A Body Language Guide: 15 Common Nonverbal Cues
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
What is the best body language while standing?
There are several techniques to use if you'd like to convey confidence while you stand— beginning with the "power pose." Researchers first developed the term from Harvard and Columbia Universities to describe a series of postures that seemed to influence hormonal changes in the body, leading to greater feelings of confidence and well-being.
You may assume a power pose in many situations, but while standing, you should:
- Stand straight with your shoulders back and feet shoulder-width apart.
- Tilt your body toward your audience.
- Keep your arms relaxed with your hands on either side of your body so you can easily gesture while talking.
- Stand with your hands on your hips (like Wonder Woman).
- To get into a more powerful state of mind before a presentation, open your arms above your head in a "V" shape or outstretch them on either side of your body and tilt your head to the sky.
- Smile naturally to convey confidence and approachability.
(For more information on the research, tips on how to read body language, and a sort of "beginner's guide" to the power pose, watch Dr. Amy Cuddy's TED talk "Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are" here.)
What does upright body language mean?
Upright body language is a type of body language that may signal friendliness and warmth. When keeping an open posture, sit or stand comfortably with your shoulders relaxed and avoid crossing your arms or legs.
What body language indicates attraction?
Body language is highly contextual (especially between cultural backgrounds), and it typically differs between people— but there are a few signals to watch for when reading body language if you'd like to know whether someone is attracted to you. These include:
- Sustained eye contact, lingering gazes, and dilated pupils.
- Genuine smiles, raised eyebrows, and a softened expression.
- Standing close or "leaning in" during conversation.
- Mirroring your body language and facial expressions.
- Light, incidental touching, such as brushing your arm or a slight pat on the back.
- Fidgeting gestures such as adjusting the clothes or hair.
How do powerful people stand?
Typically, powerful people send open, confident signals with their standing body language. They may take up space with their body language, such as standing with their feet apart and arms wide. During social interaction, they might reduce the gap between themselves and the person they're talking to.
What body language shows you are not interested?
Whether you're preoccupied, distracted, disconnected, or just don't want to talk to someone, body language can give you away.
You may establish a wide distance between you, either consciously or unconsciously, and cross your arms over your chest in a closed posture. Uninterested people might stand with their lower body pointed away and repeatedly check their phone or focus on something else.
People uninterested in engaging with another person might avoid eye contact or shift their gaze between the speaker and something else. The smile may appear forced or fake— this is often detectable when their eyes don't reflect the smile.
What are the five best body language tricks?
Most people are concerned with the first impression they make on others, particularly in a business or social setting. If you'd like to project confidence and build trust with others, take a deep breath to center yourself before you engage. Then try:
- Tilting your head to show you're engaged and listening to them.
- Maintaining appropriate eye contact.
- When you shake hands, use both hands in a "glove" handshake (reserve this one for people you already know or have established rapport with).
- Gesture with your palms open during verbal communication.
- Mirror the other person's body language and facial expressions.
What is the body language of anxiety?
People physically manifest anxiety in different ways, but the body language of anxiety typically conveys nervousness, discomfort, and worry.
For example, people with anxiety may seem fidgety, with restless foot tapping, bouncing the knee, or tapping the fingers. You might notice clenched fists, a tight jaw, a rigid posture, and tight muscles. Shaking, trembling, rapid breathing, and excessive perspiration may also be signs of anxiety. People with anxiety may avoid eye contact, turn away from others, or create space between themselves and others in public and during conversation.
What is a nervous body language for a female?
Nervous body language in women looks the same as anyone else with anxiety. A nervous woman may fidget and shift her weight from one foot to another. She might hunch her shoulders, stand far away, or use crossed arms to create barriers. A female who feels nervous might avoid eye contact, show rapid blinking, and experience increased sweating.
What is the body language of a man in love?
Gestures that convey warmth and closeness are typical for a man (or anyone) in love. He may sustain eye contact, or if he's shy, you might notice him frequently glancing or staring while you aren't looking. Smiling, laughing, and giving his full attention when you talk are also good signs.
When a man is interested or in love, he could subtly lean in, reduce the personal space between you, and remove obstacles between you, particularly while speaking. People with strong feelings for another often use gentle touches like a brush on the arm or shoulder to convey they'd like to be closer.
It's important to note that context plays a significant role in body language, so consider those details when trying to determine how someone feels based on their gestures. For example, continuous eye contact may seem flirty for some, but it's considered rude in many cultures.
How do you tell if someone is subconsciously attracted to you?
Most body language is subconscious; we may never know we've let someone know we're attracted to them through our gestures.
People who are attracted to you may exhibit grooming behaviors like repeatedly fixing their hair or clothes. People might unintentionally raise their eyebrows, and their pupils may dilate. They might mirror your facial expressions and body language.
If they're interested in a particular individual, people often subconsciously lean in and close the gap between them or touch the person lightly to be physically closer.
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