The Role Of Body Language In Communication

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 6, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Body language often plays a significant role in communication and can be as important as the words we say. It can involve eye contact, head movement, posture, gestures, and facial expressions, all of which can add meaning to our verbal communication. Non-human primates also frequently use body language to communicate. Today, body language may not always play a role in communication, as many of our interactions tend to happen online through text only. However, body language will likely continue to be a crucial element of communication as long as people continue to have face-to-face interactions. If you struggle to communicate effectively or have trouble understanding various body language cues, working with a therapist in person or online may be helpful.

What is body language?

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Body language can be defined as a form of non-verbal communication that typically includes actions and mannerisms, such as the following:
  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Head movement
  • Eye contact

These can be universal to all humans, and people may perform them consciously or subconsciously to convey their thoughts and feelings. Experts say body language usually constitutes about half of what we are trying to communicate. 

For example, a person may not always need to verbally say "no" to communicate that something is wrong or that they disagree with what a person is saying. Instead, they can shake their head from side to side to share the same sentiment. Moreover, if a student slouches in their chair in class and doesn’t make eye contact with their teacher, this may signal that they are bored.

Body language can also enhance and complement our verbal communication skills. For instance, if someone in a store is asking for directions on where to find a product, and an employee merely says, "over there," this information may be too vague to be helpful to the customer.

At that point, the employee can be more specific with the location of the item by stating what aisle or department it is in. However, they may also gesture or point in the direction where the product is located. Even if the employee was not very specific and simply said "over there" while pointing, it would likely be more helpful than the original scenario with no body language.

Body language often plays a significant role in everyday interactions, which may be why it tends to be one of the most popular topics in communication studies. It is believed to have been of interest for thousands of years; even the Ancient Greeks interpreted the meanings behind human physical behavior. 

Body language as a form of unconscious communication

The previous section discussed a couple of examples that show how movement can be used to enhance speech. However, body language psychology may also consider unconscious communication. Although these physical cues might be unintentional, they can still be interpreted by others.

Consider law enforcement as an example. A forensic psychologist or someone working with intelligence may be trained to notice brief micro-expressions, or quick, unconscious expressions of emotion that can appear on a person’s face.


People in charge of investigations may be interested in these nonverbal cues because they can indicate whether a person is lying or trying to conceal something from the interrogator. These cues can happen in a split second, but if an observer slows or freezes a video, they might witness an apparent expression change at that moment.

Some other everyday situations where unconscious body language can occur may be during periods of nervousness or attraction. Specific expressions can vary from person to person. For example, someone might cough when placed in a scenario that makes them nervous, whereas another might touch their face or scratch themselves as though they have an itch.

People may be unaware of their body language in these situations because these cues tend to be performed subconsciously. However, they can be observable to others, and people might notice patterns over time. This may be especially true for people who interact with each other regularly, such as parents and their children, for example. 

Since people close to one another usually know each other's baseline or default personality, they can spot when something is off by noticing changes in body language. For instance, if a child lies to their mother about where they are going, they might exhibit distinct body cues that are out of the ordinary, such as avoiding eye contact or speaking more rapidly.

Evolution and the origins of body language

By researching non-human primates, we may better understand how we used body language early in our evolution as a species. The use of body language generally predates any spoken or written language that humans have created. Since they do not have the same vocal anatomy and brain size as humans do to produce speech, non-human primates frequently use body language to communicate with each other.

It is also generally believed that genetic differences may be similarly responsible for why we can speak, while our closest ancestors, chimpanzees and bonobos, cannot. A variation of the FOXP2 gene is suggested to be why this is the case, and humans may have a unique mutation. This mutation had likely occurred within the last four to six million years because that is when the last common ancestor to the Homo and Pan species lived. The mutation is believed to have stuck around, rather than gradually being bred out, because increased communication abilities likely enhanced our chance of survival.

Although they may not speak as we can, non-human primates can provide insight into why body language developed in the first place. We can observe them and see how they use nonverbal communication with one another to fulfill their need to communicate.

Gestures have often been noted in monkeys and great apes to produce different signals, some of which humans also use. For example, a hard touch or brush of the hand can tell another individual to stop, whereas a soft one or a light pull can be more inviting. Some species, such as orangutans, also embrace one another.

Others have unique forms of body language to communicate. Male gorillas may attempt to show dominance by standing on two legs and beating their chests. Despite being exclusive to gorillas, humans also typically have ways to assert power and strength nonverbally, such as standing with our feet at a wider stance than usual. Some primates, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, may pout; however, instead of signaling sadness or disappointment, pouting usually means wanting something related to food or grooming. 

In primates, gestures are often accompanied by facial expressions and eye contact. Baring teeth can be a universal sign of aggression among non-human primates. On the other hand, lip-smacking can be a friendly facial signal and may be a form of submission in some situations.

As our brains have grown and our facial structure has changed over time, humans have generally been able to utilize other types of body language in communication. While we may not show our teeth to express aggression, we frequently have other ways to convey the same message, such as scowling, glaring, or using unique gestures like the "middle finger"(which can tie in with language and culture).

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The importance of body language in modern society

In today's digital age, many people rely on social media and text messaging to communicate with each other. Although virtual interaction may allow people to talk at their leisure and can minimize social pressure and anxiety for some, certain things can be lost in translation, so to speak. 

By being unable to see or hear the other person as you speak with them, you might miss critical nonverbal cues, as well as verbal ones, like vocal inflection. Online communication is generally becoming the primary modality for millions of people, and body language may continue to evolve to accommodate this shift.

Still, body language has likely been around for millions of years, and despite it being absent from certain situations, it can still be relevant. It may continue for the foreseeable future as long as people continue interacting face-to-face. Research has shown that body language can be vital for human cognitive functioning because it can enhance information transfer and lexical retrieval. 

For some, nonverbal communication may not come easily, and this difficulty may be exacerbated by the frequent use of technology, which may not allow for as many opportunities to learn and practice. If you struggle with communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, therapy can be helpful.

Benefits of online therapy

Online therapy can be convenient if you struggle with communicating or need extra help and support with mental health-related concerns. You generally won't need to leave your house to work with a licensed therapist suited to your needs, and if you're worried about the ability to pick up on nonverbal cues like body language, video-chatting with your therapist may be an option, in addition to phone call or online chat sessions.

Effectiveness of online therapy

A common reason for communication struggles can be social anxiety disorder. If you experience symptoms of social anxiety, it can be challenging to fully engage in conversation and pick up on body language cues. A 2022 study indicated that online therapy could be effective in treating social anxiety disorder. However, if communication difficulties stem from another cause, it may be helpful to know that online therapy is generally as effective as in-person therapy for a variety of mental health-related concerns, according to a growing body of evidence. 

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Body language is generally believed to have played a notable role in communication for as long as humans have existed. Gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, posture, and head movements may help us understand what others are attempting to say. Sometimes, body language may match a person’s words, and other times, it can indicate that what a person is saying may not be representative of the way they’re truly feeling. Although body language may not play a role in many types of online communication, it will likely remain a vital part of face-to-face interactions for the foreseeable future. For professional guidance in effectively communicating and understanding body language cues, consider working with a licensed therapist.
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