A Body Language Guide: 15 Common Nonverbal Cues
By: Jon Jaehnig
Updated May 14, 2021
Have you ever asked someone how they were doing after seeing them looking down, with their arms crossed and brow furrowed, only to have them say, "fine.”? You know they are not fine because of their body language. We communicate frequently, and sometimes most honestly, with what we do rather than what we say.
Nonverbal communication is called "body language." Body language is the ways in which we sit, position our arms, and contort our faces. It is often something that we don't deliberately control. That's why it can be so telling. It can also be misinterpreted. Just because a person crosses their arms during a meeting does not mean they are bored or angry. They could just be cold.
Having a better understanding of nonverbal communication can help you understand those around you, and it can help you become more aware of the messages you are sending to the world. We can't cover all incidences of body language, but this article will cover some common examples that you can observe in others and in yourself.
Body Language While Sitting
We spend a lot of our time, especially our social time when nonverbal cues are most important, sitting down. How we are sitting can tell a lot about our attitudes and feelings in a given situation.
- Knees Apart
A common thread that we will see in this article is that the larger a person seems, the more confident they are likely to feel or want to appear.
If a person sits or stands in a way that makes them appear larger, they may be trying to intimidate or boast to others. Any of these can be the case for sitting with the knees apart. Sitting with the knees apart makes the person appear larger, and it also makes them appear relaxed, comfortable, and in charge. Therefore, confident. This is typically a more masculine pose, and it would be more common to see a man sitting with his knees apart than a woman.As mentioned in the introduction, this is not a fool-proof way to gauge how someone is feeling. In this instance, it should be noted a person may choose to sit like this simply because it is comfortable for them.
- 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 protect 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.
- Knees Crossed
Sitting with knees crossed usually has a deeper meaning than simply sitting with the knees together. It makes the person appear very small.It can be seen as a closed and defensive pose, and, unlike sitting with knees together, is usually seen as an explicitly feminine pose. It is considered dainty and polite. It can suggest shyness or discomfort.
- Ankles Crossed Under Knees
Sitting on the floor with the ankles crossed and the feet under the knees is often seen as a sign of comfort and thoughtfulness.
Names for this posture vary in time and place. 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
Body language isn't only "spoken" when sitting. How we stand can also tell us a great deal about how an individual is thinking or feeling.
- Feet Apart
As with sitting, having the feet apart makes the individual appear larger and is a more stable stance. As a result, it is often seen as being confident, comfortable, and potentially aggressive.
- Feet Together
Standing with the feet together makes the person appear smaller and so is usually held by people who are less comfortable. Standing with feet together is also often a sign of respect as when soldiers "stand at attention."
- Supported or Slouched
Standing while supported as with a foot or the back or shoulders against a wall denotes comfort and nonaggression. It is sometimes seen as being disrespectful or that the person is not paying attention to the conversation around them if they are slouched or hunched over.
So far, most of the nonverbal cues that we have discussed have focused on the positions of the lower body. However, how we hold our arms can also be telling.
- 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 as in the case with soldiers standing at attention. However, standing with hands in pockets is often seen as disrespectful in certain situations. It can be seen as distracting and there is room to assume that the individual is more preoccupied with whatever is in their pockets than with what is going on around them.
- Arms Crossed
Standing with the arms folded over the chest makes the body seem smaller and is a closed position. It can be a sign of discomfort, but also anger. Having the arms crossed over the chest is also often seen as disrespectful, possibly because it can be seen as creating a barrier between the other person and themselves, showing disinterest or disapproval. However, as mentioned in the beginning of the article, it could also be that a person simply finds it comfortable to keep their arms in this position. Especially if the temperature in the room is cold.
- Arms Up
Having the arms raised is often seen as a sign of submission. In conflict, people who have surrendered often have their arms raised as a sign that they are not holding or reaching for a weapon. Similarly, police officers may ask individuals to put their arms up or behind their heads to show that they are not armed. People may also symbolically "give up" on anything by throwing their arms in the air.
- Palms Together
Holding the palms together can mean a number of things depending on the context but it is very often a contemplative gesture. It is often done while thinking, but it is often done while praying. This can be seen as directing the thoughts to heaven.
Holding the palms together takes on another meaning in the Pacific world. In practices like yoga, holding the palms together symbolizes balance. The posture is symmetrical, with the palms meeting at the center of the body.
- Hands Behind the Back
Standing with one's hands behind the back is also usually 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.
The ways in which we sit, stand, and bear ourselves can all be very expressive. Our faces, however, are infinitely more so.
- Raised Eyebrows
Raising both eyebrows is indicative of interest or surprise. In raising the eyebrows, the eyes are opened wider, suggesting that the individual is trying to see everything that is going on.
Raising one eyebrow, however, is often indicative of skepticism. In her 1996 book,The Illustrated book of Signs and Symbols, anthropologist Miranda Bruce-Mitford writes that with one eyebrow raised "the two sides of the face are at odds, registering a state of confusion."
Squinting is something that we do to help us to see long distances or details. We also often squint when we are skeptical of something or disagreeing with someone, as though we are trying to see their perspective or frustration at the disagreement.
- Eye Contact
Eye contact is a sign of connection or focus. Maintaining eye contact with a person shows seriousness and dedication, while constantly averting the eyes shows distraction or nervousness. Eye contact that is constant can also be overbearing and imply intimidation. A natural eye control that is direct but not constant, generally conveys the most comfort and ease.
Understanding (and Not Understanding) Body Language
Most of us have some intuitive understanding of body language that we develop over the countless social interactions that we take part in during our lives. However, having a deeper understanding of nonverbal cues can help us to read a person, read a room, or even pick up on potential threats. 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 out to the world. If you want to appear open and friendly, you don't want to sit and stand in closed positions, for example. The next time that you are meeting someone, think about what your expression and posture might be saying about you to them.
If you're worried about your inability to understand body language, facial expressions, and other social cues, consider talking with an in-person or online therapist.With a therapist’s emotional support, you can begin to understand how reading nonverbal cues is important as you navigate social, school, and work situations and even in your personal relationships.
If you’re considering online therapy, studies have shown that online therapy is just as effective as face-to-face therapy. For example, a literature review of 64 articles containing 14 studies on online therapy as compared to traditional therapy found the effectiveness to be comparable. Participants in the studies experienced a range of mental health conditions and received a range of therapeutic treatments.
How BetterHelp Can Support You
A licensedonline counselor at BetterHelp will teach you techniques for how to recognize body language in others and even your own. Together, you’ll explore how this form of communication impacts your life and your relationships. You’ll also learn how you can improve communication by responding appropriately to other people’s body language and appropriately displaying your own body language. You can get started right away, anywhere you have access to the internet and with a smart phone, tablet, or computer. You can meet with a counselor from the comfort of your own home or anywhere you feel most comfortable. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
Thank you, Dr. Shapiro, you have taught me valuable skills I can use to communicate and have more positive outcomes.
She has been amazing and able to assist me no help me think through and talk through my issues...she has helped so much with seeing the mistakes I have made with my communication and how I process information. Kimberly has been a great counselor for me during a difficult time
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