Applied Psychology

What is Body Language? How to Understand Non-Verbal Cues

Jun 10, 2021 | By Saranne Durham
What is Body Language? How to Understand Non-Verbal Cues

Body language can often tell those around us more than we think. It plays a big part in how effectively we communicate and how people respond to us.  If we are unaware of non-verbal communication, we are at quite a disadvantage when we interact with family, friends, colleagues and even strangers. Often people rely on body language to interpret mixed messages during conversations or to clarify something that’s confusing them. It can also be a tool for figuring out what’s true and if someone is being honest. Which makes understanding body language an important life skill.

“Communication is made up of both verbal and non-verbal information.”

What is Body Language?

Everyone uses body language. It is the non-verbal information we are constantly relaying to those around us. At its essence it’s what we tell others without saying a word. The biggest challenge is that it is subjective. This means that there is an interpretative element within it, which can result in miscommunication and misunderstanding. For instance, imagine you are chatting to someone and they keep glancing away. You interpret this as them being disinterested in your conversation. Actually, they are interested but running late to get somewhere and therefore distracted, not disinterested.

“Everybody communicates through body language, however, not everyone can accurately interpret it.”

5 Main Types of Non-verbal Communication

  1. Eye Contact
  2. Facial Expressions
  3. Gestures
  4. Posture or body positioning
  5. Touch

Why is Body Language Important?

Reading body language accurately can assist us to know what someone actually thinks or feels. This is useful when they are battling to share something or aren’t comfortable verbalizing the whole story of what’s underway. It can also help us excel at work, work better within a team setting and even get “freebies”! Luckily it is a skill that anyone can learn.

“Reading body language correctly is a skill that can be learnt.”

Does Universal Body Language Exist?

The translation of body language can depend on the context you are in. There are some universally common ways to express emotions. For example, crying is often interpreted as sadness. A smile that someone is happy and when someone clenching their jaw and/or hands can be the non-verbal expression of anger. Culture influences what is considered appropriate body language. To get someone’s attention one might snap your fingers in one country but be considered very rude if you do it in another. Therefore, it’s important to understand the basics of body language in your own country as well as other countries when you’re abroad.

Understanding the Meaning of Body Language

With over 20 different muscles in our faces, we are able to make more than 10 000 facial expressions. And with these facial expressions, convey countless messages to others. Body Language is divided into two types: Open and Closed.

Examples of Open Body Language

  1. Eye Contact: Longer eye contact can make someone else feel important. Especially if you are in a management position. Within a dating context, it can show your interest in someone.
  2. Facial Expressions: Raising your eyebrows slightly and quickly conveys approval, a friendly greeting, an interest in something or seeking of confirmation. It’s often used as a way of saying “yes” while someone is talking.
  3. Gestures: A handshake can make someone feel welcome and convey mutual respect. A nod, together with a smile, can also be welcoming to someone else. People in Japan are welcomed with a bow and in French countries a kiss on each cheek is used to say hello.
  4. Posture or body positioning: During conversations mirroring another person’s body position helps foster feelings of likeness or similarity, thereby assisting to build a rapport more quickly. Within a work context this can translate into better retail sales figures and at restaurants, higher tips.
  5. Touch: Putting your hand on someone’s shoulder can let them know that you support them. While touching their lower arm as you speak shows affection or attraction.

Examples of Closed Body Language

  1. Eye Contact: Making 100% eye contact and staring without blinking can show aggression, it’s also a territorial signal. Quite often someone doing this will also step into your space or lean forward, sometimes with their hands clenched.
  2. Facial Expressions: A tight lipped smile or clenched teeth, especially when accompanied by crossed arms and closed fists, is a sign that someone is angry or feeling defensive.
  3. Gestures: Hand clasping indicates nervousness. Interlacing of fingers is a type of “self-hug” and used as a way of helping ourselves feel more secure.
  4. Posture or body positioning: Crossed ankles pulled close to your body, are a show of anxiousness or discomfort. Sitting with your ankles around a chair’s legs conveys distress and that one would prefer to leave the conversation.
  5. Touch: Playing with objects signals boredom. It’s also a way of conveying to someone else that you want to leave. While rubbing your neck or ears shows increasing anxiety and discomfort.

Psychologists and Non-Verbal Language

Psychologists use a combination of verbal and non-verbal cues to interpret what a client is experiencing or trying to express. As facial expressions indicate distinct emotional states, they can be used to assist a psychologist. For example, when a patient is trying to mask something like anxiety or fear. A patient’s gestures are also useful as question prompts because they can show if someone is hiding or omitting information.

Are you fascinated by what people don’t say while they are talking? Do you find what people convey via their body language interesting? Are you good at interpreting non-verbal cues? If you are, then look into doing a Psychology degree at SACAP. SACAP admissions officers can advise you on the different study options available. Contact them to chat further.

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