17 Genius Tricks for Reading People’s Body Language
Actions speak louder than words.
Reading body language is far from easy—it takes patience, practice, and a whole lot of observation. But considering a person’s eyes and hands tend to say more about how they actually feel than the words coming out of their mouths, it’s worth studying up on common gestures that hint at something deeper.
To help you become more versed in the language of the body, we’ve rounded up some of the telltale signs of anxiety, loathing, deception, and everything in between, according to the experts. So read on to find out what your boss’s firm handshake or your spouse’s hanging head really mean.
If they’re hiding their hands, they’re lying about something.
People who hide their hands from you tend to be hiding something else, too. Take children, for instance: When they want to conceal something naughty they did, “they’ll often hide their palms behind their back,” body language experts Barbara and Allan Pease explain in The Definitive Book of Body Language.
Similarly, men who have something to hide will keep their hands in their pockets. “The palms were originally like the vocal cords of body language because they did more ‘talking’ than any other body part,” the authors note. “Putting them away was like keeping one’s mouth shut.”
And if their palms are up, they’re telling the truth.
When the police tell you to turn around and put your hands up, you do so with your palms spread open in order to emphasize the fact that you’re unarmed and harmless. In a court of law, you use your open palm to swear under oath that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The open palm gesture is used in various facets of society to convey that a person is telling the truth—and so naturally, it has become generally associated with “truth, honesty, allegiance, and submission,” write the Peases.
But if their palms are facing down, they are closed-minded.
This gesture is a pretty solid indication that someone is “closed to negotiation”—so if you’re fighting with your spouse about doing the dishes or talking to your boss about a raise and see that their palms are facing down, you might want to pick up the conversation at a later date.
As Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, notes in her book The Silent Language of Leaders, “People automatically pronate their hands (rotate their palms down) when they feel strongly about something.”
If they are covering their torso, they feel nervous.
People instinctively tend to cover their bodies when they feel nervous. As Goman explains in her book, “The more you cover your torso with folded arms, crossed legs, and so on, the more it appears that you need to protect or defend yourself.”
Of course, it’s only natural for people to feel nervous sometimes, but if you notice that an acquaintance or coworker is covering their body unconsciously, you might be able to help simply by asking what’s wrong.
If they’re touching their neck, they’re anxious.
While some people instinctively cover their torsos when they feel anxious, others will focus on another area of the body: the neck. “Women will lightly touch the side of their neck, cover the notch at the base of the neck, or play with a necklace,” writes Goman. “Men will more robustly grasp the front of the throat near the Adam’s apple.”
If their chest is puffed out, they’re secretly insecure.
You know that guy at the gym who’s always walking around with his chest puffed out? As it turns out, what his body language is saying is that he’s secretly not so sure about himself. “A puffed-out chest can signal overconfidence, which is often due to underlying insecurities,” explains Erica Hornthal, a movement therapist with Chicago Dance Therapy.
If their head is lowered, they disagree with you.
The next time you are arguing with someone, take a look at the way that person’s head is positioned. Though it’s not a conscious movement, odds are that their forehead is lowered toward the ground. “Lowering the head like this … implies that the listener dislikes or disagrees with what the speaker is saying,” human behaviorist David Lambert writes in Body Language 101.
If their legs are stretched out in front of them, they’re bored.
When it comes to boredom, body language has a habit of giving people’s true emotions away. When you see someone yawning, drumming their fingers on their desk, or constantly glancing over at the clock, you can almost guarantee that they’d rather be anywhere else.
However, there are also some less obvious body language cues that indicate someone is bored. According to Lambert, someone whose “legs are fully stretched” might secretly be losing interest in what you’re saying, even if they don’t want to admit it.
If they’re playing with their belt loops, they’re interested in you.
Even when they’re trying to be coy, women can be surprisingly easy to read. Lip-biting and hair-flipping are obvious signs of female flirting—and according to Lambert, you can also tell that a woman is interested in you if she has a thumb in her belt loop or pocket. “Normally a male aggression or superiority gesture, this action aims to draw attention to the crotch,” he notes in his book.
If their feet are turned away from you, they don’t like you very much.
The position of a person’s feet can give away how they feel about you just as much as their facial expression can. For instance, “if you’re in a room with someone you don’t like, you won’t scowl or make faces because you don’t want to come off as insensitive or mean, but your feet will almost immediately turn away from that person,” Joe Navarro, M.A., former FBI agent and author of What Every Body Is Saying, explained to Prevention.
If they have a firm handshake, they’re extroverted.
Curious whether your new coworker is going to be loud or keep to themselves? Give them a good old-fashioned handshake. One 2000 study of 112 subjects published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that “a firm handshake was related positively to extraversion and emotional expressiveness” as well as “openness to experience,” though the latter was only true for women.
And if they have a weak handshake, they’re shy.
You can also deduce whether a person is introverted from the force of their handshake. In the same 2000 study, researchers found that people who had weaker handshakes tended to be shier and more neurotic.
If they avoid eye contact, they’re timid.
If you’re on a first date and your new fling won’t make eye contact, you might want to fake a phone call and get out of there. Per one 1996 analysis published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, gaze-avoidant men tend to repress their emotions, while gaze-avoidant women are often viewed by others as “disagreeable, unconscientious, unattractive, and even somewhat lower on intelligence.” Ouch!
If their arms are crossed, they feel defensive.
As Goman writes, men who “have their arms crossed in a defensive gesture” tend to feel, well, defensive about something. They also tend to “have their jackets buttoned,” so that’s a sign to look out for as well.
If they’re shrugging, they don’t want to get involved.
Though considered by many to be a passive gesture, shrugs are anything but. As seasoned author Liz Sonneborn writes in Nonverbal Communication: The Art of Body Language, a full shrug—one “with arms out, palms up, mouth corners lowered, and raised eyebrows”—is a clear indication that someone is “shirking responsibility” and “[wants] no part of what’s going on.”
If they’re clenching their jaw, they’re stressed.
Stress is simply one of those emotions that manifests in people’s body language no matter how hard they try to hide it. According to Navarro, some frequent stress tells include clenching the jaw, rubbing the neck, lowering the chin, and narrowing the eyes.
If they’re tilting their head, they love you.
Wondering if your new significant other is getting close to using the L word with you? Reading their body language can help you gauge how they truly feel.
“In the presence of someone we love, we will mirror their behavior, tilt our heads, and blood will flow to our lips, making them full, even as our pupils dilate,” Navarro writes in an article for Psychology Today. “Our limbic brain communicates through our bodies precisely the true sentiments that we feel and orchestrates accurate corresponding nonverbal displays.” And for more relationship body language tips, get ready to Read Your Partner’s Mind with These 10 Body Language Signs of Attraction.
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