Body Language: What It Means and How to Read It

We communicate more with our bodies than we realize. Here’s how you can learn to read these silent messages.

By Teal Burrell
Jun 12, 2019 5:00 AMNov 15, 2019 10:58 PM
DSC-BL0719 01 shrug stock
Huh? (Credit: Wayhome Studio/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The first way we learn to communicate is through body language — our facial expressions, our gestures and, when we’re older, our postures. Even after we figure out how to speak, this non-verbal communication still exerts a powerful and often unconscious influence over our interactions, people’s first impressions of us and even our impressions of ourselves.

A Learned Body Language?

David Matsumoto, a San Francisco State University psychologist, led a 2008 study to determine whether body language is innate or learned in childhood. He and his team examined Olympic and Paralympic athletes from over 30 countries. Specifically, they studied judo competitors who could see and those who’d been blind since birth. It turned out all athletes made similar gestures when they won — arms raised wide, chest out, head tilted back. But because the blind athletes had always been blind, they couldn’t have learned those expressions. Another point for arguing that body language is innate? Just like those who can see, people who are blind gesture when they talk, even to others who are blind.

While some gestures may come pre-programmed, culture also exerts an influence. In that same study of judo athletes, the competitors who lost a match carried themselves differently depending on their homeland. Athletes from Western countries, where culture teaches people to hide shame, showed a more muted response and didn’t slump their shoulders as much. However, athletes from the same Western countries who were blind slumped dramatically in defeat.

(Credits, clockwise from top, all Shutterstock: Vladimir Gjorgiev, Stockimages, fizkes, File404, Pathdoc, G. Allen Penton)

Body Language Hacks

The way you hold yourself affects how others perceive you and how you perceive yourself. Here’s how to use body language to everyone’s benefit.

Change How You Feel

  • To de-stress: Forcing a smile can make running easier and tough tasks less stressful. One 2012 experiment found that a grin makes holding your hand in ice water more bearable.

  • To feel more confident: Standing like Wonder Woman — legs apart, hands on hips, chest up — may make you feel more powerful. Striking this so-called power pose shortly before an interview or athletic contest can be particularly powerful for women, who tend to sit and stand in a way that takes up less space.

  • To persevere: Crossing your arms across your chest can help you persist in solving a problem. In a 2008 study, students who sat with their arms crossed kept working on an impossible problem nearly twice as long as those with their arms at their sides.

Change How Others Feel

  • To come across as sincere: Studies show that holding someone’s gaze may help people think you’re trustworthy and intelligent. According to body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, it can also make people think you’re a good listener.

  • To foster connections: Mirroring the facial expressions and gestures of the person you’re talking to can help them feel more comfortable. One 2011 experiment found this is an effective sales tactic.

  • To engage or disengage: If you want to let someone know you’re listening, sit facing them with your full body, knees and shoulders pointed at them. But if you want to diffuse tension, angle your body slightly away — facing full-on is confrontational when things get heated.

Picking Apart Power Poses

In 2010, Harvard University psychologist Amy Cuddy published a study claiming that when participants sat with their feet up on a desk or stood tall leaning over a table, they felt more powerful. The two “power poses” also boosted levels of the dominance hormone testosterone while decreasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The paper came under scrutiny in 2014, when other teams couldn’t replicate some results — namely the hormonal changes. Psychologists also questioned how Cuddy and her team had analyzed the data. Some argued the statistical methods, though common at the time, let the team cherry-pick data to fit their hypothesis. But in a recent paper, Cuddy says the findings about feelings of power hold up, even in more rigorous scientific tests.

Strike a power pose? (Credit: Jeffrey J. Coleman/Shutterstock)

The Birds and the Bees

Humans aren’t the only gesticulators. Other species use their bodies to communicate all sorts of information. Here are just a few.

  • Bees: Honeybees dance to show their hive mates where good flowers are. The angle and duration of their so-called "waggle dance" conveys the direction and distance to food sources.

  • Fish: Coral reef groupers repeatedly shimmy their bodies to encourage their hunting partners — eels and other fish — to help them search for prey. If a quarry escapes a grouper, it will shake its head while doing a headstand to reveal the hiding place to a partner better equipped to reach in and snag dinner. Trout have also been seen performing the headstand behavior with octopus partners.

  • Ravens: Ravens use their beaks to show and offer objects like moss and twigs to potential mates. The gesture may be similar to infants who point to or show parents objects; sharing interest strengthens an existing relationship and, for the birds, may encourage a newfound partnership.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.