How To Read Body Language And Better Your Social Skills
Updated February 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC
Body language and social skills are inextricably connected, those who can read body language effectively are also adept at using body language, and this skill in an invaluable tool in every social situation. Body language provides information about others in your immediate social situation, and the information can be used to navigate and interact effectively. It has been said that some people just have something called animal magnetism, charm, or charisma, these people have mastered reading and using body language, and anyone can achieve the same.
It would be great to be able to use body language to achieve anything the heart desires, but it is not magic. You don't have to be born with a special innate ability to read people, body language is a real language, and it can be taught. Those who are good at reading and using body language to communicate may seem as if they were born with the ability, but, they have probably gained the ability in childhood by watching and interacting with their own family.
Learning to read body language requires paying attention to those around you, you can learn a lot just by watching people interact at work, at parties, and even while shopping. Body language cues can be as subtle as a slight smirk, or as obvious as an eye roll. Noticing the behaviors and reactions of others in any given social situation will reveal many different body language cues that others use regularly.
What Is Body Language
Body language is a non-verbal form of communication using physical movements and behaviors rather than words. The expressions and postures used in body language can be used to understand how others feel about a situation and the people involved. Facial expressions and posture are both considered body language, recognizing these expressions and postures as a cue to how someone feels can change the whole dynamic of a situation.
When someone smiles, everyone recognizes it as a welcoming, happy expression, but what if that person smiles to be polite but they are not happy about the situation? Reading body language involves more than an obvious facial expression, how that person is standing about others in the conversation, their posture, and their eyes can tell you more about that smile.
Many body language cues are not conscious, slight changes in facial expressions and posture can be telling about how someone feels, and they may not even realize they are giving away their thoughts. The tone of someone's voice and involuntary muscle movements are also considered body language; detectives even use knowledge of these involuntary language cues to help them read situations and people during investigations.
How To Read And Use Body Language
The best way to learn how to read body language is to learn the common gestures, expressions, and postures, then try to recognize them in real social situations. You may not be good at it right off the bat, but with a little patience, it will become a second language. Knowledge of body language will also help you control your body language and enhance your social interactions.
The following is a list of postures and gestures and corresponding body language meanings:
- Standing or sitting erect - Confidence
- Hands up with palms out - innocence, submission, honesty, and respect
- Ear tugging - indecisive, trying to decide
- Looking down and away - shame or guilt
- Hands on the hips - alert, readiness, may signify aggression
- Arms folded across the chest - disagreement, defensiveness
- Tapping or drumming fingers - impatience, anxiety
- Touching the nose - lying, rejection, disagreement
- Rubbing hands together - excitement, eagerness
- Hands on the head - upset, ashamed, guilt, bored
- Nodding of the head - agreement
- Crossed ankles - nervous, anxious, apprehensive
- Head lowered - shame, shyness, avoidance
- Shifting weight - intimidation, fear, impatient, anxious
- Sitting with legs apart - relaxed and open
- Shoulders hunched - dejection
- Rubbing the eyes - doubt
- Hands behind the back - apprehension, anger, frustrated
- Fast head tilt - curiosity, interested
- Long head tilt - bored
- Open palms - sincere, open-minded, innocent
- Sitting with crossed legs kicking one foot - bored
- Touching hair - insecure, lack of confidence
- Nail biting - insecure, nervousness
- Touching or stroking the chin - deciding, ruminating
- Pinching the bridge of the nose - disagreement, negative evaluation
Interpreting Facial Expressions
This list of body language gestures is only part of the whole picture; there are more subcategories to body language. Oculesics is the study of communicating with the eyes. Non-verbal communication with the eyes is a subtle form of body language with many facets of understanding. It is said that both humans and animals use oculesics to communicate non-verbally, a simple example of this occurs when an individual darts their eyes away quickly, others will look in the same direction, this communicates "look here."
Here is a list used for interpreting the eyes using oculesic's:
- Eyes down - shame or guilt
- Eyes dancing/sparkly and wrinkled in the corners - happy, excited
- Dilated pupils and eyes wide open - the desire
- Moist, damp eyes - anxiety, nervousness
- Eyes darting away fast - disgust
- Eyes staring/intense and wide open - anger
- Eyes glaring - envy
- Eyes wide open and looking down - fear
- Eyes glazed and moist - pity
- Eyes wide open with eyebrows arched - surprise
- Squinting with an intense gaze - interest, curiosity
Interpreting body language also known as Kinesics involves interpretation of facial expressions as well as postures and gestures. Here is a list of common facial expressions and their potential meanings:
- Raising one eyebrow - confusion, doubt
- Eyes down with a slight frown - guilt, shame
- Eyes fixed - concentration, focus
- Eyebrows raised with eyes half open - tired, weariness
- Head lowered with eyebrows tightly knit, and eyelids taunt - anger, aggression
- Head to one side with lips apart or pursed and eyes fixed on someone - flirtatious, seductive
- The outer edge of eyebrows lowered with a frown - sad
- Nose scrunched, eyebrows scrunched, lip pulled up - disgust
- Lips smiling, eye wrinkles at the corners - happiness
- Wide eyes and eyebrows arched high - fear, surprise
Micro Expressions And Their Meanings
Microexpressions are facial expressions that occur very quickly then disappear. A microexpression is involuntary and shows an individuals emotion/emotional reaction for a moment. Microexpressions are not easy to fake, they occur so quickly, usually in about 1/15 to 1/25 of a second, faking them is next to impossible. It may be difficult to recognize microexpressions unless you are looking for them.
Here is a list of micro expressions and what they mean:
- Upper lid of the eyes and lower lip are raised, the nose wrinkles, and cheeks raised - disgust, reaction to something smelly
- Eyebrows raised and arched, skin taut on lower eyelids, wrinkled forehead, white of the eyes visible above and below the iris, jaw open teeth parted - surprise
- Wrinkles in center of the forehead, eyebrows up and flat across, upper eyelid raised with lower lid taut, white visible above the iris not below, mouth open and lips pulled back and taunted - fear
- Vertical wrinkles between the eyebrows, eyebrows taunt and pulled together in the center, lower eyelid tenses, eyes tense and focused, lips drew tight and the corners down, lower jaw slightly forward - anger, aggression
- Lips smile with corners up, wrinkles in the corner of the eyes with cheeks pulled up, wrinkle appears from the lower part of the nose to the corner of the lip - happiness
- The inner corner of the eyebrows drawn in and the outer part down, inner corner of the eyes pulled up, and the skin taut, corners of the lips are down, the jaw is pulled up, and the lower lip juts out in a pout - sadness
- One side of the mouth drawn up - hate
Practicing And Using Body Language To Better Your Social Skills
The best way to practice body language is to mimic the posture, gesture, and facial expression in a full-length mirror. Using a mirror will help you control your body language and use it to express what you want when you want. This practice technique will help you recognize body language cues from others as well as recognize your postures, gestures and facial expressions.
You can practice micro expressions in a mirror too. If you practice making them enough, you will eventually be able to recognize them in others. You can also look up images of micro-expressions on the internet and use them to help you recognize them.
You will not be able to control microexpressions, but you can learn to control your posture, gestures and facial expressions. Mastering body language will help you eliminate any unwanted postures, expressions or gestures from ruining your first impression or interfering in social situations. You can use body language to put people at ease during meetings, appear interested and curious when conversations get boring, and generally improve your social interactions in all situations.
Everyone can benefit from learning to read body language. Reading body language can help you save social interactions that are becoming awkward, or boring. This skill can also help you improve your social skills by recognizing body language cues that show someone is ready to leave, in a hurry, un-interested, or intimidated. The more you know, the easier it is to use this skill; eventually it will become second nature and your social skills will improve naturally.