Understanding Body Language In Social Settings

Updated February 7, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Whether we realize it or not, body language can play a large role in communication. Nonverbal behavior, including body language, can be an incredibly important part of interpersonal communication; it can give silent cues and signals that may impact the way we speak, react, and feel. That means understanding body language in yourself and others may help you more successfully and confidently navigate social settings. Even if interpreting body language isn’t your strong suit, there are some things you can keep in mind that may help you learn to recognize what others are communicating through their actions as well as their words.  

Gauge And Respect Personal Space

Most people have a certain amount of personal space that they prefer to keep around them. It is generally anywhere from about two to three feet from the body, though it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic may have led to an increase in what most people consider appropriate amounts of personal space

In most cases, how much personal space is enough can depend on a person’s upbringing and culture. Some people may be comfortable standing close together when they speak and be used to physical contact, but others may not. If you’re unsure of how much personal space to give to others, it may help to take a look around; how close do others stand to you? How do you see other people communicating with each other?

The distance that you should keep from people can also vary based on the situation that you are in. For example, if you are in an intimate setting with someone, like your significant other, you probably don't mind them entering your personal space. If you’re speaking to someone new at a party, though, you may want to add a bit more distance. In general, an arm’s length or so of space can be a good place to start.

Learn How To Read Signs Of Unease And Stress

Understanding body language that is used when someone is uncomfortable or stressed can be very helpful in social situations. When you can pick up on these subtle cues, you may be able to adjust the way you’re communicating, if necessary, or offer reassurance to the person you’re talking to. 

Signs to watch for include neck touching or rubbing, fiddling with jewelry or hair, excessive face touching, fidgeting, or a lack of direct eye contact. Even if the cause of the discomfort you observe isn’t your own communication, knowing when and how to comfort others can be an important part of building or sustaining relationships.

Know The Proper Use Of Eye Contact

Looking To Improve Your Own Communication Skills?

Eye contact is often a big part of understanding body language. Maintaining good eye contact can lead to increased levels of engagement and feelings of connectivity between two people. Looking someone in the eyes, albeit tricky at times, can help you show that you’re interested, attentive, and a safe person to confide in. This may be especially true when speaking to someone in a position of authority or while having a serious conversation. 

If you tend to have a hard time sparking or maintaining eye contact, know that you aren’t alone. From low self-esteem to neurodevelopmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, there’s no shortage of reasons that you might feel like eye contact can be overwhelming, intimidating, or simply unnatural. The important thing to remember may be that even brief bouts of eye contact can invite a person to tell more and feel more comfortable. 

Trust Your Gut

When it comes to reading and understanding body language in social settings, it's often best to let your body be your guide. Our subconscious is typically very good at recognizing the body language of others and its meaning. We tend to get our brain involved too much trying to figure out things and read too deep into them. Things are often what they look like if we allow our subconscious minds to perceive the situation.

Watch The Direction Of The Feet

Many people think that body language is all about the face and arms, but this is not necessarily true. Parts of the body that are often overlooked, including feet and legs, can tell a different story, particularly since we don't usually think about what they are doing.

If you are interested in a conversation, for instance, it’s likely that you’ll naturally begin to point your feet  toward the person that you are talking to. However, if you are looking to get out of the conversation, chances are you’ll have at least one foot pointed in a different direction. Paying attention to the entirety of someone’s body, then, may help you pick up signals that you might otherwise miss.

Make A Good First Impression

There are few times where body language can be as important as it often is when we meet someone for the first time. Because we may be more likely to speak impersonally – using language we think is generally acceptable and well-understood, being polite, etc. – when we meet someone new, our nonverbal communication can feel even more significant or individual. As such, the body language you use in these situations can make a big impact on the type of impression that you make. Below are a few things to keep in mind.

  • A firm handshake is often important. A firm, friendly handshake can communicate a great deal. It may help you appear more confident and ready to engage in conversation, especially when paired with a smile. 

  • Use good posture. Our posture can communicate a lot about us. If you walk around slouched with your eyes on the ground, for instance, you may appear to be timid, irritable, or otherwise uninterested in speaking to others. However, if you enter the room with your head up and shoulders back, you may look more confident, approachable, and friendly.

  • Use proper eye contact. We discussed the importance of eye contact in general, but it can be particularly vital when meeting someone for the first time. Speaking to strangers can already be an intimidating experience, so inviting someone to connect with you nonverbally oftentimes goes a long way.

Looking To Improve Your Own Communication Skills?

How To Improve Your Communication Skills

Having good communication skills can be important on both a personal and professional level. Regardless of why you might feel like there’s room for improvement within your own communication skills, practice and individualized advice can make a big difference. In many cases, a lack of confidence is one of the most significant obstacles to overcome. To feel more empowered in your ability to communicate with others, you’ll likely need time, patience, and the guidance someone who understands your goals.

That’s where the help of a mental health professional, like a therapist, can come in handy. By helping you identify your personal challenges, desires, and expectations related to communication, a therapist can provide the resources you may need to start to see improvement. And, with tools like online therapy at your disposal, it may be easier than ever to find solutions that work for you.

Working with a therapist online might also be a great way to practice your communication skills without creating undue stress. One recent study on the benefits of online therapy for couples found that a digital medium led most clients to feel more comfortable disclosing more to their therapists. Because an online platform can create some space between patient and provider, seeking professional help through the web may be a more approachable way to get started.


Body language can be thought of as nearly as, if not more important than spoken language when it comes to communicating things to those around us. No matter how comfortable you feel with interpreting body language, knowing what to look for and what you can do to improve your own may help you better connect with others.

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