Body Language: What You Need to Know to Understand These Signals

Body language consists of a repertoire of resources that we use to communicate. Learn all about the most common types of body language and how to interpret them here.
Body Language: What You Need to Know to Understand These Signals

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Human communication is complex. When we speak, we use much more than words. The tone of our voice and body language plays an important role, as they can complement and even contradict what we say.

Body language can be defined as a set of non-verbal signs and signals that include facial expression, hand, leg, and foot movements, and body posture, among others.

From our body language, we can better interpret and understand what others want to tell us. It’s also vital to communicate more effectively. That’s why it is important to learn about body language.

The importance of body language in communication

It’s been said that body language is much more important than words in face-to-face communication. In fact, between 70 and 90% or more of what we transmit in a conversation are not even words!

These estimates are based on one of the best-known studies on the subject, carried out by the American psychology professor Albert Mehrabian.

For all these reasons, during a conversation, we often observe our interlocutor to know if he or she is listening to us, if they like what we say or if they agree with us. This way, we can also know what the other person really thinks, what their intentions are, what they want to say, and even what they’re being silent about.

And while it’s true that we can lie with words, body language often gives us away, since we often emit these signals unconsciously.

It’s not strange then, to know that body language is the subject of many disagreements, arguments, and disputes among couples. However, mistakes are often also made in communication when trying to guess what the other is feeling.

In the professional field, those who evaluate personnel consider this aspect of body language a lot. Likewise, behavioral scientists take nonverbal communication into account in the context of psychotherapy, both for their patients and for themselves.

We think you may also enjoy reading this article: Emotional Communication: Tips to Better Connect and Express Yourself

What can influence body language?

It’s worth noting that, as with words, body language can be influenced by several factors. Let’s see what they are.


The culture or geographical origin of a person influences the way he or she uses, perceives, and interprets body language. Touching, shaking hands, moving closer, or keeping a distance are all part of a repertoire of nonverbal communicative behaviors that may vary from one group of people to another.

However, some body language signs may be more or less universal, such as nodding or shaking our heads, or a natural, sincere and beautiful smile, among others.

Sonrisa como expresión del lenguaje corporal.
A smile is a fairly universal expression that tends to mean the same thing in different cultures.

The context

A gesture can change meaning depending on the context in which the communication takes place or in which it occurs. An impatient person often looks at the clock, although it may be that they’re doing this because the device is not working properly and needs to be sent to be fixed, for instance.

Mood and psychological differences

Depending on the mood, a person may interpret a gesture differently. A smile can be perceived as joy or as mockery if someone is upset.

On the other hand, those with a disorder use and interpret body language differently. A person with Asperger’s doesn’t pick up signals related to irony well, for instance.

We think you may be interesting in reading this, too: Body Language: 7 Tips for Increasing Your Confidence

What does body language mean?

As mentioned, body language encompasses all the signals we give off with our bodies, consciously or unconsciously, from facial expression to posture and movement. Let’s take a look at each of these elements in more detail.

1. Facial expressions

Facial expressions or gestures are the most reliable emotional indicator. With them, we can express joy, anger, doubt, disgust, fear, surprise, confusion, displeasure, and interest.

Each emotion imprints its own code in the eyes, mouth, or forehead. Research suggests that the judgments we make about people and even about their intelligence are based on the expressions on their faces. Also, another study found that the response of confidence is also determined by what we see in the gestures of the person speaking to us.

Within body language, attention should be paid to the messages of the pupils, since pupil dilation denotes pleasure, for instance, although this can also vary depending on how much light there is.

Meanwhile, we don’t make so many gestures with our noses. However, sometimes we wrinkle it a little as a sign of displeasure.

Meanwhile, the mouth does have a much wider repertoire of communicative possibilities in terms of gestures. Among these we have the following:

  • Showing teeth (false smile) to hide displeasure
  • Biting the lower lip to show worry, insecurity, or doubt
  • Covering the mouth to display fright
  • A mouth curved downward to show discouragement or sadness

2. Other less obvious facial expressions

Wrinkling the forehead can denote that attention is focused on something, especially when this gesture is accompanied by narrowed eyes. However, forehead wrinkles are also marked when we’re surprised.

Resting the hand on the chin can have several readings, depending on the position of the hand. An open hand may indicate boredom, for instance, and only the thumb and forefinger is a common sign of interest or a gesture of evaluation.

On the other hand, the head thrown back and the chin forward is a derogatory gesture that denotes superiority. Finally, scratching the neck or head is a sign of insecurity.

3. Upper limb body expressions

The way we see some teachers walk in the classroom with their hands linked behind their backs is a gesture that gives a sense of security. Meanwhile, pointing or pointing with a finger is an aggressive or threatening gesture, directed at the person you are talking to.

The opposite is true of showing the palms: this denotes clarity and honesty. Whoever shows his or her hands has nothing to hide.

Interlacing the fingers can be read in several ways. If the fingers and palms are twisted, this can indicate nervousness, but joining or touching only the tips is a sign of confidence.

The movement of shrugging the shoulders can mean ignorance. If accompanied by a facial gesture, however, it may signify disinterest.

Crossed arms are a defensive body posture that denotes displeasure, disagreement, or rejection of what is being said. On the other hand, the posture of our hands on hips, with elbows as a V pointing outward is one of authority, firmness, and even aggressiveness.

4. Body expressions of the lower limbs

Constantly moving legs can signify anxiety or uneasiness. However, there is also a disorder known as restless leg syndrome.

A person waiting, constantly bringing one foot forward, may indicate a desire to leave. Usually, the foot is pointing toward what the person is interested in.

Crossed legs and ankles, as well as arms, are part of the defensive repertoire. It means that the person is closed. If his or her face is looking somewhere else, it’s like he or she does not even want to participate in the conversation.

5. Posture

An expansive posture is used when we want to embrace more. It’s done with the legs and arms open and palms forward. It’s the gesture of the politician who wants to win over the public.

Inflating the chest is a gesture to denote power or superiority. Men may do this when they want to attract the attention of a woman.

If the person, when sitting or standing, shows a stooped posture looking at the floor, it denotes a depressed emotional state, as well as negativity. However, a certain posture can also reveal ailments, as would happen in the case of abdominal pain or low back pain.

Postura por dolor.
Pain forces certain postures that are common in the case of some ailments such as biliary colic, for example.

Deciphering body language isn’t always easy

While verbal communication usually occurs consciously and body language flows from the unconscious, we should ideally learn to control our gestures and expressions. What we say should be in tune with what we show.

This will not only make it easier for us to communicate, but from a professional and personal point of view, we will maintain a better relationship with others. After all, let’s not forget that gestures and emotions go hand in hand.

On the other hand, knowing how to interpret the body language of others is a very good skill to have, as it can help us to better understand what they really want to tell us and even what’s being hidden.

However, we should never let ourselves become excessively suspicious, since the interpretation of gestures is easily subject to error. In fact, this should not be done with the intention of generating conflict, but quite the opposite.

Verbal body language can be complex and difficult to understand. The best option is to always ask for clarification when there may be doubts in the interpretation of the word-gesture emission. It never hurts to ask!

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.