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Translating body language

  • Story Highlights
  • Body language can almost always be interpreted in more than one way
  • Lip biting could mean she's flirting, but it might mean she's shy or feels pressured
  • Wringing your hands could mean you're cold, but it might mean you're worried
  • Eye rolling is one of the nonverbal signs that is pretty much always aggressive
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Real Simple

(Real Simple) -- Body language can almost always be interpreted in more than one way.

Standing too close could mean she's angry or needy, or she may be from a culture where it's acceptable.

Here are 18 gestures, with advice for reading them from a team of experts in nonverbal communication.

It's written on your face...

Furrowing brow
It could mean: She's thinking.
But it might mean: She disapproves of or disagrees with what you're saying. Or else she can't hear you.
What the experts say: "This almost always means something negative," says trial lawyer Maria Katrina Karos. It is often a cue people use to tell you something is wrong, says author Lydia Ramsey: They want you to ask them what they're thinking.

It could mean: She's unhappy or uncomfortable.
But it might mean: She's concentrating.
What the experts say: Some people frown without realizing it, so don't comment on the frowning directly, says anthropologist David Givens. If it happens during a job interview, you might ask, "Did that answer the question?" With a friend, just ask if she's OK. Real Simple: Manage your anger

It could mean: Nothing. It's just a tic or a bad habit.
But it might mean: She doesn't like what you're saying.
What the experts say: This is typically a sign of discomfort or displeasure, says Ramsey. But she warns against reading too much into it: "Some people just always have unpleasant expressions on their faces."

Lip biting
It could mean: She's flirting.
But it might mean: She's shy or feels pressured.
What the experts say: Suspects sometimes do this when they're trying to remember an event or concoct a story, says private investigator Steven Tavlin. It's a sign of discomfort. To put the person at ease, avoid direct staring and lower your voice. You might even back up or turn away slightly. "The idea is to take the pressure off," says Givens.

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And in your eyes...

Rolling eyes
It could mean: She's trying to be funny.
But it might mean: She is frustrated, doesn't like you, or doesn't respect you.
What the experts say: "Eye rolling is one of the nonverbal signs that is pretty much always aggressive," says executive coach Steve Watts. He recommends politely confronting the eye-roller, asking, "Do you disagree?" to get negative feelings out in the open.

It could mean: She's concentrating on what you're saying, or she's smitten with you.
But it might mean: She's being rude and aggressive.
What the experts say: Eye contact rarely lasts longer than three seconds before one or both people experience a powerful urge to glance away, says Givens. If the starer is making you feel uncomfortable, look away briefly to give her the hint.

Avoiding eye contact
It could mean:
She's shy.
But it might mean: She's lying or trying to provoke you.
What the experts say: Don't assume the worst based on this clue alone. And be aware of varying cultural interpretations of eye contact, says corporate-communications consultant Audrey Nelson. "We associate eye contact with honesty, but in Japan avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect." Real Simple: Guide to Etiquette Basics

And in your hands...

Fidgeting (tugging ears, pulling sleeves, rubbing head)
It could mean: She's just a natural fidgeter.
But it might mean: She's anxious or impatient.
What the experts say: "This is a classic sign of anxiety or stress," says Givens. "It's a way people take their attention away from what's bothering them." If you're in a meeting and you notice people are getting fidgety, take a break, says Ramsey.

Resting hands on hips
It could mean: "I'm in charge."
But it might mean: She's angry and trying to intimidate you.
What the experts say: "This is a powerful position," says Givens. (Police officers are taught to use it to assert control.) If this is an angry boss, appease her by asking, "Did I do something wrong?" If it's an equal trying to bully you, stand tall and place your feet shoulder-width apart, or put your own hands on your hips. Both gestures say, "I'm not intimidated!"

Fiddling with an object (hair, pencil, car keys, cell phone)
It could mean: Nothing some people just like to fiddle.
But it might mean: "I'm nervous" or "I'm bored."
What the experts say: To figure out what's going on, look for other clues, says Tavlin. Yawning suggests boredom; blinking, nervousness. If the fiddling is distracting you, draw attention to the object, says Watts. Say, "Is that a new cell phone?" Then get back to your discussion.

It could mean: "I'm really passionate about this topic."
But it might mean: She's trying to intimidate you.
What the experts say: "Pointing is generally an aggressive sign," says life coach and social worker Carol Moss. It can signal that someone is blaming or attacking you. If you can't let it go, "It's OK to ask someone not to point," says Moss. Make a joke about it: "Hey, nice manicure."

Wringing hands
It could mean: She's cold.
But it might mean: She's worried.
What the experts say: "People who are very uncomfortable with a question, topic, or situation sometimes do this," says Karos. The best thing is to ignore it. If the person is truly nervous, commenting on her nerves will only make her more so.

Excessive touching
It could mean: She's overly friendly.
But it might mean: "I'm more powerful than you."
What the experts say: "People of higher status often feel freer to touch people of lower status," says Tannenbaum. (Of course, it can also be sexual.) "If you're uncomfortable, you don't need to say anything. Just remove the hand." If the touching continues, back up slowly to get out of range, says Givens. Real Simple: Protecting Your Personal Space

Tapping fingers on a table
It could mean: She's got energy to burn.
But it might mean: She's nervous or impatient.
What the experts say: If this is really annoying you, look at the person's fingers, then back at her face, says Tannenbaum. "The goal is not to embarrass her but to bring her attention back to where you want it to be."

And in your body

Standing too close
It could mean: She's needy or angry.
But it might mean: She's from a culture where people tend to stand closer.
What the experts say: "This is typically an aggressive gesture," says Professor Whitey Brewer. But different cultures have different rules about space. "North Americans like a distance of two to three feet, while some Europeans want to be closer," says Ramsey. If you're uncomfortable, subtly take a step or two back.

Standing too far away
It could mean: She's afraid.
But it might mean: She's simply more comfortable at this distance.
What the experts say: "This is typically a passive gesture indicating fear," says Brewer. But for cultural and other reasons, people generally choose a distance they're comfortable with. If you need to get closer, do so, says actress Susan Stewart. Just be careful not to crowd your listener.

It could mean: She has bad posture.
But it might mean: She's skeptical or disrespectful.
What the experts say: "This is often a way of showing, 'I'm above it all, and I don't care,'" says Tavlin. It can also be a tip off that someone is lying, especially if accompanied by another sign, such as crossed arms or an averted gaze.

Crossing arms
It could mean: She is cold or simply finds this position comfortable.
But it might mean: She's angry or defiant, or feels vulnerable.
What the experts say: With arms and elbows pulled tightly into the body, the gesture may reveal acute nervousness or chronic anxiety, says Givens. Held less tightly against the chest, with elbows elevated and projecting outward, the crossed arms suggest arrogance, dislike, or disagreement.

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