Reading Body Language

Believe it or not, most of the messages we communicate to others are done through body language and vocal tones. Think about it for a second. If you ask someone to do you a favor and he or she responds with a bitingly sarcastic, “Sure; whatever you say,” do you think your favor is going to get done? What about if the respondent just slumps over and glares at you? In many cases, that sends a clearer message than saying anything, and it can cut off a conversation long before you’ve actually accomplished anything.

We all communicate with nonverbal cues far more often than we realize. It can be hard to control them and realize what messages we’re conveying to others, but if we get better at reading the body language of people around us, we can also improve at making our own body statements more directive. Here are some common emotions and tip-offs that can help you tell how someone you know is feeling.

• Confidence

You’ll know that someone you see is feeling confident if she’s standing up straight and smiling just slightly. A big grin or an uneasy look behind a smile can signify lurking insecurity, but a small smile is a clear indicator that someone has control of a situation and isn’t feeling scared or intimidated. A confident person will stand tall and join her hands in front of her body (not cross her arms, though) or place them behind her back. If you want to look confident to someone else—say, during a job interview or while on a first date—these nonverbal cues are especially important to remember and take into account.

• Defense

It’s almost automatic for people to adopt a defensive posture when they’re having a fight or when they feel threatened or attacked. A key indicator of this posture is crossed arms, which communicate a message of being standoffish. People who are feeling defensive or offended might also glare directly at you (if they’re the confrontational type) or avert their gaze and drop their heads slightly (if they’re more timid). If you notice someone adopting this posture, try to change the subject or make an attempt to calm that person down.

• Curiosity

If you want to know more about something, you’ll approach it and pay attention to it. It’s the same way with people. If someone is interested in you, that person will likely make a lot of honest eye contact and square his or her body toward you. Also, think about your personal bubble. You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable letting someone step within range of your bubble unless you liked that person and were also curious about him or her. If someone steps into your bubble, it’s a clear sign that he or she wants to know more about you.

• Anxiousness

If someone is feeling anxious, upset, or nervous, he or she will likely be fidgeting or appear to be agitated. You might notice anxious people biting their nails, picking at their fingers, whistling, tapping on something, or resorting to other nervous habits. These people will also probably have trouble keeping extended eye contract and will seem distracted.

• Relaxation

Sometimes it can be helpful to communicate a message of relaxation even when you’re feeling somewhat anxious. In that case, do your best to avoid nervous habits. Observe other people who are obviously relaxed and notice how they look. A relaxed person will be standing or sitting up straight but still look comfortable. He or she will be oriented toward a specific speaker or point of action and will generally be still. People who are happy and relaxed appear to be in the moment and not distracted or preoccupied.
Got all that? It’s a lot to take in, but with practice, you can quickly become very good at reading other people’s signals and tweaking your own. If you haven’t read my post on people-watching, scroll down and give it a skim because observing other people is one of the best ways to understand body language better.

Good luck!