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What is Body Language?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Body language is a part of nonverbal language. It includes things like stance, gestures, facial expressions, and even small things that are barely perceptible like a brief shrug of the shoulder or nod of the head. We frequently communicate both bodily and verbally and an estimated 70% of what we communicate may be nonverbal. Nonverbal language is an even bigger category, which includes things like tone of voice.

There are many ways to learn to interpret body language but it must be understood that these are frequently specific to a culture. For instance in the US we wave good bye with the palm facing the person we’re waving to, and the fingers may open and close. In other cultures, waving goodbye may occur with the hand palm up to the sky, and the fingers opening and closing. To people in the US, this might look like a gesture asking someone to approach rather than a wave goodbye.

Still, since most of us live in one area where body language may be similar among people, it’s important to know that you can communicate a lot by how you gesture, what you do with your arms when you’re sitting or standing and talking to someone else, and even what your posture may say. A person in much of the US who sits with hands crossed over the chest, and with legs crossed, may be sending an unintended message that they’re really not open to talking. Some people are excellent at reading these kinds of messages, and we do have to be careful what we may be conveying, especially when we’re being judged, particularly in things like dating or job interviews.

Eye contact is another key element of non-verbal contact in much of the Western world. Looking someone in the eyes enough but not too much may indicate that you’re direct and forthright. Evading eye contact may say you’re shy or being deceptive, or alternately, it can convey annoyance or disgust with someone.

How we gesture can tell people the level of confidence we have, or if we’re a little too emphatic in our opinions. Huge gestures may mean we have something to prove. Moderate gesturing may simply suggest we’re engaged and confident in what we have to say.

Even the way you turn your head, shrug, yawn, look at your watch may all be forms of non-verbal communication that send clear signals to other people. If possible, never look at your watch or the clock above your head when you’re in a meeting with your boss. It can send the message that you’re bored, which isn’t a positive message to send.

It would be impossible to describe all the ways we use non-verbal language, but it’s important to remember that non-verbal language isn’t necessarily universal. If you’re observing body movements that seem off, consider cultural or regional differences that may account for it. You may even note that family members have similar gestures that aren’t that common elsewhere. Yet it can be helpful to know what you’re saying, and there are many books and Internet sites that can help you interpret some of the ways you send nonverbal messages to most people of your culture.

If you really think your body language is off or needs improvement, picking up a book on nonverbal communication can help. You can also videotape yourself and look at the way you move, gesture, sit, and stand to see if you are sending messages you really don’t mean. Confident body language common to a culture can be learned and may make you appear more confident or direct.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By wavy58 — On Jan 28, 2013

@healthy4life – Have you done something to offend them, or are you just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Body language is scary when something as big as a vehicle is involved and is controlled by the angry person.

I can think of other examples of angry body language. Slamming things like books down on a desk shows anger, as does slamming doors when you leave a room.

My mother makes a lot of noise in the kitchen with the dishes when she's mad at my father. Luckily, we don't have breakable plates, or I believe she would have broken a few by now.

By healthy4life — On Jan 27, 2013

I've seen people use scary body language on the road. I won't go into detail, but I've been given body language signals in the past that suggest the other driver is angry at me.

What's scary is when they let their car get in on the body language. They speed up and stop just short of my bumper or they swerve toward me.

By lighth0se33 — On Jan 26, 2013

The body language of eyes is important to me. When I'm on a date, I make sure that the guy keeps eye contact.

If a guy blinks hard and often, it means he's either hiding something or he has a nervous tic . Either way, it annoys me, and I won't go on a second date with someone who has this sort of body language.

Also, if his eyes tend to wander down instead of looking into mine, I suspect that he isn't really interested in having conversation. This is also a guy I won't be seeing again.

I want a date who looks right into my eyes with no reservations. I want to feel like he is looking into my soul.

By seag47 — On Jan 25, 2013

I teach my children that posture and body language are very important in life. I want to train them to sit up straight and display unoffensive body language so that they will have better opportunities in life.

We are always being judged by people. It starts with teachers and peers, and eventually, you are being observed by potential employers.

It's so important to start having good body language early in life. Bad habits are hard to break, and good ones stick with you.

By FitzMaurice — On Aug 17, 2010

Certain cultures have completely different interpretations of certain facial expressions and movements than Westerners would. To some, a smile could be seen as a threat at times, and a laugh could signify frustration or anger.

By Armas1313 — On Aug 17, 2010

It is true that you can only get the main message of things using the internet. It would be terribly awkward if people walked around communicating with each other in monotone and making no expressions or bodily movements, inserting the occasional "lol" to express that they found something funny.

But the internet is also unique in that it allows for new linguistic horizons to be opened up on a basic level.

By BigBloom — On Aug 17, 2010

It is strange to think that body language encompasses so much of how we communicate. There are linguistic, paralinguistic (tones, etc.) and non-linguistic ways of communicating to others. People interact using a combination of all of these factors at once.

Is this why internet chatting and meeting people online is so synthetic? I feel that you can only communicate a small portion of what you could in person when you are on the internet.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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