Nonverbal Communication: what it is and how to read it

“You can choose not to speak, but you can never be silent nonverbally.”

In this article, Anne Beall, author, social psychologist and expert in the field of nonverbal communication introduces the foundation of body language and how to understand what it reveals about people’s feelings.

Unlike words, which provide information through their content and how they’re spoken, nonverbal communication involves the entire body. Your face, eyes, posture, hand movements, body orientation and proximity all reveal your feelings.

Anne created PERCEIVE™, her method for reading nonverbal behavior, after observing many business executives struggle to understand other people’s reactions effectively. She knew there was a need to capture this broad subject in a model people can easily follow and understand.

As a market researcher, Anne and her team use PERCEIVE™ to understand people who are unable or unwilling to express their thoughts and feelings about their habits and experiences with brands.

You can apply Anne’s advice to everyday situations to better read peoples’ reactions when introducing your business.

Read on for some summarized insights from Anne’s book, Reading the Hidden Communications Around You: A Guide To Reading Body Language in the Workplace to start improving your understanding of nonverbal communication.

Proximity and relative orientation: understanding the foundation

First up, proximity and relative orientation. These form the foundation of all nonverbal communication.

All body language occurs within the context of these two things:

  • Proximity is a measure of closeness between two people.
  • Relative orientation is the degree to which two people face each other.

Your proximity and relative orientation are the main clues that reveal how you feel about someone.

Here’s why:

  • You sit and stand closer to people you like and find interesting.
  • The closer you are to someone emotionally, the closer you interact with them physically.
  • If the person you’re talking to turns away from you, loses eye contact or pauses the conversation, you may have invaded their personal space.
  • Men tend to have less direct orientations with other people, particularly with other men. Women have more direct orientations when interacting.
  • In group conversations, dominant personalities often sit in the center.
  • Introverts keep more interpersonal distance than extroverts.
  • People competing tend to sit across and far apart from each other. People cooperating sit next to or closely across from each other.

Practice makes perfect. Try it for yourself by paying attention to:

  • How closely romantic partners, friends, and work colleagues interact. Now look at the proximities of people you don’t know and try to guess the nature of their relationships.
  • Who people naturally face in a meeting. Is it the most powerful or influential person in the room? Do they turn their bodies toward that person when he or she speaks? What does orientation tell you about influence in a group?
  • How people position themselves while they’re chatting. Can you tell when the interaction is almost over by a change in the proximity or orientation?

Expressions: decoding facial movement

The seven basic emotional expressions recognized by most cultures are happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust and contempt.

The degree to which we display our feelings depends on our environment. For example, people express milder versions of their feelings in the workplace or in professional situations.

And it’s very common for our colleagues and new contacts to reveal their emotions through partial expressions.

So, how can you tell how someone you’re talking to really feels? These are some common giveaways.

How to identify happiness

A real smile uses the eyes and the lips, whereas a false smile uses only the lips.

How to identify sadness

You can tell if someone’s feeling sad by their eyes and eyelids. The inner corners of the eyes and eyebrows are slightly raised.

How to identify anger

Anger is marked by a frown and lowered eyes. The eyebrows are drawn together, sometimes creating two lines between them.

How to identify surprise

Surprise is defined by raised eyes and wrinkles on the forehead.

How to identify fear

Fear involves the eyebrows, which are raised and may be slightly pulled together. Often the upper eyelids are raised.

How to identify disgust

Disgust involves lowering the eyebrows and wrinkling the nose along with raising the upper lip.

How to identify contempt

Contempt is typically shown by one corner of the mouth being tightened and raised slightly.

Practice identifying different facial expressions

  • Stand in front of a mirror and try to display happiness, anger, sadness, contempt, surprise, fear, and disgust.
  • Or video yourself talking about one topic that’s easy to talk about another that isn’t. Note any micro expressions or partial expressions on your face when you watch the recording at a slower speed. Or watch different chat show conversations. Pick a fun and lighthearted one and compare it to an awkward one, paying particular attention to body language cues.
  • Extra points if you can do this without laughing.

Contact: what touch reveals

Touch communicates the type of relationship between two people. Physical contact gives away emotions and increases as relationships become closer and people feel more comfortable together.

The least amount of touch occurs in professional relationships, and the most happens between friends and those in intimate relationships. So, bear this in mind when communicating with new acquaintances, colleagues or business contacts.

People are more likely to touch those they’re trying to persuade or influence, or who are lower in status than them. Unsurprisingly, extroverted, self-confident people tend to touch people more often than those who are introverted.

Pay attention to:

  • Scripted touch: How much distance is there between people when they shake hands? Notice what the other hand is doing at the time of the handshake.
  • Unscripted touch (touching outside of handshakes): When does it happen? Who does it involve? Is it reciprocated? What does this touching tell you about the nature of the relationship between the two people?
  • Observe when unscripted touch occurs toward you. Does it happen in certain circumstances – like when someone is trying to persuade you to do something or asking a favor?

Eyes: see what really makes people tick

Again, without realizing it, you tend to look more frequently and for longer at people you like and people you’re interested in listening to.

Do you ever find that you look up and left when you have to think about something? Eye behavior reveals when something is cognitively complex or emotionally difficult to discuss.

Your eye movement reveals a lot about your personality attributes. People who are shy and socially anxious, or who have low self-esteem and negative feelings about themselves tend to spend less time looking at others. Confident, extroverted people engage in eye contact for longer.

Get better at reading eye behavior

  • Watch a movie with characters who vary in terms of how well they get on. Note the amount of time they spend looking at each other. Do people who supposedly get on well look at each other more in the movies?
  • Now observe how boring versus interesting topics influence eye behavior. Do people look at you less when you’re being entertaining than when you’re not?
  • Try this experiment with a close friend: talk about something your friend finds boring and drone on about it for a while. Watch their eye behavior while you’re doing this, and then switch to a topic you know they want to talk about and note the difference.

Observe how eye contact is influenced by gender:

  • Watch two women interacting
  • Watch two men interacting
  • Watch a man and a woman interacting

Individual gestures: what they give away

Gestures reveal people’s perceptions of the sizes, shapes, relative positions, and groupings of ideas, organizations, and people.

People reveal perceptions of time, the order of things and their bodily experience of an event by using gestures to reenact it.

And it’s worth pointing out that you’re most likely to gesture if you’re enthusiastic and confident about a topic.

A helping hand for understanding gestures

  • Watch a TED talk on a subject that interests you and notice if the words the speaker emphasizes are accompanied by the most exaggerated gestures.
  • Ask someone how they get from the front door of their home to their work and note how they use their hands and arms to explain the journey.
  • Now ask them about a place they enjoyed taking a holiday and how they got there. Are the gestures different when the person talks about a place with more positive associations?

Voice: learn to read with your ears

Your voice is like as unique as your fingerprint. It differentiates you from others and makes you recognizable to people who know you. The sounds you make when you speak provide clues about your age, gender, ethnicity, and social class. Your voice also reveals clues about your emotions and when something is cognitively challenging.

The voice also reveals the underlying emotions of anger, sadness, happiness, fear, and contempt. These emotions are transmitted through speed, pitch and intonation.

Most people tend to model the speech of those they like and want to be like. And people who feel lower status tend to adopt the speech of those who are higher in status.

How to read someone’s voice

We often pay more attention to what people are saying than to how they’re saying it. To improve your ability to read the voice, try the following:

  • Next time you receive a cold call from a salesperson, see if you can guess their ethnicity, age, country of origin, and social class from their speech. What clues suggest each piece of information?
  • Note when people pause during a discussion and what they seem to have trouble discussing. Is the topic cognitively complex for them or is it emotionally evocative?
  • Listen to a drama without looking at it. What do the voices tell you about what the different characters are feeling and thinking?

Existence of adaptors: small behaviors that say a lot

Adaptors are behaviors like playing with your hair or twirling a pen. These are a natural response to negative reactions we have to ourselves or to others.

These behaviors are often subtle and easy to miss. To become better at reading adaptors, start noticing these when these behaviors tend to occur.

Adaptors fall into two groups: self-adaptors and object-adaptors.

Common object-adaptors include

  • playing with a pen or pencil
  • accessing a smartphone
  • chewing a straw, toothpick or pen
  • doodling with a pen or pencil

Common self-adaptors include:

  • Playing with your hair
  • Licking or biting your lips
  • Biting your nails
  • Touching your face

Learn how to read and control your own adaptors

  • Record an interview where the interviewer is asking contentious questions. Does the person being interviewed shows any adaptors?
  • Identify if you have any specific adaptors and when they tend to occur to give yourself insight into their function.
  • Notice how long you tend to exhibit adaptors and when you tend to stop.

And finally, when observing people’s body language, pay special attention to these three things:

  • Variations from a person’s normal behavior
  • Variations from the normative situation, and
  • Variations with different people. These deviations reveal how people are responding to individuals and situations.

In the same that learning to speak a new language involves way more than memorizing vocabulary, understanding nonverbal communication is best learned in stages. Practice each of the sections on their own and then piece everything together.

And like most second languages, it’s difficult to learn at first, but rewarding as you become more fluent.

As you learn to read others better, think about what your own nonverbal communication reveals about you. Remember, the things you see in others are things people may see in you.

About the author

Anne E. Beall is the founder and CEO of Beall Research, Inc., which is a strategic market research firm in Chicago. She writes about gender, nonverbal communication, market research, how animals and people help one another, and most recently about the hidden messages in fairy tales. Anne received her MS, MPhil, and Ph.D. degrees in social psychology from Yale University.

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