How to Decode Body Language

Learning how to decode body language is a fascinating endeavor with eye-opening results. Considering that the majority of human communication is nonverbal, body language speaks volumes without a word being uttered.

Gestures, movements and positions can silently expose subconscious thoughts, while eyes, arms, fingers and legs tell their own unspoken stories. The formal study of these movements is called kinesics, and for decades professionals have worked toward understanding the language of body movements.

Here are some basic tell-tale details to decode body language:

The Eyes Have it

Not only are the eyes the mirror to the soul, they also can convey a variety of different intentions and meanings:

Power is indicated by unblinking, lengthy eye contact. Disbelief is displayed when a gaze is averted, and the eyes stare elsewhere for a lengthy period.

Boredom is shown when the eyes are trained on the speaker, but they’re somewhat unfocused. Interest can be expressed by extensive eye contact.

Lying may lie beneath excessive blinking, and eyes that dart from side to side indicate the person seeks a way out of a situation or conversation. Squinting is a way for one person to prevent someone else from knowing where they are looking.

To intentionally avoid looking at someone says they’re not worth seeing. Widened eyes signal vulnerability. Keeping eyes attentively on another person is a sign of intense listening.

Romantic Movements

Preening is a way of displaying romantic interest. Movements include carelessly moving hair, tossing the head, brushing off clothes, and general primping.

Romantic thoughts are indicated by subconsciously imitating sexual responses, such as stroking one’s own face, caressing face or arms.  Licking and pursing lips are obvious signs of sensual interest. Casually rubbing or stroking wine glasses or beer bottles are more subtle indicators of sensual interest.

Looks from across a room can show interest if a person looks at someone for slightly longer than normal, then looks away, only to return their glance for a lengthier time.

Leaning toward someone indicates a desire to be closer to them, and can be used as a test to see if the other person leans toward or away from the advance. Pointing a knee, foot or arm toward someone is another indication of interest. Sitting with legs apart can indicate a somewhat obvious underlying desire to be intimate with someone.

Standing squarely in front of someone can block others from entering into the conversation and is a sign that they should not approach. Gazing at someone’s lips indicates that there is a desire to kiss.

Creating accidental contact intentionally, such as bumping into someone, can be a sign of a desire for intimacy.

Touching is Telling

Hugging signifies a desire to bond. It is a warmer greeting than a handshake, and occurs more between women than men. Full-body embraces enable more intimate body contact and may be interpreted as suggestive.

Lengthy hugs show affection and generally take place among people who have not seen each other for awhile. Hugging another person from behind is generally surprising, and may be perceived as threatening.

Handshakes trigger a number of body language interpretations. Firmness indicates confidence, a light grip is a sign of shyness, especially in men. Palm-down handshakes indicate superiority and dominace, sideways palm shows equality, palm-up signifies a position of submission.

Lengthy handshakes can show either pleasure or dominance, the latter is especially true if someone tries to pull out but the more dominant hand-shaker does not permit them to do so. Using the free hand to hold the other person’s wrist, arm or shoulder while shaking hands also shows dominance.

A light, gentle touch can express either caution or encouragement, depending on the situation.

Sealed with a Kiss

Kissing is an accepted form of greeting in some social circles and cultures.  When used as a greeting, kissing is usually short and may take place either on the cheek or briefly on the lips. Close friends kissing as a greeting may last longer and include hugging. Romantic kissing as a greeting is more prone to involve full-length hugging and extra touching with the hands.

Heads Up

Boredom is shown when the head tilts to one side. Deceit may be displayed when someone touches their face during a conversation.  A head tilted forward slightly indicated attentiveness. Curiosity or uncertainty is expressed when someone’s head is tilted to the side.

Pointing the chin and head downward is a defensive move based on human instinct to protect the neck from being attacked. Tension may be indicated when the head is moved away from someone. Calmness and comfort is displayed when the head is held still.

Presenting Arms

Crossed arms indicate an invisible barrier has been created, or that a person is seriously contemplating what is being discussed. This powerful body position can also display opposition, especially if the person is leaning away from someone else who is speaking.

Openness is expressed when arms are not crossed, and moving around comfortably in coordination with what is being said.  When palms are held open and relaxed, this shows that there is nothing to hide.

Aggressive Indicators

Gestures can be interpreted in a variety of aggressive ways. Upward-pointing fingers, kicking and arm thrusting are obvious movements of which most people are aware. Facial expressions can also indicate aggression, such as sneering, snarling, frowning and terse lips.

Clenched fists and redness in the face show anger and a possible readiness to attack. Unexpectedly touching someone can signal an act of aggression because it is an uninvited invasion of their personal space.

Someone who positions their body directly in front of another person, standing close to them, may be committing an act of aggression. Sudden movements may be made to assess the other person’s ability to react.

Identifying Emotions

Fear is shown a number of ways through body language, most of which are relatively easy to detect. Paleness, trembling, cold sweat, vocal tremors, fidgeting and gasping all indicate fear.

Embarrassment is detectable when someone’s neck and face becomes flushed or red, and they look down to avoid eye contact. Sadness is prevalent when a sagging stance, limpness, trembling lips and moist eyes are observed. Shock or surprise indicators include spontaneous backward movement, widened eyes, raised eyebrows, gasping, and open mouth.

Expanding Nonverbal Horizons

The next time you’re around people, try to read what their gestures, positions and movements are saying. When you meet someone new and shake hands, pay attention to which side of the palm is offered. When you’re talking, try to notice if the person listening is indicating boredom or interest through body language. Try to decode the body language taking place around you.

In the meantime, take a mental peek at how you express yourself, and decide if you’d like to adapt your subtle presentation.

Remember, there are times that body language speaks louder than words.


“Body Language” by Julius Fast