Understanding body language signs - and how NOT to misinterpret them!

Category: Better Relationships | Author and Publisher: Elly Prior | First published: 05-10-2010 | Modified: 27-04-2018

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.

Hundreds of people watching a display. Culture, gender, age, 'life', all affect the way we move and gesture

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?

I used to work as a school counsellor. Youngsters would frequently get into trouble with their friends - all too often they would try to restore the peace via electronic messages of one kind or another. 

To help them understand how easily their messages could be misinterpreted, I would demonstrate with exaggerated body language the many different meanings of the sentence: "Where were you last night?"

Try it yourself by shifting the emphasis on the words.

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.

Head, face and neck

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

  • General movement of 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 - this 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? A fake 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 a sign of 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 actually meaning that the listener has switched off and isn't really paying attention
  • 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 an attempt to discourage communication. It's also well-known, that couples in love maintain eye contact for longer than average. And we're probably all too familiar with the eye roll to the ceiling, usually accompanied by tutting, which generally means, "Oh, for goodness' sake!" 
  • 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 (although this 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 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...

7 Signs of physical attraction

  1. Lips become engorged when someone is sexually aroused, making kissing all that more pleasurable.
  2. 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, and perhaps tilting it to the side, that's normally a pretty good indicator that she's physically attracted to you.
  3. Couples in love scan each other's faces more. They 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. 
  4. Couples in love act as a team and their body movements are often synchronised – much like a dance.
  5. 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!
  6. Early on, they may 'accidentally' touch each other, reducing their interpersonal space for someone they feel physically attracted to.
  7. 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 viewer's perceptions and expectations of communication. In particular children, who are perhaps more impressionable and are frequently exposed to raunchy music videos.

Do you want some help improving your emotional intelligence?

My Pro-list of Emotions and Feelings will help. Download it for FREE!

'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.

Communicate effectively

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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I frequently update my articles based on feedback, therefore I really value your vote.

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Related articles

Potential Warning Signs of Your Partner's Infidelity
How to Communicate More and Better
List of Human Emotions and Feelings
How to Manage Stress in the Workplace


*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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