How To Read Body Language: Understanding Social Cues

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Verbal communication is often an essential social tool, but not everyone utilizes it the same way. However, many people use body language to communicate. Before ancient ancestors had the means to use complex language to express themselves, the ability to use gestures and actions to communicate with others was crucial. 

Learning to interpret body language can help you connect with others without saying a word if it is correctly communicated and understood. You can take a few steps to improve your ability to read body language, and support options are available if you struggle to do so.  

Learning to boost your communication skills can be tricky

Tips for correctly interpreting body language 

It may be helpful to keep the following tips in mind to understand what people are attempting to communicate with their body language. 

Look at context

A part of understanding someone's body language may involve the context of the situation they're in. For instance, someone fidgeting and wringing their hands at a family gathering may be experiencing a different emotion than someone fidgeting before a major presentation. When you're familiar with what a behavior itself may indicate, like nervousness, it can be helpful to understand where it may stem from. 

If you're on a date with someone and they are fidgeting, they might be nervous in a positive way, wanting to impress you. However, suppose you are having a conversation with someone about breaking up, and they are fidgeting. In that case, they may be nervous about the end of the relationship or uncomfortable with the vulnerable topic of conversation. 

Start with the head

Facial expressions can be an essential clue into whether someone's words and feelings align. Many people use facial expressions like smiles and frowns to communicate their emotions from birth, suggesting that some level of body language may be inherent to human behavior rather than learned. 

When you're trying to gauge how someone feels, look at their face. Pay attention to their mouth, eyes, and eyebrows to look for signs of happiness, stress, fear, anger, and other emotions. Even if you struggle to interpret facial expressions and other bodily cues, manually teaching yourself to make and understand observations can be possible. 

For example, you can learn that full cheeks, upturned corners of the lips, and wrinkled eyes can indicate happiness. When looking for happiness in those you care about, look for these signs, even if you might not spot them immediately. 

Look at the eyes 

You may have heard the phrase, "The eyes are the window to the soul." Eye contact can help you gauge how someone feels, how sincere they are, and whether they're interested in you. Making eye contact can boost your connection with others, convey a sense of safety, and help you identify when your communication may be aggressive or communicating the wrong message. 

One area of the eyes that cannot be faked is pupil dilation. When stressed, your pupils may naturally dilate as part of the body's stress response. Blinking frequently can also subconsciously occur. In this way, the eyes may be a clue about a person's true thoughts or feelings that are not susceptible to manipulation.

Note that some people may struggle to make eye contact and do not perceive eye contact in the same way as others. For example, neurodivergent and autistic individuals or people living with social anxiety disorder may avoid eye contact due to discomfort. Studies have found that forcing autistic children or adults to make eye contact can worsen their cognitive function and may not assist them in social interaction like it assists neurotypical individuals. For this reason, using eye contact as the only way to determine someone's confidence, kindness, or trustworthiness can be unreliable.  

Consider the arms 

In difficult situations, people may cross their arms or adopt defensive poses. Defensiveness may involve tense muscles, turning away from others, and crossing the arms in front of the body. By keeping these postures, individuals can physically place their arms between themselves and the person or situation causing discomfort. Likewise, hands on the waist or hips may indicate a person is uneasy or defensive, especially if other cues like furrowed brows and pursed lips are present. 

Look at the legs 

Some people may not pay much attention to their legs or feet, especially when communicating. The subconscious mind can prepare an individual to react to a situation as it happens by allowing them to grow closer to or distance themselves from another person. For instance, when a situation is uncomfortable, your subconscious may prepare you for "fight or flight" by changing your posture. 

If you're speaking to someone you like about a topic that makes you happy, you may notice your toes point toward the person you're talking to. In contrast, when you're ready to leave, one or both of your feet may start to point away. Similarly, when you're sitting and talking with someone, you may cross your legs away from them if you're uncomfortable or don't like the conversation. 

Consider quirks and habits

While the above cues are common, every person's body language can be nuanced. For example, someone may only be comfortable crossing their legs to the left because of a bad knee, and this behavior may not be accurate enough on its own to allow you to gauge their feelings or thoughts. 

When interpreting the meaning behind body language, it may sometimes be more productive to focus on learning to trust your gut feelings rather than trying to determine the precise meaning behind an observation. If you believe someone is uneasy, uncomfortable, stressed, angry, or otherwise in a place where communication might be tricky, it may be healthiest to assume you are correct. 

For some, a "gut instinct" may be incorrect. Struggling to read bodily cues and understand how they function as a form of communication can be a sign of a mental health condition or neurodivergence, and it can also stem from a lack of positive communication throughout life. In these cases, you can ask others how they feel, what they're thinking, or how you can best support them.

How to find support for reading body language 

Body language may not be an exact science. Therefore, relying on general trends in body language as a guide for communicating with others can lead you to misunderstand who someone else is or what they feel. Body language can be a tool and a secondary form of input that helps you navigate social situations. However, it may not be the only way to get to know someone at first glance. 

If you struggle to read body language but aren't sure you have the time or finances for in-person therapy, online platforms like BetterHelp offer flexible treatment options, and you don't need to be diagnosed with a mental illness to receive support. You can connect with a provider to discuss socialization and body language from home and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

In addition, online therapy has been proven effective for many clients. One study surveyed individuals trying online therapy for several mental health conditions and challenges. 71% of participants found online therapy more effective than in-person options, while 100% found online therapy more convenient. 

Takeaway

Learning body language can help you connect with others, understand their needs, and become more familiar with how they communicate. Although some body language can be unconscious and beyond one's control, there are ways to deliberately change how you understand and use body language to further your social understanding. If you struggle with body language and want to learn more, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for further guidance and support.
Learn how your body communicates
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