Body Language

How to read body language Sign and gestures...

Your own body language reveals your feelings and meanings to others. Other people's body language reveals their feelings and meanings to you. Body language is especially crucial when we meet someone for the first time. When we meet someone for the first time, their body language, on conscious and unconscious levels, largely determines our initial impression of them. In turn when someone meets us for the first time, they form their initial impression of us largely from our body language and non-verbal signals. And this two-way effect of body language continues throughout communications and relationships between people. Body language is constantly being exchanged and interpreted between people, even though much of the time this is happening on an unconscious level. Remember - while you are interpreting (consciously or unconsciously) the body language of other people, so other people are constantly interpreting yours.The people with the most conscious awareness of, and capabilities to read, body language tend to have an advantage over those whose appreciation is limited largely to the unconsciou.

Body Language is more than body positions and movements

Body language is not just about how we hold and move our bodies.

Body language potentially (although not always, depending on the definition you choose to apply) encompasses:

Body language tends not to include:

Arguably this last point should be encompassed by body language, because a lot happens here which can easily be missed if we consider merely the spoken word and the traditional narrow definition of body language or non-verbal communications.

Voice type and other audible signals are typically not included in body language because they are audible 'verbal' signals rather than physical visual ones, nevertheless the way the voice is used is a very significant (usually unconscious) aspect of communication, aside from the bare words themselves.

Consequently, voice type is always important to consider alongside the usual body language factors.

Similarly breathing and heartbeat, etc., are typically excluded from many general descriptions of body language, but are certainly part of the range of non-verbal bodily actions and signals which contribute to body language in its fullest sense.

More obviously, our eyes are a vital aspect of our body language.

Our reactions to other people's eyes - movement, focus, expression, etc - and their reactions to our eyes - contribute greatly to mutual assessment and understanding, consciously and unconsciously.

With no words at all, massive feeling can be conveyed in a single glance. The metaphor which describes the eyes of two lovers meeting across a crowded room is not only found in old romantic movies. It's based on scientific fact - the strong powers of non-verbal communications.

These effects - and similar powerful examples - have existed in real human experience and behaviour for thousands of years.

The human body and our instinctive reactions have evolved to an amazingly clever degree, which many of us ignore or take for granted, and which we can all learn how to recognize more clearly if we try.

Our interpretation of body language, notably eyes and facial expressions, is instinctive, and with a little thought and knowledge we can significantly increase our conscious awareness of these signals: both the signals we transmit, and the signals in others that we observe.

Doing so gives us a significant advantage in life - professionally and personally - in our dealings with others.

Body language is not just reading the signals in other people.

We understand more about other people's feelings and meanings, and we also understand more about these things in ourselves.

When we understand body language we become better able to refine and improve what our body says about us, which generates a positive improvement in the way we feel, the way we perform, and what we achieve. Words alone - especially emotional words (or words used in emotional situations) - rarely reflect full or true meaning and motive.

We find clues to additional or true meaning in body language.

Being able to 'read' body language therefore helps us greatly:

While there have been found to be minor variations and differences among obscurely isolated tribes-people, the following basic human emotions are generally used, recognized, and part of humankind's genetic character:

These emotional face expressions are:

Body Language - translation of gestures, signs and other factors - quick reference guide

When translating body language signals into feelings and meanings remember that one signal does not reliably indicate a meaning.

Clusters of signals more reliably indicate meaning.

This is a general guide. Body language should not be used alone for making serious decisions about people.

Body language is one of several indicators of mood, meaning and motive.

This is a guide, not an absolutely reliable indicator, and this applies especially until you've developed good capabilities of reading body language signs.

Some of these signs have obvious meanings; others not so.

Even 'obvious' signs can be missed - especially if displayed as subtle movements in a group of people and if your mind is on other things - so I make no apology for including 'obvious' body language in this guide.

Also remember that cultural differences influence body language signals and their interpretation. This guide is based on 'Western World' and North European behaviours. What may be 'obvious' in one culture can mean something different in another culture.

Body Language Signs Translation

The body language signals below are grouped together according to parts of the body.

Left and right are for the person giving the signals and making the movements.

This is a summary of the main body language signals. More signals and meanings will be added.

Suggest any other signals that you wish to know, and I'll add them.

Body Language Warning

Body language is not an exact science.

No single body language sign is a reliable indicator.

Understanding body language involves the interpretation of several consistent signals to support or indicate a particular conclusion.

Eyes - Body Language

Our eyes are a very significant aspect of the non-verbal signals we send to others.

To a lesser or greater extent we all 'read' people's eyes without knowing how or why, and this ability seems to be inborn.

Eyes - and especially our highly developed awareness of what we see in other people's eyes - are incredible.

For example we know if we have eye contact with someone at an almost unbelievable distance. Far too far away to be able to see the detail of a person's eyes - 30-40 meters away or more sometimes - we know when there is eye contact. This is an absolutely awesome capability when you think about it.

Incredibly also, we can see whether another person's eyes are focused on us or not, and we can detect easily the differences between a 'glazed over' blank stare, a piercing look, a moistening eye long before tears come, and an awkward or secret glance.

We probably cannot describe these and many other eye signals, but we recognize them when we see them and we know what they mean. When we additionally consider the eyelids, and the flexibility of the eyes to widen and close, and for the pupils to enlarge or contract, it becomes easier to understand how the eyes have developed such potency in human communications.

A note about eyes looking right and left...

(Left and right are for the person giving the signals and making the movements)

Eyes tend to look right when the brain is imagining or creating, and left when the brain is recalling or remembering. This relates to right and left sides of the brain - in this context broadly the parts of the brain handling creativity/feelings (right) and facts/memory (left). This is analyzed in greater detail below, chiefly based on NLP theory developed in the 1960s. Under certain circumstances 'creating' can mean fabrication or lying, especially (but not always - beware), when the person is supposed to be recalling facts. Looking right when stating facts does not necessarily mean lying - it could for example mean that the person does not know the answer, and is talking hypothetically or speculating or guessing.

Signal Part of Body Possible Meaning(s) Detailed Explanation
Left and right are for the person giving the signals and making the movements.
Looking right (generally) Eyes Creating, fabricating, guessing, lying, storytelling Creating here is basically making things up and saying them. Depending on context this can indicate lying, but in other circumstances, for example, storytelling to a child, this would be perfectly normal. Looking right and down indicates accessing feelings, which again can be a perfectly genuine response or not, depending on the context, and to an extent the person.
Looking left (generally) Eyes Recalling, remembering, retrieving 'facts' Recalling and and then stating 'facts' from memory in appropriate context often equates to telling the truth. Whether the 'facts' (memories) are correct is another matter. Left downward looking indicates silent self-conversation or self-talk, typically in trying to arrive at a view or decision.
Looking right and up Eyes Visual imagining, fabrication, lying Related to imagination and creative (right-side) parts of the brain, this upwards right eye-movement can be a warning sign of fabrication if a person is supposed to be recalling and stating facts.
Looking right sideways Eyes Imagining sounds Sideways eye movements are believed to indicate imagining (right) or recalling (left) sounds, which can include for example a person imagining or fabricating what another person has said or could say.
Looking right and down Eyes Accessing feelings This is a creative signal but not a fabrication - it can signal that the person is self-questioning their feelings about something. Context particularly- and other signals - are important for interpreting more specific meaning about this signal.
Looking left and up Eyes Recalling images truthfulness Related to accessing memory in the brain, rather than creating or imagining. A reassuring sign if signalled when the person is recalling and stating facts.
Looking left sideways Eyes Recalling or remembering sounds Looking sideways suggests sounds; looking left suggests recalling or remembering - not fabricating or imagining. This therefore could indicate recalling what has been said by another person.
Looking left down Eyes Self-talking, rationalizing Thinking things through by self-talk - concerning an outward view, rather than the inward feelings view indicated by downward right looking.
Direct eye contact (when speaking) Eyes Honesty - or faked honesty Direct eye contact is generally regarded as a sign of truthfulness, however practised liars know this and will fake the signal.
Direct eye contact (when listening) Eyes Attentiveness, interest, attraction Eyes which stay focused on the speakers eyes, tend to indicate focused interested attention too, which is normally a sign of attraction to the person and/or the subject.
Widening eyes Eyes Interest, appeal, invitation Widening the eyes generally signals interest in something or someone, and often invites positive response. Widened eyes with raised eyebrows can otherwise be due to shock, but aside from this, widening eyes represents an opening and welcoming expression. In women especially widened eyes tend to increase attractiveness, which is believed by some body language experts to relate to the eye/face proportions of babies, and the associated signals of attraction and prompting urges to protect and offer love and care, etc.
Rubbing eye or eyes Eyes Disbelief, upset, or tiredness Rubbing eyes or one eye can indicate disbelief, as if checking the vision, or upset, in which the action relates to crying, or tiredness, which can be due boredom, not necessarily a need for sleep. If the signal is accompanied by a long pronounced blink, this tends to support the tiredness interpretation.
Eye shrug Eyes Frustration An upward roll of the eyes signals frustration or exasperation, as if looking to the heavens for help.
Pupils dilated (enlarged) Eyes Attraction, desire The pupil is the black centre of the eye which opens or closes to let in more or less light. Darkness causes pupils to dilate. So too, for some reason does seeing something appealing or attractive. The cause of the attraction depends on the situation. In the case of sexual attraction the effect can be mutual - dilated pupils tend to be more appealing sexually that contracted ones, perhaps because of an instinctive association with darkness, night-time, bedtime, etc., although the origins of this effect are unproven. Resist the temptation to imagine that everyone you see with dilated pupils is sexually attracted to you.
Blinking frequently Eyes Excitement, pressure Normal human blink rate is considered to be between six and twenty times a minute, depending on the expert. Significantly more than this is a sign of excitement or pressure. Blink rate can increase to up to a hundred times a minute. Blink rate is not a reliable sign of lying.
Blinking infrequently Eyes Various Infrequent blink rate can mean different things and so offers no single clue unless combined with other signals. An infrequent blink rate is probably due to boredom if the eyes are not focused, or can be the opposite - concentration - if accompanied with a strongly focused gaze. Infrequent blink rate can also be accompanied by signals of hostility or negativity, and is therefore not the most revealing of body language signals.
Eyebrow raising (eyebrow 'flash') Eyes Greeting, recognition, acknowledgement Quickly raising and lowering the eyebrows is called an 'eyebrow flash'. It is a common signal of greeting and acknowledgement, and is perhaps genetically influenced since it is prevalent in monkeys (body language study does not sit entirely happily alongside creationism). Fear and surprise are also signalled by the eyebrow flash, in which case the eyebrows normally remain raised for longer, until the initial shock subsides.
Winking Eyes Friendly acknowledgement, complicity (e.g., sharing a secret or joke) Much fuss was made in May 2007 when George W Bush winked at the Queen. The fuss was made because a wink is quite an intimate signal, directed exclusively from one person to another, and is associated with male flirting. It is strange that a non-contact wink can carry more personal implications than a physical handshake, and in many situations more than a kiss on the cheek. A wink is given additional spice if accompanied by a click of the tongue. Not many people can carry it off. Additionally - and this was partly the sense in which Bush used it - a wink can signal a shared joke or secret.

Mouth - Body Language

The mouth is associated with very many body language signals, which is not surprising given its functions - obviously speech, but also those connected with infant feeding, which connects psychologically through later life with feelings of security, love and sex.

The mouth can be touched or obscured by a person's own hands or fingers, and is a tremendously flexible and expressive part of the body too, performing a central role in facial expressions.

The mouth also has more visible moving parts than other sensory organs, so there's a lot more potential for variety of signalling.

Unlike the nose and ears, which are generally only brought into body language action by the hands or fingers, the mouth acts quite independently, another reason for it deserving separate detailed consideration.

Smiling is a big part of facial body language. As a general rule real smiles are symmetrical and produce creases around the eyes and mouth, whereas fake smiles, for whatever reason, tend to be mouth-only gestures.

Signal Part of body Possible Meaning(s) Detailed Explanation
Pasted smile Mouth Faked smile A pasted smile is one which appears quickly, is fixed for longer than a natural smile, and seems not to extend to the eyes. This typically indicates suppressed displeasure or forced agreement of some sort.
Tight-lipped smile Mouth Secrecy or withheld feelings Stretched across face in a straight line, teeth concealed. The smiler has a secret they are not going to share, possibly due to dislike or distrust. Can also be a rejection signal.
Twisted smile Mouth Mixed feelings or sarcasm Shows opposite emotions on each side of the face.
Dropped-jaw smile Mouth Faked smile More of a practised fake smile than an instinctive one. The jaw is dropped lower than in a natural smile, the act of which creates a smile.
Smile - head tilted, looking up Mouth Playfulness, teasing, coy  Head tilted sideways and downwards so as to part hide the face, from which the smile is directed via the eyes at the intended target.
Bottom lip jutting out Mouth Upset Like rubbing eyes can be an adult version of crying, so jutting or pushing the bottom lip forward is a part of the crying face and impulse. Bear in mind that people cry for reasons of genuine upset, or to avert attack and seek sympathy or kind treatment.
Laughter Mouth Relaxation Laughter deserves a section in its own right because its such an interesting area. In terms of body language genuine laughter is a sign of relaxation and feeling at ease. Natural laughter can extend to all the upper body or whole body. The physiology of laughter is significant. Endorphins are released. Pain and stress reduces. Also vulnerabilities show and can become more visible because people's guard drops when laughing.
Forced laughter Mouth Nervousness, cooperation Unnatural laughter is often a signal of nervousness or stress, as an effort to dispel tension or change the atmosphere. Artificial laughter is a signal of cooperation and a wish to maintain empathy.
Biting lip Mouth Tension One of many signals suggesting tension or stress, which can be due to high concentration, but more likely to be anxiousness. 
Teeth Grinding Mouth Tension, suppression Inwardly-directed 'displacement' (see body language glossary sign, due to suppression of natural reaction due to fear or other suppressant.
Chewing gum Mouth Tension, suppression As above - an inwardly-directed 'displacement' sign, due to suppression of natural reaction. Otherwise however can simply be to freshen breath, or as a smoking replacement.
Smoking Mouth Self-comforting  Smoking obviously becomes habitual and addictive, but aside from this people put things into their mouths because it's comforting like thumb-sucking is to a child, in turn rooted in baby experiences of feeding and especially breastfeeding.
Thumb-sucking Mouth Self-comforting A self-comforting impulse in babies and children, substituting breast-feeding, which can persist as a habit into adulthood.
Chewing pen or pencil Mouth Self-comforting Like smoking and infant thumb sucking. The pen is the teat. Remember that next time you chew the end of your pen...
Pursing lips Mouth Thoughtfulness, or upset As if holding the words in the mouth until they are ready to be released. Can also indicate anxiousness or impatience at not being able to speak. Or quite differently can indicate upset, as if suppressing crying.
Tongue poke Mouth / tongue Disapproval, rejection The tongue extends briefly and slightly at the centre of the mouth as if tasting something nasty. The gesture may be extremely subtle. An extreme version may be accompanied by a wrinkling of the nose, and a squint of the eyes.
Hand clamped over mouth Mouth / hands Suppression, holding back, shock Often an unconscious gesture of self-regulation - stopping speech for reasons of shock, embarrassment, or for more tactical reasons. The gesture is reminiscent of the 'speak no evil' wise monkey. The action can be observed very clearly in young children when they witness something 'unspeakably' naughty or shocking. Extreme versions of the same effect would involve both hands.
Nail biting Mouth / hands Frustration, suppression Nail-biting is an inwardly-redirected aggression borne of fear, or some other suppression of behaviour. Later nail-biting becomes reinforced as a comforting habit, again typically prompted by frustration or fear. Stress in this context is an outcome. Stress doesn't cause nail-biting; nail-biting is the outward demonstration of stress. The cause of the stress can be various things (stressors). See the stress article for more detail about stress.

Head - Body Language

The head is very significant in body language.

The head tends to lead and determine general body direction, but it is also vital and vulnerable being where our brain is, so the head is used a lot in directional (likes and dislikes) body language, and in defensive (self-protection) body language too.

A person's head, due to a very flexible neck structure, can turn, jut forward, withdraw, tilt sideways, forwards, backwards. All of these movements have meanings, which given some thought about other signals can be understood.

The head usually has hair, ears, eyes, nose, and a face, which has more complex and visible muscular effects than any other area of the body.

The face, our eyes and our hands, are the most powerful parts of our body in sending body language signals.

The head - when our hands interact with it - is therefore dynamic and busy in communicating all sorts of messages - consciously and unconsciously.

Signal Part of Body Possible Meaning(s) Detailed Explanation
Head nodding Head Agreement Head nodding can occur when invited for a response, or voluntarily while listening. Nodding is confusingly and rather daftly also referred to as 'head shaking up and down'. Head nodding when talking face-to-face one-to-one is easy to see, but do you always detect tiny head nods when addressing or observing a group?
Slow head nodding Head Attentive listening This can be a faked signal. As with all body language signals you must look for clusters of signals rather than relying on one alone. Look at the focus of eyes to check the validity of slow head nodding.
Fast head nodding Head Hurry up, impatience Vigorous head nodding signifies that the listener feels the speaker has made their point or taken sufficient time. Fast head nodding is rather like the 'wind-up' hand gesture given off-camera or off-stage by a producer to a performer, indicating 'time's up - get off'.
Head held up Head Neutrality, alertness  High head position signifies attentive listening, usually with an open or undecided mind, or lack of bias.
Head held high Head superiority, fearlessness, arrogance Especially if exhibited with jutting chin.
head tilted to one side Head Non-threatening, submissive, thoughtfulness A signal of interest, and/or vulnerability, which in turn suggests a level of trust. Head tilting is thought by some to relate to 'sizing up' something, since tilting the head changes the perspective offered by the eyes, and a different view is seen of the other person or subject. Exposing the neck is also a sign of trust.
Head forward, upright Head / body Interest, positive reaction Head forward in the direction of a person or other subject indicates interest. The rule also applies to a forward leaning upper body, commonly sitting, but also standing, where the movement can be a distinct and significant advancement into a closer personal space zone of the other person. Head forward and upright is different to head tilted downward.
Head tilted downward Head Criticism, admonishment Head tilted downwards towards a person is commonly a signal of criticism or reprimand or disapproval, usually from a position of authority.
Head shaking Head Disagreement Sideways shaking of the head generally indicates disagreement, but can also signal feelings of disbelief, frustration or exasperation. Obvious of course, but often ignored or missed where the movement is small, especially in groups seemingly reacting in silent acceptance.
Pronounced head shaking Head Strong disagreement The strength of movement of the head usually relates to strength of feeling, and often to the force by which the head-shaker seeks to send this message to the receiver. This is an immensely powerful signal and is used intentionally by some people to dominate others.
Head down (in response to a speaker or proposition) Head Negative, disinterested Head down is generally a signal of rejection (of someone's ideas etc), unless the head is down for a purpose like reading supporting notes, etc. Head down when responding to criticism is a signal of failure, vulnerability (hence seeking protection), or feeling ashamed.
Head down (while performing an activity) Head Defeat, tiredness Lowering the head is a sign of loss, defeat, shame, etc. Hence the expressions such as 'don't let your head drop', and 'don't let your head go down', especially in sports and competitive activities. Head down also tends to cause shoulders and upper back to slump, increasing the signs of weakness at that moment.
Chin up Head Pride, defiance, confidence Very similar to the 'head held high' signal. Holding the chin up naturally alters the angle of the head backwards, exposing the neck, which is a signal of strength, resilience, pride, resistance, etc. A pronounced raised chin does other interesting things to the body too - it tends to lift the sternum (breast-bone), which draws in air, puffing out the chest, and it widens the shoulders. These combined effects make the person stand bigger. An exposed neck is also a sign of confidence. 'Chin up' is for these reasons a long-standing expression used to encourage someone to be brave.
Active listening Head / face Attention, interest, attraction When people are listening actively and responsively this shows in their facial expression and their head movements. The head and face are seen to respond fittingly and appropriately to what is being said by the speaker. Nodding is relevant to what is being said. Smiles and other expressions are relevant too. The head may tilt sideways. Mirroring of expressions may occur. Silences are used to absorb meaning. The eyes remain sharply focused on the eyes of the speaker, although at times might lower to look at the mouth, especially in male-female engagements.

Arms - Body Language

Arms act as defensive barriers when across the body, and conversely indicate feelings of openness and security when in open positions, especially combined with open palms.

Arms are quite reliable indicators of mood and feeling, especially when interpreted with other body language.

This provides a good opportunity to illustrate how signals combine to enable safer analysis.

For example:

While this might seem obvious written in simple language, it's not always so clear if your attention is on other matters.

Body language is more than just knowing the theory - it's being aware constantly of the signals people are giving.

Signal Part of Body Possible Meaning(s) Detailed Explanation
Crossed arms (folded arms) Arms Defensiveness, reluctance Crossed arms represent a protective or separating barrier. This can be due to various causes, ranging from severe animosity or concern to mild boredom or being too tired to be interested and attentive. Crossed arms is a commonly exhibited signal by subordinates feeling threatened by bosses and figures of authority. N.B. People also cross arms when they are feeling cold, so be careful not to misread this signal.
Crossed arms with clenched fists Arms Hostile defensiveness Clenched fists reinforce stubbornness, aggression or the lack of empathy indicated by crossed arms.
Gripping own upper arms Arms Insecurity Gripping upper arms while folded is effectively self-hugging. Self-hugging is an attempt to reassure unhappy or unsafe feelings.
One arm across body clasping other arm by side (female) Arms Nervousness Women use this gesture. Men tend not to. It's a 'barrier' protective signal, and also self-hugging.
Arms held behind body with hands clasped Arms Confidence, authority As demonstrated by members of the royal family, armed forces officers, teachers, policemen, etc.
Handbag held in front of body(female) Arms Nervousness Another 'barrier' protective signal.
Holding papers across chest(mainly male) Arms Nervousness Another 'barrier' protective signal, especially when arm is across chest.
Adjusting cuff, watchstrap, tie, etc., using an arm across the body Arms Nervousness Another 'barrier' protective signal.
Arms/hands covering genital region (male) Arms / hands Nervousness Another 'barrier' protective signal.
Holding a drink in front of body with both hands Arms / hands Nervousness Another 'barrier' protective signal.
Seated, holding drink on one side with hand from other side Arms / hands Nervousness One arm rests on the table across the body, holding a drink (or pen, etc). Another 'barrier' protective signal.
Touching or scratching shoulder using arm across body Arms / shoulder Nervousness Another 'barrier' protective signal.

Hands - Body Language

Body language involving hands is extensive.

This is because hands are such expressive parts of the body, and because hands interact with other parts of the body.

Hands contain many more nerve connections (to the brain) than most if not all other body parts. They are extremely expressive and flexible tools, so it is natural for hands to be used a lot in signalling consciously - as with emphasizing gestures - or unconsciously - as in a wide range of unintentional movements which indicate otherwise hidden feelings and thoughts.

A nose or an ear by itself can do little to signal a feeling, but when a hand or finger is also involved then there is probably a signal of some sort. Hands body language is used for various purposes, notably:

Body language experts generally agree that hands send more signals than any part of the body except for the face. Studying hand body language therefore yields a lot of information; hence the hands section below is large.

There are many cultural body language differences in hand signals. The section below focuses on Western behaviour. Much applies elsewhere, but avoid assuming that it all does.

Signal Part of Body Possible Meaning(s) Detailed Explanation
Palm(s) up or open Hands submissive, truthful, honesty, appealing Said to evolve from when open upward palms showed no weapon was held. A common gesture with various meanings around a main theme of openness. Can also mean "I don't have the answer," or an appeal. In some situations this can indicate confidence (such as to enable openness), or trust/trustworthiness. An easily faked gesture to convey innocence. Outward open forearms or whole arms are more extreme versions of the signal.
Palm(s) up, fingers pointing up Hands Defensive, instruction to stop Relaxed hands are more likely to be defensive as if offered up in protection; rigid fingers indicates a more authoritative instruction or request to stop whatever behaviour is promoting the reaction.
Palm(s) down Hands Authority, strength, dominance Where the lower arm moves across the body with palm down this is generally defiance or firm disagreement.
Palm up and moving up and down as if weighing Hands Striving for or seeking an answer The hand is empty, but figuratively holds a problem or idea as if weighing it. The signal is one of 'weighing' possibilities.
Hand(s) on heart (left side of chest) Hands Seeking to be believed Although easy to fake, the underlying meaning is one of wanting to be believed, whether being truthful or not. Hand on heart can be proactive, as when a salesman tries to convince a buyer, or reactive, as when claiming innocence or shock. Whatever, the sender of this signal typically feels the need to emphasise their position as if mortally threatened, which is rarely the case.
Finger pointing (at a person) Hands Aggression, threat, emphasis Pointing at a person is very confrontational and dictatorial. Commonly adults do this to young people. Adult to adult it is generally unacceptable and tends to indicate a lack of social awareness or self-control aside from arrogance on the part of the finger pointer. The finger is thought to represent a gun, or pointed weapon. Strongly associated with anger, directed at another person. An exception to the generally aggressive meaning of finger pointing is the finger point and wink, below.
Finger point and wink Hands/ eyes Acknowledgement or confirmation The subtle use of a winked eye with a pointed finger changes the finger point into a different signal, that of acknowledging something, often a contribution or remark made by someone, in which case the finger and wink are directed at the person concerned, and can be a signal of positive appreciation, as if to say, "You got it," or "You understand it, well done".
Finger pointing (in the air) Hands Emphasis Pointing in the air is generally used to add emphasis, by a person feeling in authority or power.
Finger wagging (side to side) Hands Warning, refusal Rather like the waving of a pistol as a threat. Stop it/do as you are told, or else..
Finger wagging (up and down) Hands Admonishment, emphasis The action is like pressing a button on a keypad several times. Like when a computer or elevator won't work, as if pressing the button lots of times will make any difference..
Hand chop Hands Emphasis - especially the last word on a matter The hand is used like a guillotine, as if to kill the discussion.
Clenched fist(s) Hands Resistance, aggression, determination One or two clenched fists can indicate different feelings - defensive, offensive, positive or negative, depending on context and other signals. Logically a clenched fist prepares the hand (and mind and body) for battle of one sort or another, but in isolation the signal is impossible to interpret more precisely than a basic feeling of resolve.
Finger tips and thumbs touching each other on opposite hands ('steepling') Hands Thoughtfulness, looking for or explaining connections or engagement Very brainy folk use this gesture since it reflects complex and/or elevated thinking. In this gesture only the fingertips touch - each finger with the corresponding digit of the other hand, pointing upwards like the rafters of a tall church roof. Fingers are spread and may be rigidly straight or relaxed and curved. Alternating the positions (pushing fingers together then relaxing again - like a spider doing press-ups on a mirror) enables the fascinating effect (nothing to do with body language), which after enough repetition can produce a sensation of having a greased sheet of glass between the fingers. Try it - it's very strange. Very brainy people probably don't do this because they have more important things to think about. It's their loss.
Steepled fingers pointing forward Hands Thoughtfulness and barrier The upwards-pointing version tends to indicate high-minded or connective/complex thinking, however when this hand shape is directed forward it also acts as a defensive or distancing barrier between the thinker and other(s) present.
Palms down moving up and down, fingers spread Hands Seeking or asking for calm, loss of control of a group or situation Seen often in rowdy meetings the gesture is typically a few inches above the table top, but is also seen standing up. The action is one of suppressing or holding down a rising pressure. Teachers use this gesture when trying to quieten a class.
Cracking knuckles Hands Comforting habit, attention-seeking Usually male. Machismo or habit. Meaning depends on context. No-one knows still exactly how the noise is made, but the notion that the practice leads to arthritis is now generally thought to be nonsense.
Interwoven clenched fingers Hands Frustration, negativity, anxiousness Usually hands would be on a table or held across stomach or on lap.
Index finger and thumb touching at tips Hands Satisfaction, 'OK' This is generally seen to be the 'OK' signal, similar to the 'thumbs up'. The signal may be to oneself quietly, or more pronounced directed to others. There is also the sense of this suggesting something being 'just right' as if the finger and thumb are making a fine adjustment with a pinch of spice or a tiny turn of a control knob. The circle formed by the joined finger and thumb resembles the O from OK. The remaining three fingers are spread.
Thumb(s) up Hands Positive approval, agreement, all well In the Western world this signal is so commonly used and recognized it has become a language term in its own right: 'thumbs up' means approved. It's a very positive signal. Two hands is a bigger statement of the same meaning.
Thumbs down Hands Disapproval, failure Logically the opposite of thumbs up. Rightly or wrongly the thumbs up and down signals are associated with the gladiatorial contests of the ancient Roman arenas in which the presiding dignitary would signal the fate of the losing contestants.
Thumb(s) clenched inside fist(s) Hands Self-comforting, frustration, insecurity As with other signals involving holding or stroking a part of one's own body this tends to indicate self-comforting. Also thumbs are potent and flexible tools, so disabling them logically reduces a person's readiness for action.
Hand held horizontally and rocked from side to side Hands Undecided, in the balance Signalling that a decision or outcome, normally finely balanced and difficult to predict or control, could go one way or another.
Rubbing hands together Hands Anticipation, relish A signal - often a conscious gesture - of positive expectation, and often related to material or financial reward, or an enjoyable activity and outcome.
Hand(s) clamped over mouth Hands / mouth Suppression, shock See mouth/hand clamp entry in mouth section, which is a subject in its own right.
Touching nose, while speaking Hands / nose Lying or exaggeration This is said to hide the reddening of the nose caused by increased blood flow. Can also indicate mild embellishment or fabrication. The children's story about Pinocchio (the wooden puppet boy whose nose grew when he told lies) reflects long-standing associations between the nose and telling lies.
Scratching nose, while speaking Hands / nose Lying or exaggeration Nose-scratching while speaking is a warning sign, unless the person genuinely has an itchy nose. Often exhibited when recounting an event or incident.
Pinching or rubbing nose, while listening Hands / nose Thoughtfulness, suppressing comment In many cases this is an unconscious signalling of holding back or delaying a response or opinion. Pinching the nose physically obstructs breathing and speech, especially if the mouth is covered at the same time. Rather like the more obvious hand-clamp over the mouth, people displaying this gesture probably have something to say but are choosing not to say it yet.
Picking nose Hands / nose Day-dreaming, inattentive, socially disconnected, stress Nose picking is actually extremely common among adults but does not aid career development or social acceptance and is therefore normally a private affair. When observed, nose-picking can signify various states of mind, none particularly positive.
Pinching bridge of nose Hands / nose Negative evaluation Usually accompanied with a long single blink.
Hands clamped on ears Hands / ears Rejection of or resistance to something Not surprisingly gestures involving hands covering the ears signify a reluctance to listen and/or to agree with what is being said or to the situation as a whole. The gesture is occasionally seen by a person doing the talking, in which case it tends to indicate that other views and opinions are not wanted or will be ignored.
Ear tugging Hands / ears Indecision, self-comforting People fiddle with their own bodies in various ways when seeking comfort, but ear-pulling or tugging given suitable supporting signs can instead indicate indecision and related pondering.
Hands clasping head Hands / head Calamity Hands clasping head is like a protective helmet against some disaster or problem.
Hand stroking chin Hands / chin Thoughtfulness The stroking of a beard is a similar signal, although rare among women.
Hand supporting chin or side of face Hands / chin, face Evaluation, tiredness or boredom Usually the forearm is vertical from the supporting elbow on a table. People who display this signal are commonly assessing or evaluating next actions, options, or reactions to something or someone. If the resting is heavier and more prolonged, and the gaze is unfocused or averted, then tiredness or boredom is a more likely cause. A lighter resting contact is more likely to be evaluation, as is lightly resting the chin on the knuckles.
Chin resting on thumb, index finger pointing up against face Hands / chin Evaluation This is a more reliable signal of evaluation than the above full-hand support. Normally the supporting elbow will be on a table or surface. The middle finger commonly rests horizontally between chin and lower lip.
Neck scratching Hands / neck Doubt, disbelief Perhaps evolved from a feeling of distrust and instinct to protect the vulnerable neck area. Who knows - whatever, the signal is generally due to doubting or distrusting what is being said.
Hand clasping wrist Hands / wrist Frustration Clasping a wrist, which may be behind the back or in open view, can be a signal of frustration, as if holding oneself back.
Running hands through hair Hair / hair Flirting, or vexation, exasperation Take your pick - running hands through the hair is commonly associated with flirting, and sometimes it is, although given different supporting signals, running hands through the hair can indicate exasperation or upset.
Hand(s) on hip(s) Hands / arms Confidence, readiness, availability The person is emphasizing their presence and readiness for action. Observable in various situations, notably sport, and less pronounced poses in social and work situations. In social and flirting context it is said that the hands are drawing attention to the genital area.
Hands in pockets Hands / arms Disinterest, boredom The obvious signal is one of inaction, and not being ready for action. Those who stand with hands in pockets - in situations where there is an expectation for people to be enthusiastic and ready for action - demonstrate apathy and lack of interest for the situation.
Removing spectacles Hands / spectacles Alerting wish to speak For people who wear reading-only spectacles, this is an example of an announcement or alerting gesture, where a person readies themselves to speak and attracts attention to the fact. Other alerting signals include raising the hand, taking a breath, moving upwards and forwards in their seat, etc.
Playing an imaginary violin Hands / arms Mock sympathy or sadness The 'air violin' has been around a lot longer than the 'air guitar', and is based on the traditional use of violin music as a theme or background for sad scenes in movies and in music generally. The 'air violin' is not typically included in body language guides; it's here as an amusing gesture which demonstrates our conscious practice and recognition of certain signals.
Thumb and fingers formed into a tube and Rocked side to side or up and down (mainly male) Hands Offensive - mockery, dissatisfaction, expression of inferior quality A conscious signal, usually one-handed. Insulting gesture if directed at a person, typically male to male, since it mimics masturbation, like calling a person a 'tosser' or a 'wanker' (UK) or a jerk-off (US). This is obviously rude and not used in respectable company such as the queen or a group of clergymen. The gesture is also used as a response to something regarded as poor quality, which might be a performance or piece of work or a comment on a product of some sort. The allusion is to masturbation being a poor substitute for sex with a woman, and that those who masturbate are not 'real men'. Unsurprisingly the gesture is mainly male, directed at other males, especially in tribal-like gatherings. Rare female use of this gesture directed at males can be very effective due to its humiliating value. For obvious reasons the gesture is unlikely to be used by females or males directed at females.
Two-fingered V-sign, palm inward (mainly male) Hands / fingers Offensive - derision, contempt A consciously offensive and aggressive gesture, also called 'flicking the Vs', widely but probably incorrectly thought to derive from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt in the Hundred Years War when the tactically pivotal Welsh longbowmen supposedly derided the beaten French soldiers' and their threats to cut off the bowmen's fingers.
Two-fingered V-sign, palm outward Hands fingers Victory, peace British 2nd World War leader Winston Churchill popularised the victory usage, although apparently, significantly if so, first used the palm inwards version until he was told what it meant to the working classes.

Handshakes - Body Language

Firmness of handshake is not the reliable indicator of firmness of character that many believe it to be. Firm handshakes tend to be those of confident people, especially those who have spent some time in business, and who realise that most people in business consider a firm handshake to be a good thing. Handshakes that are uncomfortably firm show a lack of respect or awareness, especially if used in cultures (Eastern especially) where firm handshaking is not normal.

Handshaking evolved from ancient times as an initial gesture of trust, to show that no weapon was being held. Naturally also the handshake offers the most obvious way to connect physically as a way to signal trust or friendship. In more recent times, especially from the 1800s onwards, a handshake became the way to confirm a commercial transaction. Handshaking by women became common practice much later, reflecting the change of social attitudes and the increasing equality of women, for whom a hundred years back such physical contact was considered improper. Women have throughout time generally been subservient to men, hence the very subservient female curtsey gesture (also spelled curtsy), which survives now only in traditional situations such as meeting royalty, or ending a stage performance.

Signal Part of Body Possible Meaning(s) Detailed Explanation
Handshake - palm down Handshake Dominance Usually a firm handshake, the 'upper hand' tends to impose and/or create a dominant impression.
Handshake - palm up Handshake Submission, accommodating Usually not a strong handshake, the lower hand has submitted to the upper hand dominance. How all this ultimately translates into the subsequent relationship and outcomes can depend on more significant factors than the handshake.
Handshake - both hands Handshake Seeking to convey trustworthiness and honesty, seeking to control Whether genuine or not, this handshake is unduly physical and (often) uncomfortably domineering.
Handshake - equal and vertical Handshake Non-threatening, relaxed  Most handshakes are like this, when neither person seeks to control or to yield.
pumping handshake Handshake enthusiasm A vigorous pumping handshake tends to indicate energy and enthusiasm of the shaker towards the other person, the meeting, situation or project, etc). There is a sense of attempting to transfer energy and enthusiasm, literally, from the vigorous handshaker to the shaken person, hence the behaviour is popular in motivational folk and evangelists, etc.
Weak Handshake Handshake Various Avoid the common view that a weak handshake is the sign of a weak or submissive person. It is not. Weak handshakes can be due to various aspects of personality, mood, etc. People who use their hands in their profession, for example, musicians, artists, surgeons, etc., can have quite gentle sensitive handshakes. Strong but passive people can have gentle handshakes. Old people can have weak handshakes. A weak handshake might be due to arthritis. Young people unaccustomed to handshaking can have weak handshakes. It's potentially a very misleading signal.
Firm handshake Handshake Outward confidence Avoid the common view that a firm handshake is the sign of a strong solid person. It is not. Firm handshakes are a sign of outward confidence, which could mask deceit or a weak bullying nature, or indicate a strong solid person. Strength of a handshake is not by itself an indicator of positive 'good' mood or personality, and caution is required in reading this signal. It is widely misinterpreted.
Handshake with arm clasp Handshake Seeking control, paternalism When a handshake is accompanied by the left hand clasping the other person's right arm this indicates a wish to control or a feeling of care, which can be due to arrogance. To many this represents an unwanted invasion of personal space, since touching 'permission' is for the handshake only.

Legs and Feet - Body Language

Legs and feet body language is more difficult to control consciously or fake than some body language of arms and hands and face. Legs and feet can therefore provide good clues to feelings and moods, if you know the signs.

Men and women sit differently, which needs to be considered when reading leg body language. Partly due to clothing and partly due to sexual differences, men naturally exhibit more open leg positions than women, which should be allowed for when interpreting signals. Certain open-leg male positions are not especially significant in men, but would be notable in women, especially combined with a short skirt.

Older women tend to adopt more modest closed leg positions than younger women, due to upbringing, social trends, equality and clothing. Again take account of these influences when evaluating signals.

Also consider that when people sit for half-an-hour or more they tend to change their leg positions, which can include leg crossing purely for comfort reasons. Again allow for this when interpreting signals.

Leg signals tend to be supported by corresponding arms signals, for example crossed arms and crossed legs, which aside from comfort reasons generally indicate detachment, disinterest, rejection or insecurity, etc.

N. B. Where the terms 'leg crossing' and 'crossed legs' are used alone, this refers to the legs being crossed at both knees. The 'American' or 'Figure-4' leg cross entails the supporting leg being crossed just above the knee by the ankle or lower calf of the crossing leg. This makes a figure-4 shape, hence the name. The posture is also called the American leg cross because of its supposed popularity in the US compared to the UK, notably among males.

Signal Part of Body Possible Meaning(s) Detailed Explanation
Leg direction, sitting - general Legs/knees Interest, attentiveness (according to direction) Generally a seated person directs their knee or knees towards the point of interest. The converse is true also - legs tend to point away from something or someone which is uninteresting or threatening. The rule applies with crossed legs also, where the upper knee indicates interest or disinterest according to where it points. The more direct and obvious the position, the keener the attraction or repellent feeling.
Uncrossed legs, sitting - general Legs Openness In sitting positions, open uncrossed leg positions generally indicate an open attitude, contrasting with crossed legs, which normally indicate a closed attitude or a degree of caution or uncertainty.
Parallel legs together, sitting(mainly female) Legs Properness This unusual in men, especially if the knees point an angle other than straight ahead. The posture was common in women due to upbringing and clothing and indicates a sense of properness.
Crossed legs, sitting - general Legs Caution, disinterest Crossed legs tend to indicate a degree of caution or disinterest, which can be due to various reasons, ranging from feeling threatened, to mildly insecure.
Crossing legs, sitting - specific change Legs Interest or disinterest in direction of upper crossed knee Generally the upper crossed leg and knee will point according to the person's interest. If the knee points towards a person then it signifies interest in or enthusiasm for that person; if it points away from a person it signifies disinterest in or a perceived threat from that person. Signs are more indicative when people first sit down and adopt initial positions in relation to others present. Signs become less reliable when people have been sitting for half-an-hour or so, when leg crossing can change more for comfort than body language reasons.
American or figure-4 leg cross Legs Independent, stubborn The 'American' or 'figure-4' leg cross is a far more confident posture than the conventional 'both knees' leg cross. It exposes the genital region, and typically causes the upper body to lean back. The crossed leg is nevertheless a protective barrier, and so this posture is regarded as more stubborn than the 'both knees' leg cross.
American or figure-4 leg cross with hand clamp Legs / arm / hand Resistant, stubborn This is a more protective and stubborn version of the plain American leg cross, in which (usually) the opposite hand to the crossing leg clamps and holds the ankle of the crossing leg, effectively producing a locked position, which reflects the mood of the person.
Open legs, sitting  (mainly male) Legs Arrogance, combative, sexual posturing   This is a confident dominant posture. Happily extreme male open-crotch posing is rarely exhibited in polite or formal situations since the signal is mainly sexual. This is a clear exception to the leg/knee point rule since the pointing is being done by the crotch, whose target might be a single person or a wider audience. Not a gesture popularly used by women, especially in formal situations and not in a skirt. Regardless of gender this posture is also combative because it requires space and makes the person look bigger. The impression of confidence is increased when arms are also in a wide or open position.
Ankle lock, sitting Legs Defensiveness Knees may be apart (among men predominantly) or together (more natural in women). There is also a suggestion of suppressing negative emotion.
Splayed legs, standing Legs Aggression, ready for action Splayed, that is wide-parted legs create (usually unconsciously) a firm base from which to defend or attack, and also make the body look wider. Hands on hips support the interpretation.
Standing 'at attention' Legs / body Respectful Standing upright, legs straight, together and parallel, body quite upright, shoulders back, arms by sides - this is like the military 'at attention' posture and is often a signal of respect or subservience adopted when addressed by someone in authority.
Legs intertwined, sitting  (female) Legs Insecurity or sexual posing Also called 'leg twine', this is a tightly crossed leg, twined or wrapped around the supporting leg. Depending on the circumstances the leg twine can either be a sign of retreat and protection, or a sexual display of leg shapeliness, since a tight leg-cross tends to emphasise muscle and tone. Assessing additional body language is crucial for interpreting such signals of potentially very different meanings.
Legs crossed, standing (scissor stance) Legs Insecurity or submission or engagement Typically observed in groups of standing people at parties or other gatherings, defensive signals such as crossed legs and arms among the less confident group members is often reinforced by a physical and audible lack of involvement and connection with more lively sections of the group. Where legs are crossed and arms are not, this can indicate a submissive or committed agreement to stand and engage, so the standing leg cross relays potentially quite different things.
Knee buckle, standing Legs / knees Under pressure Obviously a pronounced knee buckle is effectively a collapse due to severe stress or actually carrying a heavy weight, and similarly a less obvious knee bend while standing can indicate the anticipation of an uncomfortable burden or responsibility.
Feet or foot direction or pointing Feet Foot direction indicates direction of interest Like knees, feet tend to point towards the focus of interest - or away from something or someone if it is not of interest. Foot direction or pointing in this context is a subtle aspect of posture - this is not using the foot to point at something; it is merely the direction of the feet when sitting or standing in relation to people close by.
Foot forward, standing Feet Directed towards dominant group member The signal is interesting among groups, when it can indicate perceptions of leadership or dominance, i.e., the forward foot points at the leader or strongest member of the group.
Shoe-play(female) Feet Relaxation, flirting, sexual A woman would usually be relaxed to display this signal. In certain situations dangling a shoe from the foot, and more so slipping the foot in and out of the shoe has sexual overtones.

Personal Space

The technical term for the personal space aspect of body language is proxemics. The word was devised by Edward Twitchell Hall (b.1914), an American anthropologist and writer on body language and non-verbal communications, especially relating to cross-cultural understanding. His 1963 book, Proxemics, A Study of Man's Special Relationship, no doubt helped popularize the new word. Here is Edward Twitchell Hall's website - he's an interesting character, and one of the founding fathers of modern body language theory. His other books are listed in the body language references section below. Robert Ardrey is cited by Julius Fast as another significant expert and writer in personal space.

Proxemics - personal space - is defined as (the study of) the amount of space that people find comfortable between themselves and others.

Personal space dimensions depend notably on the individual, cultural and living background, the situation, and relationships, however some general parameters apply to most people, which for Western societies, are shown below.

There are five distinct space zones, which were originally identified by Edward T Hall, and which remain the basis of personal space analysis today. The first zone is sometimes shown as a single zone comprising two sub-zones.

Zone Distance For Detail
1. Close intimate 0-15cm
lovers, and physical touching relationships Sometimes included with the 2nd zone below, this is a markedly different zone in certain situations, for example face-to-face contact with close friends rarely encroaches within 6 inches, but commonly does with a lover.
2. Intimate 15-45cm
physical touching relationships Usually reserved for intimate relationships and close friendships, but also applies during consenting close activities such as contact sports, and crowded places such as parties, bars, concerts, public transport, queues and entertainment and sports spectating events. Non-consenting intrusion into this space is normally felt to be uncomfortable at best, or very threatening and upsetting at worst. Within the intimate zone a person's senses of smell and touch (being touched) become especially exercised.
3. Personal 45-120cm
family and close friends Touching is possible in this zone, but intimacy is off-limits. Hence touching other than hand-shaking is potentially uncomfortable.
4. Social- consultative 1.2-3.6m
non-touch interaction, social, business Significantly hand-shaking is only possible within this zone only if both people reach out to do it. Touching is not possible unless both people reach to do it.
5. Public 3.6m+

no interaction, ignoring

People establish this zonal space when they seek to avoid interaction with others nearby. When this space is intruded by another person is creates a discomfort or an expectation of interaction.