Body orientation in nonverbal communication


In order to highlight how body orientation matters in nonverbal communication, consider the following scenario:

You’re browsing through some items in a provisional store. You notice an old high school friend at the far end of the store and you decide to approach him. 

You move towards him walking backward- yes, with your back turned towards him. As soon as you reach near him, judging his position by his shadow on the floor, you say, “Hi Jim, How have you been?”

Obviously, this will freak him out. He’ll think this is some kind of a prank or that you’re some kind of a lunatic.

body orientation

This scenario highlights the importance of body orientation in nonverbal communication. You could still have talked to Jim in that position, no doubt, but something about your body orientation was so wrong that it seemed almost impossible to communicate.

According to some unwritten rule in an unwritten rulebook, it was necessary for you to assume the ‘proper’ position before any conversation could start.

Our bodies turn to what we want

You might be thinking, “Okay, so what’s the big deal about it? Everybody knows that. You need to get something from the fridge, you turn towards the fridge. You got to watch the TV you turn towards the TV”. Yes, no big deal. But what many people fail to realize or take for granted is the fact that the same principle applies to other human beings.

We turn towards people we want to pay attention to or ‘engage’ with. Our body orientation often reveals who or what we’re interested in. When two people are talking, you can measure the level of their involvement in the conversation by simply observing how parallel their bodies are to each other.

When two people face each other with their shoulders are fully parallel, making a closed formation, they’re geometrically and psychologically rejecting everyone around them and being totally ‘into’ each other. Most of us know this intuitively but consider what implications it can have when you’re observing a group of people and not just two people.

Body orientation in a group

If you observe a large group of people, you can easily figure out who is interested in whom by seeing which two people are oriented parallel to each other.

For example, in a group of three people, if two have their bodies parallel to each other then it is clear that the third person has been left out or he himself has opted out.

In the latter case, the person may be interested in someone who is not part of this group but belongs to some other group nearby. Project a straight imaginary line in the direction of his body orientation and you’ll soon spot an interesting person, with whom this guy is trying to ‘engage’ with for quite a while! 

Picture two people conversing in a party, facing each other and their bodies parallel to each other. A third person comes and wants to join. At this point, two things can happen- either he’ll be welcomed or he’ll be rejected. 

How can you tell if he’s been welcomed or rejected into the group just by observing body language?

Scenario 1: Welcomed

If the third person is welcomed, then the first two people will have to assume new positions to make room for him. They were initially standing parallel to each other, their full attention was focused on each other. But now they have to involve the third person and each of them needs to give a part of their attention to the third person. 

So they have to change their body orientation to re-distribute their attention.

They now stand at 45 degrees to each other and to the third person, so that all three form a closed triangle. The attention is now equally divided among all the members of the group.

body orientation in a group

When you see two people standing at 45 degrees to each other and not parallel to each other, it could mean they’re not totally involved with each other and want a third person to join them. It could be that they’re both interested in the same person. They’d be glad if that person joined in and completed the triangle.

body orientation triangle

Scenario 2: Rejected

Now, what if the third person isn’t welcomed at all? You’ll notice that as the two people talk to the third intruder, they’ll only turn their heads toward him to answer him and not their shoulders and the rest of the body. This is a clear sign of rejection, at least for this moment. 

It doesn’t necessarily mean they hate him or something, it’s just that they don’t want him to be a part of the current ongoing conversation. 

They’re both non-verbally telling the third person, “Leave us alone. Can’t you see we’re talking?” Often the third person senses this and leaves or tries to force himself in if he’s desperate.

You can see this pattern in any group containing any number of people, not just three. The more the people, the more circular orientation the group will assume so that attention is distributed equally.

If the attention isn’t being distributed equally, then figuring out the geometrical outcasts will give you an idea of the psychological outcasts of the group. 

Some caveats

Not standing or sitting parallel to each other doesn’t always indicate non-involvement. 

During a walk, for example, or any kind of activity that requires people to position themselves beside each other (like watching TV), the non-parallel body orientation doesn’t necessarily indicate non-involvement. 

Also, we tend to judge people as aggressive when they approach us from the front. So we may stand at a 45-degree angle to them to bring informality and comfort to the conversation. 

So, to confirm that two people in a non-parallel orientation aren’t really interested in each other, you may sometimes need to look at other cues. For example, if they hardly talk to each other and are scanning the room with their eyes then it definitely means they’re currently not interested in each other.