What can body language really tell us?

“We could make observations about a person’s closed posture and deduce from the evidence that they feel uncomfortable with a person, rather than the fact they are uncomfortable in the environment,” says Hatton. “We assume a person isn’t listening because they are disinterested, rather than the fact they are struggling to hear.”

To make an accurate assessment, Hatton believes body language should be viewed as one part of a multi-tonged approach. “Like an investigator uses both physical evidence and contextual evidence to make sense of a crime, the most effective communication cannot rely solely on a single source of information. You must take time, when possible, to use verbal communication to clarify meaning with the person you are speaking to when there is a risk of misunderstanding.”


Pease agrees with this approach, referring to what he calls “body language clusters”. When trying to decipher someone’s body language, he recommends reading gestures, expression, posture and smiles to find meaning.

This can be extremely informative in establishing information about how a person is feeling in one-on-one or smaller group situations, such as job interviews or dates, he says.

“If a couple are on a date and both parties are leaning in, have their bodies open and are meeting each other’s gaze, that’s a sign they are both into it. But if they are leaning back, are closed off and aren’t making eye contact, they aren’t buying it,” he says.

According to Pease, when decoding body language, especially in one-on-one settings, in addition to clusters, there are five important things to look out for.

1. Openness

An open body without crossed arms or legs – as opposed to crossed arms or legs – is a sign that someone is interested and comfortable.

2. Mirroring

“Mirroring is an imitation – a subtle, and usually unconscious, miming of the other person’s body movements, facial expressions, speech and so on,” says Pease. Mirroring can be a sign of bonding, a way to be accepted by another person and effort to build rapport.

3. Face touching

Truth or lies? It can all be revealed by this component of body language. “In Western culture, increased hand to face touching can be a sign of lying because people tend to touch their face more regularly when they are under stress,” Pease says.

4. Smiling

An open smile that shows teeth, when used alongside at least two other similar types of non-verbal communication, can indicate genuine happiness, while a tight-lipped smile is usually indicative of a person who is unimpressed or unhappy, but trying to be polite.

5. Cultural norms

Finally, Pease says that the meaning we gather from body language can vary from culture to culture. For example, in the West eye contact is viewed as a sign of confidence, while in some Asian and South American cultures, direct eye contact is seen as a sign of disrespect, or as rude or aggressive. This is always important to keep in mind.

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