Understanding body language signs...
...and how NOT to misinterpret them!
Understanding body language signs is not only important in personal relationships, but it can also be helpful for professional relationships too.
Becoming observant of – and learning to understand – non-verbal communication increases your emotional intelligence.
Maybe you’ve landed on this page as you’re keen to uncover the body language signs of physical attraction (see list further down). I understand! It can be really hard to figure out if someone fancies you or not.
Understanding what's being communicated without words is obviously useful if you’re dating, but equally you may be here for professional reasons. Either way, I've got you covered.
Be sure to also have a look at Types of Non-Verbal Communication.
Spotting body language signs and responding to them
It’s only with years of experience that I’ve learnt to pick up on the signs that I need to pay attention to. As a counsellor, over time I've found what to look for, how much attention to give to it, and how and when to respond.
With the knowledge I’ve gained, I hope to be able to help you understand other people better - most of all your partner, or potential partner.
A note of caution: it's all to easy to misunderstand what you think you're seeing! So let's look first at what could go wrong.
How to avoid making mistakes
It’s not helpful to attach a fixed meaning to any particular movement as a 'sign' of something. Interpreting non-verbal signs without other evidence of what is meant can easily lead to misinterpretations.
Electronic communication provides a great example...
What did your email, text or WhatsApp message really mean?
Remind yourself of any messages you've recently sent.
- How would the meaning of that text or email have changed if you'd spoken it face-to-face with a smile or with a cheeky sense of humour?
- What would it have meant if you'd said it in an angry voice, still using the same words?
- How would it have sounded in a gently challenging tone of voice, or if you'd delivered it in a straight to the point, no nonsense kind of way?
The meaning of face-to-face verbal communication depends to a large extent on your body language and how you use your voice. When it comes to texts and emails, your recipient doesn't get to see how you look or hear how you sound. So, remember that although the message may seem clear to you, it could all too easily be read in a way that you didn't intend!
And when it comes to body language signs, the same idea applies: misinterpretation is all too easy. So don't assume you know what someone's thinking or feeling just because they scratch their head or tap their elbow!
What does your face say about you?
You're unlikely to be consciously aware of how much your facial muscles are giving away about your feelings. (Unless you've had Botox injections; research has shown that subtleties are lost by the temporary paralysis of facial muscles.)
Have a look at the video below which is beautiful throughout - interesting initially, but then oh so moving.
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation reduces facial expressiveness, even though there is no reduction in emotions felt*. Just think about the impact on personal relationships of the lack of such important body language signs - and how their absence can be misinterpreted.
The rest of the body
Culture, gender and age all affect the way we hold, touch, move and gesture. As you read on, take these influences into consideration, and apply them to your own interactions.
- Mirroring of posture - is the person you're talking to moving into a similar direction, at the same time, and maybe putting their spine at the same angle as yours? Good news - you're likely to be in harmony! (Particularly good news if it's your partner we're talking about here.) You might even want to use these indicators to create a sense of being alike or togetherness.
- Interpersonal distance and your personal space - is the other person moving closer to you or further away? And to what degree, and how does that relate to your movements? These movements are all part of the 'dance' of body language and can be conscious or unconscious. The distance between the two of you will be constantly increasing and decreasing. The distance between partners (and potential partners) depends a number of things including: intentions, how comfortable you are with each other, and the sound and pitch of your voices. It also depends on where your interaction take place - whether public, amongst family and friends or in private.
- Movement of the feet. This one is really interesting! Often we're not aware that we are moving our feet when someone has touched a nerve.
- Hand gestures can have different meanings in different cultures, but are often used to emphasise what's being said. A sudden movement of the hands, however slight, can mean discomfort too. The conversation may have touched a raw nerve, or triggered some other link with a memory or feeling. Take your pick!
You can see that there are endless body language signs to be spotted, and that almost all of them can mean several different things. But, you have a pretty good chance of understanding the person you're talking to when you look at their body language alongside the words they're using, their tone of voice, and the situation as a whole. If you know it's a tricky situation, chances are they'll be feeling somewhat uncomfortable. If it's a more lighthearted interaction, they're more likely to be feeling at ease. Use your judgement :-)
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual by the American Psychiatric Association, a person’s lack of gestures, movement, animation and so on is named 'psycho-motor retardation'. It’s one of the warning signs of depression. So, if someone you know well suddenly stops being as dynamic as they used to be, pay close attention - they may need a helping hand right now.
Body language and attraction
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"
There are other body language signs displayed by people who are physically attracted to someone...
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 viewer's perceptions and expectations of communication. In particular children, who are perhaps more impressionable and are frequently exposed to raunchy music videos.
'Hidden' body language signs?
There’s good evidence that we pick up a whole range of cues unconsciously.
For example, this link takes you to a really interesting study about specific cues that men pick up around the time a woman is ovulating. The researchers conclude that further studies are needed to discover how these unconscious body language signs relate to behaviour and communication in relationships. They want to find the 'real' and 'perceived' differences in behaviour between the sexes around the time of ovulation.
I hope that you can see how important it is not to jump to conclusions. With so many variables, it's vital to check out what you perceive someone else's body language signs to mean.
You can do this by directly referring to what you've noticed, and gently asking what happened when this or that was said. Or a more subtle approach: come back to that part of the conversation at a later stage, talk a bit more and explore it a little further.
By being open, inviting, interested and non-judgemental you’re far more likely to find out what's really going on for the other person - be that your partner or anyone else - rather than just trying to interpret body language signs alone.
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*Minkel J, Htaik O, Banks S, Dinges D. Emotional expressiveness in sleep-deprived healthy adults. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2011, via NCBI