people are usually much more tense. Depressed people or those with low self-esteem are often stooped or hunched.

11. Lips

Holding back information, anxiety and even seeking attention are all revealed in certain lip movements. Pursed lips are usually a sign of hesitation or doubt. Watch this short video to find out more.

12. Finger pointing

Back to our anthropological roots again. Did you know when a person starts to point a finger at an object or a person, this is subconsciously seen as a weapon with which he or she beats you. Watch out for the finger-pointers.

13. Politicians and body language

Politicians would do well to study body language. When they read their notes, they bow their heads and this is a sign of submission which is negative. Those who approach the stage by waving to the audience are sending signals they are friendly and they have social proof. This simple act is establishing a bond. Those who smile too often may convey signs of a walkover and being too nice.

14. The jaw

According to ancient Chinese medicine, our faces reveal not only our personalities but also what illnesses we might have. They see the jaw as being the roots of a tree. If a person has a strong jaw, that may reveal a very rigid person. If you watch carefully, you may find that the person juts out their jaw to emphasize a point. This means he or she really believes in his or her values and will not easily be deterred. You can read more on this fascinating aspect of body language in Jean Haner’s book called, “The Wisdom of Your Face.”

15. The secret to interpreting body language realistically

The most important thing to remember about body language is to consider the following:

  • Think about the context and the relationship with the person.
  • Never judge a single move as definitive. Look for patterns and consistency.
  • Be aware of cultural differences especially if you are doing business abroad.
  • Look at the environment the person operates in and take that into consideration.

Have you found that observing body language has helped you in your work and in personal relationships? Let us know in the comments below.

Check out Increasing Confidence with Body Language

Featured photo credit: A truly disturbing dead clown /TheeErin via flickr.com

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