Body language is a part of nonverbal language. It includes things like stance, gestures, facial expressions, and even small things that are barely perceptible like a brief shrug of the shoulder or nod of the head. We frequently communicate both bodily and verbally and an estimated 70% of what we communicate may be nonverbal. Nonverbal language is an even bigger category, which includes things like tone of voice.
There are many ways to learn to interpret body language but it must be understood that these are frequently specific to a culture. For instance in the US we wave good bye with the palm facing the person we’re waving to, and the fingers may open and close. In other cultures, waving goodbye may occur with the hand palm up to the sky, and the fingers opening and closing. To people in the US, this might look like a gesture asking someone to approach rather than a wave goodbye.
Still, since most of us live in one area where body language may be similar among people, it’s important to know that you can communicate a lot by how you gesture, what you do with your arms when you’re sitting or standing and talking to someone else, and even what your posture may say. A person in much of the US who sits with hands crossed over the chest, and with legs crossed, may be sending an unintended message that they’re really not open to talking. Some people are excellent at reading these kinds of messages, and we do have to be careful what we may be conveying, especially when we’re being judged, particularly in things like dating or job interviews.
Eye contact is another key element of non-verbal contact in much of the Western world. Looking someone in the eyes enough but not too much may indicate that you’re direct and forthright. Evading eye contact may say you’re shy or being deceptive, or alternately, it can convey annoyance or disgust with someone.
How we gesture can tell people the level of confidence we have, or if we’re a little too emphatic in our opinions. Huge gestures may mean we have something to prove. Moderate gesturing may simply suggest we’re engaged and confident in what we have to say.
Even the way you turn your head, shrug, yawn, look at your watch may all be forms of non-verbal communication that send clear signals to other people. If possible, never look at your watch or the clock above your head when you’re in a meeting with your boss. It can send the message that you’re bored, which isn’t a positive message to send.
It would be impossible to describe all the ways we use non-verbal language, but it’s important to remember that non-verbal language isn’t necessarily universal. If you’re observing body movements that seem off, consider cultural or regional differences that may account for it. You may even note that family members have similar gestures that aren’t that common elsewhere. Yet it can be helpful to know what you’re saying, and there are many books and Internet sites that can help you interpret some of the ways you send nonverbal messages to most people of your culture.
If you really think your body language is off or needs improvement, picking up a book on nonverbal communication can help. You can also videotape yourself and look at the way you move, gesture, sit, and stand to see if you are sending messages you really don’t mean. Confident body language common to a culture can be learned and may make you appear more confident or direct.