A Body Language Guide: 15 Common Nonverbal Cues

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated December 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You’ve likely been in a conversation in which an individual’s words did not seem to align with their gestures, posture, or facial expressions. Maybe their eyes did not meet yours, they were crossing their arms, or their body was turned away from you. These cues can often tell us more than the verbal messages an individual conveys. We communicate frequently, and sometimes most honestly, with what we do rather than what we say. Body language encompasses the many ways in which we orient ourselves physically as we converse with others. Being able to identify different forms of nonverbal communication can help you better understand and interact with those around you. In this article, we will cover some common examples of body language that you may observe in others and utilize yourself.

Want To Know What Messages Your Body Language Is Sending?

15 Common Body Language Cues

Body language can be telling, providing us with more context than we might otherwise have. The following are 15 examples of nonverbal cues that are used in everyday life.

Body Language While Sitting

We spend a lot of our time—especially our social time, when nonverbal cues may be most important—sitting down. How we are sitting can convey a lot of information about our attitudes and feelings.

1. Knees Apart

If a person sits in a way that makes them appear larger, they may be trying to project confidence. Sitting with the knees apart can also make an individual appear relaxed, comfortable, and in control. In this instance, it should be noted a person may choose to sit like this simply because it is comfortable for them.

2. Knees Together

Just as someone sitting with their knees apart can appear larger and therefore more confident or relaxed, someone sitting with their knees together can appear smaller and is more likely to be worried or on edge. This is because sitting with the knees together is a "closed" position that suggests that the person is trying to take care of themselves. Sitting with knees together isn't necessarily seen as a feminine pose in the way that sitting with knees apart is generally seen as a masculine pose.

3. Legs Crossed

Crossed legs can indicate a couple of different things. It can be seen as a closed and defensive pose or a calm and relaxed one. Many people are told not to use such a pose during job interviews as it can suggest defensiveness and a close-off attitude. In more casual situations, though, it may be used by those who simply want to relax. 

4. Ankles Crossed Under Knees

Sitting on the floor with one’s ankles crossed and feet under the knees is often seen as a sign of comfort and thoughtfulness. Names for this posture vary. In the Pacific regions, it is often called "lotus pose" and is displayed in both modern and ancient illustrations of thinkers and holy men and is believed to have been adopted as one of the most comfortable poses for long-term meditation. It is also used in martial arts ceremonies when the martial artists are sitting to observe or listen to teachers and masters.

Body Language While Standing

We’re often on our feet when interacting with others (e.g., during social functions). So, knowing what a speaker is saying with their stance, posture, etc., can be important. The following are some examples of nonverbal communication while standing. 

5. Feet Apart

As with sitting, having the feet apart while standing can be a way for an individual to attempt to appear larger. Standing with the feet apart may project confidence and stability. As a result, it is often seen as being a self-assured, comfortable, and potentially aggressive stance.

6. Feet Together

Standing with one’s feet together can make them appear smaller. This stance may be utilized by someone who is less comfortable. However, standing with one’s feet together is also often a sign of respect (e.g., when soldiers "stand at attention”).

7. Slouched Shoulders

Standing while slouching one’s shoulders can convey a lack of confidence. Someone whose shoulders are hunched may be nervous and could be experiencing feelings related to stress, anxiety, or depression. Curved shoulders can also suggest that an individual is simply cold. 

Arm Position

Our arms are frequently employed as we communicate with others. We may use them to gesture or unknowingly position them in ways that may change the message we’re delivering. 

8. At The Sides Or Hands In Pockets

Standing with arms at the sides, depending on their stiffness, is a sort of neutral position. Stiff arms and straight shoulders are usually reserved for signs of respect. However, standing with hands in pockets can be seen as disrespectful in certain situations. It can also be a sign that the individual is nervous.

9. Arms Crossed

Standing with the arms folded over the chest is considered a closed and defensive position. It can be a sign of discomfort or anger. Having the arms crossed over the chest is also often seen as disrespectful, possibly because it can be seen as creating a barrier, showing disinterest, or expressing disapproval. However, it could also be that the person simply finds it comfortable to keep their arms in this position. 

10. Hand Gestures

Moving one’s hands in front of the body is a way of communicating more comprehensively. Hand gestures can provide more context than words alone. In fact, there is evidence that they can help children retain information. The versatility of hand gestures is reflected in the fact that sign language is the primary form of communication for those in the deaf community. Someone who is using their hands as they speak may be trying to emphasize their point, better illustrate a concept, or express emotion. 

11. Palms Together

Holding the palms together can mean a number of things depending on the context, but it is often a contemplative gesture. It is frequently employed while thinking, meditating, or praying. In practices like yoga, holding the palms together symbolizes balance. The posture is symmetrical, with the palms meeting at the center of the body.

12. Hands Behind The Back

This can be a sign of contemplation, comfort, and patience. In martial arts and the armed services, standing with the hands behind the back is often seen as a semi-formal stance.

Facial Expressions

Given the fact that we are often face to face when communicating, the facial expressions we utilize can convey a significant amount of information.

13. Raised Eyebrows

Raising both eyebrows is indicative of interest or surprise. In raising the eyebrows, the eyes are typically opened wider, suggesting that the individual is trying to see everything that is going on. Raising one eyebrow, however, is often indicative of skepticism. 

14. Squinting

Narrowing our eyes is something that we often do to help us to see long distances or better ascertain details. We also often do this when we are incredulous or in disagreement with someone. Some people squint to express (or feign) anger.

15. Eye Contact

Eye contact is a sign of connection or focus. Maintaining eye contact with a person can communicate a sense of seriousness and dedication, while averting the eyes may show distraction or nervousness. Eye contact that is constant, however, can also be overbearing and imply intimidation. A natural eye control that is direct but intermittent generally conveys comfort and ease.

Reading And Utilizing Body Language Cues

Most of us have an intuitive understanding of body language that we develop over the many social interactions that we take part in during our lives. But having a deeper comprehension of nonverbal cues can help us to connect with others, read a room, and glean much-needed context that may otherwise be missing.

One good way to use body language is to start with a person's face and work your way down, performing a mental checklist. What's their facial expression like? What are they doing with their arms? How are they standing or sitting?

Understanding body language can also help you make sure you are sending the right message to those around you. If you want to appear open and friendly, you may not want to sit and stand in closed positions, for example. The next time that you are conversing with someone, think about what your expression and posture might be saying. You can even ask loved ones how they perceive your nonverbal cues. You might find that your body is conveying more than you realize.  

How Online Therapy Can Help

If you're concerned about your ability to understand nonverbal cues, consider talking with a qualified therapist. With the guidance and support of a professional, you can better navigate interactions in social situations, at work, and in your personal relationships.

The results of a growing number of studies suggest that online therapy is an effective form of care for varying mental health concerns. For instance, a systematic review and meta-analysis comparing the effectiveness of online versus face-to-face cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) found that the two formats are equally effective in treating a range of conditions, including social anxiety disorder, depressive symptoms, panic disorder, and more.

If you’d like to learn more about nonverbal communication, consider working with a licensed therapist online. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can chat with a therapist through video call, allowing them to show you visually how your body language cues may influence the messages you’re conveying. Your therapist can also connect you with useful resources, such as informational articles about effective communication. 

Takeaway

Knowing how to improve communication by responding appropriately to other people’s body language—and being mindful of your own postures, expressions, and gestures—can be crucial. Understanding the above nonverbal cues can help you better comprehend what others are saying, anticipate their needs, and communicate your own message. If you’re looking for advice on interacting with others in a more comprehensive manner, consider getting matched with a licensed mental health professional online. Working with a therapist can help you nurture both strong connections and mental wellness.

Learn how your body communicates

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started