If you see a person with arms folded, does this mean they are feeling defensive, with their arms acting as a barrier? Or could this mean they are feeling superior and are making a judgement? Or are they just feeling relaxed and placing their arms in a comfortable position?
The answer is ‘It depends’. Interpreting body language means much more than just looking up the current body shape in a definitive list. Here is a simple set of five points that offer a critical lens to help see and interpret body language and other non-verbal communication in a more realistic way.
When we act, this is not done as a stand-alone thing. We do and say things in response to what others do and say. These external events act as cues (or ‘triggers’) that stimulate internal responses.
When you see someone with a particular body shape, a good question to ask is hence ‘What just happened that may have led to the possible interpretations of their body language, and which is most likely?’
Cues can also be internal, for example where thoughts and concerns lead to changes in body position. You hence may also ask ‘Given their body language, what might they be thinking or feeling?’
Cues are a key part of conditioning, where emotions and actions are paired with a cue such that the appearance of the cue triggers a set of feelings and, possibly, related action (which the person may try to suppress). This cue-response sequence can also be instinctive, such as the way that wriggly creatures trigger a fear-and-recoil response.
A very important thing to watch for is transitions, where body language changes, for example from open to closed formation, or where a person suddenly scratches their nose (both of which may indicate discomfort).
When you see a change in body language, look backwards for cues that may have triggered the transition, for example where someone suspected of lying is asked a revealing question looks away.
Sales people watch for changes in body language, such as leaning forward and positive responses to subtle cues, as indicators of customers becoming convinced. The sales person will then use this understanding as a signal to move to the next stage in closing the deal.
While body language changes can appear as single events, such as folding of arms, they often appear as a group of different movements that occur together or one after another. For example, a person may shift their stance, cross their arms, lean backwards slightly, purse their lips and frown, all as a combined indication of disagreement.
Clusters of body shifts send clear signals when they all indicate the same thing. This may happen where each has a similar meaning, or where the whole ensemble of movements combine for a single meaning.
Sometimes, cluster movements contradict one another, for example where a person rubs their nose (indicating possible deceit) and smiles. The resultant mixed message will likely cause you to feel uncomfortable and it makes sense to always be vigilant for such gut feelings, then look for reasons why you may feel this way.
A further general factor that can confound and yet can also explain much is the general character of the other person. A person who is more extraverted, for example, may display frequent and large body movements, while a more introverted person might use more concise gestures.
It easy to confuse these personality traits for others such as exhibitionism and timidity. In seeking to classify others (and hence predict their actions) we often misinterpret limited body signals and thereafter filter what we see through these incorrect mental models.
Temperament, mood and even shorter-term emotions can also act as modifiers that affect body language and make it more difficult to interpret. Yet if you can determine a person’s current emotional state, you may apply this knowledge in your interpretation and so gain a better understanding of what their movements really mean.
The final factor to consider when reading body language is the broader context that may influence how the other person thinks, feels and acts.
What is going on in the immediate environment can have a clear effect, for example when young men are in the presence of attractive young women, they will indulge more in preening, posturing and other mate-attracting moves.
The wider context of a person’s life also has an effect on their body language, typically indicating anxieties, excitement and other musings and anticipation. If you have no knowledge about such modifiers, this can have a confounding effect on your attempts to interpret their body language.
Briol, P., Petty, R. E., & Wagner, B. (2009). Body postures effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 1-12
Strack, F., Martin, L. & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-777
Tom, G., Pettersen, P., Lau, T., Burton, T., & Cook, J. (1991). The role of overt head movement in the formation of affect. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 12, 281-289