Chapter 2 – The Basics Of Understanding Body Language


Touching the nose is associated with lying, but maybe she's got a runny nose.

Touching the nose is associated with lying, but maybe she’s got a runny nose.

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. However, what we fail to realized at the time might be that during an initial meeting, our subject of interest hadn’t been acquainted with any of the other twenty people in the group and as a natural consequence we acting as any normal person would. Temperature can also play havoc on cues of openness. Someone who crosses their arms tightly and crunches up could be defined as closed or aloof, but they also might be cold. Conversely, removing a jacket could mean that a person is warming up to others but could also mean that they are overheating.

Single events taken as all encompassing can set us up for problems in the future. A brief meeting in one location, with one set of people, centered on one task can not define any person. Single meetings only show how a person reacts on that day, based on whatever happened before then to set their mood and with whomever happens to be there. People are very complex, and so we must give them plenty of opportunity to display their true selves before drawing solid conclusions. This does not mean that what we gather on each occasion is useless, but rather that it needs to be compared across many situations before it can be used accurately. Until similar patterns develop across many different situations, take isolated incidents for what they really are. Predictive power happens through repeating patterns across many events and in many contexts.


Honest hands - palms up, but what happens next?

Honest hands – palms up, but what happens next?

Hands return to pockets indicate dishonesty and is incongruent with the intended meaning.

Hands return to pockets indicate dishonesty and is incongruent with the intended meaning.

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. If, for example, one is speaking honestly with the palms up (an honest gesture) we can say that the body language and verbal language are congruent. That is, honest words match up with honest body language. A child with their hands in their pockets (dishonest gesture) speaking about how they didn’t steal a cookie is incongruent since their body language does not match their verbal language.

We regularly place more importance on what words are used rather than how others gestures in their delivery, but this is a mistake. When we don’t have congruency and the verbal language doesn’t match the nonverbal gestures we should always place more importance on the nonverbal channel. Credence should almost always be given to nonverbal language over spoken words since the research tells us that it is often more accurate. When people plan lies they often rehearse the sentences and in what sequence they will deliver them, but they often ignore or disregard gestures that will accompany them. While we monitor our spoken words, our unconsciousness can leak unwanted information through our bodies. However, even if people were consciously aware that their body language gave them away, they would not know what to do since most people are completely unaware of the meaning their body conveys.

Politicians can leak information through congruency and this can give them away, although most politicians today are quite learned in body language. We should be suspicious of politicians, however, when they have their arms tightly folded against their chest while saying that they are open to change or to a door-to-door salesman that swears his life on a product but wipes downward with his hand as if to clear the lie. Another example is the cheating husband who tries to pass off a late meeting and then pulls at his neck tie, collar or scratch his neck indicating stress.

Sometimes however, knowledge about body language just comes off as less expressiveness. The body language thus tends to be much more controlled and subdued because it’s much easier to eliminate body language altogether then it is to add honest body language. However, even reduced expressiveness helps us read people because a relaxed and natural politician is more likely to be telling the truth. Therefore, even reserved body language can be a ‘tell’ to those who are in tune. Congruency therefore, is very important because it is a clear comparison between two communication channels, the verbal and nonverbal. When words are mismatched against the body language, we can be sure something dishonest is at play and these hints should instigate us, at minimum, to pay closer attention.

The Rule Of Four

Are there enough cues to justify a conclusion in this case?

Are there enough cues to justify a conclusion in this case?

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 commonly referred to as “cue clusters” before drawing conclusions. The more cues that appear in association with other cues, the more accurate one can be about the underlying meaning. It isn’t impossible to see cue clusters in the six’s and sevens or higher. However, most agree that four independent signals is enough to positively identify true meaning.

Sitting with arms tightly pressed against the chest can mean that a person is uncomfortable, but it can also mean that a person is cold! Scratching the nose or face can mean that a person is lying or it could actually have an obvious purpose; to alleviate an itch! However, touching the nose, wiping the mouth in a down-stroke, avoiding eye contact and fidgeting tells us that something dishonest is probably going on. Another example of a cue cluster is as follows: crossing the legs by bringing one foot over the opposite leg (the figure-four leg cross), fingers interlinked together (steepling), leaning back in the chair, and tilting the head back and looking down through the nose at others. This cluster shows arrogance and superiority. However, just the figure four, which is a mild crotch display on its own, means very little. The figure-four-leg-cross only tells us that the crotch has been put on display, but does not necessarily attach meaning to the gesture and indicate arrogance. To some, this posture might not even mean that, it just may be a comfortable way for them to sit.

In all cases, gestures are just gestures and nothing more. It is our targets, the creators, who, knowingly or accidentally, attach meaning or emotions to gestures; it is the senders who are in charge of the delivery phase, and we, as readers, who are in charge of the deciphering phase of the transaction. In other words, it is the sender who is responsible for the message and the meaning entirely, the reader is a passive entity that should never project meaning, especially from that which is not present. That’s not to say that a reader would try to create emotions inaccurately, as this would be counterproductive, but rather that it would be a mistake to bring a gestures to the consciousness of a target and then try to persuade them that their intentions are different from that which is actually true. In many cases, however, you may find that targets won’t be aware of their true emotions anyway and will generally be uncomfortable to be made aware of their subconscious gestures, so reads are best kept to one’s self. Just like you wouldn’t show your cards in poker game, you shouldn’t actively show off your body language skills. Reads, and the skills in this book, are much more powerful if kept a secret.

Not all body movement has hidden meaning either. Sometimes our bodies are quiet and do no talking at all. It is normal for novice readers of body language to immediately begin to see body language cues creep into consciousness, but it’s a mistake to assume that all gestures suddenly have hidden meaning and get carried away with reckless diagnosis.

Let’s take another cue cluster: arms crossed tightly over the chest, legs crossed, head down and shoulders pulled inward. Our conclusion here is that our target is uncomfortable and is closing off the outside world. As signals are removed from this cluster we can be less certain of their emotional origins. Legs crossed with head down can mean just about anything, but even if we add in shoulders pulled inward, it does not provide solid evidence of anything underlying. What we really need here is the fourth, the arms pulled in tight against the body, to really give us enough information to justify a conclusion. The other cues by themselves are closed body postures, but they can be due to other factors. Leg crossing can sometimes even demonstrate interest, as is the case when they are crossed toward a girlfriend or boyfriend (rather then away) for example. The rule-of-four says that we need a “preponderance of evidence”, a term borrowed from the civil judiciary system. We have preponderance of evidence, not when we have achieved absolute unquestionable or irrefutable data, but instead, happens when we have superior weight in our favour and in this case, four independent cues is plenty of weight.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, or that we shouldn’t read people who only exhibit one or two cues. Reason being that the damage that might occur from an inaccurate read is likely very small so long as we keep it internalized. We can still make educated guesses or employ “working hypothesis” that can change with additional information as it is collected. One or two cues is sometimes all we get. Older people, who naturally have more controlled and subtle affect, and people learned at controlling their body language, such as public figures, only emit very subtle, fleeting or few nonverbal cues. In this subset of very controlled and practiced people, we often only see cues that are accidentally leaked, which in and of themselves are important, perhaps even more so then complete cue clusters in regular people. The caution here is to avoid premature conclusions on weak data especially when the stakes are high and that sometimes a gesture isn’t anything more than a gesture.

The Five Cardinal Rules Of Body Language

Is she cold, or angry?

Is she cold, or angry?

Single gestures by themselves can not reveal the true meaning of the situation. There are many more factors that play into reading people then just identifying single cues. When people move, they are fluid and changing, so too are their moods and context. One must use the full picture to discover the story. The ‘rule of four’, congruency, context, baselining, and intuition are the five cardinal rules that any body language master must abide by and we cover them next.

Introduction – Chapter 2

Mastery of anything begins by first learning the basics, and body language is no different. A solid structure can not be built without first forming and pouring a solid foundation. This chapter is aimed at accomplishing just that, as we tackle the basic, but very important rules of body language. It might seem as though reading body language is as easy and simple as just reading cues and postures, but it isn’t. At times it can be downright confusing, although the aim here is to simplify the language by breaking it apart then reassembling it, but not until the cues are first put through a strong filter. One of the filters we use is based on the five cardinal rules of body language which says that we need to use the rule of four. This rule tells us that we need at least four related cues to form a conclusion. We also need the cues to ‘jive’ called congruence, they must be taken in context, fit along some baseline of behaviour and finally must not be filter through a bias, meaning that they must be true rather than created fictitiously for an ulterior purpose. We will examine the five cardinal rules in detail in the pages to follow.

Just like regular spoken language or written language, silent speech or nonverbal communication also has what is called flow. Body language has rhythm, syntax and all the other nuances associated with general communication and ignoring this flow is akin to throwing away valuable information. We will also see that body language is much more reliable than spoken words because people generally pay little attention to it, and because of this, people will monitor it less readily allowing it to appear naturally and untainted. We will see that when body language and spoken language contradict one another, we should rely more heavily on what is happening non-verbally.

We will also cover the differences in body language reading ability between men and women, how age can influences reading, which may or may not be surprising and how leaders or alpha members of our society call the shots even when it comes to body language. We will touch a bit on good posture, how best to use touching, and how body language relieves pent up energy and displaces it. Finally we will touch briefly on the meaning of fashion and how it plays into nonverbal communication.