Chapter 2 – The Basics Of Understanding Body Language

Summary – Chapter 2

In this second chapter we have solidified our nonverbal foundation with the five cardinal rules of body language. First we covered the five basic rules of body language: the rule-of-four, congruence, context, baselining and intuition and perception. The ‘rule-of-four’ says that we need at least four independent, but related signals to reliably read someone whereas congruence says that we should pay particular attention when verbal language and nonverbal language do not match. Context on the other hand, says that we must be mindful of where and how cues develop since they could be confused with other variables and might mean something totally different or nothing at all. Baselining refers to the need to measure a person over time and in different situations before we can accurately predict their nonverbal meaning with any accuracy. The final rule says that we need to be conscious about intuition and perception so we don’t project meaning onto situations based on pre-conceived beliefs. We also covered how the feet are the most honest part of the body, and that coupled with putting presidency on negative body language over positive body language, we will have a greater success rate in reading people accurately.

Aside from these rules we looked at the flow of silent speech, how body language can be less confusing than verbal language, the differences between men and women, how women intuitively read body language and how age affects body language. We also discussed the importance that alpha’s, or leaders play in our lives and how we are either creating social norms (leading) or we are following them, how posture portrays confidence, the importance of ‘haptics’ or touch, in addition to body language as it relates to energy displacement and finally the meaning of fashion and preening.


Preening between two people is a sign of affection.

Preening between two people is a sign of affection.

Preening includes anything done to maintain our physical appearance such as fixing our hair, washing our bodies, wearing clean, matching clothing, brushing our teeth and so forth. In an evolutionary context, preening signifies that we are healthy and in a good state of mind. Have you ever thought about why birds usually have white under-feathers especially around their rear ends? It has been speculated that it is a health advertisement displaying and that the carrier of such a feature has good genetics. Unhealthy animals of any species will usually show symptoms of their sickness with some form of intestinal looseness or diarrhea which would surely show against a wide backdrop! Birds therefore show their health by keeping a clean rear end. They also preen by bathing in water and dust to keep themselves free of ticks and other nuisance hitchhikers. Humans are no different than any other animals as we also require sufficient energy to maintain our bodies.

The invisible lint picker doesn't like what's being said and is trying to get out of the conversation.

A case in point is what happens when humans fall mentally ill. It has been noted around the world that when people suffer from illness personal grooming is the first aspect to go. When minds are busy with more pressing matters it shoves looking good aside. Homeless people and the severely depressed will wear un-kept hair, dirty clothing and ignore showering. They will lie around for hours on end but when they do finally take foot, their posture will be slumped, shoulders rolled inward, torsos bent at the waste and their head will droop as if they carry the “weight of the world upon their shoulders.” They will succumb to the forces of gravity rather than defy it such as what we see with the exuberant who seem to have a “bounce in their step.” This is why it is so vitally important to keep a well cared for appearance to signal to others that we have proper mental health. A lot can be surmised about a person from wearing torn and soiled clothing, especially in public. Like manners, preening tells others that we respect their thoughts and opinions, and that we wish to belong to a functioning society.

Preening can be a good thing as described above, but done inappropriately can be seen as rude. Picking lint so as to detach oneself from a conversation is one such way. When grooming is done in this way it dissociates a person from a conversation by removing agreement indicators, eye contact and attachment. Another happens by removing dirt from under the nails, clipping them in public or other more unmentionable grooming rituals, which are unsightly and a turn off. However, preening such as adjusting a necktie, fixing the hair, smoothing clothing or applying lipstick done in a courtship setting, indicates interest and a desire to impress in a positive way. When preening is performed on someone else, it shows a desire to be close. This is done when mothers clean their child’s dirty hands and when lovers catch a piece of food that has missed their partner’s mouth.

Fashion And Its Meaning

Have you ever thought that a tie resembles a giant downward facing arrow?

Have you ever thought that a tie resembles a giant downward facing arrow?

Clothing is very potent and gives off all sorts of vital information about its wearer and is a language onto itself. Before we even speak with one another, our clothing creates an image about us, it also tells of our sex, age, occupation, origins, social class, personality and beliefs. Clothing can also tell others where we are going as well as what we are about to do. A business suit for example, indicates that one is conducting business or a summer dress indicates that one is on vacation. In other words, clothing provides context.

As a language clothing can be conventional or eccentric, clothing can give off signals about who one wants to be or become. Teenagers place importance on designer clothing so they can impress their friends and fit in, but as we grow older, our shift takes on a more specific role as we tailor our attire to the functions we attend and to the status we want to hold. Imagine showing up at a cocktail party thinking the event was inform and so appearing under-dressed, this can be embarrassing. The reason is of course because we feel that we will be discriminated against or judged as being something we aren’t. Clothing can also set us apart from others in terms of values and the eccentric often have flamboyant clothing to differentiate themselves from others showing that their ideas about life are different than the rest of those around them. Just keep in mind that while you may wish to send one message to a specific group of people in one location, you are passing by many more on the way, each one of which are getting the same message.

How one ‘wears’ what they wear also gives off indicators of their disposition. For example, the uptight employee that does his collar up to the top, or the laid back who fails to properly tighten his neck tie or avoids wearing one at all. Having buttons done up tight as opposed to having and open suite jacket also has meaning. In a tense situation such as a court case, the defendant would be expected to show his serious side so we expect his jacket to be done up tight with a straight tie, whereas the year end office party would create a relaxed atmosphere causing people to loosen up or remove their ties altogether especially as the evening progresses. Having un-pressed pants, dirty shoes or even no shoes, at all provide details of other people’s disposition. Using inappropriately loose or tight clothing can also give us clues as to the nature of the person. Removing a tie midday under a strict dress code indicates that the person is rebellious and defiant or unbuttoning a blouse to show more cleavage could lead to being labeled easy or a seductress. Even wearing casual clothing by superiors can be seen as a power-play. We call this dressing “against the grain” and it gains its full meaning when it is done in a calculated way. The boss, due to his status, can show up in his tennis shoes and shorts – late for a meeting, because it is him that sets the rules and not his employees. Dressing against the grain says, “I’m a powerful person, I make my own rules.”

Certain new policies in new age companies allow more relaxed dress which, not only shows their progressive attitudes and desire to act entrepreneurial, but also the force new age employees are demanding. Dress plays a big part in first and daily impressions and also provides excellent cues to be read in others. To read someone in their entirety and give off the best impressions possible, we should be mindful of the nonverbal cues we give off with respect to dress and also those that are given off by others. Just remember that while judging people by the way they look and being judged for the same is not fair, but very little in life is, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Ignoring nonverbal signal emitted by clothing, piercings, tattoos, chains, baggy pants and dirty worn clothing is a surefire way to alienate and turn people off. Do so at your own peril!

Body language And Energy displacement

Tapping a table is a form of energy displacement because it burns extra energy to relieve tension.

Tapping a table is a form of energy displacement because it burns extra energy to relieve tension.

When someone talks about energy displacement and body language they are talking about movements that create relief. Someone that is nervous or excited will find relief in rubbing their legs with their hands called “leg cleansing”, or they might rub their hands together or stroke an object vigorously. Leg cleansing is a gesture that usually goes unnoticed because it happens underneath the table, but an astute observer will see the upper body move serving to give it away. An example of leg cleaning is that of a baseball player that is on deck and getting ready to bat. His hands might be sweaty from the excitement so he rubs his hands on his thighs, soon enough this becomes a habit and he does this every time he comes to bat regardless of whether his hands are sweaty. With repetition he has conditioned himself to seek comfort by performing this gesture. Self touching also produces relaxing chemicals in his body to help him deal with the stress and burns up nervous energy. Self touching isn’t always related to energy displacement although in this case it is. Energy displacement means the same thing as stress motivated energy burning. It is the burning of energy that provides a trickle release that occupies the mind and produces soothing neurochemicals.

Extreme anxiety causes the desire to control the pain by inflicting it against ourselves.  It gives back our sense of control over our anxiety.  People who resort to cutting also seek to displace their anxiety and control it.

Extreme anxiety causes the desire to control the pain by inflicting it against ourselves. It gives back our sense of control. People who resort to ‘cutting’ also seek to displace their anxiety and control it.

Energy displacement isn’t just for athletes, it happens all over the place from the boardroom to the classroom. We see people rubbing their hands together in excitement or wringing their hands showing inner turmoil and in during extreme stress, pacing, or even self inflicted pain such as ear pulling, scratching, or pinching. Energy displacement allows for a controlled release of tension without creating fatigue. Energy displacement is akin to the natural high that is achieved through punishing physical exercise except in this case the endorphin rush comes much less potently but the action still provides a stress reducer.

When a woman suddenly becomes “cold” as a decision gets close in a meeting they might begin by cross their arms and begin to stroke their elbows or forearms. The temperature in the room hasn’t dropping though, what she is feeling is an emotional change creating an uneasy feeling. To sooth herself, she strokes her body and this reminds her of childhood feelings where mom comforted her. A nervous husband who waits outside a delivery room will pace back and forth. His movement gives him something to do and also burns up excess energy. Generally men’s displacement actions will be easier to spot then women’s since they will be more aggressive. Men feel that when something is good, more is better, and take almost everything to extremes. In fact, one of the leading causes of preventable gum disease is brushing the teeth too hard or for too long, and men are often most at fault for this. Women’s postures, on the other hand, will melt into their regular body language and can therefore be harder to spot.

An entire host of gestures can be used for energy displacement and they vary from person to person and culture to culture. Any movement that has no inherent or immediate function and that is done when faced with stress can be called energy displacement. With observation, you can catalog energy displacement cues in family members, friends and even bosses. If you observe energy displacement body language in friends, an appropriate response is to offer comfort, but if it is found in a boss or employee, or during a sale, then it is usually time to back off and give them time to think things over. Allow a stressed out individual some time to reach a conclusion on their own.

Haptics: The Use Of Touch In Communication

Is this touching on purpose or to gain attention?

Is this touching on purpose or to gain attention?

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.

In western cultures touching is infrequent which makes it even more significant when it happens. French and Italians for example, tend to touch frequently even continuously while walking, whereas the British prefer not to touch at all. At sporting events and especially in celebration of victory or success, such as scoring a goal or point, touching among male athletes is permitted whereas in the dressing room, a hands-off policy is the norm. Cultures that accept touching more often are India, Turkey, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, the Middle East, Parts of Asia and Russia whereas no touching cultures includes Germany, Japan, England, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Estonia, Portugal, Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

In the workplace, touching is fairly uncommon. We therefore use the handshake as a universal form of touching to avoid offending others. More intimate forms of touching sometimes occurs such as a friendly pat on the back to display encouragement but generally speaking, touching at work should be kept to a minimum. We cover cultural differences with respect to touching in a dedicated chapter.

Reading Posture

Slumped posture indicates to others that life has given you a bad hand.

Slumped posture indicates to others that life has given you a bad hand.

Confident erect posture.

Confident erect posture.

Asymmetrical posture shows a lack of confidence.

Asymmetrical posture shows a lack of confidence.

Posture is underrated in daily life but it can tell us a lot about a person. Posture refers not only to the erectness of our bodies, but also to our body orientation, direction of lean, and the degree to which our bodies are open and inviting.

Good healthy posture does not mean that the body is straight up and down since the natural spine has curves, but it does mean that the spine is aligned and not twisted. There are natural curves between the thoracic (upper) and lumbar (lower) regions where the upper curves slight backwards and the lower slightly forward. To be technical, the ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should align as if a plumb line where run from top to bottom. This is called the neutral position because the body is best able to hold this posture without stressing joints, muscle and bones. What it really means is that the weight of the body is held by the bones and not by the muscles. You can imagine the structure of a house whose weight is carried down from the rafters to the side and supporting walls, then straight down to the foundation. A house that leans puts uneven stress over certain walls causing a risk of collapse. A good posture promotes breathing, circulation and balance. Persistent improper posture can lead to general discomfort, long term damage, or even deformities. While there are medical reasons for holding good posture, there are certainly nonverbal reasons for keeping a good level body.

Having rounded shoulders for example, shows that a person is inactive in the conversation, as does leaning away or even closing the body off. We also attribute negative ideas to people with poor posture. People that slumped over or habitually lean on their elbows while seated or against a wall come off as lazy and careless; sloppy. People with poor posture often come across as lacking confidence. Conversely, being too rigid can come off as stiff, awkward, stressed, nervous and uncomfortable. Holding good posture shows the world that one is in control, confident and powerful.

Shorter people can even add several inches with an upright posture over someone with poor posture. The effect is magnified even moreso while seated, and can even level the field entirely. A posture experiment is simple so feel free to try it at the next board meeting and see just how much height you can gain just by holding a more upright posture. The postural advantage therefore is best used by striking a happy medium between being proper and upright but not appearing stiff. Keep the shoulders back, with your spin generally straight and head upright.

Body orientation, a subset of posture, can also convey information. For example, having weight unevenly distributed across the legs can show that a person is ready to leave a conversation by slumping toward the desired exit direction. Usually this is a door, or hallway. Reading or using this posture can tell you when its time to wrap things up or tell others when you would prefer to end the conversation. I use this skill on adamant door to door salespeople. Simply by orienting my body away from the salesman and even slightly moving in that direction I can show the salesman that I am serious about my disinterest. You can easily do the same.

Leaning towards or away also conveys useful meanings. Someone interested in the conversation will literally be thrusting themselves forward into the conversation by moving their bodies forward toward the speaker. Other times the body leans much more subtly. For example, an interested person might stand, shifting their weight slightly forward or might teeter just a touch to the side to display interest or connectivity to someone to their left or right. Because leaning requires a significant amount of work to do, not to mention balance, it is a significant nonverbal message especially when it is seen in the torso since it carries a large portion of our body weight. However, when the brain requires it to evade other people that we dislike or favour those we like, the body will hardly realize it. There will be times that distancing behaviours are not terribly dramatic as even just a few inches tells us that ideas and the people that voice them are diverging. While seated, interest driven leaning can be even more dramatic as weight is placed on the knees almost in a sprinter position as someone is trying to accept as much information as possible.

Steps to perfect posture
1. Stand upright, shoulders relaxed yet up and back.
2. Align your neck with your spine with your head back and level. Don’t let your head droop and ‘lead’ you.
3. Push your rear end forward so as to shift your weight onto your hips and legs without becoming overly rigid.
4. Keep your midsection tight to assist your back and keep your torso straight and upright.
5. Keep your arms to your sides with your fingers loose and keep your body weight even across both feet.

Emulating Alpha’s Body Language

Being alpha.

Being alpha.

Gregory Hartley author of I can read you like a book talks at length about how we are constantly at the whim of ‘Alpha’. As he states it we are either creating the social norms or we are following them. Think about this in terms of your work place and about who calls the shots. Is your body language free flowing or does it react to that of your boss and managers? Do you sit like you do at home? Is your body language relaxed? How does it change when you move from your private space, your cubicle, or your office? How does it react when you are being reprimanded? I suspect that more then you know Alpha’s, not just in your workplace, but in your environment at large and plays a big part in how you comport yourself. Hartleys says that “Unless we are alpha, we are emulating the alpha and overlaying it to our own catalogue of gestures to maintain identity while keeping alpha happy.”

He divides us further into three categories. They are sub-typical, typical and super-typical and places everyone on a bell curve of behaviour within a given culture. The bell curve has a shape of a bell and shows the frequencies of behaviour with most people having middle ground behaviour. The super-typical show extremities in behaviour and set the rules for our cultures and microcultures, they are the politicians and celebrities of our world. Within every sector of our lives there exists this bell curve of behaviour because each of the groups we belong to has a set of acceptable behaviour; at work, your social network, at school and so forth.

Think of the playground, where the super-typical are the popular kids whom everyone looks up to and the sub-typical as the losers, the rest are in the middle. We look up to the super-typical and try to be like them except in the case of the sub-typical who simply long to advance to typical. In our workplace, the super-typical are our bosses and managers, the typical are the average people and the sub-typical are those at the low end of the bell curve.

Naturally, no matter where we are, we all know who these people are because rank is part of our evolutionary history. The sub-typical are those that form part of the group but aren’t the norm and they are consistently dismissed even though everyone sees them as part of the group. In life, the sub-typical are the homeless or socially inept, they don’t take any part in creating our social norms and as mentioned our super-typicals are our politicians and celebrities. Everyone belongs to some sort of group so we all follow social norming and we all to one degree or another follow our alphas. This then triggers behaviours, actions and therefore body language which becomes typical within our groups. So next time you watch other people’s body language be sure to frame it in light of imitating alpha.

Body Language Of Children

BodyLanguageProjectCom - NeotenyBabies are almost entirely dependant on nonverbal communication in their first few months, that is, if we discount crying! As children age, they still rely, as adults do, on nonverbal language such as pointing at a toy rather then asking for it, pushing other children aside when it suites them, or even hugs to show affection and exaggerated pouting to garner sympathy. Babies as young as nine month’s old, who lack verbal language, can even begin using sign language to convey desires showing just how rooted non-verbal communication is all of us.

When young children lie they often have troubles making eye contact or they might hang their head, appear tense or they might even quickly pull both hands up and cover their mouths as if to shove the lie back in from where it came from. Even some adults will perform these gestures if they let slip a secret or particularly juicy piece of gossip in the wrong circle. However, at other times, both children and adults are not as obvious. A 2002 study by Victor Talwar and Kang Lee out of the University of Queens, Canada, however, showed that children as young as three are naturally adept at controlling their nonverbal language as it applies to deception. In the study, children were able to fool most of the evaluators of their deception as a videotape showing the lie was replayed. Children are not particularly skilled at lying through verbal channels though, and they slip up easily revealing inconsistencies in their stories, so this is where you can really catch them. We will cover deceptive body language at lengths later on.

Other emotional body language emitted by children is much more prevalent. For example, children use slouching and pouting to show that they are upset and disappointed but as we age, we drop our nonverbal cues in favour of verbal expression. We naturally become more adept at repressing what our bodies do and tend to use more conscious thought and spoken words since it is more direct and less easily misinterpreted. What starts off as a quick mouth slap movement to the mouth when lying (or swearing) in children, slowly becomes a touch to the corner of the mouth. Later, restraint forces the finger to the side even further and then instead of touching the mouth it touches the side of the nose instead. As people age, they become much more difficult to read. By logical progression, the hardest to read of all are sixty-year-old politicians!

As an interesting aside, dedicated parents even claim to be able to sense when a baby is about to relieve themselves and so avoid messy diapers. This technique is referred to as elimination communication. By reading gestures such as frowning, squirming, fussing or tensing, mother’s (or fathers!) in combination with baby’s particular rhythms, can detect when potty time is immanent. Once the baby’s cues have been deciphered the mother can anticipate potty time by holding baby over the toilet and cuing with “hiss-hiss” or “wiss-wiss” sounds. To associate the hissing sounds with urination, this process must be repeated ten to twenty times each day!

Age, Age Gaps, Status And Its Affect On Body Language

Since we’ve isolated women as the best readers of body language, it’s time to weed out the rest of the bad apples from the bunch. In fact, many other factors, aside from our sexes, play into our ability to read and use body language.

The first such factor is our age. Children first learn to communicate through nonverbal channels by using posture, gestures and proximity to influence the behaviour of the adults around them. If this doesn’t work they will resort to crying but for the most part this is non-directional and unsophisticated. In children, it is their body language which helps us to figure out their true desires. Before they can signal nonverbally, we are simply left guessing so thankfully children have relatively simple and predictable needs. Once they figure out the use of words, their nonverbal gestures quickly diminish and eventually get mostly left by the wayside. Children who first begin to speak will show more interest in speaking then other channels even if it means they need to interact more with their adult counterparts versus other children of the same age. At the age of three, most children have lost or dropped almost all of their nonverbal communication and are fully into verbal speech.

Age also plays another more important role in reading body language. Those people that are closest to our age are the easiest to read. Our ability to accurately read others is much lower with people who are much younger and much older then ourselves and easiest amongst our own peer group. We spend the most amount of time with our peer group so familiarity could be a factor, however, more importantly is our ability to relate and empathize. So the take-away message is that our ability to empathize with the needs, desires and emotions of others is a key part in reading body language. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others and to feel what they feel.

The greater the gap in age between the reader and the target, the greater is the discrepancy in accuracy. If you’ve ever watch siblings of similar age, you know that they have an uncanny ability to interpret and understand each other. It’s particularly interesting to watch small children decipher each others seemingly nonsensical gibberish and random movements. Naturally it follows that teenagers and seniors are difficult to read by the middle aged and children are poor readers of all adults (or at least do a good job pretend to be).

Older faces are difficult to read naturally, even for other seniors. Older faces have
weaker muscle tone, and so produce less exaggerated expressions. What expressions are made are then covered by wrinkles disguising them even more. Status and occupational differences that we see everyday at work, also make it difficult for us to read others. Upper management dealing with lower management in a company or teachers dealing with students must deal with cohort differences daily and it can become stressful.

Higher status people might lack the interest to associate with lower status people and low status people might sense this and so return less eye contact feeling not cared about. This lack of empathy spirals into each party caring less and less about each other. Lower status employees may also feel envious of higher status employees and share less information with them make it difficult to develop empathy. Health care workers that spend a lot of time with seniors can develop skills and read them more accurately, but only if they empathize with them. To be a good body language reader, you have to be able to put yourself in someone else’s position, and see the world as they do.

So How Exactly Do The Minds Of Men And Women Differ?

BodyLanguageProjectCom - Neocortex Or Mammalian BrainDr. Gurian believes there are about a hundred structural differences between the male and female brain. Men tend to compartmentalize their communication into smaller parts of the brain and therefore tend to get right down to the issues whereas women’s brains gather a lot more information from different areas of the brain and therefore tend to be more detailed in their conversations. Men also show more activity in mechanical centers of the brain and females show more activity in verbal and emotional centers. These changes happen very early in boys and girls. To a little girl, a doll becomes life-like with desires, feelings, needs or in other words a life, but to a little boy, that same doll is simply an object.

The brain scans of women show that the corpus callosum which handles communication is larger than that of men’s. The corpus callosum is an anatomical part of the brain that is centered between the left and right hemisphere and helps women’s brains “talk” better across each hemisphere. The corpus callosum is a thick collection of nerve fibers that conduct information. In essence, it helps women multi-task by sending information to an fro, from one side to the other to be dissected, disseminated and refabricated as it is put through various brain centers. Men on the other hand tend to move information within the same side of the brain better and tend not to confuse issues with others. Women’s brains easily move from the right side (creative) to the left side (logical) and vice versa, very easily. This is why they often inject all sorts of emotions into their arguments and details into stories whereas men get stuck on the facts and logic and progress from A to B to C. Because of this ease of movement women can perform more operations at the same time, they can pick berries, take care of their young, and discuss camp ethics all at the same time. As it applies to our nonverbal discussion, it means that they can focus on more than just the words being spoken, they can also monitor body language as well.

So what does this all mean? Well, in practical terms, it means that women might have a better natural ability to read people. However, this book isn’t about what’s natural, it is about what can be learned and just about anyone can learn to read body language well, even if they are at an inherent disadvantage.