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What is your body language saying?

By Sarah Smith, RealSimple.com
Narrowing the red margins of your lips is a clear sign of anger, while massaging your forehead can signal uneasiness.
Narrowing the red margins of your lips is a clear sign of anger, while massaging your forehead can signal uneasiness.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brushing hair off your face is a combination of nerves and flirtation
  • If you nod in clusters of three, the speaker will sense your interest
  • Stuffing your hands in your pockets means you're probably hiding something
  • In a seated conversation, lifting your toes means your feelings are extra-positive
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(RealSimple.com) -- Every last gesture -- whether it's a tilt of the head or plain fidgeting -- tells a story. Do you look down when you speak? Play with your hair? Lean to one side?

Learn what you're telling others with your body language -- and what others are telling you with theirs.

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How to read faces

• Brushing hair off your face
This movement, a combination of nerves and flirtation, helps call attention to and frame your feminine assets (think face and neck). No wonder it's a staple of a promising date.

• Smiling
Botox be damned! The only real smile, says Anita Barbee, a professor of social work at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, is one in which eye muscles are engaged. People who grin for more than five seconds and only with their lips can be faking it. Frequent smiling in the workplace can make a person seem less serious.

• Blinking
The normal blink rate is six to eight times a minute. But under stress, you'll blink more often and somewhat more dramatically. Want to know who's freaking out and who's as cool as a cucumber at the next big meeting? The eyes have it.

• Nibbling your lips
If you bite, suck on, or lick your lips when under pressure or in an awkward situation, you're attempting to comfort or soothe yourself, says psychologist Carol Kinsey Goman, the author of "The Nonverbal Advantage" ($20, amazon.com).

• Scratching your nose
Don't get caught in a lie. "When a person fibs, it's often accompanied by an adrenaline rush," says psychologist Michael Cunningham, a professor of communication at the University of Louisville. This release causes capillaries to expand, making the nose itch.

Another tall-tale tell: a sustained glance. A liar often overcompensates for being perceived as shifty by focusing a bit too intently on the person he is fibbing to.

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• Sending darting glances
This catch-your-eye game, usually played in guy-girl situations, tends to mirror your scattered thoughts. Does he like me? Do I like him? Do I want him to come over here? Also, unlike a direct gaze, the back-and-forth variety is a protective measure: If he doesn't approach you, you won't feel rejected.

• Nodding your head
If you nod in clusters of three, the speaker will sense your interest, and this can lengthen her response threefold, says Goman. Word to the wise: Nod only once when trying to escape Chatty Cathy.

• Closing your eyes
By rubbing, covering, or closing your eyes for longer than a blink, you're trying to keep out certain auditory or visual cues. It's a survival mechanism to prevent the brain from processing anything undesirable or threatening.

• Lowering your gaze
This meek gesture is an unconscious bid for public support -- a favorite tactic of small children, not to mention the late Princess Diana. It often elicits a parental response. If someone does it to you, she may be searching for your empathy. Be gentle.

• Pursing your lips
Narrowing the red margins of your lips is a clear sign of anger, says Paul Ekman, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco. Why? When a person is not truly mad, she typically can't feign this gesture, even if she tries.

• Tilting your head
Cock your head to the side when hearing a friend's sob story. This movement indicates that you're interested and listening. On a more literal level, you're revealing and angling your ear to her, physically showing that you want to hear every detail.

• Raising or furrowing your eyebrows
"Raised eyebrows, one or both, is a true expression of piqued curiosity and interest, while lowered eyebrows can indicate negative emotions, such as confusion and fear," says Laura Guerrero, a professor of communication at the Arizona State University Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, in Tempe. If you're not interested in a good or bad way, your face will remain still and unanimated.

• Looking up or to the side
Want a little glimpse into the way someone's memory works? Notice where the person moves her eyes. When recalling something that was seen, a person will angle her eyes skyward, as if trying to picture it. When remembering something heard, she will look toward one of her ears, as if listening for it. Especially emotional experiences tend to be relived through introspective downward glances.

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How to read bodies

• Standing with legs together
This conservative stance denotes deference, says Goman.

• Angling yourself
Do you align yourself with the head honcho at work? Most people position their bodies or feet toward the person who has captured their focus. Coming to attention and squaring your chest at the sight of your boss is a sign of respect. Another note about proper alignment: If someone approaches you and a friend in the middle of a conversation and you want to give the newcomer a nonverbal invitation to join in, angle your bodies outward by 45 degrees. This subtle sign of inclusion shows the person that she is welcome.

• Standing with legs apart
This position, feet and legs shoulder-width apart, signals dominance and determination, says Goman. When asserting your side of an argument or discussion, stand your ground -- literally. For an extra boost, place your hands on your hips. This is a traditional position of power.

• Leaning
No surprise here: You lean toward people you like and pull away from those you don't. On a date? Take note of your companion's direction -- and yours. Subtly mirroring movements builds trust.

• Shifting your weight from side to side or front to back
"The way you move your body reflects your attitude," says Goman. Constantly transferring your weight from one foot to the other or rocking forward and backward is a comforting movement that indicates you are anxious or upset. Basically, this is a physical representation of what is going on in your head: You are betwixt and between many unsettling thoughts and can't stop moving from one to the other.

• Massaging your forehead or earlobes
These soothing actions counter feelings of uneasiness or vulnerability -- for example, when you are seated in the front row of a lecture hall and hope not to be called on. The same goes for hugging your sides or rubbing your legs when you're sitting. Stroking the nerve endings in some of these body parts helps lower blood pressure and heart rate.

• Crossing your arms
Don't be too quick to leap to conclusions: This pose doesn't always mean anger, but when coupled with crossed legs, it is a defensive position. Take note of the surroundings. More often than not, this stance means a person is cold. Also, many people simply find it comfortable, says Cunningham.

• Walking
The way you tread speaks volumes about how others see you. Fast strutters come across as productive and competent, looking as if they have somewhere important to be. Those with a "bounce in their step" are perceived as having upbeat personalities. For a purposeful stride, walk from heel to toe. (Interestingly, most men land on their heels; most women, mid-arch.)

• Sitting
When in doubt, spread out. Taking up space, such as by fanning out your papers in the boardroom instead of stacking them in a small pile, screams importance. Likewise, sitting with your legs apart assures others that you are large and in charge.

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How to read hands

• Opening up your hands
By spreading your hands as if serving someone a treat off a tray, you are indicating that you are open to new ideas being offered. Facing your palms down or clenching your fists shows you have a strong position -- one that may not be so flexible.

• Flailing your arms
You're not out of control. Research shows that those who gesture when they speak seem energetic, agreeable, and warm, while those who gesticulate less are seen as logical and analytic. Keep in mind that moderation is key; overly animated gestures that border on frantic make you appear unbelievable and less powerful. If you fear you may be too animated, perhaps in a job interview, hold on to something when you talk.

• Hiding your hands
Stashing your hands in your lap, stuffing them in your pockets, and holding them behind your back are movements of deceit -- you're hiding something. "A person may be telling you one thing, but these cues indicate you're not getting the whole story," says Barbee.

• Picking at your nails
Messing with cuticles is a sign of low confidence and timidity. Try steepling your fingers (hands folded together with index fingers extended) so you can't pick and you instead appear self-assured.

How to read feet

• Pointing toes in
Even if you're sitting up straight with your shoulders aligned and your head up -- all signs of an open body position -- your feet may be betraying you. If they're cocked inward, big toe to big toe, this indicates that you're closing yourself off because you feel awkward or insecure.

• Fidgeting
Ever notice that you become more physically active -- you tap your heels, slide in and out of your shoes, bop your foot up and down while crossing your legs -- the more uncomfortable you feel? This is because these kinds of moves relieve tension. Fidgeting may also mean that you want out of a situation and your body is getting ready to take flight. The bottom line? At least in professional settings, cross your ankles to calm those fidgety feet.

• Crossing your legs
Pay attention to the direction in which you cross your legs. In a seated conversation, people tend to point the toes of the top leg toward the person who they feel is the most approachable. The kicker? Lifting your toes means your feelings toward said person are extra-positive.

• Pointing toes toward the door
When you're having a conversation with someone but her feet are angled toward the door, she may be unconsciously saying that she's ready to cut the talk short and move on.

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