Simple Keys to Understanding Body Language
Have you ever been talking to someone and wished you knew what they were thinking? If so, you might need a guide to decoding body language. Many people with social anxiety engage in “mind reading,” where you believe you know what another person is thinking about you. Sometimes you might get it right, but a lot of time you might be wrong. This is where knowing how to decode body language can be helpful.
Did you know that your body language (also known as nonverbal communication) is hardwired and really hard to disguise? This is why your body language will give you away if you try to say something that isn’t aligned with how you really feel. In particular, feelings of comfort vs. discomfort are often obvious when you start paying attention to your own and other people’s body language.
And it’s especially helpful to be able to decode this one little thing! If you can understand whether someone else is comfortable, and also figure out whether you are coming across as comfortable yourself, you will be well on your way to being a better body language expert.
So, let’s take a look at a list of different “tells” that you can look for when decoding body language of other people.
Leaning In or Away
When someone is feeling comfortable, they will tend to lean in towards you. On the other hand, if they are not feeling comfortable, their tendency will be to lean way.
Remember that this doesn’t necessary reflect anything about you—a person who has social anxiety might do this just out of discomfort in general. I know there have been lots of times I noticed I am leaning away, and it’s just a safety behavior that happens because of anxiety (try to catch yourself doing this!)
Is the person you are talking to making eye contact or looking at the ground? This can be a signal of a few different things. A person with anxiety might have trouble making eye contact, but so might someone who is lying to you. Generally, someone making eye contact is a good sign that they are comfortable with you; and if you happen to notice that their pupils are dilated, that can also be a sign of romantic interest.
What about if someone is staring intensely? That usually means one of two things: they might be lying or they could be angry. It’s always important to consider the context when deciding the reason for someone’s body language, as well as their sitaution. For example, a person with asperger’s disorder or autism might struggle to make eye contact regardless of how comfortable they feel with you.
Finally, if someone is blinking really quickly, it could mean that they are being dishonest or they are under a lot of stress. Or it could mean nothing at all. I have a relative who suffered a long time with a nerve disorder that caused her to squint a lot. It was something totally out of her control, but people assumed she was in pain or angry. It’s truly amazing what our body language can project about us.
Posture and Limbs
How is the other person standing? What are they doing with their arms and legs? Signs of discomfort include crossed arms and legs, feet that are pointing away from you, and a stiff upper body. On the other hand, uncrossed limbs, feet pointing toward you, and loose posture indicate comfort.
I have to say, while these things are true, I’m generally a cold person. So quite often I will cross my arms or legs to try and stay warm. Always take the person and context of the situation into account.
(Watch the video below for a fascinating explanation of how to decode body language by former FBI agent Joe Navarro!)
When someone gives a genuine smile, you will notice that it involves the entire face instead of just their mouth. You can look for this by noticing whether they get little crow’s feet around their eyes. On the other hand, a fake smile will look like just their mouth is smiling.
What does a fake smile mean? It could mean they are trying to pretend to be happy. It might mean they are lying to you. Or they could just be working a job where they know they have to smile, but aren’t being genuine about it.
What’s the most genuine smile of all? It’s the one that takes a second to register and that spreads slowly across their face. If someone seems to be smiling just for you, that’s a good sign that it is genuine.
What oh what does fidgeting mean? It can mean a lot of things depending on the circumstances. Some people are just natural fidgeters, particularly those who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Many people with anxiety will fidget as well. Have you ever noticed yourself biting your lip (I do it all the time) or rubbing your neck. These anxiety fidgets unfortunately signal to other people that you are not comfortable. And they are signs to you that someone else might not be comfortable.
Is fidgeting ever good? Yes, there’s a good kind of fidgeting and it happens during romantic interest. If you find someone playfully fidgeting, like tossing their hair or playing with a wine glass (or loosening a tie), that’s a good sign they like you.
Mirroring means that someone else copies your movements. Not in an obvious way. More like a “we’re in this together” kind of way. It’s a sign of the beginning of a bond, and it’s a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a hard thing to manufacture; rather, it just tends to happen when you are getting along well with someone.
It’s also important to recognize that some body language might happen so quickly that it’s only picked up by your subconscious. For example, micro-expressions are facial expressions that happen too quickly for you to consciously observe. However, if you ever have a gut feeling about someone, it could be that your subconscious has picked up on these. So be sure to take that into account when assessing a situation.
If you notice someone seems not to be comfortable, what can you do? First, don’t jump to the assumption that it has anything to do with you. It could be that they are having a bad day.
Though you might be able to pinpoint the emotion you are seeing, you never know the cause. You can end a conversastion with someone who isn’t being friendly without feeling bad about yourself. Congratulate yourself on recognizing the signs that the conversation wasn’t going how you hoped and move on.
Related Articles about Social Skills
- 10 Must-Read Books About Social Skills
- How to Appear Socially Confident
- Book Review: How to Be Yourself