What is body language? A complete professional guide

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 3 January 2022

Knowing how to use and read body language can be beneficial in both your personal and professional life by helping you to communicate more effectively. Body language refers to the nonverbal cues you give the individual you're talking to and can be conscious or subconscious. By analysing the body language of others, you can gauge how the conversation is going, and your own body language can give the other party clues as to how you're feeling. In this article, we answer the question 'what is body language?', discuss the different types and give tips on how to practise them.

Related: Job interview tips: how to make a great impression

What is body language?

As a short answer to the question 'what is body language?', we can say a person's general demeanour during an interaction. There are many types of body language that cover the range of physical cues we send out during an interaction, including posture and facial expressions. These nonverbal cues tell the other person how we are feeling.

If practised effectively, body language can be a conscious way for you to show positive emotions during a conversation. For instance, holding eye contact with the person you're speaking with shows that you're engaged and listening. If not practised consciously, we tend to use habitual body language, which may not send out the message we would ideally like to communicate in a particular interaction.

Related: Why is communication important? (and how to improve it)

Types of body language

Body language as a term is very broad and can refer to a general demeanour or a specific aspect of nonverbal communication. The different types of body language we use combine to tell the person we are interacting with how we are feeling. For example, your posture and facial expressions combined can communicate feelings of confidence or anxiety, depending on how you practise them. Here are a few types of body language to consider:

Facial expression

A person's facial expression is typically the first thing people look at when analysing someone's mood. A simple smile or frown can change the message you're sending out drastically and can either relax or put someone on guard when talking to you. In a professional setting, a neutral but content facial expression can portray you as self-confident and social. Different types of facial expressions can show different emotions, such as:

  • happiness

  • sadness

  • surprise

  • fear

  • anger

  • disgust

  • anxiety

  • admiration

  • excitement

  • interest

Emotions are the basic tenet of social interaction, so it's important to think about what your facial expression is communicating. Your facial expression sets the foundation for other aspects of your body language, as once you've shown a confident facial expression, it translates positively to other aspects such as posture. Mastery of your facial expressions puts you at an advantage in any conversation as you can show relatability and gain trust from the individual you're talking to.

Eye contact

Some people refer to eyes as the 'windows of the soul', meaning that they effectively show people your thoughts and feelings. Keeping eye contact can be difficult for some, and it's a skill that many people practise due to its importance in professional settings. You can understand a lot about a person by looking at their eyes. They may be nervous if they're blinking a lot or frequently breaking eye contact. Conversely, an intent gaze may feel threatening, so it's important to strategically break eye contact through tactics such as laughter or looking at another point of interest.

Posture

Your posture is the way you hold your body during a conversation. The position of your body and how you sit or stand can convey a lot, and it's important to consider how your posture relates to the mood of a conversation. For example, sitting up straight and rigid may show attentiveness, but if you sit too upright for too long, it may show fear. Slouching in your chair with your arms crossed portrays intense disinterest. Crossing your legs and tilting your body may look relaxed, but it can sometimes show rudeness as well.

Mouth movement

Movement of the mouth often happens subconsciously by habit, but these habits may change how someone perceives you. Some common mouth movements and signals include:

  • Lip biting: Lip biting is a common habit that can indicate anxiety and nervousness. This subconscious habit can give the impression that you're unconfident, which puts you at a disadvantage in the conversation.

  • Pursed lips: Tightening or pursing your lips may show negative emotions such as disinterest or disapproval. You might not purse your lips intentionally, but it could still portray a negative image.

  • Covering your mouth: Covering your mouth during a conversation can show extreme anxiety or nervousness. There's also a widespread belief that constantly touching the mouth indicates dishonesty, although there's no scientific basis for this.

Hand gestures

Hand gestures can be a confusing aspect of body language as there are cultural differences to consider. One gesture may mean something in one country and something completely different in another. Assuming that the conversation occurs between individuals from the same or culturally-similar countries, hand gestures can be an extremely effective way of conveying emotions. Here are some common hand gestures:

  • Thumbs up/thumbs down: A thumbs-up shows approval or a generally positive message. Conversely, a thumbs-down shows discontent or disapproval.

  • O.K. sign: The O.K. sign is a circle made with the index finger and thumb and also sends a message of approval.

  • A clenched fist: A clenched fist most commonly indicates feelings of anger. Holding up a clenched fist gives off a threatening intention.

  • Offering a hand: Offering a hand to the person across from you shows that you intend to shake their hand. Shaking someone's hand shows that you've reached an agreement or are greeting or saying goodbye to them.

  • Pointing: Pointing at something shows that you want someone to pay attention to what you're pointing at. Pointing at someone is accusatory and can be offensive.

  • Hand-waving: Waving your hands while talking shows that you're passionate about the subject you're talking about. Waving your hands at a frantic pace can convey panic or anger.

Related: Interpersonal communication: definitions and examples

Personal space

Personal space is the area that most closely surrounds a person and which they claim as their own. Personal space establishes someone's privacy and physical boundaries, and, depending on how friendly they are with someone, they may have varying accepted levels of closeness. In professional settings, individuals keep a respectable distance between one another and rarely engage in physical touching unless shaking hands. It's important for all professionals to understand the boundaries of someone's personal space so as not to disrespect or offend anyone in the workplace.

Arms and legs

The positioning of your arms and legs during a conversation can communicate a wide range of emotions, some of which you might not intend or wish to send out. For example, crossing your arms or legs might indicate anxiety, defensiveness or distaste. Having your hands on your hips and a puffed-out chest can appear aggressive and imposing. Other habitual actions, like bouncing your leg rapidly or tapping on a table, show that you're agitated and perhaps not paying attention to the conversation.

Related: 4 types of communication (with examples)

Tips for practising body language

Body language is a strong indicator of your emotions in a setting and is something you can practise if you feel uncomfortable in certain situations. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when practising body language:

  • Relax: Relaxation is key to all aspects of body language. If possible, use relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing or meditation before important conversations.

  • Shake hands: A firm handshake sets a positive tone for the conversation and tells the other party that you're a self-confident individual. Try out your handshake on friends or family and ask for their honest feedback.

  • Regulate your eye contact: Eye contact is crucial to a conversation, but unwavering eye contact can be off-putting. Practise breaking eye contact through tactics such as laughing, reacting to something the other party says or averting your gaze to another point of interest.

  • Limb control: Keep your limbs still and in a confident posture to avoid portraying negative emotions such as anxiety or discomfort. This may be something that requires conscious thought and effort.

  • Sit still: Sitting still with strategic yet natural movements shows that you're not nervous in a conversation. If you constantly fidget, it can make the other party uncomfortable as well.

  • Lean forward: Leaning forward shows you're engaged in the conversation and interested in what the speaker has to say. If you're the one speaking, leaning forward will convey a conspiratorial fellowship in which you are including your audience.

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