Understanding Body Language In Social Settings

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated November 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Body language can be a significant part of communication, whether consciously or subconsciously. Non-verbal behavior, including body language, can offer silent cues and signals that may impact how you speak, react, and feel. Understanding body language in yourself and others may help you more successfully and confidently navigate social settings. Regardless of your background, there are a few ways you can learn to recognize what others are communicating through their actions.

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How To Understand Body Language In Social Settings

Below are a few ways to better understand body language when communicating with strangers, acquaintances, friends, potential partners, and families.

Gauge And Respect Personal Space

People often have a certain amount of personal space they prefer to keep around them, often around two to three feet from the body. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased what people consider appropriate amounts of personal space. 

However, 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 may love physical contact, whereas others may not like to stand close to or touch anyone, including friends and family. If you’re unsure how much personal space to give others, look at their behavior. How close do others stand to you? How do you see other people communicating with each other?

The distance to 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, you might be closer to them physically. If you’re speaking to someone new at a party, you might choose to keep your distance until you get to know them. In general, try to start at an arm’s length. 

Learn How To Read Signs Of Unease And Stress

Understanding body language used when someone is uncomfortable or stressed can be helpful in social situations. When you can pick up on these subtle cues, you may be able to adjust how you communicate, 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 isn’t your own communication, knowing when and how to comfort others can be a part of building or sustaining relationships.

Getty/MoMo Productions

Understand Eye Contact

Eye contact is often a part of understanding body language. Maintaining eye contact can lead to increased engagement and connectivity between two people. Looking someone in the eyes can help you show that you’re interested, attentive, and a safe person to confide in. This skill may be appreciated when speaking to someone in a position of authority or having a serious conversation. 

If you struggle with maintaining eye contact, know you aren’t alone. From low self-esteem to neurodevelopmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, there are a few reasons eye contact might seem overwhelming, intimidating, or unnatural. Studies have also shown that forced eye contact or pressure to maintain eye contact can cause autistic children and adults to have slower brain function, which may limit communication. For this reason, it may be beneficial for those who are not neurodivergent to lend patience and kindness to those who struggle with eye contact.  

Trust Your Gut

When reading and understanding body language in social settings, let your body be your guide. Your subconscious may be adept at recognizing the body language of others and its meaning. Involving your brain by trying to overthink a situation may lead to misinterpretation. 

Watch The Direction Of The Feet

Some people may believe that body language is about the face and arms, but it can also involve other parts of the body. Parts of the body that are often overlooked, including feet and legs, can tell a different story. 

For instance, if you are interested in a conversation, you may naturally point your feet toward the person you are talking to. However, if you want to get out of the conversation, you might have one or both feet pointed in a different direction. Paying attention to the entirety of someone’s body may help you pick up signals you might otherwise miss.

Make A Positive First Impression

Body language is often most important when you first meet someone. Because you may be more likely to speak impersonally, using acceptable and well-understood language, such as small talk and politeness, you might not get to know someone’s true feelings. As such, the body language you use in these situations can make an impact on the impression you make. Use the following tips when meeting someone: 

  • Use A Firm Handshake: A firm, friendly handshake may help you appear more confident and ready to engage in conversation. 
  • Consider Your Posture: If you walk around slouched with your eyes on the ground, you may appear timid, irritable, or uninterested. However, you may appear confident, approachable, and friendly if you enter the room with your head up and shoulders back.
  • Use Eye Contact: Eye contact can be vital upon first meeting someone to show that you are listening. 
Getty/Luis Alvarez
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How To Improve Your Communication Skills

Communication skills can be essential on a personal and professional level. Practice and individualized advice can make a difference regardless of where you’d like to improve. In some cases, a lack of confidence may be an obstacle. In others, severe social anxiety or neurodiversity can make it challenging to understand social cues. These challenges may also become barriers to reaching out for in-person support. 

If you face these barriers, you might benefit from contacting a therapist on an online platform like BetterHelp. By helping you identify your challenges, desires, and expectations, a therapist can provide you with resources for improvement. In addition, online platforms allow individuals to choose between phone, video, or live chat session formats, which may benefit those with social fears. 

Working with a therapist online might also be a way to practice your communication skills without creating undue stress.


Body language can sometimes be as important as spoken language when communicating with those around you. No matter how comfortable you are interpreting body language, knowing what to look for and how to improve your own may help you better connect with others. If you struggle with these skills, consider reaching out to a therapist for further guidance.

Learn how your body communicates

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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