You've likely heard that body language accounts for up to 55 per cent of how we communicate, but reading non-verbal cues isn't just about broad strokes. The same gesture can indicate a number of different things depending on context.
In this guide, we're going to take a look at three common situations in which non-verbal cues are especially important - detecting lies, going on a date and interviewing for a job - then explain how to interpret body language more accurately so that you can read between the lines when a person's words aren't necessarily conveying the way that they honestly feel.
We lie a lot. When having a conversation with a stranger, chances are we'll lie in the first 10 minutes. Sometimes we'll lie more than once in that same period of time. These may not always be big lies, but we still do it. We all willingly partake in deception from time to time because it helps us avoid conflict, but often we're better off knowing the truth. While words can be deceptive, the human body is a terrible liar. This is where reading body language and using your own effectively, can be extremely useful when communicating with others.
First, the basics.
Body Language Basics
When you're reading body language, your primary goal is to determine whether or not a person is comfortable in their current situation. Once you do this, it's a process of using context and other cues — which we'll get into later — to figure out the specifics. There are plenty of ways a person may indicate their comfort level, but here are a few of the most common.
Positive body language
- Moving or leaning closer to you
- Relaxed, uncrossed limbs
- Long periods of eye contact
- Looking down and away out of shyness
- Genuine smiles
Negative body language
- Moving or leaning away from you
- Crossed arms or legs
- Looking away to the side
- Feet pointed away from you, or towards and exit
- Rubbing/scratching their nose, eyes or the back of their neck
A single cue can mean a myriad of things. For example, crossed arms falls under the category of negative body language and can suggest that a person is physically cold, closed off or frustrated. It can even indicate that they've simply had too much to eat. It's necessary to pay attention to multiple behavioural cues as a single one can be misleading. While it will help to indicate comfort level, to really understand why you need to look deeper. This means paying attention to other cues as well as their context. As we get into the specific situations, we'll look at how these cues work together to help uncover the truth in a given moment.
Spot a Liar
One of the biggest advantages of learning to read body language well is being able to judge when someone is lying with a fair amount of accuracy. Your intuition is never going to be 100% per cent accurate, but with a little practice you can become more aware of when you're being fed a load of crap. It's very important to recognise what kind of lies you are actually detecting. The techniques we're going to discuss in this section correspond to big lies — the lies people tell when they are uncomfortable or afraid of the truth. These skills will get you almost nowhere in detecting white lies, small lies of omission, and what people do most often: exaggerate. Those types of deception are very hard to detect, and it's important to remember that, regardless of the type of untruth, you'll never know for certain. You can, however, pick up on common cues so you know when to hold a healthy suspicion about what a person is saying.
Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting, conducted significant research on the ways we lie to figure out the common patterns in our body language. She found that liars often exhibit much of the behaviour you'd find in any other uncomfortable person, but with a few very specific additional traits.
People are bad at offering a genuine smile when they're lying. In fact, a genuine smile (often referred to as a Duchenne smile), is often said to be impossible to fake. This is why many of us end up with awkward family photos. We may think we look like we're smiling, but to most anyone it looks like we're faking it. This is because your smile is in your eyes, or, more specifically, the wrinkles around them. You display a few crows feet when you smile genuinely because your smile pushes up your cheeks which bunches up the skin near your eyes. It's fairly hard to fake this. You need to feel some sort of genuine happy emotion at the time to do it, and when you're uncomfortable this is next to impossible. This is why a non-genuine smile can be a helpful indicator of a lie in progress.
Liars like to overcompensate when they're lying, and so they'll often try to remain still and offer eye contact. This will often result in so much eye contact it's often a little unsettling, and their body will become stiff because they're attempting not to fidget. Normally, people move and do not hold eye contact for extended periods of time. When uncomfortable, however, people will often rub their neck or eyes and look away to the side. Rather than exhibit the positive body language that would imply comfort, liars tend to opt for doing very little. This, in and of itself, is an indicator. Look for tense shoulders and an unusually high amount of eye contact and you'll be more likely to spot a liar.
Context and Paired Behaviours
In addition to all these non-verbal cues, you'll need to pay attention to the context. Liars will often offer more details in their stories, suggest punishments for the "real culprit" if they're being accused of something, and answer you questions with a question to give them time to fabricate an answer rather than provide you with the truth. These behaviours, when paired with standard negative body language and the previously mentioned cues that liars exhibit, give you the right mix of untrustworthy behaviour. Separately they may not mean much, but together they point to dishonesty.
It's important to remember, however, that some people are just awkward and exhibit this kind of behaviour with regularity. You should take the way a person normally acts into consideration as well. Watch their mannerisms and eye movements when you know they're telling the truth and compare that to the times when you think they're lying. When you see consistent change when certain statements are made, you'll know how this specific person acts when they're thinking of what to say rather than recalling information. Again, this or anything else previously mentioned isn't sufficient in detecting lies. You have to look for multiple cues or what you'll just discover that you're fooling yourself into believing you know the difference between fact and fiction.
Read People on a Date
When you're out on a first date, body language can be an incredibly helpful tool. If you're not paying attention to the non-verbal cues your date is exhibiting, you can often go on talking about something that makes them uncomfortable or they find unpleasant. While you don't want to go into a date hiding who you are, you do want to put your best foot forward so, in the event you are a decent match, you can bring up the riskier topics a bit later once your date already likes you. This, of course, means paying close attention to your date's behaviour which can be difficult when you're supposed to be speaking charismatically and listening to what they're saying. With a little practice, however, you'll get the hang of watching for the right signals and won't have to spend much time thinking about them.
You're not looking for anything complicated on a date — just the general indications of comfort and discomfort we outlined earlier. This means you're simply paying attention to how guarded your date is with their body. Initially, most people will be fairly guarded. They'll cross their arms, keep a reasonable amount of distance, and keep their palms facing themselves. This is OK and fairly common on a first date, and your goal is to change that body language into something more open and welcoming. You'll do this naturally when you connect with them, but you can encourage open body language by providing it yourself. We tend to mimic the behaviour of others to some extent, so if you're warm and comfortable it will help your date change his or her behaviour to match. This means keeping your arms uncrossed and open, offering a genuine smile whenever feasible and appropriate, avoiding distance from your date, and even showing your palms. All of these things imply that you're comfortable and will help make your date more comfortable as well.
You also want to be careful not to psych yourself out just because you picked up on some negative body language. Levels of comfort fluctuate frequently on dates because it's often a little nerve-wracking for most people in the first place. Don't worry about making a few mistakes. As a piano instructor would tell you for a recital, if you play a wrong note you should just keep going. Watch the non-verbal cues to see how you're doing and focus on anything that provides positive body language. If you receive extended moments of negative body language, move on to another topic. Of course, sometimes you're just not going to click and the date is going to be an awkward evening full of negative non-verbal cues. If this happens, the same piano-playing principal applies: don't get hung up on a problem — just move on.
Communicate Effectively in a Job Interview
Job interviews are a lot like first dates in the sense that you're trying to convince another person, whom you don't know, to like you. The key difference is that on a date you're both meeting on equal ground. When you go into a job interview, however, the interviewer has most of the power and you have, essentially, none at all. This creates an environment where you're going to likely be considerably more uncomfortable than the interviewer. You'll display negative body language as a result, and that's not good. When interviewing for a job, you want to override any non-verbal communication that makes you seem closed off.
A charismatic beginning can make all the difference, as first impressions are hugely important in hiring decisions. A smile, pleasant handshake, warm greeting, and the previously mentioned positive body language will set the stage for a comfortable interview. You don't know what sort of (potentially negative) expectations your interviewer is bringing to the table, so it's never a bad thing to override them by demonstrating you're a pleasant and charismatic individual.
Offering up the previously discussed positive body language is easier said than done when you're uncomfortable, so the best thing you can do to override that discomfort is to feel prepared. (A lack of preparation is the main reason you suck in an interview, after all.) Even if you begin to feel unprepared later on, walking into the room with confidence will at least help you make that important first impression. To prepare, research the company. Remember a few useful "sound bites" to use and fall back on if you're struggling. Know what differentiates you and makes you special and remind yourself right before you walk into the room. Preparation breeds confidence, and it'll be easier to display positive body language when you're feeling good about yourself.
While natural comfort is going to be your most valuable tool, there are a few tricks that can help you out. Assuming Western cultural standards, eye contact is more important in a job interview than most other situations. If you have trouble meeting someone's eyes, just look at their mouth. You'll also want to avoid blocking your own eyes in any way, as doing so can convey discomfort (among other negative feelings). Just like on a date, leaning slightly forward is a positive cue for your interviewer. It also helps to appear to be a good listener, as you'll be talking most of the time. When you ask your own questions, or your interviewer has something to tell you, eye contact is especially important. You can also convey that you're in a "listening mode" by occasionally placing part of your hand over your mouth. This helps indicate to others that you're not going to talk and therefore paying attention.
All of this said, every interviewer is going to understand that you'll be a little nervous. It's natural and no reasonable person should or would expect anybody to walk in with no tension whatsoever. If you're a little bit tense, don't worry about it. That much is expected. In fact, too much comfort might convey to some that you're overconfident and not taking the interview seriously. In the end, your fate rests in the hands of another human being so there's only so much you can do. They may not like your shoes or prefer to hire someone younger or older. You never know what you're going to run into, but you can at least try to tip the scales in your favour with the help of some positive body language.
Remember: Body Language Is Only Part of the Picture
A better understanding of human body language can be useful in your own communication and in understanding others. It can also be a lot of fun to feel like you know what other people are thinking, when they're lying to you, and how comfortable they are in a given situation. That said, you're not a psychic. You can't read minds and the non-verbal cues you interpret are never going to tell you exactly what someone is feeling or thinking with spot-on accuracy. These techniques will help you find clues that can help you understand other people. Use them to communicate better and gain a better awareness of those around you. Don't pretend they're magic. All you're doing is paying closer attention to your natural, human intuition.
Special thanks to Samantha McCullough, William J. Tebbenhoff II and Tyrone Mann for their contributions. This article also references information from the work of Pamela Meyer and Joe Navarro. To learn more about body language and other non-verbal communication, check out their books and articles.