noun: body language
1. The process of communicating with others through conscious or unconscious gestures, postures, facial expressions, eye movements, and bodily movements in relations to others, and the environment.
2. The process of sending or receiving feelings and thoughts through visual cues of the face and body rather than through spoken words or audible channels.
3. Transmission and interpretation of thoughts and feelings between two or more people through postures, gestures, and facial expressions.
4. Communication that relies on vision.
5. Sometimes referred to as “nonverbal communication” often linked to a set forming “nonverbal behaviour” and rarely though accurately termed Kenisics.
6. a) “His body language made his intentions obvious.” b) “She seduced him through body language including sexy glances, moistened red lips and parted inviting legs.” c) “The salesman used body language to build rapport with the client helping him close the deal.” d) “The athlete expanded his chest, tilted his head up, and thrust his arms in the air to show his expression of pride and victory through body language.”
Body language is a lay-term describing a form of communication referred to in science as “nonverbal communication” as well as behaviours, termed: “nonverbal behaviours”, which occurs silently (within the visual field i.e. those things that can be seen rather than heard).
Body language, or nonverbal communication, like all forms of communication, is a two way street. When most people think about body language, they think of it as a way to read other people’s hidden emotions, often without their awareness – a form of mind reading. While this is, in fact, one facet of body language, there exists a second mode of communication which is equally as important. Body language can also be used either consciously or subconsciously to convey meaning to others. The sending of signals and the reading of signals, form the two-way-street of nonverbal communication.
Therefore body language is a mode of silent communication that is used to both convey meaning to other people, as well as to interpret meaning from others.
Common uses for body language include business, dating, between friends and acquaintances, and family. Being able to read and use body language is helpful to a) understand how other people feel and what they mean b) to understand how other people see and view us and c) to understand how we feel about ourselves.
By understanding body language, one can become more effective in personal dealings with other people by controlling one’s own message as well as correctly interpreting the meaning from others.
When two or more people are communicating with each other, body language always plays some degree of importance in conveyance of meaning.
It’s important to note that people intuitively read other people’s body language, with or without specific training, or conscious awareness. This is particularly the case with facial expressions and upon first impressions. However, with practice and knowledge, these cues can be made conscious and used and read in a more proactive sense.
The study of body language encompasses many fields of research and branches of science. For example it includes anthropology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, biology, ethology, human behaviour, evolution, cognition, neuroscience, endocrinology (study of the endocrine system – hormones), linguistics, economics, law, and many more.
Get a complete understanding about body language with the free comprehensive online book on body language – “Body Language Project: The Only Book On Body Language That Everybody Needs To Read.” (click the link, will open in a new window).
Many believe that the study of nonverbal communication is the result of writings from Charles Darwin. This is likely true in the sense that he was the first to discuss it in any formal elaborate sense despite the fact that body language has quite likely been used since pre-modern man (given it’s importance with animals). However, in his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” published in 1872, Darwin describes how animal species including humans share some inborn nonverbal behaviours that help communicate thoughts and emotions to others. Darwin aimed to explore and explain common expressions such as bared teeth during rage and wrinkled noses in disgust between man and animal. He surmised that the expressions had foundations in evolutionary history.
Bared teeth shows anger because it is a threat to others – a warning – that biting and therefore aggression is immanent. A wrinkled nose, on the other hand, reduces the inhalation of foul odors, possibly preventing disease.
Despite Darwin’s initial observations, the study of nonverbal communication is very much a modern field of study. It really wasn’t until the 1960’s that scientists fully explored its origins. In fact, new studies are still being published regularly which are helping to advance the field of knowledge.
Psychological researchers, Adam Kendon, Albert Scheflen and Ray Birdwhistell continued the advancements in nonverbal communication in the 1950’s.
Ray Birdwhistell was the first to truly study nonverbal communication which he terms kinesics and postulated that humans could make and recognize around 25,000 facial expressions.
Work continued much more feverishly in the mid 1960’s with Michael Argyle, Janet Dean Fodor and Ralph Exline.
Eckhard Hess conducted several studies in the 1960’s and 70’s on pupil dilation concerning their indication of a person’s attitudes and interest.
Robert Sommer advanced the research on seating arrangements and personal space with respect to their hidden meaning for business and personal relations.
Albert Mehrabian studied nonverbal cues of liking, posture and positional cues.
By the 1970’s the interest in the “hidden” language was booming with researchers such as Marianne Lafrance and Clara Mayo who co-authored “Moving Bodies: Nonverbal Communication in Social Relationships.” Mayo also produced the book “Gender and Nonverbal Behaviors.” Shirley Weitz wrote “Nonverbal Communication”; a survey on current research on body movement, expressive behaviour and paralanguage.
Popular books began to surface in the 1970’s with Julius Fast’s “Body Language” which focused on the practical aspects of body language to attract and influence other people. Gerard Nierenberg wrote about nonverbal behaviour in negotiations and produced “How to Read a Person Like a Book.”
Within the modern era many diverse scientists have made notable but, due to the inherent limitations of the field, more minor contributions. However, these small contributes are vital to fill in the various necessary gaps in our understanding pioneered by previous founders. As mentioned, the field of nonverbal communication is wide-reaching because it involves many facets of humans from culture to biology to hormones to cognition. This leaves the door wide open to modern science to new discovery and advancements within various disciplines.
Current research is focusing on embodiment, the interconnectedness of the brain (cognition) and bodily systems. As well, research is discovering universality of facial expressions with help from Paul Ekman, and universal bodily expressions with the help from David Matsumoto and Jessica Tracy.
Other notable scientists working in the field includes Michal Parzuchowski, David Puts, Karl Grammer, Nicolas Guéguen and Mark Coulson, amongst many others. Truly, there is currently no monopoly on the study of nonverbal communication. The field is wide open to many fields of study and many new advancements and applications will be discovered in the coming decades.
How Much Meaning Is Sent Nonverbally?
It’s been much quotes that 93% of communication is due to nonverbal channels, but this is largely due to misinterpretation of Albert Mehrabians 1967 research study. Mehrabian was actually not studying body language at all, but rather words and their relative contribution to meaning. He found that how a word was spoken, its pitch and tone, rather than the word itself, mattered most.
No one will ever really be able to measure how much body language really matters. I have heard estimates ranging from 50-93%, but this is much more speculation than an empirical measure.
What is important to realize is that unspoken communication is some immeasurable, yet important, and significant quantity of all meaning delivered and received from one person to another.
Keep in mind that when your mouth is shut, your body continues its silent nonverbal script with or without your conscious participation!
Aspects Of Body Language
Body language includes many facets of the human body. Body language is conveyed through body posture, gestures, facial expressions, eye movements (pupils, eye direction, squinting, etc.), eye contact or lack of eye contact, laughter, and body odors such as pheromones.
It is also conveyed through physical qualities such as height, stature, physical beauty, and body motion such as gait as well as people in relation to objects, their environment (such as seating positions at a table), how people related to objects such as sucking on pens, and of course how we relate to other people called proxemics as well as touch (both self touching and touching others), called haptics.
Body language also includes “elective nonverbal traits” including fashion (footwear and, attire), tattoos, piercings, jewelry, hairstyles and make-up.
In a broader sense, body language also includes “paralingual cues” such as voice pitch, pace (pauses), volume, tone, speaking style. It also often includes prosodic features such as rhythm, intonating and voice stress or voice relaxation.
Body language and nonverbal communication can include breath rate, heart rate, even perspiration, blushing and blanching and body twitching,
Body language usually occurs subconsciously, without the awareness of the issuer. This makes body language quite reliable as a way to read people’s real, or “hidden emotions.” However, body language, like spoken language, can also be learned making it more conscious. The permits a user of body language to fake intention or, in a more constructive context, use body language to convey their truer intentions.
However, as people split and divert their focus across multiple channels including verbal language, they often leak information through nonverbal channels.
Nature vs. Nurture, Cultural And Universal Body Language
Some body language has proven to be universal in nature, meaning the same the world over. Research has shown that there are a set of 6 universal facial expressions and emotions that form little variation between cultures (though the language describing it does show cultural variations). These facial expressions are: anger, surprise, fear, disgust, happiness and sadness.
Body language of submission and dominance also seems to be universal in nature. Dominance is shown by expanding the body so it takes on a larger form. Athletes show dominance by expanding their chest, turned their chin up, and thrusting their arms upward.
In submission, the body takes on a smaller form by rolling the shoulders in and slumping, and lowering the chin. Studies have found this in winning and losing blind and congenitally blind athletes from around the world. These cues couldn’t have been learned as the blind athletes performed the same actions as the sighted athletes.
Body language has also been noted across animal species. Chimpanzees show similar dominance and submissive postures and many people study the body language of dogs, cats and horses.
Other body language seems to be inherited through cultural means. Thus, body language has a learned element. This is the case for certain gesture called “emblems.” One such gesture is the “middle finger” which signals the f-word in the West. However, studies have shown that by simply holding this gesture while evaluating a fictional character on his personality that he was perceived much more negatively than those who did not hold up their middle finger. Therefore, there is a feedback cycle where the brain tells the body how to carry itself because of how it feels and when the body carries itself in a certain way, the brain response to this by matching it with appropriate feelings. Studies have shown this repeatedly with respect to smiling and positive moods. This tells us that body language, even if learned, still has profound effects on our impressions of others and even on how we feel about ourselves.
While some confusion exists with respect to the origins of body language, it is important to understand that people are malleable and quickly adapt to their environment. They are able to learn causal action and able to manipulate and influence others for their own self interest. Thus, body language is not an exact science as it forms a subset of behaviour – nonverbal behaviour – which is inherently difficult to study empirical due to people’s natural ability to change given the circumstances.
For this reason, when studying body language, researchers must fool participants in order to achieve accurate results.
In other words, people can lie, cheat, and deceive – and they can do so by hiding emotion or creating false emotion to conceal aspects of their thoughts they wish to keep private (i.e. winning a hand at poker).
Read more about the nature and nurture in body language starting HERE. (will open in a new tab)
Body language is used to convey many emotions and emotional intensions including aggression, attentiveness, interest, disinterest, evaluation, boredom, relaxation and relief, pleasure, amusement, satisfaction, annoyance, affiliation, friendship, desire for control, desire to submit, embarrassment, sexual interest, rejection, guilt, pride, amusement, contempt, confidence, submission, dominance, excitement, shame, concentration amongst many others.
The list is practically endless.
Brain-Body Unit – Embodiment
Burgeoning research into nonverbal communication has found new links between the brain and body. It seems as though the brain and body may function much less like a computer detached from the body, than from the entire body attached as one unit, fully interconnected – one body-brain unit. Previous thought described the brain as computer – the command center – working over the body telling it what to do. However, new studies are showing that the body seems to be sending information back to the brain and telling it how to feel.
For example, many studies have found links not only between posture and its underlying meaning, but also that holding a posture specifically fabricates the predicted or appropriate underlying meaning, feeling or emotion. For example, by holding slumped shoulders, head down, submissive posture, people actually feel depressed and less confident. By holding the body upright, chin up, hands on the hips in an expansive posture, the body not only feels more superior, it also gets a boost in positive hormones such as testosterone while simultaneously lowering the stress hormone cortisol.
As mentioned previously, by holding up the middle finger, which is a negatively-intentioned, learned gesture, people tended to evaluate fictional characters more negatively. In other research, smiling has been shown to boost feelings of contentment, while sunshine which induces squinting and hence frowning, made people emotionally upset. Similar findings have been shown with respect to posture, where a correct posture increases self-esteem and well-being while lowering thoughts of depression.
As the science mounts, more evidence will continue to show the extent to which the brain and body are not just inter-dependent, but possible operating as one single unit.
Future research may show that the brain is not the computer running the body, but that the body and brain are both running the show. If this holds true, then we will see that positive changes in the body produce positive changes in the mind. Empirically, we already see this in many cases, as briefly described.
General Rules Of Body Language
The rule of four, and it’s an important one, says that you can’t attach meaning to a single gesture and accurately judge a person. The rule of four calls on us to read cues alongside other cues, a minimum of four related cues, commonly referred to as “cue clusters”, before drawing conclusions.
The word congruence, as it relates to body language, refers to the degree to which body language cues in a person matches one another in terms of their meaning. Watching for congruence is important to paint an accurate overall picture of a person. The more congruence is present, the more the meaning produces an accurate message.
Context is another important factor to consider while reading people. We often hear about verbal statements that are taken out of context, and in this same way, we can take nonverbal language out of context as well. “That guy was obviously lying, he was scratching his face and neck and could barely sit still” might be accurate when being grilled by a panel of the media over missing fund money, but in the context of being attacked by a swarm of killer bees, not accurate at all! Concluding that someone is cold hearted from a single meeting is another case of ignoring context. We often think people are shy after a first meeting, but are surprised that over time they open up and are actually quite expressive and talkative.
Baselining is probably one of the most important and often overlooked aspects of reading body language. It refers to the “normal” motions that populate the repertoire of each and every person on the planet. “Normal” here is the operative word. We can’t even begin to read someone until we first have their baseline pegged. For example, to read someone that is normally flighty and constantly moving, as agitated, is wrong since they are merely acting out their particular “idiosyncratic nonverbal behaviour.” That is, the body language that is particular to specific people and that makes up their repertoire, or basket of cues, considered normal for them. By establishing a baseline it will be possible to catch sudden changes in body language. This is the ultimate purpose to establishing a person’s baseline. Without catching the changes, body language loses its ability to indicate exactly what is going on.
Read more about the rules in body language starting HERE. (will open in a new tab)
Micro Expressions In Nonverbal Communication
Microexpressions occur quickly and last only fractions of a second. Microexpressions appear as furrows, smirks, frowns, smiles and wrinkles and can offer an accurate, though fleeting, window into emotions. These signals can be used to decipher liars from truth tellers.
These microexpressions are controlled by muscles such as the fontalis, corregator and risorius and they are provoked by underlying emotions that are nearly impossible to control consciously. One of these emotions is the fake smile to show appeasement in lieu of genuine joy or happiness.
Microexpressions are thought to be accurate predictors of true emotion because they happen so quickly that they can not be consciously controlled.
Read more about micro expression in body language starting HERE. (will open in a new tab)
Postures In Nonverbal Communication
Postures refer to macromovements (versus micromovements or microexpressions). Common postures includes the arms crossed over the chest, legs crossed or legs spread open, head titled to the side or head facing head-on, arms expanded upward, hands on the hips and so forth.
Much debate exists about the relevance of posture, but new research suggests that posture indeed has a biological and cognitive route, some of which has been empirically shown to been universal in nature and the same across culture.
For example, expansive postures, done by placing the hands on the hips, with the legs in a figure-four leg cross has been shown to affect hormones by raising testosterone the dominance hormone and lowering cortisol.
Crossing the arms has also been shown to reduce felt pain as it confuses the neural circuitry and also reduces impression ratings of others as well as later recall when it is done in a lecture setting.
Taking on a slumped posture, has been shown to produce feelings of helplessness and also affect our endocrine system by producing more of the stress hormone cortisol and dropping the confidence hormone, testosterone.
Other ideas about posture says that turning the sternum away from a person, called ventral denial is a way people tell others that they are not liking what they are hearing so are trying to escape by moving away. The same has been said about pulling the arms and feet in. Moving the feet toward the door or aiming the toes is thought to be an indication that a person is wishing to head in that direction. This can be practically applied in business as well as dating, for obvious reasons.
More and more research is tying posture to overall feelings and emotions and cognition but more evidence is required before all posture can be linked certainly to underlying emotion.
Gestures – Adaptors, Regulators, Illustrators, Emblems, Affect Displays
Adaptors are movements or gestures that are used to manage our feelings or control our responses. Adaptors include movements done to improve comfort or reduce stress and often happen at such a low level they usually escape awareness. Adaptors include movements such as shifting in a chair or postural changes, crossing the legs, pulling at a shirt collar, adjusting a tie, loosening clothing and so forth. Some adaptors serve a real purpose and others indicate stress.
For example, sometimes our pants really are uncomfortable so we scratch our legs, other times the stress from outside pressure causes us to scratch in an effort to displace energy and distract us. Crossing the legs toward your date might be read as an indicator of interest, but might instead serve to alleviate numbness from loss of circulation. Children will rub their eyes repeatedly when tired, but this is not because they become itchy; they’re trying to keep them alert!
Regulators are so named because they are used to modulate and maintain the flow of the speech during conversation. Essentially, we use regulators to control turn-taking in conversation and they can take the form of kinesic such as head nods or nonkinesic such as eye movements. Regulators are different across cultures more so than any other element of body language discussed thus far.
Illustrators, are use in cooperation with words to emphasize them. Illustrators do just that, they illustrate the meaning of words. An example of an illustrator is the motion of throwing whilst speaking of tossing a ball or a punching motion to emphasize what happened during a fight. We could describe an trophy fish, as in “It was this long” then spreading the hands apart to show just how long it was. Other examples include, finger pointing, head bobbing, batoning or slapping the hands together.
Emblems or “quotable gestures” are those gestures that are culturally specific which can be used as replacement for words. That is, the gestures have a direct verbal translation. Obviously these gestures will mean different things in different settings and can range from complimentary to offensive.
The middle finger is an obvious gesture to Westerners and so too is the peace sign (or V-sign) which can also mean victory. However, George Bush senior was famously ridiculed for “flipping” the V-sign as he was met with Australian onlookers. In their culture the same gesture is considered an insult. The V-sign where the palm faces outward has long been an gesture meant to insult but not just in Australia, also in England and the rest of the United Kingdom, Ireland and parts of France.
Affect displays is subset of nonverbal language that reveal our emotional state. For example, if we are happy we can show enthusiasm, or if we are telling a sad story, we correspondingly show somber. Affect display include facial expressions such as smiling, laughing, crying or frowning.
Read more about cultural difference in body language starting HERE. (will open in a new tab)
Facial Expressions Versus Bodily Expressions
Much of the research suggests that the face is much more coloured when it comes to emotional expression and that people also look to the face first for relevant cues to emotion. This is because the face has many more permutations than the rest of the body, so it actually is a richer source.
However, when the body doesn’t match the face, such as an angry face on a happy body, studies have found that subjects’ assessments and accuracy declines. Therefore, we know that body does play an important role in assessing others.
While the face carries rich information about emotion, the body tends to be more supportive, but still provide cues that indicate motion referred to as “intention cues.” For example, when a body comes forward, or even seems to be coming forward, such as in a still image, we know that it might be angry, especially if the fists are balled.
The face and body both play an important, and additive, role in body language.
Proxemics, Space And Territory In Body Language
Proxemics is the study of how people use space and was first introduced by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the early 1960s to describe the implications distances play between people as they interact. He summarized the rule as follows: “Like gravity, the influence of two bodies on each other is inversely proportional not only to the square of their distance, but possibly even to the cube of the distance between them.” According to researcher Heini Hediger who studied the psychology and behaviour of captive animals in zoos and circuses in 1955, spacing is governed by how close animals are to one another, with four possible responses: flight, critical or attack, personal and social.
People we find, are no different. “Personal” and “social” refers to interactions between members of the same species and is benign and non-confrontational, whereas “flight” and “critical”, usually occurs between members of different species and represents a direct threat or perceived threat to safety. Hall reasoned therefore, that with few exceptions, flight and critical distances had been eliminated from human reactions. This is largely do to the environment by which we all exist as we tolerate mild intrusions of our personal space on a daily bases.
There are four distances by which people interact. They are the “intimate distance” where only about eight inches or less separates two people, the “personal distance” from eighteen inches to five feet, the “social distance” which is from five to ten feet and the “public distance” which is from ten feet to twenty-five feet. We tolerate intimate distances for embracing, touching, or whispering from sexual partners, family members and occasionally, even friends. Personal space is reserved for good friends and those we have a fairly high level of trust. The social distance is reserved for acquaintances that we perhaps don’t fully trust yet, but otherwise need to interact with, and the public distance is that which we use to address large audiences.
Read more about proxemics in body language starting HERE. (will open in a new tab)
Haptics – The Use Of Touch In Nonverbal Communication
Haptics is the study of touching and how it is used in communication. Handshakes, holding hands, kissing, back slapping, high fives, brushing up against someone or pats all have meaning. Touching is the most developed sense at birth and formulates our initial views of the world. Touching can be used to sooth, for amusement during play, to flirt, to expressing power and maintaining bonds between people such as with baby and mother.
Touching can carry distinct emotions and also show the intensity of those emotions. Touch absent of other cues can signal anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy depending on the length and type of touching that is performed. Many factors also contribute to the meaning of touching such as the length of the touch and location on the body in which the touching takes place.
Read more about haptics in body language starting HERE. (will open in a new tab)
Mirroring or Isopraxis In Body Language
Mirroring or “isopraxis” is as important to lifelong friends, as to strangers meeting for the first time, since mirroring is a way to test and maintain the level of rapport being established between two people or groups of people. Mirroring as it applies to nonverbal communication describes body postures, body positions and gestures that are held in unison or echoed a few seconds later across people as they interacting. When full mirroring appears it is as if each person is looking into the mirror and seeing their reflection. When full mirroring happens, it indicates a high level or rapport, or connectivity between people.
We mirror as a form of bonding with one another, and it happens without our conscious awareness. In ancient times, mirroring would have created group cohesion and identity. Sports groups, riot officers, firemen, and a myriad of occupations all wear the same uniform. It is this dress that formulates group think and helps people function in unison.
Mirroring says that we are on the same page. It’s like saying look at the two of us, we walk the same, talk the same and our bodies move together, therefore we must agree.
Purposeful mirroring can create perfect flow between people through changing dialect, speech rate or tempo, pitch, tonality, voice inflection, use of words and even accent. This is called “communication accommodation theory.” Mirroring can cut so deep that breathing, blinking, and even our heart rates can beat in unison.
Echoing is similar to mirroring, with one key difference. That is, echoing happens when similar postures are taken up, but only after some time had elapsed, rather than immediately, as in mirroring. Echoing is therefore a more subtle way to build rapport.
In various studies, researchers have shown that even purposeful mirroring has positive effects, creates and reveals liking in others, and helps gain approval.
Read more about mirroring body language starting HERE. (will open in a new tab)
Sexual Body Language
The body language of courtship is perhaps one of the most heavily studied form of nonverbal communication. With no words at all, single glances can show a vast amount of sexual interest. Body language in sexuality is potent and salient and unlike other areas of body language, fairly simple to observe and research. Body language in courtship is also quite pronounced and effective. With a few simple cues, women can attract men quite easily.
Science has found many cues indicating desire to court. Most of them are rooted in submission in women and dominance in men. Therefore, women usually display cues such as making the body appear smaller by lowering the head or titling it to the side, batting the eyes to appear childlike, displaying the vulnerable neck. Women couple submission with relevant displays of sexuality including showing skin, displaying cleavage, showcasing their legs as well as many other cues.
Men display to women by showcasing their dominance. Men will try to appear as if they are in charge by puffing out their chest, putting their hands on their hips and spreading their legs to showcase their crotch. Men can also showcase their sexuality, but they don’t do so to the same extent that as women.
Read more about sexual body language starting HERE. (will open in a new tab)
Art And Science
The study of nonverbal communication is not an exact science. However, this does not mean that it is not heavily supported by empirical research. It simply points to the fact that much about it, has limitations. Like the study of human psychology, body language has rules, hypothesis and gives us clues about people and their “hidden” emotions.
This guidelet is just that, a very small introductory primer to body language. For a much more comprehensive source – go grab your reading glasses and attention span – and start reading now, or just bookmark for later. Click HERE to read the free comprehensive online book Body Language Project: The Only Book On Body Language That Everybody Needs To Read.
This website is a product of more than just my own opinion; it is the result of the synthesis of hundreds of sources. I am a nerd for primary research and hack and analyze the research into a format that is more practical and user-friendly. By reading through Body Language Project, you will gain the most useful and practical information derived from the resources listed below.
I am grateful for the contributions that these scientists have made toward the study of nonverbal communication and nonverbal behaviour: body language.
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