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Secret Body Language Cues That Make People More Likable

Personality and nonverbal cues of likability.

Key points

  • The nonverbal cues of likability may be different for men and for women.
  • For men, active, fluid body language is important. For women, it’s all in the face.
  • Not surprisingly, the only consistent personality trait that predicts first impressions is extraversion.

First impressions matter. Decades of research suggest that we make decisions about people the first time we meet them based on very limited information. We observe someone in an initial encounter, make judgments about the person, and those first impressions can color our future interactions with them. Much of the information that we use to create our impressions of others consists of nonverbal cues—body language.

In a series of studies, we looked at the nonverbal cues that were associated with first impressions and initial likability. In one study, we videotaped people as they walked in the door for a psychology experiment and greeted the experimenter. In another study, we asked people to simply describe, on videotape, the experiment that they had just taken part in. They were told, “We want you to make a videotape for the next participant that will tell them what they can expect.” We had judges watch the videotapes and rate each participant on scales, including how likable they were. We then analyzed all of the nonverbal cues emitted by the participants during these brief, initial encounters.

So, which nonverbal cues are most consistently related to initial impressions of likability?

The most surprising thing was that we found a very large sex difference. The body language cues associated with initial likability were very different for men and women.

For men, if they spoke quickly (more words per minute), engaged in a lot of head movements, posture shifts, and avoided “uhs” when speaking, they were rated by strangers more likable. For women, the only nonverbal cues associated with likability were a lot of facial expressions—changing their facial expressions and avoiding having “neutral-appearing,” non-emotional faces.

Perhaps a more interesting finding was found with ratings of how confident the individuals appeared. For men, the same cues—speaking quickly, lots of head and body movements, and a new category of cues—outward-focused gestures, all correlated with ratings of confidence. For women, it was almost the exact same pattern. Lots of body movement and gesturing, along with the changes in facial expressions, all correlated with ratings of confidence. The cues that detracted from ratings of confidence, for both men and women, were a lot of self-touching behaviors—wringing of hands, rubbing hands on the body, and touching the face.

All of our videotaped participants also completed personality measures beforehand. What were those results? The only consistent correlates with likability were extraversion and social competence (i.e., being a skilled “actor” in social situations). That last result is encouraging, because it suggests that people can learn to become more skilled in these social encounters—presenting themselves in a more confident and expressive manner, leading to more positive first impressions.

References

Riggio, R.E., & Friedman, H.S. (1986). Impression formation: The role of expressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 421-427.

Friedman, H.S., Riggio, R.E., & Casella, D. (1988). Nonverbal skill, personal charisma, and initial attraction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 203-211.

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