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Body Language

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If someone punches someone else in the face, this can be seen as a form of body language, albeit a rather unsubtle one. However, there are other less obvious ways in which we use our bodies to convey information to others. Sometimes we even betray things about ourselves that we'd rather keep hidden. A little stroke of the hair here, a minor episode of violent twitching there - the body often speaks more about us than words could ever do.

Bits and Bobs

The following examples of body language, non verbal communication (NVC) and neuro linguistic programming (therapy to improve self awareness and interpreting others' NVC) are all specific to the UK but may also be applied to similar cultures. When discussing body language, you must be aware that it varies from region to region. For example, in southern Italy, the head movement for yes (tilt forward, never back) is the same as the Greeks, whereas in the north it's the standard northern Europe nod (backwards and forwards).

The Basics

Crossing arms and legs while standing is a defensive gesture, usually implying that you want to be left alone. However, if you are seated this can mean empathy or sympathy. Feet play an important part in communication too. As a general rule, if you are standing or sitting and are attracted to someone (whether or not you are talking to them) your feet will be pointing in their direction.

Group Dynamics

If you are seated with a group of friends, try the following experiment. If everyone is seated back in their chairs, sit forward. If it is an established group of friends, you will notice that one by one they will follow suit. If they don't, this means that you're a complete loser. Only joking.


If men are attracted to someone, they occasionally play with one of their earlobes, whereas women will play with a lock of hair or continually tuck their hair behind their ears. Men that dig great gobbets of ear wax from their ears are just plain filthy.

Nature or Nurture?

The genetics debate has been known to run through this whole subject - is it nature or is it nurture? Things like the narrowing of the eyes is universal and, probably a nature thing. Take a look at the Japanese comic manga for example; all the heroes are wide-eyed and innocent, and the bad guys are always shown with narrowed eyes.

How do we Control our Body Language?

The best way to control body language is to be aware of it in the first place. Some people have extremely open body language and others have learned to control their emotions. Stage actors are a good example of this; when an actor is trained, one of the first tricks learned is how to express emotion with your body. Not just the face, but the whole body. Therefore it is possible to turn your back on someone and make them aware that you are angry or sad. This is a form of control. There is no doubt that emotional control is a bonus in a world where stolidity is rewarded. Emotional people are often dismissed as being 'out of control' or 'too creative' and are therefore to be avoided by a society that is afraid of expressing itself.

I Love You

People that fancy other people often touch themselves where they would like to touch the other person (for example, stroking legs), keeping their bodies pointing towards the object of desire. Eye contact is held slightly longer than usual, sideways glances and smiling are all common. Women playing with their hair, wiping imaginary dust off the other person's clothes, leaning forwards towards the other and standing or sitting closer together than normal are all signs of attraction.

The Windows of the Soul

The eyes are not called the windows of the soul for nothing you know. Look into them and you'll soon know if the attraction is mutual, eye contact lasts longer with attraction and the eyes are more aflame. The reason people's pupils dilate is adrenaline, which is released when you're excited or afraid. So, whether you're fancying someone, thinking you're about to win a hand of cards1, or telling big lies; your pupils will dilate.

A psychologist called Neisser found that when shown two pictures of the same woman, with the pupils artificially dilated in one picture, people rated the doctored version of the woman as more attractive - without being able to say why. So, if your heart jumps into your mouth when you spot someone you fancy, smile in the knowledge that the adrenaline making you weak at the knees is also helping you look your best.

Mirror, Mirror

Here's another way to test how well you're getting along with someone. If you're in tune with the person you're speaking to you'll often find you unconsciously mirror each other's body postures. So, if you rest your hand on your chin, the other person will follow you. If he or she leans forwards you'll find yourself making the same move and so on. This is a technique for making interview candidates feel at ease. Amazingly, it actually works, although if you're too obvious about it, it's going to look bit spooky and will have the opposite effect.

I Hate You

If you want to tell someone you really don't like them, narrow your eyes, tilt your head back and to the side and keep your lips together. Folding your arms always helps. The narrowing of the eyes is an animal instinct thing (as seen in the behaviour of dogs and certain apes), tilting the head back and to the side force you to look down on the person and shows a distinct lack of interest. Crossing your arms is pure defence - leave me alone!

Freaking people out by looking two feet to the right/left of them is something the eternally inquisitive are always doing. Frightened of missing out, they tune one sense to one person and another to a distant spot.

The main difference between sitting and standing is that sitting is a relatively defenceless position, therefore almost forcing trust and empathy. When arguing, it is easier to walk away while standing than getting out of your chair and stomping off.

The Message Received

The most important message is the message received. Despite what we may intend to say with our words, our body language is often the over-riding factor in how the message is received. Police departments spend hours upon hours training their officers on ways to detect various specific non-vocal messages. For example, lies can be detected by pupil size; the fact that someone is holding back information can be detected by a 'guarded' posture (arms folded). There are tens of journals in publication today on the topic of non-verbal communication. Tom Green (MTV) is popular because he is exploring the effects of non-normative behaviour in common, public settings. His body language is often used to elicit the desired response. If the desired response is not forthcoming, he often exaggerates the body language even more than he had in his original/previous attempts.

Defensive Body Language

At a course on giving presentations, I was told that people feeling nervous or unsure of themselves will often 'protect' themselves. That is, they adopt a posture that protects a vulnerable area. Men will stand with their hands clasped in front of their genitals. Women will fold their arms across their chest. A woman on the course got up to do a presentation with a folder clasped in front of her chest in her folded arms. I have never seen anybody so nervous.

Liar! Liar!

Look out for the following:

  • A lack of eye contact
  • Sweating
  • Excessive hand movements
  • Biting of fingernails
  • Chewing of the inside of the mouth
  • Drying up of the mouth

This is if they are bad liars, or they are lying to someone that knows them well. Some people are excellent liars, and can mask all of the above.

Lying is an interesting one. First and foremost it is culturally specific which makes the USA an exceptional study with its diverse ethnic groups. When people cover their mouths, in the UK at least, it is a sure sign that they are terribly self-conscious about what they are saying. They may not have the courage of their convictions, may not be entirely sure of what they are saying, or are afraid of how their input will be received. They could, of course, be lying.

It's not always black and white, whether someone's lying or not. Check the following conversation:

I have always found the easiest way to tell if someone is lying is when they won't look you in the eye. Also people who don't usually stutter start to. Their ears turn red.
Don't start spreading the word about ears turning red when people lie! My ears turn red when I eat too much salt! In fact my right ear is burning up as we speak (buffalo wings, and too much sodium in my salad dressing). And I'm not lying about that.

A sure-fire way of knowing if somebody is telling a white lie is if they continue to rub their nose while you are speaking to them (they may actually have an itch but no itch lasts for over 30 seconds). If they are telling a massive porky pie2, they will usually flay their arms to the side, fully outstretched.

Universal Facial Expressions

To show disgust we wrinkle up our noses and raise our top lip. It's the same all over the world, though the things which actually disgust are very different. A smile is also a universal gesture, everyone knows what a smile is. Everyone usually knows when you're faking it too. There are muscles around the eyes, very hard to control, that kick in if you really smile. Also, a real smile will fade after a few seconds. Forced or fake smiles will last much longer. A real smile will move more muscles on one side of the face, whereas a fake smile will move more muscles on the other. This is because of the relationship between the emotional centre of the brain and the muscles that get used for smiling. Smiles are seldom perfectly symmetrical.

The face we make when we're angry is also universal, as is sadness. Fear is also another. All over the world these are the same, though what causes them may be different. The most interesting non-universal gestures are those that mean 'yes' and 'no'. If you wander too far off the beaten path, you will find that some cultures shake their head for 'yes' and nod for 'no'. Very confusing. Oh, and there's the famous Bulgarian head wobble where it's actually impossible to discern whether the wobbler's saying yes or no.


  • Picking lint: If someone picks imaginary lint from their clothes while looking down towards the floor, it can mean that they disapprove and feel constrained about giving their point of view.

  • Flaring nostrils: If you're talking to a woman who likes you, you can tell if she's feeling a little horny if her nostrils flare. Sorry to give you away girls. Boys, don't assume you can go in for the kill at this point, it may only be a fleeting moment for the mademoiselle in question. Her mind could also be elsewhere at that point in time, she might be thinking about someone else. Damn annoying though, normally girls are lucky that these things can be well hidden and under control.

  • Smoking: Someone who blows smoke upwards into the air is feeling positive or even superior, while someone who blows smoke downwards is feeling negative or suspicious. Or so I'm told anyway.

  • Touching the Neck If a girl fancies a guy she rubs or touches her neck frequently. She also lifts her head so that more of her neck is exposed, particularly when she is actively flirting. If you watch people at parties you'll see them doing it.

  • Shifting from foot to foot: This shows that you're worrying about getting found out! Also, it indicates that you want to go somewhere else to get away so that no guilty expressions are spotted - eg looking out the door, backing up towards the door, half-facing the person and half-facing the door, etc.

  • Rubbing the back of the head: This demonstrates that you're comforting yourself when saddened. It also shows impatience.

  • Standing with arms crossed: This shows a sense of being 'closed'. It can also show anger, stubborness and assertiveness.

  • Standing with one hand on hip: This is the opposite to the above. It's suggestive of 'openness'. It is a flirty, sexy gesture.

  • Inspecting fingernails or looking at a watch: Plain and simple, this indicates boredom or vanity.

  • Hands clasped together or hands placed one over the other: This indicates deference and humility.

1Professional poker players use this to see if their opponents have gotten favourable hands, since it's harder to control the movement of pupils than one's facial expression.2Porky pie is Cockney Rhyming slang for lie.

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