Understanding Body Language and Facial Expressions
Communication is very important. Without the ability to communicate, it would have been impossible for humans to cooperate and collaborate with each other, and much of the development we take for granted today would have been nothing but a dream.
When we talk about face to face communication, most people tend to think about verbal communication – conveying information and expressing our feelings using our voice. While verbal communication is important, it makes up only a minor part of communication.
A large part of communication happens non-verbally. Verbal communication is usually accompanied and enhanced by body language and facial expressions. According to experts, our facial expressions and body movements account for about 55% what we communicate.
This means that, when you are in a conversation with others and do not know how to read their facial expressions and body language, you are missing out on more than half of the conversation.
In this article, we take an in-depth look at what body language is, how to read and interpret it and how to project positive body language when you are in conversation with other people.
WHAT IS BODY LANGUAGE?
When we are in conversation with other people, what we are saying verbally is usually accompanied by some bodily movements – arms movements, hand gestures, facial expressions, head movements, changes in body posture, changes in the position of our feet, and so on.
These bodily movements do not happen randomly. The movements are in perfect symphony with what we are feeling at the moment. These movements are a language onto themselves, helping us convey feelings and information that we cannot effectively convey using our words.
Think about an imaginary situation where you are meeting a friend you had not seen in a while. The moment the friend sees you walking towards them, their face breaks into a smile, and you probably smile back.
Before the two of you even get the chance to say hi to each other, both of you have communicated that you are happy to see each other.
The movements that constitute body language often occur subconsciously – we make them without even thinking about it.
Similarly, our minds subconsciously read the body language and facial expressions of others, without our having to think about it, without even being aware that we are seeing them.
The body movements and facial expressions are controlled by a part of the brain known as the limbic brain.
While projecting our own body language and reading what others are saying with their body movements mostly occurs subconsciously, it is something that we can learn to do at a conscious level.
Being consciously attuned to both our own and others body language makes us more effective communicators and gives us an advantage in conversations.
When you are able to correctly interpret other people’s body language, you can get the complete message of what they are trying to say, you have a better idea of what the person is really thinking and you have a more accurate awareness of their reaction to what you are saying.
Having a good understanding of body language also gives you the ability to adjust your own body language so as to enhance the message you are trying to communicate to others.
Below are some of the major elements of body language and how they are used in non-verbal communication.
It is with good reason that the eyes are referred to as the windows to the soul. Eye behavior can be very revealing during a conversation. Watch a person’s eyes when you are talking to them. Do they make eye contact, or do they avert their gaze? How are their pupils? Is the person blinking a lot?
If a person maintains eye contact during a conversation, this is an indicator that they are captivated and paying attention to what you are saying. Sometimes, eye contact can also be used to intimidate, especially when coupled with other threatening body language signals.
If a person is constantly looking away, this indicates that they are either uncomfortable or distracted, or they probably don’t want you to know their real feelings. Looking down during a conversation may be an indication of nervousness or submissiveness.
A person’s blinking rate is also an indicator of what’s going on in their mind. A lot of blinking might be and indicator that the person is stressed or uncomfortable. Increased blinking, when coupled with touching of the face (especially the eyes and mouth), can be an indication that a person is lying.
Pupil size is also quite telling. Dilated pupils often mean that a person likes or is interested in something. It can also be an indication of arousal, which is the reason behind the term bedroom eyes.
You should also watch a person’s glances, which can suggest a person’s desire for something. For instance, if someone glances at the door or the clock, this could indicate that they want to leave, or that their time is up.
There is just so much information and so many expressions that can be conveyed through facial expressions. Think about situations where a person is happy, sad, angry, surprised, shocked, excited, in fear, and so on. By simply looking at the person’s face, you can immediately tell what they are feeling, without them having to tell you anything.
What’s more, the facial expressions for most of these feelings are universal, which means that you can tell when a person is happy or angry even when you don’t speak the same language, even when you are from different cultures.
One of the most common facial indicators of emotions is the smile. A smile indicates that a person is happy or pleased about something. It’s also good to note that some smiles are not genuine. A genuine smile should engage the whole face.
If a person’s smile is limited to the mouth, that could indicate that the person is just trying to appear happy, while they are feeling something else on the inside. A half smile, on the other hand, may show uncertainty or sarcasm. Similarly, a frown or grimace means that a person is displeased with something.
Apart from the typical facial expressions that express the common emotions, there are other mouth movements that can tell you what exactly a person is feeling. For instance, tight, pursed lips may indicate that a person is displeased about something.
Biting of the lips may mean that a person is feeling nervous, stressed or worried. If you notice a person touching their lips or covering their mouth, this is an indicator that they are either lying or trying to prevent you from reading their true emotions.
The movements of the head are also important non-verbal cues. For instance, in most places around the world, a nod is taken as a yes or as a sign of approval, while shaking your head sideways means no or disapproval. You should watch a person’s head movements carefully.
For instance, a person might be verbally expressing their approval about something, but then they unconsciously and subtly shake their head sideways. While it might be difficult to catch the movement, this is an indication that the person does not agree with what they are saying verbally. The speed of head movements also gives important cues.
For instance, if someone nods slowly in response to what you are saying, this shows that the person is captivated by your words and wants you to continue talking. If the person nods quickly, this might mean that they are impatient for you to finish what you are saying so that they can share their opinion or leave.
A sideways tilt of the head is another sign that a person is interested in what you are saying. If they tilt their head backwards, this could be a sign that they don’t really believe what you are saying.
The distance people maintain between themselves and other people is another indicator as to what they feel about the other person. What happens when someone stands too close to you? I bet you feel uncomfortable, right?
People like to keep some distance between them and strangers or people they are not comfortable with, only allowing people they feel comfortable with to get closer to them. The concept of proxemics, introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, suggests that there are four zones of personal space.
The first zone is the intimate distance zone, which ranges from direct contact to about 2 feet. This zone is reserved for people who are loved and trusted, such as romantic partners and siblings. If someone untrusted gets inside this zone, we get into the fight or flight mode, we feel uncomfortable.
The second zone is the personal distance zone, which ranges between 2 and 5 feet. This zone is reserved for family members and friends. The third zone is the social distance zone, which ranges from 5 to 10 feet. This zone is maintained between people who are acquaintances. They know each other, but the level of comfort and trust between them is still low.
Finally, we have the public distance zone, which is larger than 10 feet. This kind of distance is typically maintained during public speaking. This distance is also great for observing other people without actually interacting with them.
Watching how people use personal distance can give you a lot of clues about their feelings. For instance, if someone comes close to you during a conversation, it shows that they are comfortable with you.
However, it’s always good to watch for other signals, since getting into a person’s personal space can also be a sign of aggression and intimidation. If you move close to someone and they move back, it shows that they are not comfortable, so you should give them their space.
The signals we make with our hands are a very obvious and very direct means of non-verbal communication. If I point at something without saying a word, you will immediately understand that I want you to look in that direction.
If you ask me how many people are coming to a meeting and I lift up four fingers, you will automatically understand that four people will be coming to the meeting. If I give you a thumbs up, you will understand that I approve of what you are doing, while a thumbs up means that I don’t approve.
While most gestures are easy to understand, it is good to take note that some gestures might have different meanings in different countries or cultures, so it is good to get acquainted with a person’s culture before attempting to use some gestures on them.
For instance, giving a thumbs up is a sign of approval in the United States, but it might be very offensive in some Middle Eastern countries.
ARM MOVEMENTS AND POSITIONS
Apart from gestures, how you move and position your hands also communicates things you might not have intended to.
For instance, if you place one elbow on a table and support your head on your hand in a meeting, this indicates that you are attentive and focused on what is being said.
If you do the same thing with both hands, it can be taken as a sign of boredom. Holding your hands behind your back during a conversation can be taken as a sign of boredom or anger. Crossing your arms in front of you, on the other hand, indicates that you are being defensive or that you are guarded.
Standing with your arms on your hips can be taken as a sign of assertiveness and being in control. In some cases, it can also be seen as a sign of aggressiveness.
Just like the arms, a person’s feet also give important clues as to what is going on inside the person’s head. Knowing how to read the cues being provided by a person’s feet is important because it usually happens unintentionally.
A person might control their hand movements, posture and facial expressions in an attempt to deceive you, but most of them will forget that their feet are also sending out clues. People’s feet normally point to the direction they want to go, whether they are standing or seated.
If you notice a person’s feet are pointed towards you, this is a sign that they perceive you favorably and are immersed into what you are saying.
If their feet are pointed away, towards the door for instance, this shows that they can’t wait to get out of there. They might be smiling to what you are saying and feigning interest, but deep inside, they can’t wait for you to finish what you are saying.
In addition to the direction of the feet, the position of a person’s legs can also give you clues about their inner thoughts. If a person keeps their legs open (when seated), it means that they are comfortable with the interaction. If their legs are crossed, then this means that the person is trying to protect their privacy.
Growing up, my mother regularly scolded me for slouching, and it wasn’t until later in life that I learnt why she wanted me to ditch the habit. How we hold our bodies has an impact on how others perceive us. It also acts as an expression of what we are feeling at the moment.
Whether you are feeling open and confident or fearful and submissive, your body posture shows it. Sitting or standing upright, with your back straight and your head held high shows that you are a confident, active and alert person.
If you project this posture when listening to someone, it shows that you are paying attention to what they are saying.
Standing or sitting with your back hunched forward and your head held low, on the other hand, shows that you are not confident in yourself, or that you are lazy or sad. It can also convey disinterest in whatever is going on.
Mirroring can also provide you with a lot of clues when you are in a conversation. Mirroring is a social phenomenon where a person mimics the body language of the person they are in conversation with.
For instance, you might have noticed that when two people are deeply engrossed in a conversation, one of them leaning inwards might result in the other one doing the same thing. Mirroring occurs subconsciously when two people are in tune and in synch with each other.
Therefore, when you notice that someone is mirroring your actions, it means that they are in synch with you, that they are deeply captivated by the conversation. While mirroring occurs unconsciously, you can use it on a conscious level to create rapport with someone you are conversing with.
Try to subtly match their body language. For instance, if their arms are crossed, subtly cross yours as well. As you do this, their mind will unconsciously pick up your actions and will deduce that you are in synch with them, therefore making them more comfortable with the conversation.
HOW TO PROJECT POSITIVE BODY LANGUAGE
In the above section, we have looked at some of the major elements of body language that you should watch out for when communicating with others. In this section, we will take a look at how you can project positive body language and use it to enhance what you are communicating and how others perceive you in different situations.
Body Language for a Confident First Impression
Below are some tips on how to use body language to create a great first impression:
- Maintain eye contact: When in a conversation, look into a person’s eyes and hold their gaze for a few seconds at a time. This shows that you are confident and that you are engaged in what they are saying. However, don’t hold the gaze for too long, since it might come off as creepy or intimidating.
- Use a firm handshake: A firm handshake is another signal that shows you are confident in yourself. Make your handshake seem natural. Don’t make it appear like you are trying too hard.
- Maintain an open posture: Whether you are seated or standing, maintain a relaxed but upright posture and avoid slouching. This will make you come across as someone who is confident in his skin.
- Don’t touch your face: Touching your face during conversation is often associated with lying, so it can make you come across as dishonest and untrustworthy, even if you are not.
During Public Speaking
Positive body language helps you project confidence when you are speaking in public, which in turn makes people more likely to trust you. Below are some tips on how to project positive body language during public speaking:
- Keep your head up: When speaking in public, you should keep your head up and level. Avoid looking downwards, since it will make you come across as timid. Leaning too far backward, on the other hand, can make you look arrogant.
- Maintain good posture: Make sure that your posture is upright, with your back straight and your shoulders held back. However, don’t be too rigid. Your posture should be relaxed. Avoid the temptation to pocket your hands.
- Use open hand gestures: Gestures can make you look confident and engaged in your speech. Your hands should be held slightly apart, rather than directly in front of you. Your palms should face towards the audience. This makes you come across as open and shows your willingness to share ideas with the audience.
Interviews and Negotiations
- Maintain good posture: Sit with your back straight, your shoulders back and your head held high. This will make you appear confident, which is critical in an interview or negotiation.
- Relax your body: Interviews and negotiations can be anxiety-inducing situations, but try to keep your body relaxed. Keep your hands still in front of you. Avoid the temptation to fidget, since this indicates that you are nervous.
- Use mirroring: In such situations, mirroring the body language of the other person will unconsciously make them feel that the two of you are in synch, which will increase your chances of getting a favorable outcome.
During conversations, our bodies say a lot more than what we say with our words, so it is critical to learn how to read and interpret body language and facial expressions.
Understanding body language will make your better at understanding the message others are trying to convey and will also enhance your ability to communicate effectively.
You might have noticed that many of the body language signals may indicate more than one feeling or expression, so the best way to accurately interpret body language is to look at multiple signals that their body might be giving, as well as the context of what they are saying verbally.