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Body Language

Communicating Without Words

By Shannon Barnes, L.P.C.

The very idea that people communicate through body language can be extremely intriguing. Experts believe that approximately 80 percent of communication is interpreted by the listener from nonverbal cues.

Why do people want to interpret body language? It is most likely because they are needing reassurance. We are looking for tangible proof that verbal information is either believable or not believable. Other reasons pertain to human development. People have evolved over the centuries using body language to communicate when verbal communication was not available or effective.

Body language is a popular topic among pop psychology. However, the study of body language is not an exact science. While body language is universal, meaning everyone in the world communicates through body language, it is also customized to culture and environment. For example, most everyone in the United States knows that a person walking along the side of the road with a thumb up indicates that person needs a ride. Everyone in the United States knows that a hand in the air waving is communicating hello or goodbye. However, this may not be the case in other countries. It is believed that facial expressions that communicate emotions are universal regardless of culture. But emotions are provoked differently in individual areas of the world. Therefore, interpreting emotions through body language may not be universal.

If you want to pay attention to body language when communicating with others, here are a few facts to consider:

In everyday life, body language is primarily used to enhance verbal communication.
Hand gestures when telling a story, facial expressions to convey feelings, or gestures that indicate thought and emotion can enhance what is being said. This is normal for all humans, and it is reflexive. It is how the brain orders the body to move in space based on the information it is processing at that moment.

Boisterous body language, which is more intentional, is typically used to draw attention or to emphasize a point. When people are placing blame on others, they will point to the accused.

When people try to interpret body language as a stand-alone communication, the likelihood of misunderstanding is increased. For example, people sitting with their legs crossed are assumed to be avoidant; however, social etiquette teaches females that sitting with crossed legs is proper manners.

Environments vary; therefore, the interpretation of body language can vary between environments.
Body language has universal themes. An example is holding hands up, which symbolizes a surrender. This is shown when criminals hold their hands up when being arrested, and people raise their hands in worship. But this is not a guarantee that the person has a surrendering mindset, and it should not be assumed this is a truth for all environments. At concerts and dance clubs, people hold their hands up to dance. Athletes often raise their hands after a victory.

Be aware that people are interpreting body language based on how their brain processes information.

The brain can only pull from information that it has. For this reason, people interpret body language based on their own experiences. People most likely will interpret body language through a biased perspective. For example, the person who experienced a boss who always exhibited a fake smile may assume all bosses are fake when they smile.

To interpret body language with the most success, people should understand that body language is almost always an indicator of mindset and thoughts.

Although it may be misinterpreted by the viewer, people cannot make their bodies do the opposite of what the brain is telling it to do. So, if a person is defensive, they will exhibit a firm stance. If a person is deciding to voice thoughts or keep them silent to be polite, hesitation may be observed. People will fake a smile if they are being polite, but they will smile with eyes open wide if they are truly happy to see you.


When people are sad, their eyes will droop, and they will look down. When people are cautious, they will examine their environment with their eyes. When people are amused, they will exhibit a relaxed smile. When people are nervous or trying to control other intense emotions, they will fidget. When people are attempting to fake their body language, they can only fake for a short time period.


Overall, effective communication will include body language as well as verbal statements, tone of voice, and context, all of which are at the mercy of the listener’s ability to understand the information being communicated using personal perceptions and past experiences.