Understand body language

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

It can be tricky to understand body language - but I hope my tips and advice here will help you to get started. 

This is the second part of this article, so do make sure you have a look at the Body Language Signs in Part 1 before you carry on here.

All about the head, face and neck

Here's a list of all the body language signs you might want to take notice of. They are within your field of vision when you’re having a conversation:

  • General movement in facial muscles - involuntary or deliberate, for example grimacing, twitching, smiling or frowning. Lifting or dropping of the eyebrows may indicate surprise, questioning, wondering or disbelief.
  • Frowning - it can mean: discomfort, physical pain (why exactly at that moment, you might ask yourself or indeed your partner), anger, suspicion or listening intently
  • Smiling – but notice which facial muscles are moving.  Is it a real smile that involves all the facial muscles?  An artificial smile would involve only the muscles around the mouth.  It leaves no trace of any pleasure and it could be an attempt to hide displeasure, disagreement and/or discomfort.
  • Nodding - this can mean all kinds of things.  It could simply be an encouragement for you to say more, or an agreement.  It could also be masking negative feelings, even though you might think it implies agreement.  It could even be an automatic movement - implying 'I am listening', but the listener has really switched off.
  • Eye contact and movement of the eyes - avoiding your gaze at one end of the scale and staring at the other.  Both could mean the same: "I am uncomfortable, but I don't want to let on".  Looking away can be a way of discouraging communication.  It’s well-known, though, that couples in love maintain eye contact for longer than average. We all know about the lifting of eyes to the ceiling too: "Oh for goodness sake" - usually with along with a bit of 'tutting'
  • Winking – which is sometimes hardly noticeable.  Winking may simply be a habit someone has developed to communicate comfort or kindness.  It can also mean "you and I know what’s going on" or "I like you"
  • Size of the pupils - abnormally large may mean shock or absolute terror.  It can also be associated with medication or drug use
  • Neck - you’ll see someone swallowing when they are anxious. What you can't see is that it’s because their mouth is dry.  When someone is feeling uncomfortable they may stroke their neck to soothe themselves.  Covering the windpipe can be seen as a defensive movement, implying protection of the self

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation reduces facial expressiveness, even though there is no reduction in emotions felt*.  Just think about what any lack of such important body language signs can have on personal relationships.

Lust or love - what your face says about you

Here’s a video clip of an interview with biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher.  Helen is an adviser for Chemistry.com and is the author of the book: "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love" 

Signs of physical attraction

There are other body language signs displayed by people who are physically attracted to someone:

  • Lips become engorged when someone is sexually aroused, making kissing all that more pleasurable.
  • Sitting across from a woman who is playing with her mouth and licking her lips?  You may be in luck. If she’s moving her head closer to you, perhaps tilting her head, you’ve had sufficient body language signs to know that she is physically attracted to you, and to have a chance of kissing her!
  • Couples in love scan each other's faces more. 
  • Couples also maintain eye contact for longer as they are attracted to each other. Gazing into each other's eyes is desired, whereas in other circumstances that would feel intrusive. 
  • Couples in love act as a team and their body movements are often synchronised – much like a dance
  • Once committed, their bodies are often intertwined - their arms wrapped around each other, legs over each other - whatever they feel they can get away with!
  • Early on, they may 'accidentally' touch each other, reducing their interpersonal space for someone they feel physically attracted to.
  • Paradoxically, early on they may actually avoid looking at each other or touching each other so as not to give away how much they think of the other.

Helen Fisher's book, "Why We Love" is one of my favourites, as she backs up all that detail about chemistry between two individuals with a scientific explanation. It’s fascinating read.  Actually, so is "Why Him, Why Her".  Do check them out!

It also struck me recently that the body language portrayed in some music videos overemphasises what tends to happen naturally in a relationship.  I wonder to what extent that shapes the viewers’ perceptions and expectations of communication. In particular children, who are perhaps more impressionable and are frequently exposed to raunchy music videos.

Want to improve your emotional intelligence?

My Pro-list of Emotions and Feelings will help.

Subconscious body language signs

So much of the way we communicate is given away by subconscious body language cues - Part 3 takes a look at these, so hop over there now to find out more!

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


*Minkel J, Htaik O, Banks S, Dinges D. Emotional expressiveness in sleep-deprived healthy adults. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2011, via NCBI

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