Decoding Subtle Body Language Cues

Isn’t it funny — we all have bodies… we all look at each others’ bodies all day long… and yet most of us aren’t really very good at understanding what other people’s bodies can tell us. Oh, sure, we can spot the obvious signals such as arms folded tightly over the chest — communicating annoyance or displeasure — but there are many other more subtle ways that people communicate their real feelings if you know what to look for. By learning a bit more about body language, not only can you communicate more effectively and enhance the impression that you make on others, but you can also spot untruths, anxiety, boredom or genuine enthusiasm and confidence in the person you are talking to!

To learn more about decoding body language, I called Janine Driver, president of the Body Language Institute in Alexandria, Virginia. Driver worked for more than 10 years at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, where she learned from research-based techniques to decipher body language signals as part of criminal investigations before writing her book, You Say More Than You Think. She shared some of her most useful “secrets…”

“Eye” Witnesses

Research from around the world has demonstrated that no matter where or how people live, whether in primitive tribal villages or multimillion-dollar mansions, our eyes reveal our emotions the same way. Driver told me, for instance, that police detectives are trained to look for a universal “burst of fear” signal, which is a dead giveaway that a person feels guilt — and it’s easy to spot once you know to look for it. Guilty feelings cause your eyebrows to shoot straight up while remaining horizontal, while the eyes widen so much you can see the “three whites,” i.e., the white around the top of the eyeball and on both sides. This is an example of a “micro expression” — a facial change that happens in a fraction of a second, so quickly that if you didn’t know to look for it (or blinked), you would miss it.

On a happier note, Driver shared how to identify genuine surprise — so you can tell, for instance, whether your friend really had no clue about that surprise party you planned for her. When a person is truly surprised, the eyes widen (though not as much as for guilt — you won’t see the three whites) and the brows go up suddenly but retain their curved shape.

And here’s another crucial clue: If the feeling is genuine, the surprise response won’t last longer than three seconds — it then merges into another layer of emotion, such as happiness or dismay. If the guest of honor retains the “I’m so surprised” look longer than that, somebody told.

Tilt Your Head… or Not

The way a person tilts his/her head speaks volumes. Holding your head level communicates that you have authority and certainty about what you are saying — you’re “level-headed” and trustworthy. Therefore, Driver advises against tilting your head to the left or the right when you are speaking.

But, she said, it’s another matter altogether when you are listening. Tilting your head to the right stacks the odds that a person will think you look attractive — useful on a blind date, for instance… while tilting slightly to the left makes you look more intelligent — helpful at a job interview. This phenomenon is independent of right- or left-handedness and, as peculiar as it sounds (which it does), you’ll see that it works by testing it yourself in a mirror or by taking tilting-head photos of yourself. Driver says there are theories about why this works having to do with the different functions of the right and left sides of the brain, but no one really knows for sure.

Rise to the Occasion

Have you noticed that some people — probably even you, at times — seem to spontaneously rise onto their tiptoes, and not because something is blocking their view? This might happen, for example when you receive an unexpected phone call from a new love…or get the lowball price you have been negotiating on a new car. According to Driver, this is a sign of capability and enthusiasm. She calls it “defying gravity,” surmising that people do this when they feel the earth is not strong enough to hold them down. “It is great to see this,” she says. “It shows this is a happy, confident person.”

In contrast, when a person is trying to appear confident but isn’t really feeling that way, you often will see the person cross his/her ankles.

There are of course many more silent signals. Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised at how much people tell you without saying a word!