Body Language – A Framework for Understanding

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of social scientist-the non-verbalist. Just as the birdwatcher delights in watching birds and their behaviour, so the non-verbalist delights in watching the non-verbal cues and signals of human beings. He watches them at social functions, at beaches, on television, at the office or anywhere that people interact. He is a student of behaviour who wants to learn about the actions of his fellow humans so that he may ultimately learn more about himself and how he can improve his relationships with others.

It seems almost incredible that, over the million or more years of man’s evolution, the non-verbal aspects of communication have been actively studied on any scale only since the 1960s and that the public has become aware of their existence only since Julius Fast published a book about body language in 1970. This was a summary of the work done by behavioural scientists on nonverbal communication up until that time, and even today, most people are still ignorant of the existence of body language, let alone its importance in their lives.

Charlie Chaplin and many other silent movie actors were the pioneers of non-verbal communication skills; they were the only means of communication available on the screen. Each actor was classed as good or bad by the extent to which he could use gestures and other body signals to communicate effectively. When talking films became popular and less emphasis was placed on the non-verbal aspects of acting, many silent movie actors faded into obscurity and those with good verbal skills prevailed.

As far as the technical study of body language goes, perhaps the most influential pre-twentieth-century work was Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872. This spawned the modern studies of facial expres- sions and body language and many of Darwin’s ideas and observations have since been validated by modern researchers around the world. Since that time, researchers have noted and recorded almost one million nonverbal cues and signals. Albert Mehrabian found that the total impact of a message is about 7 per cent verbal (words only) and 38 per cent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection and other sounds) and 55 per cent non-verbal. Professor Birdwhistell made some similar estimates of the amount of non-verbal communication that takes place amongst humans. He estimated that the average person actually speaks words for a total of about ten or eleven minutes a day and that the average sentence takes only about 2.5 seconds. Like Mehrabian, he found that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35 per cent and that over 65 per cent of communication is done non-verbally.

Most researchers generally agree that the verbal channel is used primarily for conveying information, while the non-verbal channel is used for negotiating interpersonal attitudes, and in some cases is used as a substitute for verbal messages. For example, a woman can give a man a ‘look to kill’; she will convey a very clear message to him without opening her mouth.

Regardless of culture, words and movements occur together with such predictability that Birdwhistell says that a well-trained person should be able to tell what movement a man is making by listening to his voice. In like manner, Birdwhistell learned how to tell what language a person was speaking, simply by watching his gestures.

Many people find difficulty in accepting that humans are still biologically animals. Homo sapiens is a species of primate, a hairless ape that has learned to walk on two limbs and has a clever, advanced brain. Like any other species, we are dominated by biological rules that control our actions, reactions, body language and gestures. The fascinating thing is that the human animal is rarely aware of his postures, movements and gestures that can tell one story while his voice may be telling another.


From a technical point of view, whenever we call someone ‘perceptive’ or ‘intuitive’, we are referring to his or her ability to read another person’s non-verbal cues and to compare these cues with verbal signals. In other words, when we say that we have a ‘hunch’ or ‘gut feeling’ that someone has told us a lie, we really mean that their body language and their spoken words do not agree. This is also what speakers call audience awareness, or relating to a group. For example, if the audience were sitting back in their seats with chins down and arms crossed on their chest, a ‘perceptive’ speaker would get a hunch or feeling that his delivery was not going across. He would become aware that he needed to take a different approach to gain audience involvement. Likewise, a speaker who was not ‘perceptive’ would blunder on regardless.

Women are generally more perceptive than men, and this fact has given rise to what is commonly referred to as ‘women’s intuition’. Women have an innate ability to pick up and decipher non-verbal signals, as well as having an accurate eye for small details. This is why few husbands can lie to their wives and get away with it and why, conversely, most women can pull the wool over a man’s eyes without his realising it.

This female intuition is particularly evident in women who have brought up young children. For the first few years, the mother relies solely on the non-verbal channel to communicate with the child and this is believed to be the reason why women often become more perceptive negotiators than men.


Much research and debate has been done to discover whether non-verbal signals are inborn, learned, genetically transferred or acquired in some other way. Evidence was collected from observation of blind and/or deaf people who could not have learned non- verbal signals through the auditory or visual channels, from observing the gestural be- haviour of many different cultures around the world and from studying the behaviour of our nearest anthropological relatives, the apes and monkeys.

The conclusions of this research indicate that some gestures fall into each category. For example, most primate children are born with the immediate ability to suck, indicating that this is either inborn or genetic. The German scientist Eibl-Eibesfeldt found that the smiling expressions of children born deaf and blind occur independently of learning or copying, which means that these must also be inborn gestures. Ekman, Friesen and Sorenson supported some of Darwin’s original beliefs about inborn gestures when they studied the facial expressions of people from five widely different cultures. They found that each culture used the same basic facial gestures to show emotion, which led them to the conclusion that these gestures must be inborn.

When you cross your arms on your chest, do you cross left over right or right over left? Most people cannot confidently describe which way they do this until they try it. Where one way feels comfortable, the other feels completely wrong. Evidence suggests that this may well be a genetic gesture that cannot be changed.

Debate still exists as to whether some gestures are culturally learned and become habitual, or are genetic. For example, most men put on a coat right arm first; most women put it on left arm first. When a man passes a woman in a crowded street, he usually turns his body towards her as he passes; she usually turns her body away from him. Does she instinctively do this to protect her breasts? Is this an inborn female reaction or has she learned to do this by unconsciously watching other females?

Much of our basic non-verbal behaviour is learned and the meaning of many movements and gestures is culturally determined. Let us now look at these aspects of body language.


Most of the basic communication gestures are the same all over the world. When people are happy they smile; when they are sad or angry they frown or scowl. Nodding the head is almost universally used to indicate ‘yes’ or affirmation. It appears to be a form of head lowering and is probably an inborn gesture, as it is also used by deaf and blind people. Shaking the head from side to side to indicate ‘no’ or negation is also universal and may well be a gesture that is learned in infancy. When a baby has had enough milk, he turns his head from side to side to reject his mother’s breast. When the young child has had enough to eat, he shakes his head from side to side to stop his parent’s attempt to spoon feed him and in this way he quickly learns to use the head shaking gesture to show disagreement or a negative attitude.

The evolutionary origin of some gestures can be traced to our primitive animal past. Baring the teeth is derived from the act of attacking and is still used by modern man in the form of a sneer and other such hostile gestures, even though he will not attack with his teeth. Smiling was originally a threat gesture, but today it is done in conjunction with non-threatening gestures to show pleasure.

The shoulder shrug is also a good example of a universal gesture that is used to show that a person does not know or understand what you are talking about. It is a multiple gesture that has three main parts: exposed palms, hunched shoulders and raised brow.

Just as verbal language differs from culture to culture, so the non-verbal language may also differ. Whereas one gesture may be common in a particular culture and have a clear interpretation, it may be meaningless in another culture or even have a completely opposite meaning. Take, for example, the cultural interpretations and implications of three common hand gestures, the ring gesture, the thumb-up and V sign.

The Ring or ‘OK’ Gesture

This gesture was popularised in the USA during the early nineteenth century, apparently by the newspapers that, at the time, were starting a craze of using initials to shorten common phrases. There’ are many different views about what the initials ‘OK’ stand for, some believing it stood for ‘all correct’ which may have been misspelled as ‘oll korrect’, while others say that it means the opposite of ‘knock-out’ that is, K.O. Another popular theory is that it is an abbreviation of ‘Old Kinderhook’, from the birthplace of a nineteenth century American president who used the initials as a campaign slogan. Which theory is the correct one we may never know, but it seems that the ring itself represents the letter ‘O’ in the ‘OK’ signal. The-,’OK’ meaning is common to all English-speaking countries and, although its meaning is fast spreading across Europe and Asia, it has other origins and meanings in certain places. For example, in France it also means ‘zero’ or ‘nothing’; in Japan it can mean ‘money’; in some Mediterranean countries it is an orifice signal, often used to infer that a man is homosexual.

For overseas travellers, the safest rule to obey is, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. This can help avoid any possible embarrassing circumstances.

The Thumb-Up Gesture

In Britain, Australia and New Zealand the thumb-up gesture has three meanings; it is commonly used by hitch-hikers who are thumbing a lift, it is an OK signal, and when the thumb is jerked sharply upwards it becomes an insult signal, meaning ‘up yours’ or ‘sit on this’. In some countries, such as Greece, its main meaning is ‘get stuffed’, so you can imagine the dilemma of the Australian hitch-hiker using this gesture in that country! When Italians count from one to five, they use this gesture to mean ‘one’ and the index finger then becomes ‘two’, whereas most Australians, Americans and English people count ‘one’ on the index finger and two on the middle finger. In this case the thumb will represent the number ‘five’.

The thumb is also used, in combination with other gestures, as a power and superiority signal or in situations where people try to get us ‘under their thumb’. A later chapter takes a closer look at the use of the thumb in these particular contexts.

The V Sign

This sign is popular throughout Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain and carries an ‘up yours’ interpretation. Winston Churchill popularised the V for victory sign during World War II, but his two-fingered version was done with the palm facing out, whereas the palm faces towards the speaker for the obscene insult version. In most parts of Europe, however, the palm facing in version still means ‘victory’ so that an Englishman who uses it to tell a European to ‘get stuffed’ could leave the European wondering about what victory the Englishman meant. This signal also means the number two in many parts of Europe, and if the insulted European were a bartender, his response could be to give an Englishman or an Australian two mugs of beer.

These examples show that cultural misinterpretation of gestures can produce embarrassing results and that a person’s cultural background should always be considered before jumping to conclusions about his or her body language or gestures. Therefore, unless otherwise specified, our discussion should be considered culturally specific, that is, generally pertaining to adult, white middle class people raised in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, North America and other places where English is the primary language.


One of the most serious mistakes a novice in body language can make is to interpret a solitary gesture in isolation of other gestures or other circumstances. For example, scratching the head can mean a number of things -dandruff, fleas, sweating, uncertainty, forgetfulness or lying, depending on the other gestures that occur at the same time, so we must always look at gesture clusters for a correct reading.

Like any other language, body language consists of words, sentences and punctuation. Each gesture is like a single word and a word may have several different meanings. It is only when you put the word into a sentence with other words that you can fully understand its meaning. Gestures come in ‘sentences’ and invariably tell the truth about a person’s feelings or attitudes. The ‘perceptive’ person is one who can read the non-verbal sentences and accurately match them against the person’s verbal sentences.

Figure 5 shows a common critical evaluation gesture cluster. The main one is the hand-to-face gesture, with the index finger pointing up the cheek while another finger covers the mouth and the thumb supports the chin. Further evidence that this listener is critical of the speaker is seen by the fact that the legs are tightly crossed and the arm crosses the body (defensive) while the head and chin are down (hostility). This non-verbal ‘sentence’ says something like, ‘I don’t like what you are saying and I disagree with you.’


If you, as the speaker, were to ask the listener shown in Figure 5 to give his opinion of what you have just said and he said that he disagreed with you, his non-verbal signals would be congruent with his verbal sentences, that is, they would match or be consistent. If, however, he said he was enjoying what you had to say, he would be lying because his words and gestures would be incongruent. Research shows that non-verbal signals carry about five times as much impact as the verbal channel and that, when the two are incongruent, people rely on the non-verbal message; the verbal content may be disregarded.

We often see a high ranking politician standing behind a lectern with his arms tightly folded across his chest (defensive) and chin down (critical or hostile), while telling his audience how receptive and open he is to the ideas of young people. He may attempt to convince the audience of his warm, humane approach while giving short, sharp karate chops to the lectern. Sigmund Freud once noted that while a patient was verbally expressing happiness with her marriage, she was unconsciously slipping her wedding ring on and off her finger. Freud was aware of the significance of this unconscious gesture and was not surprised when marriage problems began to surface.

Observation of gesture clusters and congruence of the verbal and non-verbal channels are the keys to accurate interpretation of body language.

Gestures in Context

In addition to looking for gesture clusters and congruence of speech and body movement, all gestures should be considered in the context in which they occur. If, for example, someone was sitting at a bus terminal with arms and legs tightly crossed and chin down and it was a chilly winter’s day, it would most likely mean that he or she was cold, not defensive. If, however, the person used the same gestures while you were sitting across a table from him trying to sell him an idea, product or service, they could be correctly interpreted as meaning that the person was negative or defensive about the situation.

Throughout this book all gestures will be considered in context and, where possible, gesture clusters will be examined.

Other Factors Affecting Interpretation

A man who has a ‘dead fish’ hand shake is likely to be accused of having a weak character and the chapter on hand shake techniques will explore the reason for this popular theory. But if a man has arthritis in his hands, it is likely that he will use a ‘dead fish’ hand shake to avoid the pain of a strong one. Similarly, artists, musicians, surgeons and those in vocations whose work is delicate and involves use of their hands generally prefer not to shake hands, but, if they are forced to do so, they may use a ‘dead fish’ to protect them.

Someone who wears ill-fitting or tight clothing may be unable to use certain gestures, and this can affect use of body language. This applies to a minority of people, but it is important to consider what effect a person’s physical restrictions or disabilities may have on his or her body movement.

Status and Power

Research in the field of linguistics has shown that there is a direct relationship between the amount of status, power or prestige a person commands and that person’s range of vocabulary. In other words, the higher up the social or management ladder a person is, the better able he is to communicate in words and phrases. Non-verbal research has revealed a correlation between a person’s command of the spoken word and the amount of gesticulation that that person uses to communicate his or her message. This means that a person’s status, power or prestige is also directly related to the number of gestures or body movements he uses. The person at the top end of the social or management scale can use his range of words to communicate his meaning, whereas the less educated or unskilled person will rely more on gestures than words to communicate.

Throughout this book, most of the examples given refer to white, middle-class people but, as a general rule the higher the person on the socio-economic scale, the less gesticulation and body movement he uses.

The speed of some gestures and how obvious they look to others is also related to the age of the individual. For example, if a five-year-old child tells a lie to his or her parent, the mouth will be deliberately covered with one or both hands immediately afterwards (Figure 6). The gesture of covering the mouth alerts the parent to the lie and this gesture continues to be used throughout the individual’s lifetime, usually varying only in the speed at which it is done. When the teenager tells a lie, the hand is brought to the mouth like that of a five-year-old, but instead of the obvious hand slapping gesture over the mouth, the fingers rub lightly around it (Figure 7).

This mouth-covering gesture becomes even more refined in adulthood. When the adult tells a lie, his brain instructs his hand to cover his mouth in an attempt to block the deceitful words, just as it does for the five-year-old and the teenager, but at the last moment the hand is pulled away from the face and a nose touch gesture results (Figure 8). This gesture is nothing more than the adult’s sophisticated version of the mouth-covering gesture that was used in childhood. This is an example of the fact that, as an individual gets older, many of his gestures become sophisticated and less obvious, which is why it is often more difficult to read the gestures of a fifty year-old than those of a much younger person.

Previous post Three Skills To Beat $5-$10

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.