Body language is communication without words. It is anything someone does to which someone else assigns meaning. Not all of the "signals" a person sends are intentional and often they are "not picked up" or misinterpreted. Nonverbal behavior is complex, subtle, and multichannel. It may be structured (following certain rules) but is more likely to be unstructured; it may be continuous, unlike language, which comes in disconnected units; it may be learnt but some functions seem innate; and it may be "right-" as opposed to "left-brained."

It is no wonder that so many people are fascinated by body language. We are all "people watchers" and amateur psychologists, partly because we have to be. In every aspect of communication at work—the selection interview, the annual appraisal, the board meeting—we need to observe others carefully to try to understand better what they are feeling as well as (really) saying.

Being adults, we are all skillful deceivers; we have learnt, for myriad reasons, to present ourselves in a particular way; to manage the impression we leave; not always to say directly what we mean (perhaps to protect others' feelings); to sell products or ideas; and to explain away some undesirable behaviour.

Politicians and CEOs are often trained by actors to present themselves in a particular way. They know that whilst they may have very clever speech writers, it is as much about how the speech is delivered as what is said. This is all more the case in a television age where the camera can focus in on small beads of sweat, finger nail biting, or occasional scowls of important speakers.

Experts now record speeches and analyze frame-by-frame the minute changes in facial expressions and body movements, usually to explore evidence that the speaker is being insincere. All actors know the importance of body language when portraying a character, as do comedians who mimic or "take off" famous people. Often a very simple mannerism, if exaggerated, can immediately signal who it is they are attempting to "impersonate."

As a result, many people believe messages conveyed by different body signals, particularly emotional states and attitudes to oneself and others, are somehow more real, more fundamental. We send and "leak" nonverbal signals, which may or may not be "picked up" in the communication process. The sender of the message may be aware or unaware of the signals he or she sends. Indeed, receivers may not always be aware of the messages they are actually picking up. For instance, most people are not aware of their pupil dilations; nor are observers aware that they can on specific occasions respond positively to dilated pupils (when people are sexually aroused).

There are many ways to define and delineate nonverbal behaviour. One feature concerns whether it is speech related or speech independent. Another is in terms of its social functions. We know that nonverbal behaviours (NVBs):

• repeat, echo, and emphasize what is being said

• complement, modify, and elaborate on verbal messages

• conflict, contradict, and confuse verbal messages to show ambivalence or cover up motives

• substitute words

• underline, accentuate, punctuate and moderate language

• regulate and co-ordinate language

Body language can be subtle or blatant; it can be consciously sent and unconsciously received; it can be carefully practiced and displayed but also physiologically uncontrollable; it can let you down by revealing your true beliefs and behaviours; but also (when learnt) help enormously to put across a message. Facial expressions, gestures, head and gaze movements, body contact and orientation, sheer physical proximity as well as tone of voice, clothes and body adornments send clear messages—some even intended!

Consider the ability of actors on the silent screen (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd) to communicate. They have had to be very perceptive students of expression. They use sign language (gestures to replace words, numbers, and punctuation marks) to convey a bewildering array of meanings. Nonverbal communication is a more primitive and often a more powerful means of communication than verbal communication.

Some things may be better expressed nonverbally than verbally, partly to keep them ambiguous. Subtle and intentionally vague messages can also be sent through the imprecise channel of nonverbal communication. Cultures, as we shall see, develop specific rules about nonverbal communication, often set out in etiquette books, such as when, where, and why to touch others, how to give greetings, etc.

Nonverbal communication is a rather misleading term. "Nonverbal" excludes vocal or paralinguistic cues and signals like emotional tone of speech, which is clearly very important. Body language also excludes vocal cues. Communication suggests furthermore that giver and sender (encoder and decoder) are conscious speakers of the same body language! Intentional messages may or may not be intentionally received nonverbally. Equally, unintentional messages may be unintentionally sent and received.

Most human characteristics are the products of nature and nurture, which are difficult to separate. Certainly, we learn at school, at home, and from the media the acceptability and unacceptability of various behaviours: touch, gesture, eye gaze. But is it hard-wired? Are we born with a "body language instinct"?

Below is the evidence for the nature side of the debate.

• Blind and/or deaf children who could not have learnt behaviours like smiling, nodding, scowling from observation, still display them.

• New born infants show recognizable emotions like joy, surprise or interest, and pain. They also start mimicking mothers’ facial expressions very shortly after birth.

• Identical twins separated soon after birth and raised apart show strikingly similar NVBs like posture and head movements.

• Primates (apes and monkeys) show a whole range of emotions, particularly anger and fear, in a very similar way to humans.

• Cross-cultural studies done in various countries on all continents show people not only express basic emotions very similarly (happiness, fear, surprise, anger, disgust, sadness) but also recognize them without hesitation.

Nonverbal communication involves all the signs and signals relating to visual, vocal and sensory inputs as well as subtle but pervasive social markers such as dress, colour and objects we surround ourselves with. Although such a definition might seem unconventional, it allows us to make the most comprehensive review of available material on this fascinating topic.

Nonverbal messages are used to replace, reinforce, and occasionally (deliberately) contradict a verbal message. Nonverbal cues can easily substitute for verbal cues: for instance, "yes or no" or "I don't know." Often nonverbal cues can stress, underline, or exaggerate the meaning of the verbal message. But nonverbal cues can also negate verbal cues. A "kinetic slip" is a contradictory signal where words give one message, while voice and expression another. "I am telling you I am not angry" or ‘"Of course it did not upset me" can be easily said in one of two ways.

Often, bodily communication complements speech. One can nonverbally restate a message so as, in effect, to repeat it. A nonverbal signal can substitute for a verbal message or indeed accentuate it. Most obviously, nonverbal communication serves to regulate or co-ordinate daily dialogue between people. It is through nonverbal cues that we know when it is our turn to talk and when the topic of conversation is becoming embarrassing. Certain things are deliberately not said or coded in polite body language. That is why it forms such a big part of the concept of emotional intelligence.

People also appear to understand nonverbal behaviour metaphorically. Thus, people use the approach or distance metaphor, which suggests that chosen location/distance, is an indication of liking or closeness. Physical proximity implies mental closeness, alliance, or liking, as all children instinctively know.

The excitement or arousal metaphor suggests that facial expression, speech rate, and speed of movement are indications of excitement and that all nonverbal behaviour gives some insight into how interested, involved, and excited a person is.

The power metaphor emphasizes that nonverbal communication tells us about dominance and submission in everyday communication. Powerful people are "allowed to" engage in more eye contact than less powerful people—and all children know this, too. Put simply, body language tells one about the closeness, relative excitement, and status of two or more people communicating with each other. But it also tells us much more than this.

Body language has a clear biological base and is a product of evolutionary development. Animals are able to communicate without a need for even the most primitive linguistic system. They touch, smell, gesture, and point to each other, and so do we. It doesn’t come as surprise then that, for instance, standing positions we adopt give out social rank order and mirror those of primates. Yawning, widely regarded as a sign of boredom, is an action even fish engage in. Consequently, the way we sit, hold a cigarette, smile, and shake hands could also be interpreted and read into to reveal both the inner state of mind and social status.

Body language is also about emotion. It is quite easy to recognize and match facial expressions and underlying emotions. Some emotions appear to be innate and universal, such as fear, happiness, and disgust. We can convey emotions through touch as well. Sometimes a hug sends more sympathy than carefully prepared words. What is more, people are not very good at expressing their emotions verbally, hence the very prosperous industry of psychotherapy, role play, and counseling.

Sometimes the signal system of body language works very efficiently. The sender gestures and the receiver sees—both are aware of the unspoken message. In a conversation, for example, if one person is confused or overwhelmed by what the other one is saying, he or she might raise their hand up to ask for clarification. This gesture lets the speaker know that they did not express themselves clearly or need to back up their argument. In this case, both people benefit from the silent cue.

Sometimes the sender is unaware of their own behaviour—fiddling with his or her hair or wedding ring, moving his or her feet up and down, darting glances to the left or right. The receiver picks this up and interprets it, but the sender remains unaware. This situation works to the advantage of those in the know as long as the interpretation is right.

Some "clever" people send signals by lightly touching people, copying their gestures, invading their space. Distracted by words the recipient is unaware of the sender’s often subtle but deliberate moves. Influencing through peripheral channels of attention by utilizing existing cognitive algorithms of information processing is one of the most powerful ways of persuasion, because it does not require conscious attention on the part of the receiver and does not give them an opportunity to reject the proposition. Successful political and marketing influencing regularly uses this type of communication.

Occasionally, neither parties are really aware—at least consciously—of what is being signaled. The sender may have dilated pupils or send off pheromonic body odours indicating sexual excitement, but neither of the parties bring the cues to conscious awareness. In romantic relationships it might cause feelings of instant, unexplainable attraction.

Sense and nonsense about body language

The first scientists to do a systematic study of body language were biologists. It is no surprise that those skilled in bird-watching were easily able to turn their skills to man-watching. Charles Darwin wrote the first acknowledged text in 1873, entitled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt in 1971 wrote a scholarly popular biology book entitled Love and Hate: Natural History of Behaviour Patterns. But it was Desmond Morris' book The Naked Ape—published in 1967, 94 years after Darwin—that electrified popular interest in body-watching. There are now dozens of books on this topic as any internet search reveals.

Despite the excellent and careful research in the area, much nonsense is still written about the topic, often by journalists and other self-appointed "experts" whose aim is to entertain (and sell) rather than to enlighten and educate. Fascination with the topic, as well as its apparent importance in business, has led many self-styled experts and gurus to make confident proclamations about nonverbal communication. Inevitably, nearly all of their "findings" and "recommendations" over-emphasize the importance and power of nonverbal communication. Often there is no evidence whatsoever that their interpretations of literature are true, although many exaggerate something that is based on facts.

Misleading and sometimes completely incorrect statements about body language communication seem to fall into various areas:

1. Symbolism: all body communication is symbolic expression

People with a fondness for psychoanalytic (Freudian) ideas love to interpret explicit behaviours as manifestations of (often unconscious) desires and behaviours. Thus, one observer believed Prince Charles’ habit of "fiddling" with his cuff links indicated that he felt “chained by handcuffs” to the British monarchy. Those with a stiff and military bearing are said to have "mprisoned anxiety."

Numerous otherwise common behaviours like the wetting of lips, the crossing of legs, and the folding of arms are all indicators of repressed sexuality. A man talking to a pretty woman (or indeed a woman chatting to a handsome man) may fiddle with his or her wedding ring: an “interpreter” might claim they want to take it off and appear available to the new partner. A person describing their mother may suddenly seem to hug themselves. The symbolic explanation would state that perhaps he trying to recreate the warmth and affection of motherly cuddles.

The temptation of too many body language experts is that they favour an "unconscious," psychological over a more obvious explanation. It is too easy to over interpret incorrectly. Thus, folding arms could be thought as being defensive, insecure, or uncertain, or simply that it is cold or the chair has no arm-rests. Yawning may be seen as trying to avoid a difficult situation or simply that a person is very tired or the room has little oxygen

People often communicate via body language without awareness. However, this fact should not encourage explanations based on unconscious drives or needs of all idiosyncratic behaviours. People acquire and internalize gestures and other behaviours from parents, teachers, and even film actors. Some nonverbal cues are symbolic of unconscious desires, hopes, and urges but many, probably most are not.

2. Power (Bodily communication is always more powerful)

It is not uncommon to read statements like: "Seventy percent of the communicative power of a message is sent nonverbally" or "It is not what you say, but it is the way that you say it." Body communication pundits have a natural inclination to "talk up" their area of expertise to over emphasize its importance.

Nonverbal communication can, indeed, at times be extremely powerful—sheer rage or terror are often much more efficiently communicated through facial and body expression than through words. Pain or love can also be signaled by changes in facial expressions and by children who articulate their feelings through a limited vocabulary. Ability to communicate a message nonverbally is the whole point of the parlour game charades.

Yet words have extraordinary precision. Consider, for instance, the power of poetry to move individuals. It is the precision of words that create sharp and clear imagery and arouse emotional responses. Tell politicians to give up their script writers and compensate alone by their nonverbal charm. Only those with natural charisma and an exciting impromptu message will be able to succeed. Ask all those people who advocate "talking cure" like therapies to rely more on vocal rather than verbal cues: on contrary, to actively acknowledge and verbalize a problem is regarded by many as a first step to recovery.

Further, if one uses gesture, for example, to communicate, it is immediately apparent that there are so few gestures compared to words. The power of bodily communication lies primarily in the fact that it often tells one about the physiological state of the individual because of changes in the central nervous system. Certainly, extreme emotions like anger "leak out" however carefully a person tries to hide them. Sexual excitement is difficult to hide, as often is guilt. Yet these physiological states are nearly always an expression of emotional extremes not that common in everyday life.

Body language can shout and it can be subtle. But those who claim it is so powerful should try to send to a stranger the following, relatively simple messages nonverbally: “Thank you very much," “I totally disagree," and “I feel very happy for you."

3. Controllability (We can control all the messages we send)

Some nonverbal behaviour, such as gestures and touch, are naturally controllable while others, such as sweating and pupil dilation, are not. Often people want to cover up evidence of their anxiety or specific motives (sexual pleasure) but are unable to do so. Most people in conversation are not particularly aware of others or of their own legs and feet, which if they wanted they could control. They are not aware of small changes in posture and micro-facial expressions as certain things are said.

Once these behaviours have been witnessed on a video recording, it is surprisingly easy to see and understand their meaning. Once an "actor" becomes an "observer" of his or her own behaviour, awareness of what is going on is increased.

Naturally some people attempt to "control" their nonverbal behaviour. Stage actors may be required to weep, rage or demonstrate fear, loathing, or passion on cue. They have learnt, often with the help of makeup, to produce certain recognizable signals of those emotions. But most of us are not so gifted. Indeed, the more we try to control emotions—particularly if we try to conceal powerful emotions—the more they leak out nonverbally.

4. You can read people like a book (Decoding nonverbal language is easy)

There are many misleading aspects to this analogy. Books are passive, whereas people are not. Most observers are aware that when two people are speaking, each is attempting to "read" the other. However, this reading is often an advantageous feedback mechanism, not a deliberate attempt to outguess the other party. The curious claim of many popular books is that it is possible simultaneously to read techniques of others but hide your own—to disguise one's secret intentions while putting on a believable poker face.

True experts in the area of nonverbal communication are surprisingly diffident on this point. Research tells us that what such "double blind" studies show are extremely difficult to perform, if not impossible for many. Indeed, hiding one’s feelings while reading the other person’s mind would mean that a person is engaged in two tasks simultaneously, and people are awfully bad at dividing their attention resources. Further, experts on lying point out how tricky it is to detect lying in skillful dissimulators. They all highlight how much information one needs to confirm a hypothesis that "he is lying," "she is an extrovert," or "they are not competent in this area."

Just as in learning any language one can become more fluent, more perceptive and more skilled at reading body signals, but there is no magic or silver bullet partly because of the subtlety of the cues but also because of the multiple meanings attached to identified behaviours.

Body language will continue to be an area of serious research as well as great interest to the general public. Indeed the development of new technology in vision science and theory development in evolutionary psychology has moved the whole research on in recent years.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

You are reading

A Sideways View

The Freudian Account of Leadership Failure and Derailment

What do Psychoanalysts have to say about how and why leaders fail?

What Men Desire in a Woman

What characteristics are men most attracted to in women and why?

The Psychology of Queuing

Why is waiting in line so horrid?