Some life skills are picked up automatically (or apparently so) as we grow up, others can only be learned, but most fall somewhere between these two poles. Interpreting and projecting body language is one of the latter kind. We all understand that somebody who’s shouting and turning red in the face is probably angry, while someone who’s gazing at the floor and shuffling his feet is probably embarrassed or ashamed. But what does it mean if a woman folds her arms over her chest: is she cold, feeling uneasy, or does she need to use the restroom?
At work, in relationships, at school – in fact in any situation that involves interacting with people face to face – knowing how to interpret the postures and movements of others, and knowing how to project the image you want just makes life much easier. It’s actually a shame that nonverbal communication isn’t taught to children in the same way grammar is: it has its own type of grammar which links directly to our minds and emotions.
Body Language and Confidence
By some sort of weird interaction that’s still not fully understood by psychologists, the way in which we act affects not only how others perceive us, but also our own moods. We may not be able to see ourselves, but how we position our limbs, where we direct our gaze, how loudly we speak and how straight we keep our spine affects our feelings on some fundamental level.
Psychologists who studied what are called “microexpressions” trained themselves to identify and tense every muscle in their faces, individually and in various combinations. The goal was to scientifically describe every facial expression and its associated emotion, with the experiments basically consisting of two serious academics spending whole afternoons pulling faces at each other. However, the researchers discovered an additional, unexpected effect: after spending hours practicing expressions associated with negative emotions, they often ended up feeling angry, anxious or sad without apparent reason.
If you wish to appear more confident at a job interview, when meeting a client or setting out on a first date, start paying attention to your own body language half an hour before. Look up at eye level, relax your shoulders while straightening your torso, stand with your feet comfortably apart and don’t hide your hands in your lap or pockets. Make your gestures a little bigger than usual and maintain eye contact with whoever you’re speaking with (though not in a threatening, staring way). Doing so will not only boost your self-confidence more than you would believe possible but also affect the way the other person perceives you, making negotiation easier and the conversation more likely to go your way.
Interpreting Body Language
The most difficult aspect of learning to “listen” to body language is that it’s not an exact science: every gesture can have more than one meaning which often changes completely between cultures. In some parts of the world, nodding means “no” and shaking your head signifies “yes please”. Some people can’t look at another person’s face when lying, while others act artificially confident; some people sweat when nervous, or simply when the thermostat is set too high for their liking.
While these kinds of limitations should be kept in mind, learning how to read people can have enormous benefits. People don’t always say exactly what they mean for various reasons: they could be nervous, eager not to disappoint someone with bad news, or be lying for their own benefit. Knowing which facial and bodily cues tend to reflect each emotional state makes it much easier to gauge a person’s emotional state, which can help you make an educated guess about the true meaning of their words.
While there are numerous general guidelines to follow, the first step in learning how to read a person’s body language is simply practicing observation. Just like most people spend the time another person is talking thinking about what to say next instead of actually listening, few people really take the trouble to examine another person’s expression and posture. Skilled body language interpreters, on the other hand, have no difficulty in spotting things like a fractional movement of an eyebrow lasting less than a second, or a tiny change in the color of a person’s lips.
Courses in Body Language
While projecting and reading body language is as much an art as science, science does indeed make up a large part of this skill set. Various online resources are available, although this does not allow the student to actually practice what they are learning. Depending on where you live, you might be able to attend a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) course, which is a formalized system for communication that includes not only body language, but a number of techniques to communicate more effectively, whether while talking or listening.