Friend refusing to meet your eyes? Boss giving you the cold shoulder? Our bodies paint pictures that are worth more than a thousand words… And they (almost) never lie. Here’s how to read body language and improve your own while you're at it.
What, me, communicate?
The ability to communicate well is one of the crucial “soft skills” that career gurus tell us we’ll need to make a success of our future jobs
… But simply speaking to someone on the phone or scribbling a chat message loaded with emojis doesn’t mean you’re suddenly a good communicator.
Body language refers to the non-verbal cues we use when communicating. When you speak to someone face-to-face, you can learn a lot from the way they stand, move or the way they tilt their heads. An expressive shrug can sum up an entire conversation!
There are also languages where the body plays a fundamental role in communicating: just think of Auslan (Australian Sign Language
): an expressive language system where the hands and body work together to create meaning.
While becoming a master at reading the meaning of body language is a skill that takes time to perfect, there are some basic body language meanings to watch out for if you’re having a difficult conversation with your boss, or if you think a friend might be lying to you. It’s also a good idea to learn how your own body “talks” – if you can control your “negative” body language and fine-tune your “positive” body language, you can ace a job interview, for example!
TL;DR version: download our nifty Body Language PDF here!
Smiling: it's all about context...
Before you start
Remember these points when figuring out what someone’s body language might mean:
- Don’t focus on just single actions – read different body cues as a group.
- Take the context of the conversation into account: perhaps someone is just really shy at talking face-to-face, or perhaps they’re very angry or sad about something.
- Consider that some people might really struggle to make eye contact, while others have naturally hunched postures. This will influence the meaning of their body language.
- Different cultures may interpret certain types of body language in different ways.
- Facial expressions can be deceptive. Smiling might mean someone is happy, or really annoyed but gritting their teeth. Crying could mean sadness, or great joy. A frown could be a sign of irritation, or of deep focus. Read it all in context!
Are you eyeballing me?!
Apparently, the eyes don’t lie – here’s what to look out for. (Pun totally intended.)
- Gaze: people who avoid eye contact or frequently look away while speaking to you can be uncomfortable, lying or trying to avoid you. In contrast, someone who looks directly into your eyes may be interested and paying attention to what you are saying. But beware: if the stare goes on for too long without breaking eye contact, they could be aggressive, trying to intimidate you, or impersonating a cat.
- Blinking: People who blink rapidly are often feeling distressed or uncomfortable (or perhaps an eyelash came loose at the wrong moment). People who blink infrequently might be trying to intentionally control their eye movements – think poker players trying to avoid looking too excited. People who don’t blink at all are probably aliens. Are you currently in Area 51?
- Pupil size: this is a very subtle nonverbal cue. Light levels obviously impact the size of your pupils, but sometimes emotions can cause them to change. Your Significant Other is likely to look at you with huge Puss-in-Boots eyes because they’re attracted to you, while your BFF’s pupils might narrow into tiny laser-focused dots when spotting her ex…
Feeling a bit worried, scared or insecure? Keep some lip balm handy, because you’re probably chewing on your bottom lip. That’s not all your mouth can tell people…
Ursula’s lipstick: probably not vegan...
- Covering the mouth: it’s polite to cover your mouth if you’re yawning or coughing. But if you cover your mouth mid-conversation for no obvious reason, you might be trying to hide an emotion you’re feeling.
- Smiling: It could be genuine, or express false happiness, sarcasm or even cynicism. Context is important.
- Pursed lips: a sign of distaste, disapproval or distrust. (Or forgetting your mouth guard/ retainer at home – teeth grinders of the world unite!)
- Mouth turned up or down: these are very subtle cues. When the mouth is slightly turned up, the person might feel happy or optimistic. A slightly down-turned mouth could indicate sadness or disapproval.
Gestures are usually very direct and obvious body language signals. They include waving, pointing and using your fingers to illustrate numbers, for example. Remember that some gestures have different meanings in different cultures, so be careful before you randomly show the metal hand sign.
You shall not pass!
- A clenched fist is usually a sign of anger (or solidarity, if you’re marching in the next School Strike 4 Climate Change).
- Thumbs up and thumbs down usually mean approval and disapproval.
- The “okay” gesture, where your thumb and index finger forms a circle while you’re extending the other three fingers, can be insulting or even rude in some European or South-American countries.
- The “V” sign for “peace” means something completely different when the back of your hand is facing forward while you show the sign. But mostly in Britain and Australia, not in the US!
- Raising your middle finger while clenching your fist is pretty much a rude sign wherever.
Out on a limb
We’re often told that one way of getting people to like us is to subtly mirror their body language in a social- or interview situation. But some body language shouldn’t be mirrored…
What, no jazz hands?
- Crossing your arms across your torso (as if you’re giving yourself a hug) could mean that you’re feeling defensive, protective or very uncomfortable.
- Crossing your legs away from another person could show that you dislike that person, or really don’t feel comfortable with them.
- Carrying your arms a bit wider or away from your body could be an attempt to look larger and more intimidating, while keeping your limbs close to your body shows you’re trying to make yourself “smaller”, withdrawing from attention.
- Standing with your hands placed on your hips and your legs wide apart is an aggressive posture. It could also show that the person is in control, or ready for action.
- Hands clasped behind the back: boredom, anxiety or even anger.
- Fidgeting or tapping fingers: a sign of boredom, frustration or impatience.
Sitting or standing up straight with shoulders back and head lifted in a relaxed way is the way to go if you want to show that you’re confident, focused and paying attention. Sitting hunched forward or walking with a slouch could make you seem bored, indifferent or even lazy. But don’t be TOO stiff and upright: that will just look like you’ve swallowed a broomstick.
Body language tips for interviews
- Eye contact: make direct eye contact, blink normally, and every so often break eye contact by looking down at your notes so that it doesn’t feel as if you’re staring at your interviewers. If more than one person is interviewing you, make eye contact with all of them regularly.
- Blink normally.
- Keep your posture upright, open and relaxed. This indicates friendliness, confidence and willingness to engage.
- Try not to fidget. If you know that your hands need to stay busy, take a notepad and pen along and jot down the occasional note or question. Bonus: it also makes you look interested and committed.
- Jazz hands. Don’t worry if you tend to have expressive hands: you don’t have to sit on them, just try to make the movements smaller.
- Nod and comment when appropriate.
- Smile when you feel like smiling and when appropriate – but don’t force it.
- Don’t overthink it! Pay attention, ask questions and be friendly. That should do the trick.
Remember to download our body language basics PDF here!
Need even more body language tips to help you ace your job interview? We got you