What is Body Language?
Human beings are very expressive creatures, whether it is in the manner that we speak or the way we use our bodies to communicate. Body language is a set of non-verbal actions that portray what we are thinking or feeling at any given moment.
More recent research has found that there are six "universal" emotions which all cultures, races, tribes, and groups can recognize, even when there is no common language among groups. According to Cornell University, they include:
- Happiness: typically displayed by raising and lowering the corners of the mouth.
- Sadness: typically displayed by raised inside brow corners and lowered mouth corners.
- Surprise: typically displayed by raised brows, dropped jaw and wide eyes.
- Fear: typically displayed by raised brows, open eyes, and open mouth.
- Anger: Lowered brow "scowl," tight lips and bulging eyes
- Disgust: Raised upper lip, wrinkled nose and raised cheeks
Anger and disgust are most commonly confused with one another. However, these six emotions are understood across most individuals and cultures. These six emotions also give us great insight in to how another person is feeling and how they are likely to react to things.
How Is Body Language Used?
Body language is a mental "short-hand" for reading a person's mood and temperament before engaging in an interaction with them. We can be alerted to other people's emotions, which will warn us of potential negative reactions ahead of time.
Reading body language is a social skill that we develop over time, typically through a process of trial and error. Young children often look to their parents' faces to gauge their reaction to a situation, thus informing them of how they themselves should react. This is demonstrated by things like babies who reflect a smile when they are smiled at.
Here are some common body language attributes to pay attention to:
- Distance: How closely is someone sitting to you? Are they leaning in? Are they leaning away? Distance is a good indication of how friendly someone is and how friendly someone perceives you to be. If you move closer to someone and they take a step back, it's an indication that that person is uncomfortable in the situation. On the other hand, if that person moves in toward you in response, they feel more closeness, comfort, and intimacy with you.
- Head Position: This is an important indication of a person's meaning. A raised head can represent dominance or challenge, whereas a lowered head can mean insecurity. We often hang our heads when we are sad, or become taller when we're defensive. Tilted heads can be a sign of sympathy or caring, and coupled with a smile, flirting or fondness.
- Eyes: Eyes provide context regarding other body language movements. For example, looking away or to the side may indicate that a person is shy, uncomfortable, or submissive. Side-to-side glaces can be a sign of discomfort or agitation. Dilated pupils indicate excitement or fear, and when a person looks dreamy or "far away" they are often not engaged in the moment. Further, smiles appear more genuine when they extend all the way to the eyes. The more the facial muscles are engaged, the more genuine the emotion probably is.
- Posture: How a person positions his or her body can clue you in to larger themes. A person who has crossed arms or legs may be feeling insecure or vulnerable. The crossed arms are a physical barrier between you and that person. Hands behind your head indicate openness and relaxation. Hands on hips indicate impatience or irritation, and tight fists often reflect anger or repressed emotion.
- Nervous Gestures: Most people have a nervous gesture or two that they unconsciously engage when they are nervous. It might be brushing hair away from your face, tapping your foot, coughing, or muscle movement.
Learning Body Language:
Learning body language is often a matter of closely observing how others behave. Noticing how you act around others can give you insight into your own body language. Watching a person's face is often the fastest way of establishing mood and tone. You can practice using a mirror to study your own body language.
While body language gives us many important clues and context, it does not give us the whole story. It takes most people less than a second to make an initial judgment of another person, based upon his or her body language. Situational clues are important in establishing the full context of your environment and the people around you.
It is important to be mindful of the fact that you are no longer fully engaged if you spend too much time analyzing your and other people's body language. Use it for clues, but remember to listen to what someone is saying, too.
Posted Here is a series of photos showing off common body language cues and the meanings behind them.
This website offers 18 tips for changing your body language, and delves in to how different actions communicate a mood or feeling.
Psychology Today offers multiple articles, websites, and resources that examine body language.