How people communicate with their bodies is an immensely complicated and detailed area. It’s always down to personal interpretation, but some motions and movements are common to us all. There have been studies such as the classic book Guide to Body Language by D Hartland & C Tosh that have indicated that the human body can produce over 700 000 different movements, which also vary in meaning from culture to culture.
Some gestures that are totally acceptable in one culture, can be deemed rude or inappropriate in another. According to Wikipedia, ‘the finger’ has been called ‘the universal sign of disrespect’ but it’s not always rude. In Japanese Sign Language, when the palm is facing out, it is recognised as the letter ‘Se’. See? Not rude at all!
Charles Darwin was the first person to decode the six core facial expressions common to all people, regardless of their culture or background. The book The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals listed the six emotions as joy, fear, disgust, surprise, anger and sadness.
Paul Ekman, a leading psychiatrist in the 1960s, went on to do further testing and confirmed that certain recognisable facial expressions are “inborn” and therefore universal among people; they do not need to be learned to be understood.
With that in mind, there are certain emotions that your body and face will be expressing at certain times. Here’s a guide to the messages you may not be intending to give out, but that reveal what you are truly thinking and feeling on the inside.
- Leaning back = boredom
Leaning your body back in your chair can make you seem as if you are bored or feeling casual about the discussion, the situation or the person you are speaking to.
- Leaning forward = too intense
On the opposite scale, leaning forward towards the other person (while seated or standing) can make you seem too intense, and overly confident.
- Sit up straight
By far the best posture to engender attention and compassion: Listen to the advice your second grade teacher gave you and sit up straight. Imagine there is an invisible string going from the crown of your head to the ceiling. You will appear alert, attentive and engaged.
- Don’t sit with legs wide apart
Important for a man, essential for a woman: sitting with your legs wide apart conveys a message of self-importance or arrogance.
- Don’t karate chop, point
Gestures like these can put a barrier between you and the person you are speaking to. Gestures like these can be misconstrued as arrogant, offensive or self-important.
- No aggressive gestures
Keep your gestures in check and don’t wave your hands and arms around to creatively. Using aggressive gestures makes the person you are speaking to feel uncomfortable.
- Closed body language = gripped hands, crossed arms and crossed legs
You may be cold or needing comfort, but make sure your body language is open. Open body language makes it seem as if you are easy to work with, agreeable and listening.
- Adjusting clothing
Adjusting your cuffs, collar, stockings or clothes, or having your hands in your pockets makes you seem nervous and tense.
- Hands on hips
This can be seen as too aggressive and gives the impression that you are a forthright and arrogant person. It can also come across as defensive.
- Grooming gestures indicate fear and nervous energy
Don’t bite your fingernails, pull your hair or pick at your skin. This indicates that you are nervous and not paying attention. Ideally you should aim to give the impression that you are in control.
- Have hair pulled back, don’t fiddle with your hair or beard
Having a big fringe in your eyes is a great way to put the person you are speaking to off side. You should aim to look neat and under control so make sure all your hair is in place and will stay that way, for the duration of the time you are speaking.
- Don’t pick your nails etc.
This is one of the worst examples of poor body language habits, but it’s very common. People make this gesture when they are bored, distracted or nervous and these are not the emotions you should be ideally conveying. (Personally I have a real problem with this: Alyce.)
- Don’t play with jewellery and watches
Like your clothes, all jewellery and watches should be kept neat, tidy and quiet so as not to be a distraction from the words you are saying.
- Don’t stare
Staring can be a habit that we fall into when we are trying to make a good impression, but it can be very off-putting for the person you are speaking to.
- Smile, but not too much
Likewise, smiling too much can make you seem as if you are not paying attention and that you are nervous or not taking the words of the person you are speaking to seriously.
- Don’t avoid eye contact
However, you should not avoid all eye contact. When a person is speaking to you, listen to their words and try not to think about anything else.
Body Language and Britney Spears
Body language can reveal a lot about people and the stages they are at in their relationships. I remember seeing some shots of Britney Spears and Jason Trawick frolicking in the waves at a beach and thinking to myself, “It looks as if their relationship lacks intimacy and sexual chemistry”. The photos showed that they were close, but there wasn’t lots of love and lust in the shots.
I could tell there was something amiss. Lo and behold, they have broken off their engagement. I hope they both find someone that they do have that passion with.
A few Body Language Resources: