We are commonly told to “put our best foot forward” when interviewing for a job, giving a presentation, or meeting someone for the first time. Certainly we don’t really make these first impressions with our feet, but we do say a lot with our bodies. Through fidgets, facial expressions, and even fluency of speech, we convey all kinds of information to those on the other end of the conversation—perhaps without even realizing it.
As you can probably guess, body language refers to the communication that is understood by interpreting the position or movement of parts of the body. These signals are nonverbal, and may be unrelated to or inconsistent with the words coming out of our mouths. Things like restlessness and fidgeting, the look on your face, and how you hold yourself when sitting or standing represent different kinds of nonverbal communications; for example, to give an audience the idea of confidence you might stand tall with your head high and your shoulders back while giving a presentation. If you’re stumbling over your words, wringing your hands, or slouched over, however, you’ll likely seem more nervous or unprepared.
Though we often think of body language as related to the body itself, as we convene online more frequently due to COVID-19, head movements and facial expressions become our main source of these nonverbal cues. However, these signals might not be as easily interpreted as full-body movements or positions; when researchers examined how body restriction (experimental confinement to a wheelchair) impacted the ability to accurately convey nonverbal emotional cues, they found that recognition of emotion was much lower when body use was restricted (Reed et al., 2020).
Because of the barrier created by the inability to observe a speaker’s body, we often find ourselves compensating—we might nod the head more visibly to represent agreement or show that we are paying attention. We listen to the tone and cadence of others’ voices more when we can’t see their face or body during a virtual presentation. In order to effectively communicate with friends, coworkers, or audience members, it’s crucial to keep your body language in mind.
Bodily movements and facial expressions are generally natural, therefore, we tend to think of them as “honest” representations of people and therefore look to them for information. Former FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro says that “we are always transmitting information to others, whether we know it or not,” and this is precisely the reason that nonverbal signals are so important. In his book published in 2018, Navarro catalogues many of the common bits and pieces of nonverbal information that individuals display frequently. He explains that many behaviors are self-soothing, meaning that they are primarily meant to calm us down or bring comfort during times of stress. A few common self-soothing behaviors include:
A common misconception about some of these behaviors is that they indicate dishonesty or defensiveness. Navarro disputes this claim, asserting instead that they are more generally indicative of levels of discomfort or simply attempts to regulate ourselves and our emotions (2018). Regardless of how we interpret such behaviors as these, we look to body language to discern personality traits in others.
Imagine walking into a conference room on your first day of a new job. You probably look everyone up and down, take note of their outfit or whether they look happy or annoyed to see you. Are their arms crossed? Hands on the hips? Eyebrows raised? In a split second, you take in all of this information to decide whether you introduce yourself or apologize for interrupting and get out of there fast. Research supports this example. A group of 65 students were asked to evaluate seventeen paintings as if they were images of teachers and describe their perceptions of personality and teaching ability. The students reliably divided the “teachers” into distinct categories based on things like competency and approachability inferred solely from how they appeared in these images; this provides strong evidence in favor of our tendency to seek out body language cues when attempting to make sense of people around us (Martikainen, 2020).
When we are interacting with real people instead of paintings, however, body language and other nonverbal cues represent dynamic indications of emotional states. In a study examining participants while playing multiple rounds of a Mafia-type game, researchers were able to identify common features indicative of dominance (contrasted with submission), composure (contrasted with nervousness), and trust (contrasted with distrust). Dominant players tended to talk louder and more frequently, use more expressive facial movements, and move their heads around more often. In contrast, nervous (i.e. non-composure) behaviors included greater rigidity, shorter talking turns and much quieter voices, likely as part of an effort to conceal any indication of nervousness in the voice itself. They identified fewer indications of trustworthiness, but found preliminary evidence that greater vocal variation (as opposed to more monotone speech) tended to indicate higher levels of trustworthiness (Burgoon et al., 2021).
Have you ever noticed how some people really seem to talk with their hands? This is often used (intentionally or not) as a means of emphasizing points made in a story or conversation. Many nonverbals have this same effect—not only hand movements and gestures, but even facial expressions and vocal tones or inflections. The information conveyed via these nonverbal elements can either support or contradict what is being said and done. Using body language, vocal changes, and gestures to reinforce or emphasize what you are saying can be quite positive for your audience; for example, is something you’re saying is unclear or confusing, those listening to you might watch your hands and body as clues to what you might mean or be referring to. A study in 2020 found that when ambiguous pronouns were utilized in a sentence (“this” or “that”, e.g.), participants used directional gestures to determine the antecedent being referenced (Hinnell & Parrill).
The relationship between what you are saying and what your body is doing (also called communication coherence) can also influence how credible you appear to be. Previous research has consistently shown that messages that can be processed fluently are more likely to be perceived as familiar, attractive, and true (Hansen, Dechêne, & Wänke, 2008). Though many studies of this kind have focused on the perceptual fluency of text objects, in 2020 an experiment was conducted to test this idea in the context of verbal-nonverbal congruence. Researchers found that when nonverbal behaviors conveyed information that was complementary to verbal expressions, viewers were much more likely to interpret the assertion as true—on the other hand, when viewers received conflicting information from verbal and nonverbal sources, they tended to interpret the verbal statements as false (ten Brinke & Weisbuch).
This pattern is especially vulnerable to our own biases about what confidence or deceit look like; despite Navarro’s insistence that fidgeting behaviors are often methods of self-soothing rather than tell-all markers of deception, many people still associated behaviors like these with nervousness brought about by attempting to tell a convincing lie. Consequently, when we observe behaviors like these in others, we tend to perceive them as less credible, regardless of the objective truth in what they are saying. Evidence for these tendencies was found just last year by a study in which participants viewed someone make a true statement with varying levels of “fidgeting behavior” present. As predicted, results showed that a greater degree of fidgeting behavior was associated with lower perceived credibility (Bogaard & Meijer, 2020).
People, by nature, often rely heavily on visual information when going about our lives in the world. Because of this, we are able to pick up on changes to the face or body of others quite rapidly—within seconds, actually. An innovative study in 2019 proposed a two-step model for the mechanism by which we interpret emotions from certain changes in body position. By randomly alternating between neutral and fear-related body expression images, they were able to directly examine the neural reaction to a change from neutral to fearful. Results indicated that we process a change in body posture within 170-210 milliseconds, and within 210-260 milliseconds the perception of related emotional change follows (Ding et al., 2019). These results have powerful implications for the social utility of body language and other nonverbal cues. Being able to efficiently detect emotionally-charged changes in body position allows us to better and more-quickly respond to the needs of our friends, family, and peers.
Many nonverbal behaviors carry the same meaning across cultures and social contexts, making them a great tool when communicating with a culturally diverse group of people. While vocal tones and inflections may vary by language and culture, there are a number of facial expressions and body positions that convey the same meaning universally. In one study, eighteen different facial-bodily emotional expressions of boredom, fear, anger, shame, amusement, pain, confusion, disgust, surprise, happiness, embarrassment, hunger/food desire, coyness, pride, sympathy, sadness, sexual desire, and interest were all reliably identified above chance levels across nine different cultures (Cordaro et al., 2020).
Consistent with these findings, a study published just this year found that we not only recognize, but also produce many of the same facial expressions in the same contexts across the world; applying machine learning techniques to analyze and examine sixteen distinct facial expressions occurring in videos, researchers found that each expression was distinctly associated with a set of contexts preserved up to 70% across twelve world regions (Cowen et al., 2021). This kind of research underscores the importance of clear and intentional use of body language signals to facilitate more understanding between speaker and listener, presenter and audience.
Because many pieces of nonverbal communication are based in our emotional state, learning to understand and manage our thoughts and feelings can be incredibly useful when working to improve the signals we send out. Research has shown that those with higher levels of emotional awareness are better at recognizing the emotional states of others through things like posture or facial expressions (Wright et al., 2018). Therefore, building your own emotional awareness can help you understand how you’re feeling, why you might be feeling that way, and how that affects your outward appearance— in other words, what information are you giving off to others because of your mood, and how might you be able to change that?
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Burgoon, Wang, Chen, Pentland,& Dunbar. (2021). Nonverbal Behaviors “Speak” Relational Messages of Dominance, Trust, and Composure. Frontiers in Psychology. 12. 7. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.624177
Cordaro, Sun, Kamble, Hodder, Monroy, Cowen, Bai, & Keltner. (2020). The recognition of 18 facial-bodily expressions across nine cultures. Emotion. 20(7). 1292–1300.
Cowen, Keltner, Schroff, et al. (2021). Sixteen facial expressions occur in similar contexts worldwide. Nature. 589. 251–257.
Ding, Liu, Kang, Wang, & Kret. (2019). Automatic change detection of emotional and neutral body expressions: Evidence from visual mismatch negativity. Frontiers in Psychology. 10.
Hansen, Dechêne, & Wänke. (2008). Discrepant fluency increases subjective truth. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 44(3). 687-691.
Hinnell & Parrill. (2020). Gesture Influences Resolution of Ambiguous Statements of Neutral and Moral Preferences. Frontiers in Psychology. 11. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.587129
Martikainen. (2020). How Students Categorize Teachers Based on Visual Cues: Implications of Nonverbal Communication for Classroom Management. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research. 64(4). 569-588.
Navarro. (2018). The Dictionary of Body Language: A field guide to human behavior. Harper Collins.
Reed, Moody, Mgrublian, Assaad, Sche, & McIntos. (2020). Body Matters in Emotion: Restricted Body Movement and Posture Affect Expression and Recognition of Status-Related Emotions. Frontiers in Psychology. 11. 1961. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.0196
Wright, R., Riedel, R., Sechrest, L. et al. Sex differences in emotion recognition ability: The mediating role of trait emotional awareness. Motiv Emot 42, 149–160 (2018).