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Body Language

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Body language is a form of non-verbal communication wherein physical behaviors or gestures are used to express emotions and feelings or convey information.

What Is Body Language?

Communication has different forms. Sometimes verbal communication is used to directly communicate with another individual. On the other hand, body language is a non-verbal form of communication used to convey information about the intentions, emotions, and motivation of the individual. Body language involves gestures, facial expressions, posture, eye movements, touch, and the use of space. Facial expressions and body languages often help to determine what the individual is feeling. Every day we tend to pick up information about what people are thinking and feeling through their body posture, mannerisms, gestures, and movements. This intuitive social awareness is an impressive feature of neural integration.

According to a 2015 study 1 , this is an intuitive social awareness which is considered “an impressive feat of neural integration; the cumulative result of activity in distributed brain systems specialized for coding a wide range of social information.” The researchers claim that understanding such nonverbal communication is simply not limited to perception. It involves identifying and encrypting “socially relevant visual information,” and also assigning meaning to such information.

Understanding Body Language

A 2010 study 2 suggested that body language accounts for almost 60% to 65% percent of all communication. Understanding body language is an essential part of communication. This will help to understand what the individual is actually feeling. It is possible to become more aware of people’s reactions and understand what they are saying or doing through body language. Understanding different gestures, movements, or postures enables the individual to communicate more effectively. However, “Nonverbal cues cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. No single behavior or gesture means the exact same thing in every conceivable context,” explains the study. This is why it is crucial to consider different layers and types of context while interpreting nonverbal communication.

It is also important to keep in mind that body language is not the same as sign language. Sign languages are a complete language like other languages and have their own complex grammar systems. Body language does not have its own grammar system but has a corresponding meaning with certain movements and gestures. Body language is widely prevalent in social interactions and social settings.

Some of the examples of emotions that are expressed via facial expressions include:

Body Language
Body Language
  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Desire
  • Contempt
  • Confusion
  • Excitement
  • Frustration

A 2008 study 3 pointed out that the most reliable facial expressions are raised eyebrows and a slight smile. Experts suggested that this expression shows friendliness and confidence. Facial expressions are the most universal form of body language. The facial expressions used to convey different emotions such as happiness, fear, sadness are consistent throughout the world. A 2009 research study found evidence of universality among several facial expressions usually related to emotions such as joy, anger, fear, surprise, and sadness. Hence, the importance of nonverbal communication in developing social and personal bonds cannot be overlooked. “It is well understood that non-verbal behavior and ‘emotional body language’ (EBL) have crucial roles in communication and guiding social interaction,” explains researchers from a 2014 study 4 .

Body Language At A Glance

  1. Body language is a form of non-verbal communication where physical behaviors or gestures are used to express emotions and feelings or convey information.
  2. Facial expressions and body languages often help to determine what the individual is feeling.
  3. Body language is widely prevalent in social interactions and social settings.
  4. Mouth movements and expressions are an important aspects in reading body language.
  5. Understanding and comprehending body language is an essential part of communication.

The Language Of The Eyes

Body Language
Body Language


We have always known that eyes talk so much more than any other form of communication. Eyes are capable of revealing so much information about an individual. The language of the eyes is a natural and essential part of the communication process. eye contact is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and vital social stimuli. “Gaze direction is used to regulate interaction, to facilitate communicational goals, and to express intimacy and social control,” states a 2018 research paper 5 . Some of the common eye gestures are blinking, avoiding eye contact, gazing, or pupils dilated. When an individual wants to evaluate body language, it is important to pay close attention to the eyes.

Here are some of the ways humans communicate with their eyes:

1. Eye Gazing

Our eyes always move in the direction of interest. So if you wish to learn an individual’s mood, tracking the movement of their eyes can reveal the information you need. For instance, if you are having a conversation with someone and you find them constantly looking at the breakfast buffet, they may be more interested in eating than in talking. People also move their eyes when they are working out a problem, recalling information, or thinking of something that’s difficult. A 2013 study 6 found that breaking eye contact and looking away may be an indication that the person is distracted, uncomfortable, or trying to hide how they really feel.

2. Blinking

Blinking is a naturally occurring phenomenon. However, it is important to pay attention when the person is blinking too much or too little. People blink more rapidly when they are feeling distressed or uncomfortable. One 2013 study found that blinking not as often may indicate intentionally trying to control their eye movements. For instance, someone playing poker may blink less frequently, since he/she is purposely trying to appear mellow and low key about the hand he/she has dealt.

3. Pupil size/Pupil dilation

Pupil size is a very exquisite way to engage in non-verbal communication. Although light levels of the surrounding often govern pupil size, sometimes emotions can also influence pupil size. For instance, our pupils dilate when we feel affectionate towards someone. A 2016 study 7 found increased effective connectivity between visual cortical areas, temporoparietal junction, posterior superior temporal sulcus, medial prefrontal cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for eye contact in contrast to mouth fixations.

Mouth Movements And Expressions

Mouth movements and expressions are an important aspect in reading body language. For instance, when an individual chews the bottom lip, it can indicate that the individual is experiencing anxiety or is worried. Smiling may be one of the greatest body languages and can be interpreted in several ways. A 2006 study 8 has shown that a smile may be an indication of false happiness, sarcasm, or cynicism.

Some of the mouth language people use are:

Mouth Movements And Expressions
Body Language
  • Covering the mouth to be polite or hide an emotional reaction
  • Smiling may be genuine or false happiness or sarcasm
  • Pursed lips indicates distaste, disapproval, or distrust
  • Lip biting indicates feeling anxious or stress
  • Mouth slightly turned up indicates feeling happy or optimistic
  • Mouth slightly turned down can indicate sadness or disapproval

Gestures

Gestures are the most direct way of communicating signals. Gestures are made with different body parts that may be voluntary or involuntary. Some of the gestures involve waving, pointing, or using fingers are a very common way of communicating one’s thought. One 2019 study pointed out that gestures are a bridge between language and action. Some gestures are also found to be cultural. Hence, giving a thumbs up or peace sign may have a different meaning in other countries than it does in the United States.

Some of the common gestures that are used to communicate are:

  • The clenched fist can indicate anger or frustration
  • Thumbs up or down indicates approval or disapproval
  • The “V” sign indicates peace or victory. In the United Kingdom or Australia, it may be offensive when the back of the hand is facing outward
  • Sitting with folded arms can indicate a non-welcoming gesture
  • A shrug may indicate that the person doesn’t understand what you are saying
  • Raised brow indicate submissive greeting
  • Relaxed hands indicate confidence and self-assurance

The Language Of The Arms And Legs

The arms and legs can also be used to convey emotions or expressions. Crossed arms indicate defensiveness. Crossing legs may indicate dislike or discomfort. When evaluating body language, pay attention to the signals that the arms and legs may reveal. A 2010 study showed that non-verbal behaviors are unconscious and may represent a more accurate depiction of an individual’s attitude and emotional state.

Some of the language of the arms and legs that people convey are:

  • Crossed arms can indicate that the person feels defensive, self-protective, or closed off.
  • Standing with hands on the hips indicates that the person is ready and in control or can also be a sign of aggressiveness.
  • Clasping the hands behind the back indicate feeling bored, anxious, or angry
  • Tapping fingers or fidgeting indicate bored, impatient or frustrated
  • Crossed legs indicate closed off or in need of privacy

The Language Of Posture

Posture refers to how we position our bodies and the overall physical form of an individual. How we sit or how our posture also gives some form of indication to what we are feeling. Posture can demonstrate a wide array of information about how a person is feeling or their personality characteristics. Personality characteristics can include confidence, open or submissive. For instance, sitting up straight may indicate that the person is focused or concentrating on something. Sitting with hunched back may imply that the individual is bored.

Some of the postures that people use are:

  • Keeping the trunk of the body open and exposed indicates an open posture. This posture indicates friendliness, openness, and willingness.
  • Sitting hunched back with arms and legs crossed-legged indicates a closed posture. This posture indicates hostility, unfriendliness, and anxiety.
  • Sitting up straight may indicate that the person is attentive and focused
  • Sitting or standing with arms crossed indicates a defensive body language
  • Crossing legs may indicate that you uncomfortable with the person sitting in front of you
  • Putting your hands on your head may indicate that you are bored
  • Standing up straight indicates that you are confident
  • Looking down can indicate that you are weak and can’t communicate
  • Twisting your hair can indicate that you are flirting
  • Placing your hands on your cheeks may indicate that you are evaluating or understanding a situation

The Language Of The Head And Neck

The language of the head and neck involves a wide range of movements. It is important to take into account the positioning of the head, in order to understand the body language effectively. Body language with the head and neck should not cause strain and has to be natural.

Some of the language of the head and neck that are usually used:

  • Nodding the head is considered to be a sign of saying “yes”
  • A single nod indicates acknowledging a person in a respectful manner
  • Lowering of the head in conjunction with the eyes indicate a sign of submission
  • Raising the head from a lowered posture may indicate an increased interest in what someone is saying
  • A tilting of the head to the side indicate an expression of interest

Personal Space

Personal Space
Body Language


Personal space refers to the appropriate space between two individuals that they are both comfortable with. It is important to understand an individual’s personal space and maintain it to make the individual standing next to you feel comfortable. Just like body movements and facial expressions display a great deal of nonverbal communication, the personal space between two individuals can also be used to understand emotions and their relationship. The term proxemics was coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall to describe the distance between people as they interact with one another. He described four levels of social distance that occur in different situations. They are:

1. Intimate Distance (6 to 18 inches)

The intimate distance implies that there is a close relationship between the two people concerned. It also indicates that the individuals are comfortable with each other. This usually involves intimate contact such as hugging, whispering, or touching.

2. Personal Distance (1.5 to 4 feet)

Personal distance is usually maintained among family or close friends. The intimacy and comfort level is determined by how close the individual is standing next to each other.

3. Social Distance (4 to 12 feet)

This level of distance is usually maintained among individuals who are acquaintances. When you know someone well enough such as a co-worker you see several times a week, you may feel comfortable interacting with them at a closer distance. However, in case you don’t know the person well enough, such as a postman who you only see once a month, a distance of 10 to 12 feet may feel more comfortable.

4. Public Distance (12 to 25 feet)

Public distance is usually maintained in public speaking events, talking in front of a class, or giving a presentation in front of colleagues. It is important to keep in mind that the level of personal distance between individuals varies from culture to culture. For instance, people from Latin countries tend to feel more comfortable standing closer as they interact with other people while people from North America prefer more personal distance.

Comprehending The Languages Of The Body

Understanding and comprehending body language is an essential part of communication. This helps to interpret and understand what other people are trying to convey. It is important to look at these non-verbal gestures or signals in relation to the situation instead of trying to pick apart the signals one by one. Improving one’s non-verbal communication can go a long way to communicate effectively without even saying a word.

Read More About Body Image Here.

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References:
  1. Tipper, C. M., Signorini, G., & Grafton, S. T. (2015). Body language in the brain: constructing meaning from expressive movement. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 450. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00450 []
  2. Foley, G. N., & Gentile, J. P. (2010). Nonverbal communication in psychotherapy. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)7(6), 38–44. []
  3. Todorov, A., Baron, S. G., & Oosterhof, N. N. (2008). Evaluating face trustworthiness: A model based approach. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3(2), 119-127. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsn009 []
  4. Proverbio, A. M., Calbi, M., Manfredi, M., & Zani, A. (2014). Comprehending body language and mimics: an ERP and neuroimaging study on Italian actors and viewers. PloS one, 9(3), e91294. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0091294 []
  5. Hietanen J. K. (2018). Affective Eye Contact: An Integrative Review. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1587. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01587 []
  6. D’Agostino, T. A., & Bylund, C. L. (2013). Nonverbal accommodation in health care communication. Health Communication, 29(6), 563-573. https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2013.783773 []
  7. Jiang, J., Borowiak, K., Tudge, L., Otto, C., & Von Kriegstein, K. (2016). Neural mechanisms of eye contact when listening to another person talking. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, nsw127. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw127 []
  8. Roter, D. L., Frankel, R. M., Hall, J. A., & Sluyter, D. (2006). The expression of emotion through nonverbal behavior in medical visits. Mechanisms and outcomes. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 21(S1), S28-S34. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00306.x []