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20 Body Language Cues to Understand For Effective Communication

Written by Akina Chargualaf
Akina is the Associate Editor at Lifehack, a writer, and a podcaster. She is the co-founder of the Dear Gorgeous Letters podcast.
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For most, the exchange of information begins and ends with words. But there are actually a lot of other factors to consider.

One way to tell the true intentions of what someone is saying or doing is to look for body language indicators. The human body makes a lot of unconscious motions depending on the situation.

Sometimes, body language indicators are blatant and obvious. If you see someone crying, chances are they’re upset or sad about something. Other times, body language indicators aren’t so obvious. For instance, you may completely miss someone rolling their eyes at you in derision if they aren’t facing you.

There are so many ways to interpret body language and there’s importance to each of them. Mastering body language can help you improve your confidence and even boost your negotiation successes at work and in your personal life.

20 Body Language Cues We Use to Communicate

Body language cues can be important in almost any communication setting, whether it’s business, relationships, or even meeting someone new.

Surprisingly enough, not many people are active listeners. The video below states that the average person can say up to about 225 words per minute, while our minds can listen to up to 500 words per minute. Our mind then tries to make up for the remainder of 275 words, which can lead to distractions.



Therefore, our body language says a lot when we’re conversing with others, especially when our brain is still trying to make up for all the things left unsaid.

Here are some body language cues we commonly use to communicate and what they mean.

1. Eye Contact

Good eye contact is considered to be steady eye contact for several seconds at a time. Maintaining good eye contact can help you make a good first impression.

On the other hand, when someone is unhappy and they try to hide it by smiling, they may betray their ruse by looking downward. This can also be a sign of being uncomfortable or feeling shameful.

2. Restless Hands

Have you ever seen someone drumming on a desk or a chair with their fingers? What about people playing drums on their legs? This can be a sign of impatience, restlessness, and even sometimes anger. When you’re speaking with someone and they’re doing this, it’s time to switch tactics.

3. Restless Legs

This is almost exactly the same as restless hands, except it’s the legs. People may cross and uncross their legs over and over again, tap their feet, or even tap their heels.

Restless legs: they’re everywhere! Keep in mind, that some people may have restless legs because of restless leg syndrome. This medical condition is linked to an urge to move the legs while at rest followed up relief once you move or get up.[1]


4. Hands on the Hips

If you walk up to a boss at work or your significant other and they’re standing with their hands on their hips, you are in big trouble. If you have to have a difficult conversation at work, particularly tense ones, avoid putting your hands on your hips as this gesture is perceived as intimidating.

Unless that is your intention, keep your hands down and palms open. This is a better way to keep the situation calm and the conversation flowing.

5. Tilting One’s Head

When someone tilts their head, people can take that body language to mean they are confused. This is not always the case.

Tilting one’s head can indicate that you are listening and invested in what someone has to say.[2] Make sure to factor in the where and why this interaction is taking place.

6. Holding Your Hands Behind Your Back

Of all the body language indicators on this list, this one is the most ambiguous. People hold their hands behind their backs for a number of reasons.

Watch any mafia movie and you’ll see Don holding his hands behind his back as a sign of power. People in the military are taught to do it as a sign of respect. Usually, when this occurs, you must rely on other indicators to determine the emotion being displayed.


7. Hands Balled Into Fists

This is another really popular indicator. Unlike the last one, this one has pretty much one single meaning. People do this to display frustrated body language.

This is usually a precursor to violence, as balled-up firsts often result in something getting punched or hit. If you are speaking with someone and their hands are balled up in fists, things could go very wrong very quickly.

8. Touching

This body language has a universal meaning but can be vastly different. This can be shown in a number of ways as well; your boss may pat you on the shoulder, your boyfriend or girlfriend may lay their head on your shoulder, or a colleague can even high-five you.

When someone is touching you in a non-violent manner, it makes them feel more comfortable around you. Affective touch can create a pleasurable sensation in the other person and is even one of the five love languages.[3]

9. Crossed Arms

People often misconstrue what crossing arms actually means. People think it means that someone is angry. In fact, it’s actually used as a defensive stance against distress and anxiety.[4]

A person with their arms crossed may not want to talk anymore or they may be hiding something they don’t want to talk about. Crossing the arms means a person is trying to comfort themselves, meaning they’re uncomfortable.


10. Looking Up

When you look up, this may indicate that you are accessing your imagination and engaging in fibbing.[5] Alternatively, it can also be a sign of joy, happiness, and relief.

When an athlete wins a match, scores a point, or does something great, what is the first thing they do? Usually, they look straight up. It’s true that people can also look upward when they’re frustrated, but there are often other indicators that happen before that to show they are frustrated. That said, there is a reason they say “chin up!”

11. How Close Are They?

Physical proximity is a frequently used body language indicator that many people don’t notice. If someone is comfortable with you, they won’t mind sitting or standing near you. So an interesting way to see if someone actually thinks you’re okay is to go brush shoulders with them. If they back away, you have your answer!

12. Surprise!

This one is pretty obvious but we are talking about popular body language indicators. When someone widens their eyes or raises their eyebrows, they’re most often surprised or shocked at something.[6]

There really aren’t any other reasons why someone widens their eyes. So this one is not only really popular but really obvious and easy to spot.

13. Looking Around

People can express boredom in a lot of ways. One such way is looking around when they’re bored. If you’re talking to someone and they keep looking around, they’re looking for something else to do besides talk to you.


This is almost always a bad sign, especially when you’re out talking to someone at the bar or, even worse, when you’re in a board meeting at the office and the people in the room are doing it. Do note that since smartphones are now a popular thing, people may now grab their phone and check their social networking sites or email while you’re talking to them. This means pretty much the same thing.

14. The Stomp

This one is mostly something kids do but adults are prone to stomping around too. It’s usually done as an expression of anger, and that’s how most people associate it.

There is a second reason people stomp though and that is to be intimidating. Stomping toward someone can be used as a tool to frighten someone or even animals. How often have owners stomped near their dogs to scare them away?

15. Clearing Your Throat

People clear their throats for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you may be ill and you have some stuff stuck back there. However, in a perfectly normal social situation, people often clear their throats when they’re nervous or anxious. If you’re watching a stand-up comic and no one is laughing at their jokes, you’ll often see them cough or clear their throat into the mic. It has a second use where people use it to show irritation.

16. Jutting Out Your Chest

Jutting out one’s chest can be a sign of confidence and power. Coupled with putting your hands on your hips and keeping your chin up, sticking your chest is known as a power pose.

Jutting out your chest in this way can increase your confidence and help you handle stress.[7] Put this power pose into action and people will see you as capable and strong.


17. Watch How You Walk

People who walk briskly and with a purpose look more confident. Someone who is running is obviously in a hurry to get somewhere (or get away from somewhere).

Slouching and slumping while walking indicate defensiveness, timidity, and disengagement. Posture is important in the social world, so having a good posture is essential to success, according to the experts.[8] It might be something we take for granted, but there are even exercises that will help improve your posture.

18. Closing Your Eyes

Thanks to today’s sitcoms, closing your eyes has become a very popular body language indicator. People usually use it to show frustration, irritation, and impatience, much like they’re regrouping in their minds to try to deal with a problem again.

Watch out, though! Due to its overuse in comedy scenarios, people may be trying to use it as a tool of comedy. Usually, you can tell the difference.

19. Rubbing Your Eyes

If you’re speaking with someone and they remove their glasses, pinch the bridge of their nose, and rub their eyes, they are probably not happy with something you just said. In general use, this body language is used to convey feelings of being tired.

This is usually done from a young age, as kids rub their eyes when they’re tired all the time. In adulthood, people who are not happy with something will often use that body language to show it.


20. Staring

Believe it or not, there are two reasons why people stare. Attraction is the main one, as a man or woman may frequently gaze at someone they’re attracted to.

However, a lesser known second reason people stare is for dominance.[9] If you’re staring down someone and they’re staring back, the first to break the stare is considered to be the less dominant one.

Final Thoughts

The head, eyes, posture, torso, arms, legs, hands, and feet, as well as walking, talking with your hands, and pretty much every motion your body makes have the potential to convey an emotion. The biggest problem is that most people don’t know that body language can be so sensitive.

What’s even more amazing about body language is its use. In many cases, especially at job interviews, potential employers can analyze your body language to see if you’re confident in yourself. At the risk of sounding cliché, everyone everywhere uses body language to show their true feelings. Once you learn what to look for, actions can literally speak louder than words.

Of course, we’re talking about listening with your eyes. It’s equally important to listen with your ears too, or you can still miss what’s really going on.


Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

20 Body Language Cues to Understand For Effective Communication

Mastering body language can help your improve your confidence and even boost your negotiation successes at work and in your personal life.

Good posture, including jutting out your chest and walking with confidence, can help you exude confidence.

Good eye contact is considered to be steady eye contact for several seconds at a time, can is considered crucial for making a good first impression.

Watch out for people crossing their arms, not maintaining good eye contact, or even stomping while interacting with you. These all can indicate displeasure or anger.

While crossing of the arms may come off as someone being angry, it can also mean that person may not want to talk about something. Crossing the arms means a person is trying to comfort themselves, meaning they’re uncomfortable.

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com


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