How to Avoid Misinterpreting Body Language

Fingers crossed

Image by discoodoni (Flickr)

Body language consists of the unspoken involuntary gestures in reaction towards our thoughts and emotions.These nonverbal cues make up at least 65% of our communication.

How Did Our Nonverbal Cues Come About?

A person’s body language originates from nature and nurture; our genetics, evolution and environment has a part to play.¬†Some gestures were inborn and passed down genetically. While others were learnt while growing up in our respective cultures.

Research has been done on blind and deaf people (who could not have learnt gestures by watching or listening), to confirm that some nonverbal cues are inborn and genetic. Studies on different cultures and observation of apes also suggests that environmental factors account for certain differences among cultures in body language and proxemics.

For instance, when an infant shook his head from side to side to avoid his mother’s breast, it means that he had fed on sufficient milk. This gesture continued on in a person’s lifetime to indicate ‘no’.

How To Avoid Misreading Body Language

1. Consistency of Words and Gestures

The key to accurate assessment of body language is to analyse if a person’s spoken words agree with his body language.

I may tell you that I am happy, but if you see me frowning, you will know that I am lying.

2. Do not observe each gesture in isolation

Observe a person’s body language in clusters. Many people make the mistake of focusing on one gesture to assess a person’s entire body language. In result, they make the wrong conclusion.

By looking at gestures in clusters, you will be able to reinforce your observations with the other observed gestures.

3. Consider Context

Assess the person’s body language in context of the situation. The folding of arms can be interpreted as a defensive gesture. However, if a person folds his arms in cold weather, he may just be keeping himself warm.

Be aware of other factors that can affect body language, such as:

  • profession (a pianist may give a weak handshake to protect his hands)
  • health
  • clothing (tight clothing can restrict movement)
  • disability
  • culture and upbringing
  • trauma

How To Detect Body Language Intuitively

A woman’s intuition or gut feeling, is merely a subconscious ability to detect a contradiction between a person’s gestures and spoken words. And this ability comes with practice.

Watch muted videos, and try to guess what is happening. Observe people and how they communicate nonverbally.

Practice, practice and practice. And be aware that the interpretation of body language may be inaccurate due to many factors.