Experts say some 90% of communication is non-verbal, so how you read someone’s body language (and how they read yours) is important in understanding people you meet for the first time. Makenzie Jones provides some basic guidelines.
“What did I say wrong?” you may ask yourself after an encounter with someone that did not go as expected. However, it may not have been anything that you said, but how you said it. The adage “actions speak louder than words” is key to remember in our daily interactions. While we can say whatever words we want to put out there, much of our non-verbal communication is innate and shows meaning we do not say.
Patti Wood, author of Success Signals: A Guide to Reading Body Language, says “Almost 90% of what we say comes from nonverbal cues.” It is important to observe not only the body language of the people around you but your own as well.
Men and women differ in both expressions and interpretations of body language, beginning with approaches to communication in general. Men communicate mostly to transmit information and solve problems while women aim to express feelings and achieve emotional intimacy. Therefore, women use more nonverbal communication than men do and are better at interpreting others’ messages.
It takes an average of three eye-gaze attempts by a woman before a man picks up on the signal.
Men are less subtle than women, often using their hands, while women rely more heavily on facial expressions. Face-to-face encounters are preferred by men, but women are also comfortable interacting side-by-side. Proximity is viewed by men as a sign of aggression or confrontation and they associate touch with sexual intimacy, but women are more tolerant of others in their space and use touch to express friendship and sympathy.
Because body language can often contradict the spoken word, sometimes it may be helpful to use perception checking to be sure what the other person means. This is first describing the behavior you noticed, providing two possible interpretations, then asking for clarification. For example, I could say to my mom, “You seem to be irritated since you came home. Did you have a frustrating day at work, or did I do something? Can you help me understand what’s up so maybe I can help?”
Sometimes it may be useful to tune out someone’s words and look solely at their body language, especially the eyes, which have been called “the windows to the soul.” Eye contact shows confidence, interest, and attention to the person who is speaking. The eyebrows and lids can show a plethora of expression such as fear, frustration, sadness, or excitement.
First impressions can make or break many relationships and job opportunities with body language as a major factor. Posture, tone, and eye contact give insight into a person’s confidence, attitude, and attention to others. Standing up straight, open chest, feet facing forward, eye contact, and a firm handshake are powerful to making a positive impression. These all show confidence, attentiveness, and are things people find desirable in someone they meet.
On the other hand, slumping, crossing your arms, and having a weak handshake express insecurity and can indicate to another that you are not willing or able to meet their wants or needs. Synchrony in body language shows that the two people are on the same page.
Tone and pitch of voice and rate of speech are also considered key factors in nonverbal communication, as they are not actual words, but give insight beyond them. How many times have you heard from your child, “Yeah, Mom, that’s cool,” with a sigh and lack of interest? Sarcasm runs rampant in our society. A high-pitched, fast-paced list of things to do can show someone’s anxiety even when they tell you that they “have it all under control.” “It’s fine, I’m fine,” has become a cliché when things are obviously not okay.
Here are some body language actions that you may need to know in decoding others’ messages as well as when you are observing your own:
Arms crossed on chest Defensive, uncomfortable, disagreement
Nail biting Stress, nervousness, insecurity
Tapping fingers Impatience
Head tilted Listening intently, interested
Open palms Openness and honesty
One eyebrow raised Questioning
Feet facing away Want to leave
Flipping hair or wrist, batting eyes (females) Flirty and playfulness
Hands clasped behind back Confidence and superiority