Basic Principles of Body Language

What are you saying (without actually saying it)? Here's an overview of some common body language, organized by body area.


  • Crossed = Closed
  • Forward = Interested, Engaged
  • Fidgeting = Nervous, Inexperienced, Afraid
  • Fast, Uncoordinated, Unnatural = Nervous, Inexperienced

Head and Face

We all know what a smile means; frowns are a bit more complicated, but generally we get those, too. At least we get, understand, what the person wants us to understand – one can fake frowns and smiles. How do you get past plastered faces?

Answer: the eyes. From Christ ("The light of the body is in the eye...") to Santa Claus ("His eyes – how they twinkled!"), we've gaged how people really feel by their eyes.

  • Eyes Twinkling = Amused
  • Eyes Wide Open = Afraid
  • Eyebrows Down and Together (toward nose), Eyes Staring = Angry
  • Eyebrows Raised in the Middle = Sad

Watch out for how fast you blink, too. Studies suggest that people blink faster when they're nervous (Tesse 1996).

Of course, expressions are usually much more complicated. For more information, see Malcolm Gladwell's The Naked Face and Paul Ekman's book Emotions Revealed.

Oh, and don't forget appropriate eye contact! Don't stare, but don't look down or be away too often. You'll appear afraid or shifty.


  • Crossed in Front of Chest = Closed, “Stay Away”
  • At Sides = 'Open'

Neck, Chest, and Back

  • Neck Tight = Fear, Nervous
  • Chest Out, Shoulders Back = Confident (or trying to impress a member of the opposite sex)
  • Chest Collapsed = Shy, Sad, Defeated

Legs (When Sitting)

  • Feet Back, Behind Knees = Interest
  • Feet Out, on Heels = Disinterest, Bored
  • Legs Crossed = 'Closed'

For more body language information, I recommend Using Body Language at

Remember, none of these signals indicate the reason for the emotion, and none are foolproof. Emotions and body language occur in context. In the end, the most important thing isn't who you come across as, but who you actually are.

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