Body language is a set of non-verbal cues a person gives to express emotion, interest, foster connection, or create distance. These cues can be at odds with what is being said, which can confuse or offend. Therefore, a good understanding of body language is essential to successful communication.
Body language can repeat and strengthen your verbal message, or it can contradict it. Sometimes you can respond with body language as a substitute for words like you do when you shrug your shoulders, nod, or make a face. Gestures and other non-verbal actions can add to or accentuate your statements as well. For instance, a pat on the hand is a direct demonstration of your sympathy that compliments your verbal comment.
Types of Body Language
Body language can be classified into:
- Facial expressions
- Body posture and movement
- Eye contact
- Voice intonation
Although some of these non-verbal communication methods are universal, others are culturally specific. For example, personal space during conversation varies from extremely close to a respectful distance, and changing the span can mean aggression in some cultures or affection in others.
Facial expressions are one of the universally understood forms of body language. A smile, in nearly every society, means the same thing. Facial expressions for sadness, anger, happiness, surprise, disgust, and fear can be interpreted correctly across cultures.
Babies just three months old respond emotionally to facial expressions, making our understanding of this non-verbal communication one of our primal skills. Even when we are describing events in the past, our faces reflect the emotions we experienced way back then.
Examples of facial expressions include smiling when we are happy, raising or lowering of the eyebrows for surprise or confusion, and frowning in disagreement among others. Individuals who are deaf or hearing impaired use many distinct facial expressions to communicate in addition to formal sign language.
Body Posture and Movement
How a person interprets what is being said is often influenced by the way the speaker is standing, holding their head, sitting, or walking. For example, if your posture is ramrod straight, the listener knows that you are more serious than if you were seated slumped over on the couch. Sudden involuntary body movements can also express surprise, disgust, disagreement, or delight.
Body posture is often used to demonstrate a person’s level in society. An upright position indicates authority, while a submissive posture portrays powerlessness. Women and men interpret body posture differently.
Pain can be communicated quite well through body posture. Body posture during sleep is even thought to affect the brain glymphatic transport system aiding in health and digestion. Even though we aren’t communicating while we are unconscious, our body is communicating with itself.
Gestures are used by children to communicate before they have the vocabulary to speak, mostly in the first two years of life. Young children with communicative delays and disorders have smaller gestural repertoires indicating they may have more issues communicating effectively later in life.
Gestures are most often made with our hands, but you can gesture with your head, foot, and even your eyes. Gestures can be misinterpreted by someone from another culture, however. The thumbs-up sign means all is good in many countries. On the other hand, the same gesture signifies “up yours” in Western Africa and several middle eastern countries.
The hand that you use to gesture with matters as well. One study found that gesturing with your left hand when using metaphorical expressions enhanced the explanation of the phrase. Hand gestures help both adults and children recall information as well.
Eye contact can demonstrate understanding, active listening, or attraction. If eye contact is held too long or too little, it can convey hostility or disinterest. Prolonged eye contact can be used to intimidate. Brief eye contact may indicate nervousness.
Getting the eye contact duration just right can be tricky since it varies between cultures. In Latin America, gazing time is longer than in countries where averted eyes are a sign of respect.
The eyes can provide even more information if we pay attention. Squinting can indicate discomfort, anger, or stress. An increased blink rate is often a sign of high pressure or dishonesty. Lowering the eyes or blocking them with the hand can indicate inconvenience.
As social beings, we need touch to thrive. Just as with the other non-verbal cues we have been discussing, touch can convey empathy or anger depending on how it is used. Generally, the more gentle the touch, the less aggressive it is interpreted. However, people with sensory processing disorders such as Autism may feel that touch is invasive no matter how gentle.
Haptic communication is the term used to describe how both animals and people communicate through touch. Acceptable forms of touching vary depending on the situation. A handshake is fine among business partners, but a pat on the head would be inappropriate in the same situation.
Physical contact can aid in healing and pain tolerance. In one study, infants that were caressed during painful procedures experienced less pain. Our natural reaction to hug or touch someone who has experienced a loss may result from our efforts to decrease the pain felt by the other.
Similar to body posture, the distance between the speaker and listener can send a message. Appropriate personal space depends on the individuals’ culture, current situation, and the relationship between the conversational participants. Generally, the more intimate you are with a person, the closer he or she can be without causing you discomfort.
In a conversation between two people of unequal status or between a man and woman that are not in a romantic relationship, encroaching on the personal space of the other can indicate superiority or aggression. In the United States, the average distance between strangers when speaking is four feet or more. The range is reduced the more familiar the people are to one another.
The tone of your voice communicates far more than you may realize. Sincerity and sarcasm are often easily recognizable tones of voice. The pace and timing of your words can also convey impatience or reluctance. Non-verbal communicative sounds like uh-huh, ahh, or oh are understood by listeners to reflect your ideas and emotions by listeners.
In English, a rising intonation indicates a question, while a falling tone often is used for statements of fact. Listening for this vocal clue can help you respond appropriately. Other languages use intonation patterns differently, making for cross-cultural misunderstandings even when both parties are speaking the same language at the time.
Why is Body Language so Important?
Studies have shown that non-verbal expression has up to 93% more influence on our understanding than written text. Therefore, being able to read and use appropriate body language allows you to integrate better into an unfamiliar situation like at a new job or social setting easier than it would be without these cues.
The way we position our body not only communicates our emotions and thoughts to others, but it also affects how we feel about ourselves. When you are feeling low, smiling, and sitting upright can dramatically affect your mood. The act of smiling releases endorphins. Endorphins elevate our mood, causing us to smile even more.
Researcher Alberto Mehrabian proposed that up to nearly 40% of our understanding happens through the interpretation of voice tone and about 55% by general body language. Being able to interpret these non-verbal messages allows for more fluent communication in general.
Those who have neurological processing issues such as Autism often find it difficult, if not impossible, to read non-verbal cues given by another person successfully. Additionally, those with this type of disorder have impairments in non-verbal communication, which includes inappropriate gesturing, all of which makes it more challenging to develop the skills needed to communicate effectively.
With this information we can see how the importance of body language in our professional and personal relationships should not be overlooked.
How to Read Body Language
For genuinely productive conversations, the importance of being able to read body language can not be overemphasized. When conversing, pay attention to inconsistencies between the other person’s words and his or her posture, movement, and gestures. Don’t look at just one single aspect, but take all of the non-verbal cues into consideration when determining what is being said.
Unless someone is a master at controlling his or her body language, you’ll be able to sense the messages being sent even if you aren’t consciously aware of how. For instance, most of us can spot the difference between a forced and a genuine smile.
Our interactions change when we notice an inconsistency. We may become defensive or possibly more relaxed because of our understanding of these cues.
To read body language, take into account the amount of time someone is making eye contact or refusing to make eye contact with you. About three seconds of sustained eye contact is comfortable for most people. Too much eye contact might indicate dishonesty, too little can as well.
Take facial expressions into consideration when reading body language as well. If someone looks like something stinky is right under their nose, perhaps they aren’t totally in agreement with you. Look for tension and stiffness in the body as compared to someone who is leaning forward, listening attentively.
Adjust your posture and facial expressions, too. If someone has crossed their arms indicating they aren’t open to what you are saying, open your arms and uncross your legs. The person may unconsciously mimic your pose and feel more responsive to your conversation.
If the person touches you, examine if it is more of a way to stop you from speaking or showing compassion. Gauge intimacy as well. If the touch is more familiar than the conversation warrants, try to figure out what else is going on.
The Importance of Body Language when Giving a Speech
When giving a speech, your body language can help reinforce your points or detract from what you are trying to say. You should Make the most of your time in front of a group by getting your body language into alignment.
Eye contact during a presentation is essential even when you are speaking to a large group of people. During your speech, make direct eye contact with a member of the audience and hold it for about 4 to 5 seconds before moving on to another person. Don’t maintain eye contact so long that the person begins squirming in his or her seat.
Open your body towards the audience. Keep your back straight and arms relaxed at your sides for much of your presentation. This posture will also help you breathe more deeply, which will enable you to relax more.
It might be hard for you to smile when you are nervous, but you should make an attempt if it is an appropriate facial expression for the topic you are speaking about. Your smile will make the audience more comfortable and receptive to your message.
If you are in an area where you can move about, using walking to emphasize your points. For example, point one could be addressed as you stand next to the screen. You could talk about point two towards the front of the stage. Point three could return you to the podium. It keeps the audience’s interest and demonstrates your confidence in your material.
The Importance of Body Language at Work
Appropriate body language is vital at work, where relationships are kept at a distant and professional level. Managers and others that are in a position of authority should be mindful of their body language when speaking with those under their management.
Touching can be a tricky road to navigate at work. A hand placed on someone’s shoulder meant as a supportive gesture, might be misinterpreted as a sexual overture. Studies have shown that those in positions of power feel freer to use touch when speaking with subordinates, but employees don’t feel they should be as familiar.
In the same study, researchers discovered that men are much more likely to touch someone in their employ than women. The results of both studies seem to indicate that status and power are the motivating factor in physical contact at work rather than personal communication preferences.
Along with touch, managers should be aware of their body postures and physical space when interacting with others in the office. Proximity should not be used to intimidate subordinates.
However, appropriate touching is beneficial in promoting a positive workplace environment. Praise for a job well done accompanied by a pat on the shoulder or enthusiastic handshake transmits the right message at the right time.
Since the most common non-verbal physical interaction in business is the handshake, let’s take a minute to examine what it can convey. A firm handshake communicates confidence. In contrast, a limp handshake gives the impression of weakness or dishonesty.
Clasping the hand of the other person with both of yours sends a message of extreme respect while gripping the hand is a demonstration of dominance and used to intimidate. The duration of a handshake greeting can also communicate emotions. A typical handshake lasts about three seconds. Prolonged handshaking can convey superiority and cause anxiety to the other person.
The Importance of Body Language During an Interview
The impression you make during an interview can mean the difference between getting the job and not. Therefore, don’t underestimate the importance of body language at this critical juncture.
It’s appropriate to greet the interviewer with a handshake. Remember, a firm handshake of about three seconds will leave the best impression. Your posture as you enter the room is also worth examining. Walking with confidence is undoubtedly better than slinking in.
When you sit down, maintain your confident posture by sitting up straight in the chair. Slouching conveys carelessness. Don’t cross your arms and legs. If you just can’t get comfortable, cross your ankles instead while resting your hands loosely in your lap.
Fiddling with your hair and abrupt or jerky gestures lets the interviewer know you are nervous. Making regular eye contact transmits attention. Even your intonation should be modulated. When you speak in even tones, you aren’t sending an aggressive or panicked vibe.
The Importance of Body Language in Personal Relationships
Understanding the fact that men and women use body language differently can help mitigate miscommunication in personal relationships.
Men and women use and interpret touch differently. Men often initiate touch more often than women. Women use touch to express sympathy more often than men. Men are more likely to express anger with physical contact, even in intimate relationships.
During intense emotional conversations, check yourself for closed body positionings like crossed arms and legs. This type of behavior limits open communication. Sustained eye contact and active listening facilitate information exchange as well.
Believe it or not, how we sit together can also convey unintentional hierarchy in a relationship. For example, when you are sitting across the table from someone, this positioning can create a feeling of competition and superiority, especially if one person is seated straighter than the other. The next time that you sit down at the table, try to mimic your partner’s posture to demonstrate your partnership.
The Importance of Body Language in the Medical Profession
Many studies have been done on the importance of body language when it comes to the medical profession. How doctors and nurses interact with patients during treatment can significantly change the course and duration of recovery.
Active listening, as demonstrated by sustained eye contact, nodding, proximity, and touch, is effective in improving nurse-patient communication. When the diagnosis is a difficult one to hear as happens in the case of terminal illness, non-verbal communication expresses empathy and compassion to patients.
Body language can also benefit the medical practitioner. For example, when medical personnel maintains a power stance for two minutes, cortisol levels drop, reducing stress and tension, two all too common emotions experienced in the hospital or clinic setting.
The Importance of Body Language in Teaching
A teacher’s body language can alter the classroom atmosphere, aid in understanding, inspire interest, and generally improve the quality of education. A teacher who freely uses facial expressions, hand gestures, and perhaps even over the top body movement like dancing, is considered more engaging to students than the typical lecture drone.
A teacher that establishes rapport with students using eye contact and genuine smiles will have better classroom management than a teacher who maintains a cold distance. An upright posture conveys confidence and control. Staying out from behind filing cabinets and desks lets the class know you are approachable.
Teachers can also read their students’ body language to check for comprehension. An engaged student will lean forward and follow the teacher’s movements. A student that is not paying attention will avoid eye contact and slouch down in the chair.
The Importance of Body Language in Sports
Often overlooked is the importance of body language in sports performance. Athletes send non-verbal cues to coaches, officials, the competing team, the audience, and even themselves. Positive body language improved performance.
Coaches and trainers can use body language to inspire and encourage even from the sidelines. Players observing visual cues can predict the behavior of those on an opposing team to anticipate their actions and alter their behavior for better outcomes. Athletes who have mastered body language can send out conflicting messages deliberately to confuse their opponents.
Adopting a straight back posture conveys confidence even when the performer is feeling nervous or ill-prepared. The action then helps the confidence grow in the player. Audiences can motivate through their wild cheering or demoralize with hissing and booing.
How to Improve Your Body Language
If you remember, we mentioned earlier that sometimes your body language is at odds with your spoken words. The different messages can confuse and even irritate those who are listening to you. Having a better awareness of your unconscious body can improve effective communication.
You can improve your body language by:
- Being fully present in the moment
- Managing your stress levels
- Developing your emotional awareness
Being Fully Present in the Moment
Distractions often keep us from being fully present in the moment. Inattention can cause us to give out the wrong signal inadvertently. For example, if you are annoyed at a message you are reading while your best friend is telling you about her latest woes, she may interpret your facial expression as you not wanting to hear about problems.
If you are planning what you are going to say next instead of listening, this internal dialogue can also be a distractor. You might miss the other person’s body language cues and be left scratching your head when the conversation doesn’t go as you had imagined it would.
Managing your Stress Levels
When you are stressed, your ability to communicate is compromised. You are more likely to send confusing signals and misread other people. Other people can sense your stress, and it often raises their stress level unconsciously.
Managing your stress can help you improve your non-verbal communication skills. If you notice that anxiety is interfering with your thought processes, take time to calm down. You can do this by taking a few deep breaths and refocusing on the conversation on hand, not the problem that is causing you so much anxiety.
It’s perfectly acceptable to explain to the other person that you are preoccupied. He or she will undoubtedly appreciate your honesty and maybe even be relieved that the signals they are getting aren’t necessarily as a result of something they have said or done.
If necessary, excuse yourself from the conversation until you can get a handle on your stress level. Take a walk, go out and smell some flowers, light a lavender-scented candle, or listen to some soothing music to help you regain control. These actions, sounds, and scents have been proven effective in reducing anxiety.
Developing your Emotional Awareness
Along the same lines, being aware of emotions and how they influence your communication skills will help you improve your body language. When you are emotionally aware, you can read the body language projected by others and respond appropriately, taking into consideration your own emotions.
Emotional awareness also means you won’t be sending out mixed signals where you say one thing, but your body language says something different. If you are aware that the topic of the conversation makes you anxious, you can express that both through speech and your body signals.
As you can see, the importance of body language can not be overemphasized. We need to read non-verbal cues to make sense of the world around us. The messages we send using body language can be at odds with our words, which can cause misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Becoming more adept at reading the non-verbal signs of others and projecting our thoughts through the use of appropriate body language are two components to successful communication. We can improve by attending to the duration of eye contact and touch, looking for open or closed body posture, understanding the importance of personal space, and being aware of our emotional state.