5 Things You Need to Know About Body Language

Expert tips to improve your nonverbal communication.

Posted Feb 16, 2015


If you want to become a “master” of nonverbal communication, there are a few things you need to know. First, there are a lot of misconceptions about nonverbal communication. For example, a number of books (including one best-seller) suggest that you can “read people like a book.” That’s simply not true. You can, however, become better at reading (and more clearly enacting) nonverbally, through practice. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Body language is not a “language.”

    As mentioned, there is no dictionary for nonverbal communication. The meaning of a particular nonverbal cue, such as a certain gesture or eye movement, can depend on the context, the individual, and the relationship between the “sender” of the cue and the recipient. The exceptions are certain gestures known as “emblems”—gestures that take the place of the spoken word, such as the “OK” symbol made with the thumb and forefinger, or flipping someone the bird—the meaning of these emblems is clear. So don’t think that just because someone has crossed his or her arms (or legs) that it means any particular thing. Context matters, as does individual personal style. Some people may simply be more comfortable crossing their arms in social situations—and that may have nothing to do with you.
  2. The key may be in the context.

    Certain nonverbal behaviors, such as invading someone’s “bubble” of personal space, automatically cause arousal. How that arousal is interpreted depends on the context. In a positive encounter, a slight intrusion into someone’s bubble may trigger arousal that can lead to a positive reaction—liking, sexual interest, etc. In a situation involving a struggle for dominance, invading another’s space can lead to anger, or perhaps fear, in the other person.
  3. Certain facial expressions have universal meaning.

    There is good evidence that the basic facial expressions of anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, and fear are displayed similarly across cultures. We can recognize a happy face on just about anyone in the world. The problem is that it is very hard, without training, to be able to distinguish a “genuine” display of happiness from a “fake,” or posed, smile.
  4. It takes one to know one.

    There are individual differences in people’s abilities to communicate nonverbally. This is a big part of the construct of our emotional intelligence. Certain people are very skilled at clearly expressing themselves nonverbally—sending clear messages of emotions—liking, dominance, etc. Others are very good at reading, or “decoding,” others’ nonverbal cues. And these two abilities are correlated, such that a good sender is more likely than others to be a good receiver as well.
  5. Lie detection is almost impossible.

    There is a belief that we can tell if a person is lying through body language—that a liar “can’t look you in the eye” or will always display nervous gestures. But the reality is that it's nearly impossible to accurately detect lies simply through reading someone’s body language. Although deception can cause arousal, people have different “arousal displays,” so one person might look guilty and another truthful, regardless of their veracity. Some research suggests that there are a few, rare individuals able to detect deception at levels above chance, but even these people aren’t all that accurate. (This research was the basis for the TV show Lie to Me, although it suggested incorrectly that these deception detectors were almost infallible.)

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/ronriggio

Image: Wikimedia