We constantly communicate with each other—even non-verbally (without talking). In fact 60 to 80 per cent of our communication is non-verbal; only seven to ten per cent is attributable to the actual words of a conversation. Your mood, emotion, energy levels and attitude can be detected through your body language—we show others how we feel.
Sometimes we say one thing but display quite another through our body language. This often happens without our realising it, for instance our words might say: ‘I am not angry with you’ but our body language is screaming: ‘Stay away from me!’ It is very confusing when dealing with someone who reacts like this since it is obvious that they are not telling the truth about how they’re really feeling.
When we want to connect with someone we are attracted to, our body language ‘speaks’ our intention. Flirting is mostly non-verbal and is a way of letting someone know that we are interested in them without actually having to say: ‘I’m interested in you. How do you feel about me?’ If the other person is interested they will flirt back. It’s not something we think about or plan—we simply act out our feelings and emotions, and words are simply unnecessary.
We use body language to show how we really feel about something or someone—especially when we’re angry or upset. People who would rather avoid conflict often resort to showing how they feel instead of verbalising their fears, concerns or opinions. This is mostly done unconsciously, but sometimes it is done very deliberately: ‘I can’t tell you how I feel, but my body language and behaviour will show you.’
We have all experienced unexplained ‘knowing’ feelings about a situation. For example, you may have left a job interview saying: ‘I think she liked me’ with no proof that she actually did like you. This type of feeling is called intuition. When you observe someone else’s behaviour and body language you intuitively know how they feel. It is subconscious observation.
Interpreting non-verbal messages
Non-verbal messages have to be interpreted by taking all communication into consideration. A single non-verbal message is often difficult to interpret accurately because many messages can be interpreted in several ways. For example crossed arms may be an indication of an unwillingness to participate or it may just be comfortable for the person to sit that way, or maybe both. A non-verbal message can be accurately interpreted only if other communications confirm it. For example, you may interpret that a person is unwilling to participate if their arms are folded and their answers are too short—perhaps only ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
You cannot accurately interpret inconsistent non-verbal messages. The same is true of tone of voice: sometimes a person will say ‘Yes’ but you can hear from their tone of voice that they do not mean it. You should look for verbal or other non-verbal messages to confirm an obviously negative non-verbal message. Look for messages that correspond with each other so that you can make a more accurate interpretation.
Cultural differences must always be kept in mind when you analyse or send non-verbal messages. Different societies have different meanings for particular non-verbal messages. For example, in some cultures avoiding eye contact is an expected sign of respect, but in others it is taken as an indication of dishonesty or at least disinterest.
Common indicators of negative attitudes
There are many different types of negative attitude, shown by different kinds of body language. Here are some of the most common ones.
- Biting fingernails or chewing on a pencil
- Hand wringing or rubbing
- Frequent coughing
- Keeping hands deep in pockets
- Tightening of the jaw
- Rubbing or scratching the back of the neck or the head
- Looking away
- Lack of eye contact
- Sideways glances
- Covering the mouth with a hand while speaking
- Frequent blinking of the eyes, or frequent coughing
- Pointing a finger at someone
- Crossing the arms high on the chest
- Crossing one’s legs
Boredom or indifference
- Looking away
- Head in hand, or hands
- Preoccupation with something else
You can train yourself not to show how you feel about a person or a situation by deliberately using positive body language. Here are some of the most useful techniques for doing this:
- Maintain good eye contact with your conversation partner. This will show that you are paying close attention and that you respect their opinion. Soften your eyes deliberately.
- Always maintain good body posture. Slouching indicates laziness, disinterest, disrespect and a no-care attitude.
- The way you hold your head plays a major role in how others perceive you. Keep your head both horizontally and vertically level. You will come across as more confident and motivated, which is good for your image.
- The position of your arms indicates how open and receptive you are to people, their ideas, views and opinions. Keep your arms at your sides. Don’t fold your arms, unless you mean to show your disapproval.
- Our legs are also a giveaway sign. Constantly moving your legs around creates a perception of nervousness, stress or deception and should be avoided.
- The angle of your body in relation to someone else’s indicates your attitude and feelings toward them. We turn toward people we like or find attractive but turn away from people we don’t like or do not approve of.
- Shaking hands: when someone offers a hand with the palm down it is an indication of dominance or aggression. Always shake hands vertically, to convey a message of amiability and friendliness.
- Never invade someone else’s personal space. Keep a small distance away from the person you are talking with so that they do not feel offended or threatened.
- Be careful not to give off the wrong signals by pursing or biting your lips. You may come across as displeased or it may seem as though you are trying to withhold an angry outburst.
- The most important body language tip: smile! A smile can get you out of a tight spot and can turn a bad situation around for you.