Interpreting Body Language: Nonverbal Communication

Marieke Stoop
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Nonverbal communication expresses more than just words. It is by far the most important element of communication. If you are aware of nonverbal patterns, you can adjust your own behaviour and notice your projected attitude towards others.

In addition, you can observe employees better and understand what they really think, feel, or mean. This knowledge helps you to motivate employees to transform and appropriately adjust this in Human Resource policies in your organisation.

Body language and voice

Body language is about posture, sign language, expression and eye movement. It expresses feelings, connections and relationships. Hands, eyes, feet, mouth and voice all express communication. It can be stated that nonverbal communication is body language combined with voice volume, pitch and speech rate.

Every body movement and sound has its own meaning. Research has shown (Frank Oomkes, Nonverbal communication) that there are, for example, more than 23 different ways to use your eyebrows!

It is important to pay attention to the combination of voice and movement in the interpretation of nonverbal communication, instead of reviewing every movement separately.

Non-verbal signals are culture related and each culture has its own nonverbal language accompanied by posture and inflections. Every culture has a certain consistency in nonverbal communication, however, so everyone is unwittingly using many of the same signals.

Familiar nonverbal signals

Positive signs: friendly facial expression, leaning towards the other person, eye contact, touching, nodding, sitting opposite to the other person, good posture while speaking, breathing slowly and having a relaxed attitude.

Negative signals: arms and legs crossed, leaning back, frowning, avoid eye contact, looking around, head shaking, making fewer changes in postures, shallow breathing and tense posture.

Please find below an interpretation of body language:

Curved back: submissive, meek
Forward pressed shoulders: fear
Upper body forward: increased interest, impatient
Head up: confident, determined, ready to act
Legs closed: proper, formal, scared
Legs crossed: self-assured, wanting security
Come closer: affection, attack, dominant behaviour
Arms crossed chest: defensive, tight, uncomfortable, self-defense
Arms hanging limp: passive, submissive
Hands on hips: targeted, drive for stability, superior, rigid recalcitrant
Rubbing hands: smug, enjoyment
Hand to nose: fear, uncertainty
Hands in pocket: shy, uninterested
Stroke, smooth hair: focused to get attention, narcissism
Ironing clothes with hands: indecisive, timid and thoughtful
Constantly put on and off glasses: rejection out of defence
Vertical forehead wrinkles: focused, determined, willing to act
Horizontal forehead wrinkles: noticing something, surprised, comprehending, helpless, arrogant
Closed mouth: quiet, determined
Open mouth: passive, stunned, disappointed
Eyes focused in space: thoughtful, dismissive, self-centred

The different meanings of body expression need to be seen as a pocket glossary.
We need to take into consideration more factors (eg. context, place, timing, etc.) to make sure we interpret the correct body language.

Good luck in all your meetings!

Marieke Stoop

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  64. Hi there Marieke,
    First of all – very nice site!

    I think this article has a nice composition of different interpretations to certain body gestures – like a pocket glossary of body language.

    I do however, wish to emphasize that these gestures are dependent on the context in present and we should never “read” any signal by itself. If I would rub my hands together on a cold winter day, for example – it probably means that I’m cold – not smug (:

    Other than that, great share, thank you

    1. Hi Sinay,
      Thank you very much for sharing. I fully agree with your comment. This article is more to highlight the various meanings as a pocket glossary.
      We need to take into consideration more factors (eg. context, place, timing ect) to make sure we interpret the correct body language 🙂
      Thank you, regards Marieke Stoop

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