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The ABCs of Body Language: What Message Are You Sending?

The ABCs of Body Language:
What Message Are You Sending?

What is body language?
Where does body language come from?
Is body language the same all over the world?
What do our faces communicate?
What do our hands communicate?
What do our eyes communicate?
What does our posture communicate?
What does space have to do with body language?
Can understanding body language help me in any way?>

What is body language?
Imagine you are standing in the center of a busy shopping mall. You are waiting for a friend to meet you. In the meantime, you watch dozens of people pass you by. Some of them seem happy. Others seem tired. Still others seem angry or frustrated. Even though not a single person has uttered a word, you can tell just how they're feeling. That's because you have been observing their body language.

In fact, more than half the time, human beings communicate with their bodies rather than words. How you stand, how you cross your legs, how you tilt your head, how you move your hands, how you smile—you send out signals all day long. Body language is made up of literally hundreds of these small gestures. Some of them are deliberate, meaning that we think about them as we do them. Waving hello is a good example of this. But most gestures are unconscious, meaning that they happen without any thought at all. For instance, if you are cold or afraid, you may automatically wrap your arms around yourself.

The scientific study of these gestures is called kinesics. That's the fancy word for body language. Kinesics is still a fairly new science. It is really only in the last 100 years that scientists have been carefully studying the meaning of nonverbal communication. back to top

Where does body language come from?
You've probably seen apes at the zoo or on television. People love to watch them because they seem so human. Actually, apes and humans have almost identical brains. They also share many common gestures. Apes bare their teeth when they are excited—just as we do. They cover their faces when they are frightened. They rub their tummies to say "I am hungry." They kiss and embrace to show affection. They swagger when they are proud. They even chew the ends of their fingers when they're anxious.

Much of the animal world relies on body language to communicate. In this way, humans are not so different from animals after all. back to top

Is body language the same all over the world?
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English? You probably relied on gestures and signs, kind of like a game of charades. And you probably made your point fairly well. You could do that because every human being is born with the ability to communicate nonverbally.

All people use similar facial expressions and gestures to convey basic feelings: interest, joy, surprise, fear, anger, distress, disgust, contempt, and shame. This means that all human beings are programmed to turn up the corners of the mouth when they're happy, turn them down when they're sad, wrinkle the forehead, lift the eyebrows, raise one side of the mouth—and so on—when a certain feeling is fed into the brain. No matter where we go in the world, these emotions will be expressed through the body in the same way. This kind of body language is called innate, meaning that we are born with it.

But some body language is not innate. It is learned. In other words, gestures that mean one thing in one culture may mean something completely different in another. This could get tricky if you visit a foreign country. For instance, the sign that we know as the "OK" sign—where the thumb and forefinger are made into an "O"—is seen as impolite in Turkey. In France, that same gesture means "zero." And in Brazil, the sign is a sexual insult. In the United States, we shake our head from side to side to say no, and up and down to say yes. But there are cultures in India where the opposite is true. If you're traveling abroad, the best rule is to stick with the body language that everyone understands—smiles, politeness, and a general positive attitude. Fortunately, good manners are universal. back to top

What do our faces communicate?
What you feel inside usually shows up on your face. You may call it your very own broadcasting system. The next time you are sitting in class, pay attention to the teacher's facial expressions. What is his or her face saying? Is he or she happy, friendly, confident? Turn on the television news and observe the face of the anchor people. Are they sincere? Do you trust what they are saying? You can probably gather all this information just from someone's face. Even if you plugged your ears or turned down the volume, you'd still get the message. That's how powerful body language can be.

Scientists have identified six basic emotions that the face expresses. They are:
  • Surprise. When we are surprised, lines appear on our foreheads, our eyebrows curve and lift, our eyes widen, the whites of our eyes become clearer, and the jaw drops and the teeth part.
  • Fear. If we are fearful, our eyebrows go up quickly and come toward each other. Wrinkles appear in the middle of the forehead. The eyelids are raised, showing the whites of the eyes. The facial muscles under the eyes get tense, the mouth opens, and the lips go back into the face.
  • Disgust. When we are disgusted by something, our upper lip is raised, our nose wrinkles, the cheek muscles go up, and the brow lowers.
  • Sadness. When we are sad, the inner corners of the eyebrows go up, the skin below the eyelids forms a kind of triangle, the lips quiver, and in many cases, tears roll out of the eyes.
  • Happiness. When we are happy, we smile. The corners of the lips are drawn back and raised, the teeth often show, and wrinkles appear on the outer part of the eyes.
  • Anger. When we are angry, we pull down our eyebrows and narrow our eyelids. Our lips may tighten, and sometimes our nostrils flare.
By the way, research has shown that women are far better readers of body language than men. They are also better at interpreting facial expressions. And many studies have shown that women smile more often than men. back to top

What do our hands communicate?
Other parts of the body also communicate very specific messages. Our hands, for example, are very good at supporting our words. They are almost like the illustrations of a book, making what we say more colorful and animated. Sometimes, our hands communicate all by themselves.

Some hand gestures are positive:
  • a raised thumb: in most countries, this is a sign that everything is all right. (Warning: in some places it can be an insult, and in Germany and Japan, it's a way of ordering beer.)
  • hands waving hello and goodbye
  • hands clapping to show appreciation for a performance
  • hands reaching out to support someone or show affection
  • hands rubbing together in satisfaction
  • hands behind our heads, which says confidence
Other hand gestures have a more negative meaning:
  • thumbs down, meaning things aren't going too well
  • pinching the nose between your thumb and forefinger, meaning you think something stinks
  • finger pointing to express anger, threat, or blame
  • waving the hands to dismiss someone as unimportant
Sometimes, one gesture can communicate many different messages. The handshake is a good example of this. It can be friendly, competitive, secure or limp. A raised fist can demonstrate anger in one setting, and victory in another. That's why it's so important to look at what the rest of the body is doing before we interpret a meaning too quickly.

Hand gestures can also be unconscious. They happen without thinking. For instance, a person who is telling a lie may cover his or her mouth. When a person is anxious, his or her hands may be clenched together. back to top

What do our eyes communicate?
More than any other part of our body, our eyes can communicate just about any message. We seek eye contact when we want to talk with someone. We avoid eye contact if we don't. Our eyes express all the basic emotions: fear, anger, disgust, surprise, happiness and sadness.

Eyes that shift around make someone seem uncomfortable, or even dishonest. A sideways glance can send a message of mistrust. Too much blinking can be interpreted as a sign of nervousness. Winking can have a number of meanings, depending on where you are in the world.

How directly and how long we look at someone is also important. We learn very early that it is not polite to stare. Think of how you behave when you are in an elevator or on a crowded bus. Usually, we glance at the other people quickly, and then look away. On the other hand, we learn that making some direct eye contact is one of the best ways to let someone know that you are listening to them and interested in what they are saying.

In some cultures, though, there are different rules about making eye contact. For instance, in some Latino cultures, a girl is never supposed to look straight into the eye of an adult. It's considered disrespectful. An adult who doesn't understand this may think she is not paying attention. back to top

What does our posture communicate?
Research has shown that how we feel about another person has a lot to do with posture. Poor posture can show a lack of self-esteem or depression. Think about how you feel when you see a girl who is all hunched up, with her head hanging down. You may not want to spend much time with her. But if a girl stands up straight and walks tall, you know that she probably has some confidence, as well as a positive outlook. But if she is too shy to look at anyone, she might come across as snobbish instead. Notice how successful politicians, actors, and models hold their bodies. Many of them get special posture training so that they can project a positive image.

Everybody's posture changes a few times during a conversation. But if we shift our weight from one foot to another too much, we may give the impression that we can't be trusted or that we're trying to get out of a situation.

When two or more people get together, their postures say a lot about their interaction. For example, do they point their bodies toward each other, which often means they agree or understand each other, or away from each other, which may mean they disagree? If you join a conversation, how does the way each person is standing make you feel drawn in or shut out of the conversation? back to top

What does space have to do with body language?
Space is an important part of body language. Too little of it and we have no room to breathe. Too much of it and we feel alone and abandoned. Researchers talk about four different kinds of "zones," or the physical distance between people when they communicate. They are:
  • The intimate zone: actual physical contact up to 18 inches. This zone is reserved primarily for very close friendships and romantic relationships. Of course, when we're on a crowded bus or train, we may be forced to stand this close to someone we don't know. Usually we put up other boundaries. We don't look at each other, and we pull into ourselves as if to say, "I respect your space, and you respect mine."
  • The personal zone: a distance of one-and-a-half feet to four feet. This is the zone we use for talking in public places, such as restaurants and parties.
  • The social zone: a distance of four to 12 feet. This is the zone for everyday relationships with people we do not know well, but who help us get things done. A clerk in a store is one example.
  • The public zone: a distance of 12 feet. This is the space that will be between you and a public speaker or performer. back to top
These zones can vary from one culture to another. For instance, it's more acceptable in some cultures for men to be in an intimate zone together. In some cultures, crowding together is a sign of warmth and hospitality, whereas in other cultures, privacy is more important. back to top

Can understanding body language help me in any way?
Understanding body language can help you in many ways—now and in the future. Being aware of your own body language can help you feel more in control of a situation. For instance, if you notice that you are slouching and looking down, you can quickly change your posture to project a more upbeat image. If your hands are clenched tightly, you can take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down. If you are going for a job or college interview, you can make sure you extend a firm handshake and make direct eye contact.

Learning to read the body language of another person can give you a lot of information. Does the person look at you directly and cock his or her head? That's probably a sign that he or she is paying attention to what you are saying. What is the expression on his or her face? How is the person standing and holding his or her hands and arms?

These are the kinds of questions that many professionals ask themselves every day. For instance, lawyers who argue cases in court will pay close attention to the body language of the judge and jury to win a case. Psychologists watch the body language of their patients to pick up the deeper feelings that may not be expressed in words. Salespeople watch their customers' body language very closely and make adjustments in their presentations.

The people who study body language are never bored. Think about that the next time you're at a party, waiting in a long line or just hanging out at the mall. The best entertainment is right before your eyes. back to top

Last Modified Date: 3/19/2001