Body Language

  • Article's photo | Credit Discover Magazine

Have you ever felt like you knew someone was uncomfortable even before they said a word? Or sensed excitement bubbling beneath a calm exterior? Our bodies communicate constantly about how we feel about ourselves and others around us. Body language is simply a wordless communication—it is based in action and expresses itself through the movements and gestures of the head, face, eyes, hands, legs, and so on.

The Art and Science of Understanding Body Language

By definition, Body language is the communicationOpens in new window of personal feelings, emotionsOpens in new window, attitudes, and thoughts through complex mixture of body movementsOpens in new window, gesturesOpens in new window, posturesOpens in new window, and tone of voice, either consciously or involuntarily, more often subconsciously, and accompanied with spoken language, or in isolation.

In other words, body language is the way you unconsciously communicate your private thoughts and emotions through your body movements—the manner in which you fold your arms, cross your legs, sit, stand, walk, use your hips, eyes, and even in the subtle way you move your lips. Certain gestures like touching the nose, rubbing the eye, clearing the throat, pausing while speaking, even the clothes and scent you wear are all body language and they speak louder than words.

This kind of communication is considered a language in the sense that just as verbal language is universally guided by grammar and syntax, so does body language guided by universal or common body movements, signs, and gestures that are understood by everybody across the world.

For example, pressing the upward-pointing index finger to your tightly shut lips to order people to be quiet, for silence.

Body language is indispensable to all people—sportsmen, entertainers, models, employers and employees, friends and family members, and every other persons.

It is part and parcel of everyday life. Therefore, it would be good to become conscious of your own body language as well as those of others around you. However, developing the skill to understand body language is not an overnight thing. It is similar to learning a foreign language as it requires time and constant practice to achieve mastery.

How to Interprete Body Language

As the senderOpens in new window, your body language is indicative of your feelings when you communicate with a receiverOpens in new window. Your body language may reinforce your verbal message. It can also contradict it and reveal your true thoughts when you are not being truthful.

Thus, our body language is an outward reflection of the emotions we feel. This is vital in the workplace. You know by their body language if clients are really happy with your services or are merely being polite when they say they are happy. Again, you use body language to know if your manager was satisfied with your project work or was not impressed at all.

Decoding (Interpreting) Body language

DecodingOpens in new window is the ability to interpret others' bodily gestures and messages. Our bodies, even when our mouths are closed, are eloquent communicators. Often, without our conscious awareness, various parts of our body—such as hands, legs, eyes, lips, and more—convey messages through their movements, unveiling our thoughts and emotions.

Furthermore, facial features, actions, attire, and other nonverbal cues offer receivers impressions that can be more potent than words alone. Through these cues, observers may assess our likability, assertiveness, or perceived power based on the nuances of our body language. A notable illustration is the initial encounter between two individuals. During this first meeting, both parties instinctively gauge each other by scrutinizing appearance, attire, facial expressions, handshake, and posture.

Examining a person's body language provides valuable insights into various aspects of human interaction, helping us answer questions such as:

  1. Do people like or dislike one another?

    When individuals harbor positive feelings, they often exhibit open postures, direct body orientation, and stand in close proximity. Relaxed bodies and natural gestures create an inviting atmosphere, encouraging interaction. Conversely, negative sentiments manifest in incongruent and indirect body orientations, limited eye contact, and heightened bodily tension, making it challenging to connect with someone closed off or wrapped up in themselves.

  2. Is a person being assertive or nonassertive?

    Assertive individuals convey a more relaxed and expansive nonverbal behavior compared to their nonassertive counterparts. Nonassertive behaviors typically involve a rigid posture, nervous gestures, and a reluctance to maintain eye contact. The use of confidence-boosting illustrators sets assertive individuals apart from nonassertive ones, who may rely on adaptors that signal vulnerability.

  3. Is a person powerful or powerless?

    Power dynamics are reflected in body language, with an erect but relaxed posture, dynamic gestures, and confident eye contact conveying a sense of power. Conversely, visible bodily tension, a downward gaze, and closed postures contribute to perceptions of powerlessness. The way we carry ourselves significantly influences how others perceive our level of influence.

Whether we approach or avoid someone and whether we assess them as confident or anxious, powerful or powerless, is often shaped by the body language we observe.

Important Clue! 
Understanding body language requires consideration of cultural nuances. The meanings of gestures vary across cultures, making interpretation context-dependent. Some crucial considerations for interpreting body language include:
  • No Precise Interpretations: Specific gestures lack universal meanings; their interpretation depends on various factors.
  • Complexity of Body Language: Similar to spoken language, body language comprises clusters of gestures influenced by cultural, social, and individual elements.
  • Unique Individuals: Each person is unique, influencing the interpretation of their nonverbal communication.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Generalizing about nonverbal behavior in a culture may lead to inaccurate assumptions; cultural variations must be acknowledged.
  • Context Matters: Nonverbal behavior must be understood in specific contexts, and interpretations should be adapted accordingly.
  • Cultural Variations: Cultural, religious, political, economic, geographical, and value differences contribute to diverse interpretations.
  • Subjectivity Danger: Judgments can be subjective due to biases, affecting accurate interpretation.
  • Cluster Interpretation: Gestures should be interpreted in clusters rather than isolation, considering the changing dynamics.
  • Possible Deception: Some gestures may be habitual or deceptive, requiring alertness to subtle clues.
  • Acquiring Skill: Accurate interpretation comes with patient observation, perceptiveness, and experience, utilizing eyes, ears, and intuition.

In summary, a nuanced understanding of body language demands cultural sensitivity, context awareness, and a recognition of the intricate interplay of nonverbal cues.

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  • References
    • Shalini Verma, Technical Communication for Engineers ( Body Language 2.8.1, Pg 70.) | Nonverbal Communication
    • Teri Kwal Gamble, Michael W. Gamble, Interpersonal Communication: Building Connections Together | Nonverbal Communication (Decoding The Body's Message, Pg 164.)
    • Body Language: A Guide for Professionals, By Hedwig Lewis

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