Body Language

Breaking Down Body Language

Body language is the communication 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 simple words, body language is the way in which we express ourselves through the different parts of our body. It can be compared to the verbal language we speak, where we express our ideas and needs through words. Body language is 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.

It is 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.

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.

Our bodies communicate constantly about how we feel about ourselves and others around us. 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 our own body language as well as those of others. 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 effort to achieve mastery.

How To Interprete Body Language

As the sender, your body language is indicative of your feelings when you communicate with a receiver. 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

Decoding is your ability to read others bodily gestures or messages. Our bodies speak volumes, even without our mouths open. Mostly, without our being conscious of it, the different parts of our body, like the hands, legs, eyes, lips, and the likes, transmit messages through the movements they make. Thus, they reveal our thoughts and emotions.

Again, our facial features, actions, attire, and other nonverbal cues give receivers an impression often more powerful than words alone can create. With such nonverbal cues receivers may judge us to be more or less likable, assertive, or powerful based on observation of our body language. A striking example is when two people meet for the first time. Their initial reaction is to size up each other by observing appearance, attire, facial expression, handshake, and posture. Looking closely at a person’s body message can help us answer questions such as the following:

  1. Do people like or dislike one another?
    When we like one another, we tend to exhibit open postures and more direct body orientation, and we stand more closely together. Our bodies are also relatively relaxed, and our gestures are uninhibited and natural. Such bodily cues are inviting and can stimulate interaction. In contrast, if we do not like each other, our bodies emit very different cues. Instead of facing each other directly, we exhibit incongruent and indirect body orientations. We are also likely to avoid sustained eye contact and display a high degree of bodily tension and rigidity. It is harder to like someone who is closed off or all wrapped up in him-or herself.
  2. Is a person being assertive or nonassertive?
    An assertive person’s nonverbal behaviour is more relaxed and expansive than the nonverbal behaviour of someone who is nonassertive. Typically, a nonassertive person adopts a rigid posture, exhibits an array of nervous gestures, avoids sustained eye contact, and hunches his or her shoulders in a protective or closed stance. In contrast, the assertive counterpart exhibits comfortable eye contact, and employs illustrators in place of confidence-deflating adaptors that announce vulnerability.
  3. Is a person powerful or powerless?
    If you have an erect but relaxed posture, gesture dynamically, feel free to stare at others, and interject your own thoughts even if it means interrupting another person, you are likely to be perceived as powerful. On the other hand, visible bodily tension, a downward gaze, and close posture will contribute to perceptions of you as powerless.

Thus, whether or not we want to approach or avoid another person, and whether we assess people to be confident or anxious, powerful or powerless, is often influenced by the body language we receive.

Adapted from: Interpersonal Communication: Building Connections Together, a book by Teri Kwal Gamble, Michael W. Gamble

Important Hint! 

It is worthy to note that body language has different meanings in different cultures. How we decode or interpret body language depends on the situation, the culture, gender of the person we are communicating with, and the relationship we have with the person.

The meanings of most bodily gesturesOpens in new window differ from culture to culture. Thus, However, there are several considerations with respects to interpreting body language. Here are some important ones:

  • There are no precise interpretations for particular gestures.
  • Body language is as easy or as difficult to learn as any spoken language. It consists of gesture clusters. It is complex, with a combination of cultural, social, and individual elements. ‘No body position, in and of itself has precise meaning’ (Birdwhistell, 1952).
  • Each individual is unique; his attitudes and behavior will have an impact on his nonverbal communication.
  • Gestures come in clusters; one must recognize their relationships and draw meaning from a cluster.
  • Nonverbal behavior takes place in a particular context; contexts vary, so we must adapt our interpretation accordingly.
  • We use acquired gestures unconsciously, but they mean different things to different people. Consequently, there are many interpretations of the nonverbal movements we make. These interpretations are based on many factors, including culture, religion, politics, economics, geography, and values.
  • There is danger of our judgments being predominantly ‘subjective’ rather than objective. We may be inaccurate in our interpretations because of our biases about things and people; for instance, we tend to relax our observation, alertness while conversing with our ‘nearest and dearest’.
  • Gestures must not be interpreted in isolation but in clusters. We must remember that gesture clusters are kaleidoscopic and change from moment to moment, movement to movement.
  • Sometimes gestures do not really mean what they signify, since the person may be making them out of habit or because of acquired mannerisms. Interpretations then take on another coloring.
  • Sometimes there may be attempts to fake gestures, so one must not be drawn in blindly, taking every gesture at its ‘face value’, but be alert to giveaway clues.
  • We must take cultural variations of gestures into consideration. Over-generalizing about the nonverbal behavior of a culture leads to the assumption that everybody in the culture behaves in the same way.
  • Accurate interpretations come through patient observation, perceptiveness, and experience. To understand what a person is experiencing, one must use one’s eyes, ears, and intuition.