Many situations in everyday life involve the use of nonverbal communication. Phutela (2015) explains that nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions and body language greatly influences social environments and the communication process.
To shed more light on the importance of nonverbal communication methods, this article seeks to provide a background of body language and present common body language examples and their meanings. This article also explores cases of impaired recognition of body language expressions, along with trends in body language research.
Body Language Explained Table of Contents
- What is body language?
- Physical Expressions of Body Language
- Perception of Body Language
- Facial Expressions
- Body Posture
- Physical Distance
- Applications of Body Language
Nonverbal communication comprises a major part of the communication process. According to Tipper et al. (2015), in the course of everyday life, people pick up information about others’ thoughts and feelings through body posture, mannerisms, and gestures. In the 1970s, psychology professor Albert Mehrabian also suggested that during communication, the total impact of a message can be largely attributed to nonverbal communication (Pease & Pease, 2006).
The importance of body language as a form of nonverbal communication is also evident in the number of studies exploring the science behind body language and its perception. The following sections discuss a number of these studies to provide a background on body language and its mechanisms.
What is body language?
Body language is a type of nonverbal communication where physical behavior is used to convey information. As opposed to words, such physical behavior often includes facial expressions, gestures, body posture, eye movements, and touch. The scientific study of interpreting body language is referred to as kinesics.
According to Atkinson et al. (2004), the movement of the body or its parts has a substantial impact on the way humans communicate. For instance, the face and body can display emotional cues that regulate social behavior (De Gelder, 2004). Slaughter et al. (2004) also explained that reading and processing signals based on the positioning of body parts allow people to detect others’ intentions, motivations, and internal states.
Source: The Definitive Book of Body Language
Perception of Body Language
Tipper et al. (2015) further explained that although there is extensive research into the brain systems involved in the perception of body movement, hand gestures, eye movements, and facial expressions, there is little understanding of how the brain understands or reads body language.
Processing body posture information involves more than visual perception and requires the use of abstract abilities (Tipper et al., 2005). As such, reading body language means not just recognizing socially relevant visual information but also attributing meaning to the information. Most of the process for nonverbal communication occurs below the level of conscious awareness (Body Language, n.d.). Barrett et al. (2007), for instance, concluded that observers can process emotional information without being aware of it.
There have also been studies that provide direct and indirect evidence for recognition or understanding of stimuli even in the absence of visual awareness, such as in blind patients reliably guessing the emotions conveyed by facial and bodily expressions presented in their blind field (de Gelder et al., 1999).
Physical Expressions of Body Language
Various parts of the body can be used to indicate nonverbal signals in the communication process. Below are common body language examples and their interpretations.
Facial expressions form an integral part of body language, so much so that photographs of faces are the most common stimuli for studies of emotion perception (Atkinson, 2004). Atkinson further states that responses to facial expressions of emotion are highly consistent. In support of this finding, Ekman (2009) explains that certain facial expressions have a universal meaning.
For instance, a person typically smiles when he or she is happy, and their faces convey more energy in general. Meanwhile, the lack of a smile is usually taken as a sign of sadness. A person who is afraid will often have raised eyebrows and a taut brow, with a mouth that hangs slightly open (The Body Language of Fear, 2020).
According to a 2008 study by Todorov et al., slightly raised eyebrows and a small smile make up the most trustworthy facial expression.
According to Cherry (2019), taking note of eye movements during conversations is a natural and important part of communication. The scientific study of eye movement, eye behavior, gaze, and eye-related nonverbal communication is referred to as oculesics.
When a person looks directly into the eyes during a conversation, it indicates that he/she is paying attention and expressing interest in what the other person is saying. On the other hand, a person who frequently looks away and breaks eye contact during conversation indicates that he or she is distracted or uncomfortable. According to D’Agostino (2013), such behavior also signifies that the person is trying to conceal his or her true feelings or intentions.
Cherry (2019) also suggested that people blink more rapidly when they feel uncomfortable or distressed. On the other hand, infrequent blinking may indicate that the person is intentionally trying to control their eye movements (Marchak, 2013). On a more subtle note, pupil size can also convey certain emotions. For instance, Jiang et al. (2017) suggested that highly dilated eyes can indicate interest or even arousal.
In 2011, Cruz found that cultural differences are present in interpretations of eye behavior as body language. For instance, in the Anglo-Saxon culture, a lack of eye contact indicates a lack of confidence or truthfulness. In Latino culture, however, using direct, prolonged eye contact can be taken as a challenge or romantic interest.
(percentage of respondents who believed presented statements)
Source: PLOS One Designed by
Aside from smiling, people can also use their mouths to convey a number of emotions (Cherry, 2019). Pursed lips, for instance, can be an indicator of distaste or disapproval. Sometimes, people also bite their lips when they are worried or stressed. A downturned mouth can also be an indicator of sadness or disapproval.
Whole-body posture conveys affect-specific information (Atkinson et al., 2004). Characteristic body movements and postures indicate specific emotional states. This has long been recognized and exploited by actors, directors, and dramatists (Roth, 1990 cited in Atkinson et al., 2004).
According to research by Mondloch et al., (2013), body postures are more easily and accurately recognized when the emotion is compared to a different or neutral emotion. For instance, a person who feels angry would have a dominant posture that suggests approach, compared to a fearful person who would have an avoidant posture.
A number of studies have explored the implications of posture on body language. For instance, Vacharkulksemsuk (2016) explained that an open posture, with the trunk of the body kept open and exposed, indicates positive emotions of friendliness and willingness. Meanwhile, hiding the trunk of the body and keeping the arms and legs crossed can be an indicator of unfriendliness, anxiety, and hostility.
As another example, Cherry (2019) suggested that a person who sits up straight is focused and paying attention. Sitting with the upper body hunched forward, on the other hand, implies that the person is indifferent or bored.
The Arms and Legs
The positioning of the arms and legs can also indicate emotions. For instance, crossed arms can indicate defensiveness or a desire for self-protection (Foley & Gentile, 2010). Standing with hands placed on the hips can also be an expression of aggressiveness or indicate that a person feels ready and in control. Crossed legs can also be an expression for a need for privacy and indicate a feeling of being closed off.
Gestures also make up a large part of nonverbal communication and, as such, have been extensively studied. According to Kurien (2010), gestures are movements made with body parts, including hands, arms, fingers, legs, and the head. For instance, crossed or folded arms can demonstrate insecurity and a lack of confidence.
Pease & Pease (2006) explain that certain gestures are considered to have a universal meaning. One such gesture is the shoulder shrug, which demonstrates a lack of understanding.
However, while there are gestures with universal meanings, culture dictates the meaning for a number of gestures. For instance, while it is acceptable to point using one’s index finger in certain cultures, this gesture of pointing is considered aggressive or offensive for people who share Hindu beliefs (Black, 2011).
In another example of cultural differences among hand gestures, the “thumbs up” gesture is acceptable in countries like Germany, France, South Africa, and the United States. However, the same gesture is insulting in Iran, Bangladesh, and Thailand, where it is the equivalent to showing the middle finger (Black, 2011).
Touch can also be used as a nonverbal means of communication. Haptics is the scientific study of touching and how it is used to communicate. For instance, meaning can be gleaned from the physical contact of handshakes, holding hands, and high fives (Haptics: The Use Of Touch In Communication, 2013). The meaning varies depending on the length of the touch and the location on the body where the touching takes place.
A 2006 study by Hertenstein et al. also found that people are able to accurately interpret distinct emotions from watching others communicate via touch.
According to Cherry (2019), the amount of physical space between individuals can also communicate information. Proxemics refers to the study of measurable distances between people as they interact with one another.
According to Edward T. Hall, who coined the term proxemics in 1966, there are four levels of social distance that can be observed in different social situations.
- Public distance (12 to 25 feet). This is used in public speaking situations, such as when professors hold classes or when professionals give presentations at work.
- Social distance (4 to 12 feet). Acquaintances often interact with each other at this distance. At a social distance, a person may feel comfortable addressing a coworker or another person they know fairly well.
- Personal distance (1.5 to 4 feet). This level of physical distancing can be observed in individuals who are family members or close friends. It can also indicate the level of intimacy between the involved people.
- Intimate distance (6 to 18 inches). This level displays the smallest amount of physical space between two people and often indicates high levels of comfort and intimacy between individuals.
Applications of Body Language
Although body language can be an involuntary phenomenon, this form of nonverbal communication is widely used today. There have also been studies suggesting how to read body language, as well as documentation on the application and use of body language in different situations and environments.
For instance, according to Kellerman (1992), kinesic behavior is essential to second-language acquisition, particularly in achieving discourse and sociolinguistic competencies in the said language. Kellerman explains that a conscious ability to recognize and perform kinesic behavior is necessary for achieving fluency in a second language.
Kret & de Gelder (2013) also studied body language and its perception among violent offenders. The findings of the study indicate that violent offenders have difficulties processing congruences in emotions when aggressive stimuli are involved. Moreover, the study found that violent offenders have a possible bias towards aggressive body language.
Body language can also be a useful teaching aid when used as nonlinguistic output for guiding students and paired with verbal methods. In 2014, Tai observed three ways body language affected teaching:
- The intuitive nature of body language can lead to a deeper understanding of vocabulary and individual words. This is evident when teachers exemplify the meaning of individual words, such as when a teacher imitates a laughing person when teaching the word “laugh.”
- The communicative nature of body language can contribute towards an environment that is more conducive to learning. According to Tai, this environment is more holistic and productive for the acquisition of new knowledge.
- Because of its suggestive nature, body language can be used to create opportunities to gain additional information about a concept or word.
Pitfalls of Using Body Language
While body language can be useful, there are certain gestures that convey negative emotions in a given context (Negative Body Language: Examples & Signs, 2016). These gestures are best avoided by people who want to be more mindful of what their bodies are communicating with others. Below are some examples of these gestures.
- Checking the time. Looking at a watch can indicate that a person is unwilling to be in his current situation and that he or she has more important things to do.
- Poor posture. Poor posture often indicates a lack of confidence or assertiveness. One such example of poor posture is slouching.
- Fidgeting, picking at something, tapping fingers. Having restless or fidgety fingers can demonstrate disapproval and boredom. Likewise, tapping one’s fingers can indicate impatience or stress.
- Atkinson, A. P., Dittrich, W. H., Gemmell, A. J., & Young, A. W. (2004). Emotion perception from dynamic and static body expressions in point-light and full-light displays. Perception, 33 (6), 717-746. https://doi.org/10.1068/p5096
- Barrett, L. F., Ochsner, K. N., & Gross, J. J. (2007). On the automaticity of emotion. In J. Bargh (Ed.), Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes, 173, 217. Google Books
- Black, R. M. (2011). Cultural considerations of hand use. Journal of Hand Therapy, 24 (2), 104-111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jht.2010.09.067
- Body language (n.d.). Psychology Today.
- Cruz, W. (2001). Differences in nonverbal communication styles between cultures: The Latino-Anglo perspective. Leadership and Management in Engineering, 1 (4), 51-53. https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)1532-6748(2001)1:4(51)
- D’Agostino, T. A., & Bylund, C. L. (2014). Nonverbal accommodation in health care communication. Health communication, 29 (6), 563-573. https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2013.783773
- De Gelder, B., Vroomen, J., Pourtois, G., & Weiskrantz, L. (1999). Non-conscious recognition of affect in the absence of striate cortex. Neuroreport, 10 (18), 3759-3763. https://doi.org/10.1097/00001756-199912160-00007
- De Gelder, B., Snyder, J., Greve, D., Gerard, G., & Hadjikhani, N. (2004). Fear fosters flight: a mechanism for fear contagion when perceiving emotion expressed by a whole body. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101 (47), 16701-16706. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0407042101
- Ekman, P. (2009). Darwin’s contributions to our understanding of emotional expressions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (1535), 3449-3451. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2009.0189
- Foley, G. N., & Gentile, J. P. (2010). Nonverbal communication in psychotherapy. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 7 (6), 38. NCBI
- Chris (2013, March 5). Haptics: The use of touch in communication. Body Language Project.
- Hertenstein, M. J., Keltner, D., App, B., Bulleit, B. A., & Jaskolka, A. R. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6 (3), 528. https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-35184.108.40.2068
- Jiang, J., Borowiak, K., Tudge, L., Otto, C., & von Kriegstein, K. (2017). Neural mechanisms of eye contact when listening to another person talking. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12 (2), 319-328. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw127
- Kellerman, S. (1992). ‘I see what you mean’: The role of kinesic behaviour in listening and implications for foreign and second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 13 (3), 239-258. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/13.3.239
- Kret, M. E., & de Gelder, B. (2013). When a smile becomes a fist: the perception of facial and bodily expressions of emotion in violent offenders. Experimental Brain Research, 228 (4), 399-410. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-013-3557-6
- Marchak, F. M. (2013). Detecting false intent using eye blink measures. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 736. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00736
- Mondloch, C. J., Nelson, N. L., & Horner, M. (2013). Asymmetries of influence: differential effects of body postures on perceptions of emotional facial expressions. PLoS One, 8 (9), e73605. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073605
- Gonzales, K. (2016, July 27). Negative body language: Examples & signs. Study.com.
- Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2006). The Definitive Book of Body Language. London: Orion Publishing Group. Google Books
- Phutela, D. (2015). The importance of nonverbal communication. IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 9 (4), 43-49. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2715432
- Slaughter, V., Stone, V. E., & Reed, C. (2004). Perception of faces and bodies: Similar or different? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13 (6), 219-223. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00312.x
- Tai, Y. (2014). The application of body language in English teaching. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 5 (5), 1205. https://doi.org/10.4304/jltr.5.5.1205-1209
- The body speaks to us: Discover the body language of fear (2020, July 21). Exploring Your Mind.
- Tipper, C. M., Signorini, G., & Grafton, S. T. (2015). Body language in the brain: constructing meaning from expressive movement. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 450. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00450
- Todorov, A., Baron, S. G., & Oosterhof, N. N. (2008). Evaluating face trustworthiness: a model based approach. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3 (2), 119-127. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsn009