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How to Read Body Language: 4 C’s to Understand the Meaning of Body Language

Want to know what people really think when they talk to you? Their words say yes, but their eyes and body say no. We pick up on these signals instinctively. Ever had a bad feeling about someone that turned out to be justified?

Human ability to understand the meaning of body language has been vital to survival. The earliest cavemen needed to know if others were friends or a threat, and reading their non-verbal cues quickly helped them decide. One Princeton study found it takes 100 milliseconds to form a first impression.

Body language extends beyond threat detection. It is human nature to protect ourselves. This often means masking our true feelings and intentions. Decoding these intentions helps you to recognize when a potential date is interested in you, a work relationship is going badly, or someone tries to take advantage of you. It won’t hurt as a party trick, either.

Everybody has the ability to read body language. If you’ve ever “known” someone wasn’t really interested in you, you picked up on their body language. By learning more about the 30,000+ unconscious cues we give off, you can seem to read minds.

Body language goes both ways. You can learn to interpret another person’s gestures while others read your feelings and intentions, too. Be aware of this so you can match your body language to your intentions like to emphasize honesty and reduce cues of deception.

Charles Darwin claimed there are six genetically inherited facial expressions: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, and anger. Later research has confirmed these expressions are used and recognized all over the world. Spot each facial expression in yours truly:

Six universal emotions

Can’t figure out the last one? That’s a blend of disgust, fear, and surprise about my inability to pull a good sad face. You know what sadness looks like anyway so you get the point!

How do you make sense of more complex emotions or states of thinking? Or maybe you want to polish up on how to read body language. Memorizing body positions and gestures is not enough to know what someone feels; sometimes, a movement is not a true signal, but a random gesture. To really hone your body language skills, you’ll need to apply the following 4 C’s to what you learn.

1. Context

Our eyes move in different directions depending on the part of our brain we are accessing. We look right for constructed images (up and right for visual, right for auditory and down and right for kinesthetic) and left for remembered images (and again, up/left for visual, left for auditory, down/left for kinesthetic).

Eye accessing cues and NLP representation systems

To test this, ask a friend a question like “What is the second line of your favorite song?” (they should look to the left) or “What would I look like if I were a woman/man?” (up and right). If they remember something, they’ll usually look left, while their eyes flit to the right for imagination.

We don’t live in a vacuum, and we are constantly affected by our environment. Think about what’s happening around the non-verbal signal before jumping to conclusions.

Does that mean someone’s lying whenever they look right? It depends on many things; one of them is context. In a courtroom, glancing left could be a sign of lying. But what if the jury’s on the left, and the accused is nervously gauging their reaction? Are they always looking left, or was it only in answer to a specific question? You can already see how an environment can be manufactured to make someone look more guilty than their natural self would create.

Say you talk to someone and they avoid eye contact, glance at their phone and fold their arms. You assume they are bored, but it isn’t enough to know “Signal A=B”. We don’t live in a vacuum, and we are constantly affected by our environment. Think about what’s happening around the non-verbal signal before jumping to a conclusion.

Firstly, what is the conversation about? Did the other person suddenly shift their body language when a certain topic came up? It might be the subject making them uncomfortable. Try changing the topic then watch what happens.

Secondly, look at your environment. Crossed arms are a sign of defensiveness that creates a barrier, but it might be freezing cold, and they’re trying to keep warm. Look at all explanations. Maybe their ex just walked in or they have bad memories of this place.

Woman crossed arms
Is she cold or feeling disgusted? The context is a busy public gathering where people have their phones out, which indicates contempt and impatience. Maybe she heard a political speech she disagreed with.

Finally, think what you know about this person. Maybe they’re checking their phone because they’re expecting some important news, they received a message that’s set them on edge, or they had a stressful day and haven’t disconnected from it yet.

Understanding context will save you from embarrassment. Imagine you’re talking to an attractive man or woman. From the way they orient their body toward you, you assume they’re flirting. Often, when a woman crosses her legs toward you, she is interested in you. Leaning in and shifting their body to face you are all signs of interest.

Look at the context to get meaning from body language. On a date, parts of the person’s body towards you are good indicators of attraction, but there are other situations where people will open up their posture to you; therapists, interviewers, and sales people know how to do this.

Never underestimate the importance of context. The way that somebody behaves at work, with their friends and on a date is very different. The environment and a person’s mood have a huge effect on how they behave. The same rules don’t apply for every situation.

2. Clusters

You always give off dozens of body language signals. After studying a body language book, it is tempting to hone in on one thing, e.g. the way they touch their nose (which can indicate lying) or your upper arm (which can indicate attraction). By doing this, you ignore the other signals that people give off.

Nothing exists in isolation. The word “bat” takes on a different meaning when talking about animals, or about baseball. If a friend rubs her eyes, you might decide she is bored. Look at the whole picture and you might also notice she yawns and presses her temples; she is just very tired.

Woman rubbing her eyes
Is she upset or just having a long day?

Say she rubs her eyes, avoids eye contact, crosses her arms defensively, and pouts, you can put the pieces together and realize she is upset. Reading your friend’s feelings will improve your relationship. You can ask her if she is OK, or if she would like a coffee.

Look for three to five pieces of behavior that go together before making an assumption. A common sign of female flirting is eye contact, smiling, casually touching your arm, playing with her hair and even exposing her wrists (showing vulnerability). Seeing just one of these signals isn’t enough to deduce she is flirting with you.

Woman smiling or escaping
She’s smiling, but she might be trying to get away rather than flirting back

Note how much a cluster of behavior deviates from that person’s normal behavior. Your coworker may stumble over their words, rapidly move their eyes around, hunch their shoulders, and speak quietly. They might be lying or afraid, but if they always behave this way, chances are they are just a nervous person.

When you notice one piece of body language, ask yourself for every possible explanation. Perhaps that girl smiled at you because she is a smiley person, and she crossed her legs to point away from you because she feels more physically comfortable that way. Wait for several arrows to point to the same thing before making your deductions.

3. Congruence

Imagine a man stops you on the street and tells you about the wonders of the product he is selling. His words are designed to win you over, but a glance at his body language tells you that he is not to be trusted. Are his words in line with his actions?

When words and actions tell the same story, they are congruent. People usually avoid eye contact when lying, blink more than usual, and get nervous. When people tell the truth, they often gesture with palms up. The motion is a sign they have nothing to hide. A story might sound convincing while body language reveals the truth. Robert Phipps has a good quick video on how to spot a liar:

You get a true signal when someone’s words, tone of voice, and body language are in harmony. When your girlfriend says “I’m fine, honestly!” while crossing her arms and turning her body away from you, you pick up an incongruent signal.

Know how your body betrays your true intentions to work on matching it with your words. If you try to convince a potential employer that you are confident in your work, make sure your body language matches what you say. I’ve found creating video is a good form of self-analysis to increase awareness of your body language.

Which of these men would you believe when he said “I’m confident that I can take on new challenges”?

Confident versus unconfident male body language

An open posture, leaning back a little and taking up a lot of space indicates confidence, while hunching your shoulders, creating a physical barrier (with arms, legs or items) and taking us as little space as possible indicate the opposite.

4. Culture

You meet a man who touches you while speaking to you. It isn’t completely inappropriate touching; he just casually brushes your arm, grabs onto you when he laughs, and sits very closely to you.

Physical contact is usually a sign of attraction. The meaning of each touch varies across cultures. People from New York or London need a lot of personal space, while Middle Eastern or South American cultures naturally touch as a sign of friendship. To them, your reluctance to make physical contact might seem cold and unfriendly.

When someone’s words, tone of voice and body language are in harmony, you get a true signal.

It is more and more important to understand the way gestures vary from culture to culture. While nodding your head up and down normally means “yes”, for Eskimos and Belgians it actually means “no” (while shaking your head from side to side means “yes”.)

Learn the body language patterns of the cultures you encounter. In Western society, eye contact shows interest, respect, and confidence. Don’t assume that a lack of eye contact always shows shyness or rudeness. In several Asian, African or Latin American cultures, extended eye contact is seen as threatening and uncomfortable.

Understand how the meaning of a message can vary in cultures. In America, the A-OK sign (a circle with your thumb and index finger) is used to signal that everything is OK. In the Middle East, Latin America or Germany, this is a rude gesture. The reverse “peace” sign (holding up two fingers with the back of the hand facing away from you) is as bad as giving someone “the finger” in the U.K.

Reverse peace sign
Not so A-OK in some countries

Reading body language is more complicated than memorizing a series of signals. Everything from a person’s upbringing and personality, to their current mood and the environment you are in, will influence what their body tells you. By looking at the bigger picture and using the 4 C’s to body language, you will soon learn to tell what is really on someone’s mind.

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Joshua Uebergang aka "Tower of Power"

Joshua Uebergang, aka "Tower of Power", teaches social skills to help shy guys build friends and influence people. Visit his blog and sign-up free to get communication techniques, relationship-boosting strategies, and life-building tips by email, along with blog updates, and more! Go now to