Body Language—What Is It And Why Does It Matter?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated February 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Did you know that approximately 55% of language is non-verbal? Possibly due to the prevalence of body language in our society, social psychologists have been studying body language for years, and research suggests that it can play a significant role in how effectively we communicate. Read on to learn more about what body language is, and how you can use it to master the art of communication.

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What is body language? 

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the definition of body language is "the gestures, movements, and mannerisms by which a person or animal communicates with others”

This definition suggests that communication can be more than just verbal. The way we use our bodies to express ourselves is a large part of how we communicate across social groups. 

Why our body language matters

It's possible for our words to be saying one thing and our body language to be communicating something completely different. To have effective communication, our words and body language need to match, as does our tone of voice. When we put all of these things together and carefully choose our words to express what we mean, we may communicate more effectively. However, when we aren't careful about our body language, we can send mixed signals to the person that we're talking to. This can make it difficult for them to understand the point that we are trying to get across.

Common examples of body language include crossing your arms over your chest, biting your nails, resting your cheek on your hand, drumming your fingers, lifting your eyebrows, tilting your head, rubbing your hands together, stroking your chin, having good posture, slouching and squirming around. Body language can include every way that your body communicates, both positive and negative.

How to correct bad body language

Below are some of the common forms of unhelpful body language and what you might do instead.

Getty/AnnaStills

Leaning backward

If you want to show someone that you care about what they're talking about and that you're engaged in the conversation, you might avoid reclining backward. This relaxed and reclined position when sitting can give the impression that you are not interested in what they have to say. It can give the appearance that you are bored or that you simply don't care.

Suggestion: If you want to show you are engaged in the conversation, you might consider leaning in toward the person talking. This can give the appearance that you are actively involved in the conversation. It can also help you to focus your attention on the person who is talking and not be distracted.

Crossing your arms

Many people cross their arms over their chest because they don't know what else to do with their hands while they are standing up. While you might not think this is bad body language, it can communicate that you are angry, defensive, or in disagreement. It can also indicate to people that you are not interested in what they are talking about. 

Suggestion: You might want to find something else to do with your arms. If you are sitting down, you can try keeping your hands in your lap. If you are standing up, you might practice allowing your arms to hang by your side. Alternatively, you might try holding something in your hands while talking, such as a folder, a purse or a coffee mug. This can give you something to do with your hands and arms that you don't need to think about.

Lack of eye contact

When you avoid making eye contact with people, you may inadvertently give one of a few impressions:

  • It may look like you are uninterested in the conversation or are thinking about something else.
  • You may look untrustworthy because you will not look them in the eye. This can give the impression that you are hiding something.
  • Lack of eye contact can give the appearance that you are ne or lacking in confidence.

Suggestion: If you want to show that you are confident and trustworthy, you may try to make steady eye contact with people. However, you might avoid staring into their eyes. This can come across as intimidating and make people feel uncomfortable. Instead, you can make eye contact with them and then break away after a second or two before making eye contact again.

Clasping your hands together

When you clench your hands together, it can come across to others that you are angry, frustrated, or nervous. This action can make it look like you are trying to restrain yourself.

Suggestion: If you are sitting down, you can rest your hands together gently. If they are relaxed and at ease, it can appear much differently than when you are tightly holding them together. The former can show confidence, and the latter can show nervousness.

Fidgeting

If you’re fidgeting while someone is talking to you, it may show that you're bored with the conversation or that you're nervous and feel uncomfortable talking with them. Fidgeting can include actions like bouncing your leg up and down, drumming your fingers on the table, or messing with your hair.

Suggestion: You might try to focus on sitting still even when you are nervous. This may be difficult at first, but you will likely get better at it the more you practice.

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Good forms of body language

Many believe that body language should generally support the words that you are saying. Here’s how you can use good body language to impact those you’re speaking with: 

Nodding your head

Nodding your head can be a simple way to show that you are listening to the person, and it can sometimes also convey that you are in agreement. However, it can be important to make sure you do agree with what they are saying, or else your body language isn't going to match your true opinions.

Smiling

Smiling can be a strong form of body language that communicates positivity, happiness and confidence. Smiling may also boost your mood, improve your immune system, relieve stress, and help make those around you happier.

Watch the body language of others

When you are working with other people, you might also try to observe their body language. There are times when this can give you a true indication of the situation or of how the person in question may feel about a certain topic or situation. For example: If they are sending you mixed signals between their words and their body language, then you might ask additional questions to clarify their opinion. Learning how to read body language, in this case, can help you to successfully and effectively communicate with others—even when it’s difficult to do so. 

How can an online therapist help those wishing to improve communication skills?

If you have questions or concerns about your body language and communication style, you don’t have to navigate them alone. It may help to talk to an online therapist with specific training in this field. 

With BetterHelp, you can be matched with an online counselor with experience helping people improve their body language and communication skills. You can also complete all sessions in the comfort of your own home or safe place. 

Is online therapy effective? 

Did you know? Research has found that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy. The American Psychological Association observed a range of positive effects over several studies, further corroborating this hypothesis. Benefits were observed across a range of age groups and across many different conditions—potentially facilitating benefits for thousands over time. 

Takeaway

Effective communication generally requires your body language and words to match. Having good communication skills can improve all your relationships, both in your personal life and work life. Not sure where to start? A skilled online therapist can help. Online therapy has been suggested to be just as effective as in-person therapeutic methods. You can take the first step toward better communication skills today by contacting BetterHelp. We’ll match you with a therapist in your area of need.

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