Understanding Body Language

By Team Felicity
Tue Jun 22 2021

Body Language

By Shreya Durve, MBBS Student


Body language is a type of non-verbal method of communication in which actions, facial expressions, and other physical behaviours instead of words speak for the person’s emotions, thoughts, and feelings. 

It has been suggested that non-verbal communication might make up more than 60-65% of all our communication (even more than verbal communication).


Components of body language

Here are a few things to look out for when you try to deduce an individual’s body language:

  1. Facial expression
  2. Arms and Legs
  3. Gestures
  4. Posture
  5. Personal space
  6. Eye contact


The Mehrabian Model of Communication

The Mehrabian Model of Communication speaks of the relevance and value of each mode of communication with expressing feelings, emotions, and attitudes.

According to this model, around 55% of communication is attributed to the non-verbal mode; while the rest is attributed to spoken words and tone of voice. This clearly shows that when expressing emotions and attitudes, the non-verbal mode of communication says more than your choice of words and the tone you use to convey them.


Body Language and Culture

Each culture has its own way of commuting – while western culture encourages eye contact, especially in formal interactions; excessive eye contact during conversation is considered rude in many Asian cultures.

Ultimately, the way we interact with others forms a great part of civilization and our culture. The two concepts interconnecting is no surprise then – is it?

Even the way we express negative feelings among individuals can be quite different between cultures – giving rise to unintended conflict. While in most places a nod is considered a sign of approval, in a few a nod also indicates disagreement. Many of us might have been told by our parents to not pass valuable objects like money from our left hand – well, that rule is not followed by all cultures!

Needless to say, this discussion points towards the discrepancies between how body language is perceived in various cultures, and how it can also be a cause of differences.


The Individual Concepts 


1. The Face

Our faces can say a lot about how we are actually feeling. It also shows the opposite person whether the words we use actually match up to the thoughts we are having! While some of us have mastered the ability to maintain a ‘poker face’, a vast majority still struggle to control their expressions.


2. The Facial Expression 

The way we use the tiny muscles in our faces can have a huge impact on the person we are conversing with. While a smile conveys happiness – some might find a tight-lipped smile to be deceitful. 

And while a frown might be considered a sign of sadness, it could also denote physical pain. 

Our facial expressions usually convey more than what our words let on – the way we smile, crinkle our eyes, the slight tick some individuals get when they are angry – all have a deeper meaning to it. Each facial expression conveys a particular emotion – be it fear, contempt, disgust, or something positive like happiness or glee. 

A few tidbits of information:

  1. Research says that the most trustful expression is one with a small smile, eyebrows slightly raised.
  2. A person’s intelligence may also be judged based on their expressions.
  3. Micro-expressions are those that come and go in a very short amount of time and usually convey emotions that the individual is trying to hide.


3. The Eyes 

“The beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” – well, we don't know about that, but they sure do hold a lot of information about what the other person is thinking. The eye contact we hold with the person we are talking to, the raise of our eyebrows, the dilation of the pupils – all convey a piece of us. 

A few tidbits of information:

  1. Blinking: While blinking at a rapid speed may indicate fear or distress, slow blinking could indicate that the person is conscious.
  2. Pupil size: Keeping in mind the latest Instagram trend, wherein a person’s eyes dilate when they think of the people they adore – we are here to tell you that yes, a person’s pupils do in fact increase in size when in desire. 
  3. Staring/gazing: A direct gaze indicates confidence, arrogance or anger. An everted gaze or rapid eye movements could mean that the person is scared or uncomfortable – maybe it’s time to change your approach!


4. The Mouth 

Other than its obvious use – eating and speaking of course! – the way our mouth moves, or our mouth expressions do give subtle clues as to what’s going on inside the head. For instance, while a slight tilt of the mouth could indicate uncertainty or contempt, the bite of a lip could indicate desire, worry or insecurity. 

One of the most important expressions is that of a smile. A smile is a universal positive reaction – however, it may be interpreted in many ways. A smile is contagious, we tend to reciprocate the reaction when we see it on the other person’s face unconsciously. Although people can make out a fake smile from a genuine one – research suggests that we can receive more positive reactions from a smile, be it fake or real! A smile tends to build trust in the person and is a great tool to make friends!


5. The Posture

The posture gives a lot of hints as to what the person thinks of you – how approachable they are, what level of comfort they have attained with you and whether they think of you positively or not. There have been defined two types of postures – either open or closed. 

• The open posture: This type of posture indicates that the person is keen to listen to what you have to say, and is willing to open up. Classically, they would face towards you, with their arms and legs apart (uncrossed), seeming interested. 

• The closed posture: This type usually means that the person is either uninterested or unwilling to open up to you. This can also convey discomfort or arrogance. A person in the closed posture would mean that they have their arms and legs placed close together, in a crossed position. The angle at which they are facing you, might not be straight and they might have their body tilted away from you. This is usually a sign a therapist may encounter during therapy – indicating defensiveness and the unwillingness to open up. 

Some tidbits of information:

  1. A person standing with their hands on their hips could point towards future aggression
  2. Tapping of fingers, toes or feet against a surface could indicate anxiousness, irritation or impatience. This is something that a therapist must look out for – they must avoid tapping their fingers or toes since it is usually a sign of disrespect to their clients.


6. The Personal Space/Proxemics

A very important part of non-verbal communication is the need for personal space. For a conversation to be successful we must maintain an appropriate distance from the other person in order to give them their private space. Proxemics refers to the distance between two people as they interact with each other. 

• Intimate distance (6 to 18 inches): This is the distance you usually maintain with those you consider to have a close and intimate relationship with. For example, your partner.

• Personal distance (1.5 to 4 feet): This is the distance you normally maintain when conversing with family or close friends. The closer you stand to a person – the higher the level of trust, comfort and intimacy between the two.

• Social distance (4 to 12 feet): This is the kind of distance you should maintain between acquaintances. Again, your level of comfort indicates how close you would stand.

• Public distance (12 to 25 feet): This is the distance you usually maintain when giving a public speech to multiple people.


Personal space and culture 

Different cultures have different rules in regards to the space they require. While those in the western influence tend to need more space, even when conversing with close friends and family; those in the East have a tendency to be more proximal even to those with who they might not consider being very familiar.


The Uses of Body Language

Body language can not only help those in the profession of mental health – but is a skill that must be acquired by many, in order to have a better relationship with those around us. A good understanding of body language can not only influence your closer relationships, but also help with your professional and business ones, and consolidate a better foundation for intimate partnerships.

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