Everything You Need to Know About Body Language
What’s the most honest part of the human body? What’s the most convincing hand gesture you can make? Can you spot an undercover cop by looking at their elbows?
In this summary, we’ll cover the most important body language signals and signs as explained by FBI body language expert Joe Navarro in his best-seller What Every Body is Saying.
Once you start to pay attention and put some labels to common behaviors, you’ll notice them everywhere.
Freeze, Flight, Fight: The Evolutionary Basis of Body Language
Can we really trust body language?
Body language is based in the limbic brain. This part of the brain controls our reflexes and immediate reactions to the world around us. It’s behavior is primitive, bestial, instant.
The limbic brain is not ‘rational’ in the sense that it’s under full control of the conscious mind. Under certain conditions, the limbic brain betrays true feelings and thoughts through body language.
Freeze, Flight, Fight
All body language is based on the three F’s of prehistoric man: freeze, flight, and fight. When faced with danger, prehistoric man could rely on these three categories of action.
Obviously, modern interactions rarely ask us to flee the room or fight with one another. But that doesn’t mean the three F’s have disappeared. Stressful situations still draw out our three F’s. And ancient behaviors manifest in everyday body language.
Freeze behaviors include holding your breath or suddenly clutching your seat. Flight behaviors are distancing, like leaning away from a conversation partner, putting objects between a person and their interrogator, turning feet toward the nearest exit, or eye-blocking (more on that below). Perhaps easiest to imagine are fight behaviors: puffing out the chest, or flaring nostrils.
The Imprecise Science of Reading Body Language
The leaked signals of the limbic brain are not specific enough to map cleanly to complex human emotions. There’s obviously no precise body language for ‘upset with your cheating ex-boyfriend’ or ‘nihilistic despair after Netflix binge’.
So when reading body language, you should imagine body language falling on a spectrum that runs from comfort to discomfort.
In body language, comfort and discomfort are the compass.
In short, a person’s limbic system leaks information about their (dis)comfort level. This, plus the context of the body language, tells us volumes.
Pacifying Behaviors Are Signals
As a person becomes less comfortable, they’ll begin to engage in pacifying behaviors. Pay attention to this idea. A pacifying behavior is the limbic system trying to push a body toward the comfort end of the comfort-discomfort spectrum. We pacify when we’re stressed, upset, anxious, and nervous.
When reading someone’s body language, you’re not going to see some tell-tale sign that someone is lying. Instead, when a person is faced with a stressful situation or question, you’ll see an increase or decrease in pacifying behaviors. And, yes, liars are often stressed and self-pacify when they do it.
Remember that pacifying behaviors are contextual. For example, excessive yawning is a sign of intense anxiety. But if someone is yawning a lot at 3:00am after a long night of partying, this is probably just someone who’s tired. If it’s 11:00 am and a few minutes ago the person seemed fully alert until you asked them what their glove was doing at the scene of the crime, you might be seeing a pacifying behavior.
In general, pacifying behaviors follow the stressor that caused them.
This helps you pinpoint the source of stress. Navarro details elaborate FBI interrogations in his book, where he’ll ask the same question multiple times and, amazingly, people will do the exact same pacifying behavior every time they answer the question. A recurrent pacifying behavior, or a sudden increase or decrease in these behaviors offer a reliable signal to gauge someone’s internal state.
To observe these signals, you need to be aware of another person’s entire body. Navarro explains that during interrogations, subjects are usually sat in a chair with nothing obstructing his view (no table or objects between them).
Contrary to popular belief, the face is one of the worst places for honest signals. Why?
We’ve practiced lying with our faces and words since preschool.
Let’s go across the human body and map the most common pacifying behaviors.
Neck Stroking/Touching (Discomfort)
Stroking or covering the neck is one of the most frequently seen pacifying behaviors. According to Navarro, women in particular will cover the suprasternal notch (the little dimple on the bottom of your neck) when doubtful, insecure, or fearful. If someone does this after you’ve asked a question, they were uncomfortable with what you asked.
Touching Earlobes, Beards, Hair, Lips (Stress)
Massaging the earlobes with index and forefinger, stroking a beard, playing with your hair, or touching and licking lips are all pacifying behaviors of the face. Depending on context, they suggest stress.
Excessive Yawning (Intense Anxiety/Stress)
When under intense anxiety, people can appear to yawn over and over again. This actually puts pressure on salivary glands to bring moisture into the dry mouth of the anxious person. In practice, it just looks like too much yawning.
Rubbing the Forehead (Inner Struggle/Discomfort)
Like neck stroking, this suggests a person struggling with something and experiencing discomfort. Think of how an exasperated person will rest their elbow a table and lean their forehead into their palm.
Face/Cheek Touching (Nervous/Concern)
Touching the face or cheek occurs when a person is nervous, irritated, or concerned. The face is rich with nerve endings, activated by the touch.
Exhaling with Big Puffed-Out Cheeks (Relief)
Right after something bad happens, people will often take a big breath, puff out their cheeks, and exhale slowly. This behavior suggests: “Whew… that was close” and releases stress after something bad almost happened. Imagine someone letting out an enormous sigh of relief.
Ties and Jewelry (Discomfort/Nervous)
People will also sometimes fondle their jewelry or clothes when they are uncomfortable with a question. Think of someone who anxiously spins their wedding ring.
Lip Compression (Stress)
When lips and pressed together and seem to disappear. Suggests stress.
The Ventilator (Stress)
When someone pulls their shirt collar away from the skin of their neck. Suggests discomfort. Men will often do a variation of this when wearing a suit and tie by adjusting and tugging at the tie-knot.
The Feet and Legs: Defying Gravity
Obviously when it comes to freezing, fleeing, or fighting, the feet matter a lot. For this reason, the feet and legs have evolved as the site for highly effective tells for human behavior. According to Navarro:
When it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the head.
Generally, we can interpret feet, legs, (as well as arms and hand) body language as either ‘gravity defying’ or not.
Navarro calls behaviors that raise the feet or angle them upward gravity-defying. These behaviors, like rocking back on your heel and pointing a toe to the sky, or rising up on your tip-toes suddenly, suggest happiness, confidence, or that the person has heard or thought of something positive.
The feet and legs are extremely honest. People with clinical depression show almost no signs of gravity-defying leg movements.
Happy Feet (Confidence/Excitement)
Happy feet are when a person’s feet suddenly begin bouncing and wiggling up and down. They signal high confidence. You can read happy feet without seeing their legs directly by watching how a person’s shirt and shoulders move.
Shifting Feet Direction (Like/Dislike)
We turn our feet towards things and people that we like and away from things and people that we don’t. Often the upper body will be positioned towards someone, but the feet will point towards the exit. This betrays dislike or lack of comfort for the other person. It might also just indicate that a person is in a hurry and wants to end the interaction while still seeming polite (facing the other person with their torso).
The Leg Cleanser (Stress)
When someone clutches their leg (thigh) and pushes down towards their knee. You probably do this unthinkingly if you have sweaty palms. The leg cleanser indicates stress. So do sweaty palms. So when you’re wiping your sweaty palms down your leg, you’re doubly showing just how nervous you are!
The Knee Clasp (Ready to Go)
Placing both hands on the knees and leaning forward or shifting towards the front edge of a chair. This suggests the person is ready to conclude an interaction.
Leg Splay (Dominance/Confrontation)
Spreading your legs wide is a territorial display. There’s actually a whole class of territorial display body language which we’ll mention later. Leg splay suggests dominance, but also confrontation. If a person moves from legs together to legs widely splayed, this suggests they’re probably growing unhappy.
Standing Leg Crossing (Confidence/Comfort)
People don’t cross their legs if they feel uncomfortable (it’s hard to flee from danger on one foot!). Suggests confidence and comfort.
If two people have their legs crossed while interacting, they’re comfortable with each other. When legs are crossed, people will often lean towards the person they favor as well.
Seated Leg Crossing (Like/Dislike)
When seated next to each other, people will cross their legs toward a person that they like and away from a person they dislike. If a person changes from the top, crossed-over leg pointing toward someone to away from someone, it suggest a decline in comfort or agreement.
Look at the knee. Is the knee being moved further away (removing a barrier between the two) or inserted between them, creating distance and blocking?
Foot Mirroring (Comfort/Discomfort)
If a person’s feet don’t mirror your own while you’re interacting with them, something is wrong. Either they want to leave (their feet indicate the direction they want to go), or they don’t want to interact with you for some other reason.
Intensity Changes in Leg/Foot Movement (Discomfort/Stress)
A sudden increase in the kicking of feet or movement of legs can suggest discomfort. Similarly, the sudden freezing of foot or leg movement in response to a question suggests the person is stressed or threatened in some way. This is the prehistoric freeze mode kicking in.
Torso, Hips, Chest, and Shoulders
The torso holds critical organs. Our limbic system fires up in moments of stress to protect this region of the body. By reading the openness and directionality of the upper body, we can learn a lot about someone’s state of mind.
The Lean (Like/Dislike)
Simply put, people lean away from things they don’t like and towards things they do. The same is true with people they like or dislike.
Ventral Denial and Ventral Fronting (Like/Dislike)
We expose our ventral (front) sides towards things we like. And we turn away from things we dislike. Think of how it looks (and feels) when you approach someone at a party and they angle themselves slightly away.
If you want to use your body to signal agreement, face the person and lean towards them with rapt attention.
The Torso Shield (Comfort/Discomfort)
Crossing your arms, reaching across to play with cufflinks or a watch, or putting an object like a notebook in front of your torso suggests a lack of comfort with another person.
Standing with arms crossed is not itself a signal. The key is to look for crossing to occur suddenly, in response to a question or other interaction.
Torso Splays (Dominance)
Splaying with the torso (sprawling out with arms/legs outstretched) is a territorial, dominance display. Think of the slouchy guy in class with no respect for the teacher.
Puffing Up the Chest and Baring the Torso (Aggression)
We’re pretty far into ape land with these two. People puff out their chest and it looks ridiculous. But beware, it often indicates a fight.
Baring the torso is an even more absurd dominance display: before fighting, people will take off a hat or shirt. You’ve seen this in Liveleak videos, haven’t you?
Heavy and Stressed Breathing (Aggression)
When under stress, the chest may heave rapidly. The body is trying to get as much oxygen as it can in advance of a potential conflict.
High, even shrugs (with both shoulders) suggest confidence and commitment to what is being said. A low, half-shrug suggests a lack of commitment and possibly dishonesty. Notice that a person may be suggesting a lack of knowledge or sureness when shrugging as in, “I don’t know where they hid the money.” So confidence, in this case means confidence in a lack of knowledge or certainty.
When a person slowly lifts their shoulders, as if making their neck disappear. Suggests: weakness and insecurity. Think of someone being scolded, and how their neck seems to vanish.
Arms are similar to feet in that you can often infer a person’s emotional state by whether arms are defying gravity.
In general, arms uplifted, open, and high suggest confidence, happiness and positive. Think of a euphoric crowd at a music festival. Arms low, still, or held close suggest fear or anxiety.
The Self Body-Hug (Discomfort, possibly aggression)
Crossing arms and rubbing the opposite shoulder, as if cold. If done with a defiant look and while leaning forward, suggests aggression, not pacifying.
Arm Withdrawal and Arm Freezing (Fear)
Arms straight to the sides or held across the chest suggests a person feels threatened. If a person’s arms suddenly freeze with someone draws near, it may suggest fear of that person. Navarro describes a harrowing story of identifying the victims of child abuse based on arm freezing when abusive relatives or parents draw near.
Arms Behind your Back (High Status/Fear)
Arms held behind the back suggest, “Don’t touch me”. This can be because a person feels threatened, or because they perceive themselves as high status.
Navarro uses the example of royalty, who often walk with their arms held behind their back.
Arms and Dominance
Arms spread wide claim more territory and suggest dominance. Think of the guy who puts his arm along the back of his date’s chair. He’s publicly claiming what he perceives as “his territory”.
Compare this display to someone who sits down elbows tucked into their sides and hands in their lap (low-status, low confidence, low dominance). People also do this with objects, like an intimidating lean across a counter with arms spread wide.
Arms Akimbo (Dominance)
Think of how an intimidating police officer or soldier might stand with hands on their hips, arms spread wide. Suggest authority and dominance by claiming a lot of territory on both sides.
Navarro shares how arms akimbo has been used by gangs to identify undercover police officers that have infiltrated their ranks. The undercover police officer will unconsciously assume this dominant arms akimbo stance while in the gang, revealing a sense of authority not appropriate to a gang member.
Linking fingers together and leaning the head back into the cup formed by the hands. Signals dominance and power.
Hands and Fingers
The human brain pays close attention to the hands of others. We evolved to watch for weapons and danger coming from others’ hands. Our hands not only signal our inner state, but are powerful tools for persuasion and communicating confidence.
Pro Tip: Never Hide Your Hands
Persuasive and powerful speakers always communicate with their hands. Never hide your hands. It suggests a lack of confidence or deceit. Generally, highly expressive hands are trusted more than still hands. And (visible) still hands are better than hidden hands.
Navarro is clear: yes, handshakes do create a strong first impression. But, no, you shouldn’t try to establish dominance with a handshake. Most people just have a negative impression of someone who yanks them around or crushes their fingers on first interaction.
Also don’t do the politician’s handshake, where you wrap your second hand over top of the hand in the shake. It turns people off.
Steepling: Somehow, Objectively the Most Confident Hand Gesture
Here’s how Navarro explains steepling:
It involves touching the spread of fingertips of both hands, in a gesture similar to “praying hands,” but the fingers are not interlocked and the palms may not be touching. It is called steepling because the hands look like the pointed top of a church steeple.
This is the most powerful gesture that someone can make to suggest confidence in themselves and their ideas. I can’t help but think of a clichéd portrait photo of a “thought leader” on stage. Here’s an example of steepling with authority:
By contrast, hand-wringing (like steepling but with fingers interlaced) shows stress and concern.
Thumbs: Keep them Up
The easiest way to think about the body language of thumbs is to remember the phrase ‘thumbs up’.
If thumbs are up and out, it suggests confidence. Thumbs that point down or disappear suggest low confidence.
Think of someone who walks into a room with their thumbs hidden in their pockets like a hook and their fingers dangling down. Not exactly self-assured.
Hand Stroking (Anxiety)
Rubbing or stroking of the hand during conversation suggests anxiety.
This predominantly male dominance display occurs when men hook their thumbs in their belt or pants and use outstretched fingers to frame their genitals.
Think John Wayne or Han Solo on the prowl. It suggests exactly what you think it does.
Remember, the face is the worst place for honest body language signals. We’ve all simply spent too long learning how to manipulate others through our faces.
The Forehead (Stress/Discomfort)
Squinting or furrowing the forehead suggests stress and discomfort.
Head Tilt (Confidence/Openness)
A tilted head, often accompanied by a smile, suggests confidence and openness to the other person.
Eye Blocking (Threat/Disagreement)
We eye block when we don’t like what we see. People may squint, or cover their eyes with hands. Think of how people look away from a gruesome accident scene or a violent movie.
Eye-blocking suggests something has made a person feel threatened.
Eye blocking can happen via the eyebrows: low eyebrows suggests disagreement or something negative and high, while arched eyebrows suggest confidence and positivity. Eye blocking can also occur by squinting or blocking the eyes with the hands.
Wide Eyes (Positivity/Commitment)
Like arched eyebrows, flashbulb eyes (big round eyes like an anime character) suggest a person is overflowing with positivity. Watch eyes for emphasis in a story.
Important moments should be punctuated with wide-eyes, which signal commitment to what is being said.
Eye Gaze (Comfort/Creepy Sociopaths)
Many people believe that when a person looks away in conversation that they’re being deceptive. The opposite is true. When people look away in conversation, it’s actually a display of comfort. The person is not intensely looking at you, so they don’t consider you a threat. In some cultures, it’s also polite not to stare or, depending on norms around social status and gender, it can be rude to make eye contact for too long.
Looking directly at someone for long periods sends strong signals of attraction or rejection. A steady gaze with a relaxed face suggests liking. But if it includes a tight jaw or compressed lips, it’s probably more threatening.
Creepy people, like serial killers and predators, often use eye gaze to threaten and paralyze their victims.
Go look up portraits of Charles Manson, Rasputin, or other nefarious types and you’ll instantly understand the reptilian power of eye gaze.
Eye Blink and Eye Flutter (Nervous/Concern)
People blink more when they’re nervous or concerned. If someone flutters their eyelids, they probably didn’t like what you just said.
Lips and Smiles
Fake smiles occur only in the mouth. Real smiles occur all the way up in the eyes. When lips disappear into the mouth, it suggests stress.
Lips pursed in conversation suggests disagreement. Lip licking is pacifying, meant to calm us down and can suggest stress.
Chin Up (Confidence)
Tucking the chin down suggests low confidence. A raised chin suggests comfort and confidence. Here we see the gravity-defying principle at work again.
Making It Useful
It’s important to remember that reading body language is not like a detective movie. If your partner blinks a few too many times while telling you what they did last night, it doesn’t mean they’re cheating.
Body language often hints at something beneath the surface. This doesn’t mean it’s deception or guilt.
To effectively read body language, you must always compare signals to a baseline. Some people have tics and other behaviors that look like tells, but are just habits that form part of the person’s normal personality.
Context also matters. A job interview is inherently stressful, so you can expect some stress signals.
Overall, Navarro recommends looking for mismatch between statement and action. “Then I turned to the left, away from the alley”, the criminal said while pointing to the right. The body is out of alignment with the statement. This may suggest something deeper.
In addition to mismatches, you want to look for relative changes to the person’s baseline and clustering. Be on the lookout for sudden increases in pacifying behaviors and especially a cluster with a similar emotional direction e.g. wringing hands nervously and then stroking the back of the neck.
If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend Navarro’s book, What Every Body is Saying.
Originally published at gist.github.com.