Much of what we say is not the words we use, but it is revealed through our tone and our body language.
If you are leaning back in your chair with your arms crossed and a scowl on your face, and you say “I like it”, it will come across a lot different than if you are leaning forward in your seat with a grin saying the same words.
By being aware of our body language, we can monitor the messages that we send to other people. And by being aware of other people’s body language, we can be aware of how our messages are coming across as well as the message other people are sending us.
What constitutes positive and negative body language? Here’s a guide for you. Welcome to Body Language 101.
Positive Body Language
When you or someone else is giving positive body language, it can show attentiveness, confidence, openness, and that one is listening.
Smile, when appropriate. A genuine smile has power. It’s uplifting. It can make other people smile and feel better. It makes you approachable. People like being around happy, positive people.
However, a smile should be genuine. Don’t fake it, but find a genuine reason to smile and do it. Maybe find something that you like about that person, or something that makes you happy, or express gratitude, and smile.
Eye contact is extremely important. When someone is talking and you look at them in the eyes, it makes them feel important and listened to. You are giving them your attention and focus. If you look around the room, at other conversations or other people, or at your phone, it makes people feel that you aren’t really interested in what they have to say.
If you stare at the floor, it makes people feel that you feel inferior or are feeling bored. When you are not in a conversation and want to be, staring at the floor won’t help bring people to talk to you. Looking people in the eyes and smiling will. If you feel uncomfortable, try to move from eye to eye, or look at them between the eyes and see if that helps.
Good posture makes you look confident and self-assured. You want to stand or sit straight, shoulders straight, but be relaxed, not rigid or stiff or tense. If you look confident and relaxed, it will help other people feel relaxed around you.
When sitting or even standing, when you lean in toward a person, it makes you seem interested in them, the conversation, and what they have to say.
Tilting your head
Tilting your head a little can give a positive expression as well. It shows interest and curiosity toward the other person.
Touching can be a touchy subject (yes I went there), but when used appropriately, it can make people feel good about you and the attention you are giving them. A good handshake or a pat on the shoulder or examples of some good touch. Just be careful with whom you touch and where.
Face the person
You want to face the person with your feet and body. This lets the person know that you are giving them your full attention. When you angle your body or feet away from someone, it gives the impression that you want to get away.
Use gestures. They help reinforce the words and ideas you are trying to say. Just don’t use fast or anxious movements or go overboard.
Arms by side
Generally, try to keep your arms by your side. That way you can easily raise your arms when you want to use gestures. Putting them in your pockets or clasping in front of your or crossing your arms or such can sometimes give the wrong impression.
Getting close to someone shows wanting to be more personable, but you don’t want to get too close to the other person or get in their bubble. That will make someone uncomfortable.
Each person is different, so it’s wise to pay attention to the other person, but many say 2-4 feet is more of a personal zone for close friends and socializing, while 4-7 or 4 -12 feet is more of a social distance for people you don’t know as well.
Just use your best judgment. The main thing is just to not get too close into their personal bubble. If they seem uncomfortable with how close you are, seem more tense or guarded, just back up!
When someone is talking, move your head up and down a couple times every once in a while. It can help show the other person that you are listening.
Mirroring and Mimicking
When you mirror or mimic, you copy the body language or movements, vocal level and speed, or even their tone (unless it’s angry or negative).
For example, if someone is really excited, you would show the same excitement and enthusiasm. If they are feeling glum, you would reflect that. If they are using certain gestures, you may do the same.
When you mirror, it builds a connection between you and that other person.
Note: You don’t want to immediately copy them and make it uber apparent, but subtly mirroring them can help build rapport and connection between you and the other person.
Open body language
Open body language mixes some of the other points we mentioned briefly. It’s facing a person without arms orlegss crossed in front of you and looking open. When you have arms or legs crossed, it can come across as closed body language.
Negative Body Language
Negative body language can show discomfort, lack of interest, or even hostility.
Iff someone is tense, it could mean that they are uncomfortable. You may be standing too close to them or saying something that makes them uncomfortable. It could also have nothing to do with you. They may just feel uncomfortable being in the setting they are in. It could also be a sign of nervousness.
Fast, anxious movements
Fast, anxious movements are a sign of anxiousness and nervousness. Use gestures, but avoid fast anxious movements. Slow down.
Lack of eye contact
A lack of eye contact shows disinterest in the other person. If you are looking at the floor, your phone, or around the room, it tells the other person that you aren’t really interested in what they have to say. As we mentioned before, looking at the floor can show a feeling of inferiority.
Pointing your body and/or feet away from the person you are talking to
If someone is pointing their feet and/or their body away from you toward somewhere else, it is a good sign that they want to get out of the conversation. It may be nothing personal, they just may have something else they have to do or someone they have to talk to. If you are doing it, it implies the same thing.
Crossed arms can be a sign of defensiveness, but it can also just mean someone is cold. For some, it’s a comfortable position. Just be aware that if you use it, it can potentially come across that way. Remember as well that if you see someone else with that sign, it could be that they are just cold or find it comfortable.
Crossed legs also can be a sign of being closed off and not interested, but, just as with the arms, it could also just be a relaxed state. Sitting with the legs crossed with the knee pointing toward you (versus the ankle/foot) can be a negative sign.
Slouching shows a lack of confidence. Use good posture.
Rubbing your neck, face, or leg
When someone rubs their neck, face, or leg, it can be a sign of discomfort. It could be the topic you are discussing or maybe you are standing too close, or they might just be nervous and be uncomfortable about something else.
Sometimes we put barriers between people when we are uncomfortable, such as arms, legs, or even objects. With objects, for example, if you are talking to someone from behind your desk, the desk is a barrier. It can hurt the closeness of communication.
Fidgeting makes you look uncomfortable. You want to look calm and self-assured. Avoid fidgeting.
Drumming fingers, tapping feet, etc.
If you drum your fingers or tap your foot, it can give the impression that you are bored or impatient.
Closed body language
This mixes some of the others. Closed body language may be crossed arms and legs and barriers between you and the other person or even turning away from the person.
If you use negative self-talk and make judgments about yourself (even saying things like “I can’t believe I said that, I’m so stupid!”), it will show on your face and body. When someone sees it on your face and body, how will the other person perceive it? As toward them.
You should avoid talking negatively to yourself anyway! Build yourself up, don’t put yourself down. Remember as well that when some people have a negative expressions, there’s a good chance it has nothing to do with you – they may just be having negative talk about themselves as well.
Reading Body Language
Here are a couple tips on reading other people’s body language.
Know their baseline
Know someone’s baseline – their body language in a normal, comfortable state. If you know someone’s baseline, then when you read body language different than that, you know something is up.
Read in groups
It can be dangerous judging someone’s reactions or feelings based on one single body language. As we said with the arms, for example, sometimes it means defensiveness, sometimes someone may just be cold.
Read body language in groups. If multiple signs point to the same thing, that’s a good sign for it. If just one sign shows it, but everything else shows something else, it probably doesn’t mean that.
Use it well
Now you know the good, the bad, and the ugly of body language. Make sure to be aware of your own and to use positive body language. Make sure to read other’s body language in groups and try to know their baseline if you can.
Do you have any other tips for having great body language or for reading others’?