Learning to read body language 2


                          Positive Body gestures and their meanings


Space communication is communicating with others by virtue of the relative positioning of your bodies.

There are different parts of the world where people act differently.

The primary territory of a person is their personal area, which may be a house, a bedroom, a den or study, where they feel most at home. Here, they can be themselves and be relaxed.

Secondary territory is where they also feel comfortable. This may be neutral places such as bars and restaurants or other private places such as at a friend’s house or a club.

Public territory is not owned by us or people we trust, but it is neutral. This includes streets, parks and other public places. There may be threat or safety here, depending on the place and the time.

Interaction territory is a temporary private space where I am having a conversation with others. This may be in a café or even moving along a corridor. It is assumed I can communicate with relative privacy within this space

Personal space

The personal space around my body includes a number of concentric circles where the closer areas are reserved for more trusted people. If you are closer to me, you may attack me, so I will seek to keep close areas safer by forbidding all but approved friends.

Hall (1966) found four key zones:

  • Intimate: touching to 10 inches. For close friends and family.
  • Casual-personal: 18 inches to four feet: Informal conversation with friends.
  • Social-consultative: four to twelve feet: formal transactions.
  • Public: Addressing groups of people.

Note that this distance can vary significantly. Extraverts, for example, may have smaller distances whilst introverts may prefer to keep their distance. People who live in towns and cities are used to squeezing closer to people so have smaller spaces, whilst country people stand so far apart they have to lean forwards to shake hands.

Body angling

Bodies may be angled with other people ranging from side-to-side to face-to-face.

Direct face-to-face can be confrontational or intimate and so many conversations are held with people sitting or standing at an angle to one another.

When side-by-side, people face the same way and hence it is difficult to see the other’s face. This is done as a practical step when walking or may be deliberately used to ‘face the same problem’.


We like to keep our distance from others and there are very specific social rules about how close we can go to others in particular situations.

This social distance is also known as body space and comfort zone and the use of this space is called proxemics.

Why the distance?

Regulating the distances between us and other people provides us with several benefits, including:

  • Safety: When people are distant, they can’t surprise attack us.
  • Communication: When people are closer, it is easier to communicate with them.
  • Affection: When they are closer still, we can be intimate.
  • Threat: The reverse can be used – you may deliberately threaten a person by invading their body space.

Social distances

The social distances here are approximate, of course and will vary with people. But they are still a good general rule.

Public Zone : > 12 feet (3m)

The public zone is generally over 12 feet. That is, when we are walking around town, we will try to keep at least 12 feet between us and other people. For example, we will leave that space between us and the people walking in front.

Of course there are many times when we cannot do this. What the theory of social distance tells us is that we will start to notice other people who are within this radius. The closer they get, the more we become aware and ready ourselves for appropriate action.

When we are distant from another person, we feel a degree of safety from them. A person at a distance cannot attack us suddenly. If they do seem to threaten, we will have time to dodge, run or prepare for battle.

Social Zone : 4 – 12 feet (1.5m – 3m)

Within the social zone, we start to feel a connection with other people. When they are closer, then we can talk with them without having to shout, but still keep them at a safe distance.

This is a comfortable distance for people who are standing in a group but maybe not talking directly with one another. People sitting in chairs or gathered in a room will tend to like this distance.

Personal Zone : 1.5-4 feet (0.5m – 1.5m)

In the personal zone, the conversation gets more direct, and this is a good distance for two people who are talking in earnest about something.

Intimate Zone < 1.5 feet (< 0.5m)

When a person is within arms reach or closer, then we can touch them in intimate ways. We can also see more detail of their body language and look them in they eyes. When they are closer, they also blot out other people so all we can see is them (and vice versa). Romance of all kinds happens in this space.

Entering the intimate zone of somebody else can be very threatening. This is sometimes done as a deliberate ploy to give a non-verbal signal that they are powerful enough to invade your territory at will.

Varying rules

The rules about social distance vary with different groups of people. You can detect this by watching people’s reactions. If you feel safe and they seem not to feel safe, back off. If they invade your space, decide whether to invade back or act otherwise. Turning sideways is an easy alternative for this, as a person to the side is less threatening than a person at the same distance in front of you.

Town and country

People who live in towns spend more time close to one another and so their social distances may compact somewhat. In a large and crowded city, the distances will be less than in a small town.

People who normally live a long way from others will expand their social distances and may even have to lean over towards another person to shake hands and then back off to a safe distance.

Different countries

Different countries also have different rules about social distances. The overcrowded nature of some Asian countries means that they are accustomed to talking to others from a very close distance.

Watch a Japanese person talking at a party with a person from the Western countryside. The Japanese will step in and the Westerner will step back. Speeded up it is like a dance around the room.


The eyes are often called, with some justification, ‘the windows of the soul’ as they can send many different non-verbal signals.

For reading body language this is quite useful as looking at people’s eyes are a normal part of communication (whilst gazing at other parts of the body can be seen as rather rude).

Looking up

When a person looks upwards they are often thinking. In particular they are probably making pictures in their head and thus may well be an indicator of a visual thinker.

When they are delivering a speech or presentation, looking up may be their recalling their prepared words.

Looking upwards and to the left can indicate recalling a memory. Looking upwards and the right can indicate imaginative construction of a picture (which can hence betray a liar). Be careful with this: sometimes the directions are reversed — if in doubt, test the person by asking them to recall known facts or imagine something.

Looking up may also be a signal of boredom as the person examines the surroundings in search of something more interesting.

Head lowered and eyes looking back up at the other person is a coy and suggestive action as it combines the head down of submission with eye contact of attraction.

Looking down

Looking at a person can be an act of power and domination. Looking down involves not looking at the other person, which hence may be a sign of submission (‘I am not a threat, really; please do not hurt me. You are so glorious I would be dazzled if I looked at you.’)

Looking down can thus be a signal of submission. It can also indicate that the person is feeling guilty.

Looking down and to the left can indicate that they are talking to themselves (look for slight movement of the lips). Looking down and to the right can indicate that they are attending to internal emotions.

Looking sideways

Much of our field of vision is in the horizontal plane, so when a person looks sideways, they are either looking away from what is in front of them or looking towards something that has taken their interest.

A quick glance sideways can just be checking the source of a distraction to assess for threat or interest. It can also be done to show irritation (‘I didn’t appreciate that comment!’).

Looking to the left can indicate a person recalling a sound. Looking to the right can indicate that they are imagining the sound. As with visual and other movements, this can be reversed and may need checking against known truth and fabrication.

Lateral movement

Eyes moving from side-to-side can indicate shiftiness and lying, as if the person is looking for an escape route in case they are found out.

Lateral movement can also happen when the person is being conspiratorial, as if they are checking that nobody else is listening.

Eyes may also move back and forth sideways (and sometimes up and down) when the person is visualizing a big picture and is literally looking it over.


Looking at something shows an interest in it, whether it is a painting, a table or a person.

When looking at a person normally, the gaze is usually at eye level or above (see eye contact, below). The gaze can also be a defocused looking at the general person

Looking at a person’s mouth can indicate that you would like to kiss them. Looking at sexual regions indicates a desire to have sexual relations with them.

Looking up and down at a whole person is usually sizing them up, either as a potential threat or as a sexual partner (notice where the gaze lingers). This can be quite insulting and hence indicate a position of presumed dominance, as the person effectively says ‘I am more powerful than you, your feelings are unimportant to me and you will submit to my gaze’.

It is difficult to conceal a gaze as we are particularly adept at identifying exactly where other people are looking. This is one reason why we have larger eye whites than animals, as it aids complex communication.


Glancing at something can betray a desire for that thing, for example glancing at the door can indicate a desire to leave.

Glancing at a person can indicate a desire to talk with them. It can also indicate a concern for that person’s feeling when something is said that might upset them.

Glancing may indicate a desire to gaze at something or someone where it is forbidden to look for a prolonged period.

Eye contact

Doe eyes

A softening of the eyes, with relaxing of muscles around the eye and a slight defocusing as the person tries to take in the whole person is sometimes called doe eyes, as it often indicates sexual desire, particularly if the gaze is prolonged and the pupils are dilated (see below).

Making eye contact

Looking at a person acknowledges them and shows that you are interested in them, particularly if you look in their eyes.

Looking at a person’s eyes also lets you know where they are looking. We are amazingly good at detecting what they are looking at and can detect even a brief glance at parts of our body, for example.

If a person says something when you are looking away and then you make eye contact, then this indicates they have grabbed your attention.

Breaking eye contact

Prolonged eye contact can be threatening, so in conversation we frequently look away and back again.

Breaking eye contact can indicate that something that has just been said that makes the person not want to sustain eye contact, for example that they are insulted, they have been found out, they feel threatened, etc. This can also happen when the person thinks something that causes the same internal discomfort.

Looking at a person, breaking eye contact and then looking immediately back at them is a classic flirting action, particularly with the head held coyly low in suggested submission.

Long eye contact

Eye contact longer than normal can have several different meanings.

Eye contact often increases significantly when we are listening, and especially when we are paying close attention to what the other person is saying. Less eye contact is used when talking, particularly by people who are visual thinkers as they stare into the distance or upwards as they ‘see’ what they are talking about.

We also look more at people we like and like people who look at us more. When done with doe eyes and smiles, it is a sign of attraction. Lovers will stare into each others eyes for a long period. Attraction is also indicated by looking back and forth between the two eyes, as if we are desperately trying to determine if they are interested in us too.

An attraction signal that is more commonly used by women is to hold the other person’s gaze for about three seconds, Then look down for a second or two and then look back up again (to see if they have taken the bait). If the other person is still looking at them, they are rewarded with a coy smile or a slight widening of the eyes (‘Yes, this message is for you!’).

When done without blinking, contracted pupils and an immobile face, this can indicate domination, aggression and use of power. In such circumstances a staring competition can ensue, with the first person to look away admitting defeat.

Prolonged eye contact can be disconcerting. A trick to reduce stress from this is to look at the bridge of their nose. They will think you are still looking in their eyes.

Sometimes liars, knowing that low eye contact is a sign of lying, will over-compensate and look at you for a longer than usual period. Often this is done without blinking as they force themselves into this act. They may smile with the mouth, but not with the eyes as this is more difficult.

Limited eye contact

When a person makes very little eye contact, they may be feeling insecure. They may also be lying and not want to be detected.


Staring is generally done with eyes wider than usual, prolonged attention to something and with reduced blinking. It generally indicates particular interest in something or someone.

Staring at a person can indicate shock and disbeliefs, particularly after hearing unexpected news.

When the eyes are defocused, the person’s attention may be inside their head and what they are staring at may be of no significance. (Without care, this can become quite embarrassing for them).

Prolonged eye contact can be aggressive, affectionate or deceptive and is discussed further above. Staring at another’s eyes is usually more associated with aggressive action.


The eyes will naturally follow movement of any kind. If the person is looking at something of interest then they will naturally keep looking at this. They also follow neutral or feared things in case the movement turns into a threat.

This is used when sales people move something like a pen or finger up and down, guiding where the customer looks, including to eye contact and to parts of the product being sold.


Narrowing of a person’s eyes can indicate evaluation, perhaps considering that something told to them is not true (or at least not fully so).

It can similarly indicate uncertainty (‘I cannot quite see what is meant here.’)

Squinting can also be used by liars who do not want the other person to detect their deception.

Squinting can also happen when lights or the sun are bright.

Lowering of eyelids is not really a squint but can have a similar meaning. It can also indicate tiredness.

Lowering eyelids whilst still looking at the other person can be a part of a romantic and suggestive cluster, and may be accompanied with tossing back the head and slightly puckering the lips in a kiss.


Blinking is a neat natural process whereby the eyelids wipe the eyes clean, much as a windscreen wiper on a car.

Blink rate tends to increase when people are thinking more. This can be an indication of lying as the liar has to keep thinking about what they are saying. Realizing this, they may also force their eyes open and appear to stare.

Blinking can also indicate rapport, and people who are connected often blink at the same rate. Someone who is listening carefully to you is more likely to blink when you pause (keeping eyes open to watch everything you say).

Beyond natural random blinking, a single blink can signal surprise that the person does not quite believe what they see (‘I’ll wipe my eyes clean to better see’).

Rapid blinking blocks vision and can be an arrogant signal, saying ‘I am so important, I do not need to see you’.

Rapid blinking also flutters the eyelashes and can be a coy romantic invitation.


Closing one eye in a wink is a deliberate gesture that often suggests conspiratorial (‘You and I both understand, though others do not’).

Winking can also be a slightly suggestive greeting and is reminiscent of a small wave of the hand (‘Hello there, gorgeous!’).


Closing the eyes shuts out the world. This can mean ‘I do not want to see what is in front of me, it is so terrible’.

Sometimes when people are talking they close their eyes. This is an equivalent to turning away so eye contact can be avoided and any implied request for the other person to speak is effectively ignored.

Visual thinkers may also close their eyes, sometimes when talking, so they can better see the internal images without external distraction.


The tear ducts provide moisture to the eyes, both for washing them and for tears.

Damp eyes can be suppressed weeping, indicating anxiety, fear or sadness. It can also indicate that the person has been crying recently.

Dampness can also occur when the person is tired (this may be accompanied by redness of the eyes.


Actual tears that roll down the cheeks are often a symptom of extreme fear or sadness, although paradoxically you can also weep tears of joy.

Weeping can be silent, with little expression other than the tears (indicating a certain amount of control). It also typically involves screwing up of the face and, when emotions are extreme, can be accompanied by uncontrollable, convulsive sobs.

Men in many culture are not expected to cry and learn to suppress this response, not even being able to cry when alone. Even if their eyes feel damp they may turn away.

Tears and sadness may be transformed into anger, which may be direct at whoever is available.

Pupil size

A subtle signal that is sometimes detected only subconsciously and is seldom realized by the sender is where the pupil gets larger (dilates) or contracts.

Sexual desire is a common cause of pupil dilation, and is sometimes called ‘bedroom eyes’  (magazine pictures sometimes have deliberately doctored eyes to make a model look more attractive). When another person’s eyes dilate we may be attracted further to them and our eyes dilate in return. Likewise, when their pupils are small, ours may well contract also.

Pupils dilate also when it is darker to let in more light (perhaps this is why clubs and bars are so dingy!).

The reverse of this is that pupils contract when we do not like the other person, perhaps in an echo of squint-like narrowing of the eyes.


When a person is feeling uncomfortable, the eyes may water a little. To cover this and try to restore an appropriate dryness, they person may rub their eye and maybe even feign tiredness or having something in the eye. This also gives the opportunity to turn the head away.

The rubbing may be with one finger, with a finger and thumb (for two eyes) or with both hands. The more the coverage, the more the person is trying to hide behind the hands.


The face has around 90 muscles in it, with about 30 of these purely for expressing emotion. It can thus be used to send many non-verbal signals, using its various features in concert.



A generally red face may indicate that the person is hot as the blood come to the to surface to be cooled. They may heat up either from exercise or emotional arousal, for example when they are excited and energized.

A red face is typical of a person who is angry. This is a clear danger signal, warning the other person that they may be harmed if they do not back down.

People blush with embarrassment in various ways. Some people’s neck goes red. With others it is mostly the cheeks. Sometimes the whole face goes red.


White skin may be a sign of coldness as the blood goes deep to avoid cooling further.

White skin is also an indication of fear, often extreme. This happens as the blood abandons a surface that might be cut, going to muscles where its power is needed more.


The skin can also take on a bluish tinge. This can also indicate coldness or extreme fear.


Sweating is the body’s natural cooling mechanism when it gets hot, possibly from excitement and emotional arousal.

Sweat is also associated with fear, perhaps to make the skin slippery and hence prevent an opponent from taking a firm grasp.


Here are some of the facial signals that you might see for different emotions. Do note that these are only possible indicators: not all signals are needed and not all signals indicated here necessarily indicate the associated emotion.

Emotion Facial signals
Anxiety Eyes damp; eyebrows slightly pushed together; trembling lower lip; chin possibly wrinkled; head slightly tilted down.
Fear Eyes wide, closed or pointing down; raised eyebrows; mouth open or corners turned down; chin pulled in; head down, white face.
Anger Eyes wide and staring; eyebrows pulled down (especially in middle); wrinkled forehead; flared nostrils; mouth flattened or clenched teeth bared; jutting chin, red face.
Happiness Mouth smiling (open or closed); possible laughter; crows-feet wrinkles at sides of sparkling eyes; slightly raised eyebrows; head level.
Sadness Eyes cast down and possibly damp or tearful; head down; lips pinched; head down or to the side.
Envy Eyes staring; mouth corners turned down; nose turned in sneer; chin jutting.
Desire Eyes wide open with dilated pupils; slightly raised eyebrows; lips slightly parted or puckered or smiling; head tilted forward.
Interest Steady gaze of eyes at item of interest (may be squinting); slightly raised eyebrows; lips slightly pressed together; head erect or pushed forward.
Boredom Eyes looking away; face generally immobile; corners of mouth turned down or lips pulled to the side; head propped up with hand.
Surprise Eyes wide open; eyebrows raised high; mouth dropped wide open with consequent lowered chin; head held back or tilted to side.
Relief Eyebrows tilted outwards (lowered outer edges); mouth either tilted down or smiling; head tilted.
Disgust Eyes and head turned away; nostrils flared; nose twisted in sneer; mouth closed, possibly with tongue protruding; chin jutting.
Shame Eyes and head turned down; eyebrows held low; skin blushing red.
Pity Eyes in extended gaze and possibly damp; eyebrows slightly pulled together in middle or downwards at edges; mouth turned down at corners; head tilted to side.


There are many possible components of greeting as the styles vary significantly across social groups and cultures.

Greeting is a ritual that helps break the ice and paves the way for appropriate other interaction. Greetings can include signals that may even be secret, for example saying ‘we’re in the same club’.

Formality is often an important factor, and when you move from a formal greeting to an informal greeting is an important factor in development of a friendship. Too early and it is an insult. Too late and it you may be considered arrogant or distant.



Handshake variables include:

  • Strength (weak – strong)
  • Temperature (cold – hot)
  • Moisture (damp – dry)
  • Fullness of grip (full – partial)
  • Duration (brief – long)
  • Speed (slow – fast)
  • Complexity (shake – dance)
  • Texture (rough – smooth)
  • Eye contact (prolonged – intermittent – none)


A firm grip shows confidence, whilst a limp grip may indicate timidity, particularly in men (women may be expected to be more gentile).

Palm down indicates dominance and a feeling of superiority (‘I am on top’). Palm sideways indicate equality. Palm up indicates submission.

A long handshake can indicate pleasure and can signal dominance, particularly if one person tries to pull away and the dominant person does not let them.

Dominance may also be shown by using the other hand to grip the person, such as at the wrist, elbow, arm or shoulder. This may also be done by gripping the shaken hand with both of your hands. This may also indicate affection or pleasure (which allows for an ambiguous signal).

A variant of the dominant handshake which is used by politicians who are being photographed and hence shake hands side-by-side is to stand on the left hand side of the other person. This means your hand will be on the outside and it will look like you are the dominant party to those viewing the photograph.

Responses to the dominant handshake can include counter-touching (use your other hand to hold their hand, wrist, elbow, arm or shoulder), hugging (pull them in), thrusting (push them away by pushing your hand towards them) and stepping the side.

Hand-touching is also used, for example the ‘high five’, where open palms are touched high in the air, or where closed fists are tapped. Where the other person is not gripped, the origins may be in potentially aggressive situations where holding of another could be construed as a threatening act.



Salute variables include:

  • Shape of hand (straight – curved)
  • Speed (fast – slower)
  • Head-touch (forehead – none)
  • Shape (up-down – curved)


The salute is a formal greeting where the open hand is brought up to the forehead. It is often used in the military in a strictly prescribed manner and situation.

There are several possible origins of this, including:

  • Shading the eyes from the brilliance of a superior person.
  • An abbreviation of raising one’s hat or tugging the forelock (in the absence of a hat).
  • Raising helmet visor to show the face (to allow recognition and dispel fears of enmity).
  • Raising the hand to show it does not contain a weapon.



Bowing variables include:

  • Lowering (slight – very low)
  • Pivot (head – waist)
  • Duration (short – long)
  • Gender style (bow – curtsey)


Bowing is another formal greeting and can be as extreme as a full 90 degree bend from the waist to even complete prostration on the floor. This averts the eyes (‘I dare not look at your majesty’) and exposes the head (‘You can kill me if you wish’).

Bowing amongst peers is commonly used in a severely contracted form as a slight nod of the head. Even in the shortened form, the lower and longer the bow, the greater the respect that is demonstrated.

If eye contact is maintained during a bow, it can signify either mistrust or liking. Looking down as you bow indicates submission, although this also can just be a formal action.

The female variant on the bow is the curtsey, which again can be a full sinking to the floor or a slight bob. Similarly to bowing, this puts the person lower than the other person and into a position of greater vulnerability.

Bowing is different in different cultures. In countries such as Japan it is clearly defined and an important part of greetings. In other countries it is less important or maybe seen as obsequious.



Variables for waving include:

  • Open palm (flat – curved)
  • Movement angle (big – small)
  • Raised (above head – held low)
  • Direction (sideways rotation – up-down)


Waving can be done from a distance. This allows for greeting when you first spot another person. It also allows for

Waves gain attention and a big, overhead wave can attract a person from some distance. This also makes others look at you and is not likely from a timid person.

A stationary palm, held up and facing out is far less obvious and may be flashed for a short period, particularly if the other person is looking at you (all you need is that they see the greeting).

Greeting children is often done with a small up-and-down movement of fingers, holding the rest of the palm still. Between adults, this can be a timid or safe signal from a child position (‘I won’t harm you – please don’t harm me.’).



Hugging variables include:

  • Hand placement (shoulder, etc.)
  • Arms touch (none – wrap)
  • Body position (front – side – behind)
  • Pressure (light – strong)
  • Body touching (none – full)
  • Gender (man/woman – man/woman)


Hugging is a closer and more affectionate form of greeting than shaking hands and perhaps reflects a desire for bonding.

Hugging is generally more common between friends, although its usage does vary across cultures and is common in some places. Gender rules may also apply, for example hugging in America is far more common between women than between men. Harassment laws may also limit touching of the other person in what may be interpreted as an intimate way.

Full-body hugs create contact with breasts and between genitalia and hence may be sexually suggestive or stimulating. This tends to limit their use to romantic greetings, although they are still used in some cultures, including between men.

Light shoulder-only hugs are more common as social greetings, in which people lean forward in order not to break rules about touching breasts or genitalia.

Side-on, one-handed hugs are safer and can be a friendly touch. Even so, this still can be a deliberate romantic advance or act of domination (even if not, it may be perceived as such).

Longer, fuller hugs often signal greater affection and may happen between people who have not seen one another for some time.

Hugging someone from behind can be surprising and even threatening, and is usually only done by friends who trust one another implicitly.



Contact during kissing can be:

  • Lip/cheek to lip/cheek
  • Duration (peck – smooch)
  • Tongue (involved – not)
  • Gender (man/woman to man/woman)
  • Body involvement (none – full)


In some cultures, kissing is a part of social greeting. This may or may not include man-man and man-woman (which can lead to significant cross-cultural embarrassment).

The type of kiss is governed strongly by the relationship. Social greetings are relatively short, and may involve double or triple kissing, alternating either side of the face.

General friendship kissing may be longer and with more body contact, though mostly using arms to include a hug (and steady the body).

The most intense kiss is the romantic kiss which may well include full-length body touching, caressing with hands and lip-to-lip kisses that may even include interplay of tongues.

Facial signals

The face is used a great deal in sending greeting signals, and accompanies other greeting activity for example saying:

  • Smiling: I am pleased to see you.
  • Frowning: I am angry with you.
  • Raised eyebrows: I am surprised to see you.
  • Eyebrows together: I do not know your name.
  • Looking down: I am inferior to you.
  • Expressionless: I do not care about you.

Eye contact is particularly important in greeting and is usually held for a socially prescribed period. Prolonged eye contact can indicate both affection and dominance. Little or no eye contact can indicate timidity (‘I dare not look at you’), dislike (‘I do not want to see you’) or dominance (‘You are unimportant and below my interest.’). As with the handshake, a dominant signal may be sent under cover of the ‘friendly’ greeting.


The words used in greetings can change significantly with the culture and context.


Informal greetings often use non-words and short forms like ‘Hi’, ‘Watcha’, ‘Yay’ and so on. Formal meetings use more formal language, such as ‘Hello’, ‘Greetings’, ‘Good day’ and so on. In some cultures, greeting is very formal and a fixed set of words are required in specific situations, ‘Greeting, O holy one, father of us all and master of the world’.

Other greetings

There are many other ways in which people greet and further subtleties around the actions above, including:

  • Touching or raising a hat
  • Pressing or rubbing noses
  • Touching or pressing bodies together in certain places and ways
  • Moving the body through a defined locus
  • Giving of gifts
  • Touching palms or fists

Greetings may also be extended to parting, for which there are many similar rituals, including handshakes, bows and words of praise.


Affect displays

Gestures can also be used to display emotion, from tightening of a fist to the many forms of self-touching and holding the self. Covering or rubbing eyes, ears or mouth can say ‘I do not want to see/hear/say this’. Holding hands or the whole body can indicate anxiety as the person literally holds themself. Self-preening can show a desire to be liked and can indicate desire of another.

Beat gestures

Beat gestures are just that, rhythmic beating of a finger, hand or arm. They can be as short as a single beat or as long as needed to make a particular point.

Beating and repetition plays to primitive feelings of basic patterning, and can vary in sense according to the context. A beat is a staccato strike that creates emphasis and grabs attention. A short and single beat can mark an important point in a conversation, whilst repeated beats can hammer home a critical concept.


With careful observation, emotions may be detected from non-verbal signs. Remember that these are indicators and not certain guarantees. Contextual clues may also be used, in particular what is being said to the person or what else is happening around then.


Anger occurs when achievement of goals are frustrated.

  • Neck and/or face is red or flushed.
  • Baring of teeth and snarling.
  • Clenched fists.
  • Leaning forward and invasion of body space.
  • Other aggressive body language.
  • Use of power body language.

Fear, anxiety and nervousness

Fear occurs when basic needs are threatened. There are many levels of fear, from mild anxiety to blind terror. The many bodily changes caused by fear make it easy to detect.

  • A ‘cold sweat’.
  • Pale face.
  • Dry mouth, which may be indicated by licking lips, drinking water, rubbing throat.
  • Not looking at the other person.
  • Damp eyes.
  • Trembling lip.
  • Varying speech tone.
  • Speech errors.
  • Voice tremors.
  • Visible high pulse (noticeable on the neck or movement of crossed leg.
  • Sweating.
  • Tension in muscles: clenched hands or arms, elbows drawn in to the side, jerky movements, legs wrapped around things.
  • Gasping and holding breath.
  • Fidgeting.
  • Defensive body language, including crossed arms and legs and generally drawing in of limbs.
  • Ready body language (for fight-or-flight)
  • Other symptoms of stress


Sadness is the opposite of happiness and indicates a depressive state.

  • Drooping of the body.
  • Trembling lip.
  • Flat speech tone.
  • Tears.


Embarrassment may be caused by guilt or transgression of values.

  • Neck and/ or face is red or flushed.
  • Looking down or away from others. Not looking them in the eye.
  • Grimacing, false smile, changing the topic or otherwise trying to cover up the embarrassment.


Surprise occurs when things occur that were not expected.

  • Raised eyebrows.
  • Widening of eyes.
  • Open mouth.
  • Sudden backward movement.


Happiness occurs when goals and needs are met.

  • General relaxation of muscles.
  • Smiling (including eyes).
  • Open body language


A significant cluster of body movements are all about being open. This is sometimes misinterpreted solely as indicating being relaxed and untense.

Remember that perhaps the most significant part of being open or close is the act of opening or closing. When you open or close, you are signaling a change in the way you are thinking or feeling, which is likely to be in response to what the other person has said or done.

Language of openness

The open stance has arms and legs not crossed in any way. They may also be moving in various ways.

Arms open

Arms are not crossed and may be animated and moving in synchronization with what is being said or held wide.

Palms are also relaxed and may be quite expressive, for example appearing to hold things and form more detailed shapes. Open hands show that nothing is being concealed.

Legs open

Open legs are not crossed. Often they are parallel. They may even be stretched apart.

The feet are of interest in open legs and may point forward or to the side or at something or someone of interest.

Looking around and at the other person

The head may be directed solely towards the other person or may be looking around. Eye contact is likely to be relaxed and prolonged.

Relaxed clothing

Clothing is likely to hang loosely and actions to loosen clothing may take place, such as removing a jacket and unbuttoning a collar.

Reasons for opening

There can be several reasons for open body language. In particular look for the transition when the body opens and the triggers that may have caused this change.


When arms rounded and palms are sideways, the person may be offering a ‘mock hug’, showing that they care for the other person. Gestures may be slower and symbolize gentleness.

Passive threat

An open posture may also be associated with a passive threat. When the person casually ‘exposes themself’, for example by opening their body and looking away they are opening themselves for attack. When this is relaxed, it may be saying ‘I am so powerful and you are so weak, you are unable to attack me even when I am exposed.’

Males with knees apart are also doing a crotch display, which, as well as casually exposing vulnerabilities is effectively says to other males ‘Look: I have a large penis than you!’


When there is tension in the open body, especially if fists are clenched, then this may be a sign of significant aggression. The person is effectively holding their body open in readiness for a fight.

Aggression is also seen when the body is square on to the other person and is relatively close to them. Movements may be particularly sudden and designed to test the other person’s reactions.


When palms are held upwards, this may form a pleading gesture and may be combined with lowering of the body. This is saying ‘Please don’t hurt me’.

Opening the body in supplication is also saying ‘Here, you can hurt me if you wish’ and is equivalent to a dog who rolls over on its back and exposes itself to indicate that it is not a threat.



    1. Secrets of Self Defence Traits « Fong Tien's Blog
    2. Free Conflict Management Training Pack « Fong Tien's Blog

    Leave a Reply

    Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    %d bloggers like this: