Reading body language is not easy. People who have mastered non-verbal communication have done so with years of practice. However, you can jump the learning curve by keeping in mind some of the common pitfalls that most people tend to fall in when they first begin to read body language.
Here are the things that you need to keep in mind while attempting to read body language…
1) Context is everything
While reading body language, the context in which a particular gesture or gesture cluster is observed matters more than anything else. Knowing what emotional state a gesture represents is not enough if it doesn’t fit into the context in which it is being observed.
Though there are a few gestures with unique meanings, there are many others that can have multiple meanings depending on the context.
For example, it’s well known that crossing the arms in front of the body is a sign of defensiveness. If an employee is being scolded by his boss, then you should expect this gesture by the employee.
But in other contexts, it could simply mean that it’s cold or that the person is trying to get more comfortable in their chair while watching a movie or something.
Gestures in non-verbal communication are like words in verbal communication. If a word has multiple meanings you can decide the implied meaning only by looking at the context in which the word is being used.
This is why, more often than not, you need to rely on more than one body language gesture in order to make an accurate judgment.
Accuracy in body language sometimes depends on how many gestures confirm the conclusion that you make. The more, the better.
2) Gestures happen in real-time
When a person undergoes a change in their emotional state, gestures follow almost instantaneously. Therefore, a very high level of awareness is required on the part of the observer so that the cause of a particular gesture or gesture cluster is quickly understood.
A person’s current body language indicates their current attitude and their current attitude depends on what they’re experiencing at the moment or what they were experiencing just a few seconds ago.
You don’t have to go hours or even minutes into the past to figure out the cause behind a particular gesture. You’ll always find the cause in real-time or going a few seconds into the past. And by cause, I mean ‘how your subject has interpreted the current situation’.
3) Cultural differences and idiosyncrasies
The main reason why body language is so powerful is that it’s mostly universal. All people throughout the world make the same gestures when they feel in a particular way.
There are some cultural differences though. For example, a head nod means ‘yes’ in all the countries of the world except Bulgaria and some tribes of India, where it means ‘no’.
Similarly, a thumbs-up gesture (Facebook like) means ‘great’ or ‘good’ in many places but it’s an offensive gesture in a few middle-eastern countries. When you’re travelling, it’s a good idea to know beforehand what sort of gestures the culture considers polite or impolite.
Culture only shapes our conscious gestures and not unconscious ones and that’s why it is not a major hindrance to reading body language.
Besides this, some body language gestures may be idiosyncratic, meaning that they are unique to an individual. So you have to know in what situation a person does a particular gesture that is unique to him in order to make an accurate judgment.
Also, some idiosyncratic gestures can be habitual, meaning that a person does them purely out of habit irrespective of his or her current emotional state.
4) Sometimes it may not be possible to find the reason
The general rule is: Whenever you observe a body language gesture you should immediately look at the person’s environment to understand what’s causing their current emotional state or attitude. But sometimes the reason behind an emotional state may be difficult or even impossible to figure out.
The human mind loves jumping to conclusions and ascribing hasty, incorrect reasons for events. So, in such a case, you’re likely to attach an incorrect cause to a body language gesture.
Say you’re shopping with your spouse and suddenly you notice that the corners of her mouth are slightly pointing downwards, a well-known sign of sadness.
You try to figure out the reason behind this emotional state of hers by observing what’s going on with her. But nothing explains her current emotional state.
At this point, you’re likely to attribute an incorrect reason to her emotional state.
You may think, ‘Why not simply ask her what happened?’ Then where’s the fun in reading body language! Plus, this doesn’t always work, especially when even she doesn’t know what caused her emotional state to change!
Here’s what might have actually happened…
As she was checking out the sandals, she saw a poster of a famous celebrity who went by the name Anne. This made her recall a co-worker of the same name and she remembered a recent encounter with her in which Anne, the co-worker, talked about the unfortunate loss of her child.
It was this slight sadness that your spouse was currently exhibiting- the sadness that got transferred to her about a week ago from one of her co-workers!
All these memory connections were happening subconsciously, below the level of awareness of your wife and so if you asked her, “What’s wrong?” she may have responded with something like, “What? I’m Okay” or if she’s a little aware of her emotional state, “I don’t know. I’m just sad.”
These are the types of situations in which you have to be careful. If you can’t find a good reason behind a gesture by looking at the context, then it could be the result of complex thought processes going on in their mind that were triggered by an environmental cue.
You may not succeed in reading body language 100% of the time. But this doesn’t mean you should stop practicing because most of the time you will be able to read body language very accurately. Fail and learn, fail again, and learn again. It’s totally worth it.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve written 280+ articles and published one book about human behavior on this blog that has garnered over 3 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.