Learning how to read body language is one of the best skills to master. In many cases, it can take you farther in the professional world than even a high IQ. What’s better is that it’s relatively easy to learn how to discern universal physical cues that tell you what another person is really thinking.
In this piece, we’ll take a look at the benefits of learning to read body language, as well as some of the common characteristics to look for when engaging with people.
What Is The 7% Rule?
The 7% rule originated from Albert Mehrabian’s 1971 book Silent Messages, where he concluded that only 7% of communication is based on the actual words we say. He claimed that 38% of communication is tone, while the vast majority - 55% - is based on the body language of the person speaking.
Psychologists and sociologists debate these figures, but it isn’t the numbers that matter here. Instead, it concludes that body language can (and often does) mean more than the content of speech when it comes to personal communication.
Learning how to read body language isn’t a necessity, but it’s a massively advantageous skill both in personal and professional life.
Reading someone’s physical cues is a part of emotional intelligence, and the organization TalentSmart claims that most top performers have high emotional intelligence to go along with a substantially higher earning potential. They estimate that those with high emotional intelligence (EQ) outperform their counterparts with a high IQ 70% of the time.
Learning these social cues isn’t as difficult as you might think, either, and we’ll cover some of the basics ahead.
Decoding and Encoding
Decoding and encoding refer to the ability to manipulate yours and others’ body language completely. Mastering these skills will not only give you the ability to interpret the way someone else feels or presents themselves but will allow you to control how others perceive you as well.
Decoding, as the name suggests, refers to the ability to read how other people are using their body language. You can tell a lot about a person by decoding their subconscious physical cues and will have a better read of people as a result.
Once you learn how to read body language in others, you can start to understand the art of encoding. Encoding allows you to control what other people think of you through your own body language. This will enable you to master first impressions and the way people see you through conscious body language manipulation.
Reading Common Body Language
In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the common forms of body language and what they usually mean for social situations.
A Smile: Real or Fake
The face is where you can witness a lot of people’s true feelings. Some are very elusive with their facial reactions, while others wear their internal thoughts on their sleeve.
We tend to hand out smiles like they’re nothing; we smile when we see someone, we smile when someone tells a bad joke. There’s virtually no limit to where our fake - yet polite - smiles will end.
While we can all spread our lips, show our teeth, and call it a smile, there are more subtle cues that can tell you whether or a person genuinely finds us amusing, pleasing, or funny.
As psychologist Paul Ekman explained in a blog, true smiles make their way up the face to the eye. We squint a bit, creating temporary crows feet in the corners of our eyes.
The pursing of the lips is another indicator you can read on the face. Someone can be pursing their lips for a number of reasons, but one of the common causes of pursed lips is that the person is holding something back.
They may be stifling a rude comment, telling a half-truth, or flat-out lying. Of course, facial cues are some of the easiest to manipulate, which is why learning how to read body language through other physical signals is important.
Our ancestors' primitive lifestyles still bind us in many ways. One of the elements that expresses itself in daily social interaction is whether or not we protect our midsection.
We work a bit like a dog in this sense. If a dog is comfortable with you, they’ll roll over and expose their belly. If they aren’t, they’ll stay guarded and make sure you don't get too close to their valuable area.
This subconscious reaction makes sense as well. In a sense, we’re protecting ourselves by protecting the most vulnerable and important part of our body: the torso.
When we’re around friends, family, and significant others, we often open our torsos since we’re around someone we trust. When we’re uncomfortable or threatened, we cross our arms or angle the body away from the other person as a subconscious natural reaction.
This action manifests itself all over the place in social situations. You can tell when someone is comfortable with you by gauging their torso availability, but you can also better understand whether or not someone is receptive to the ideas you’re setting forth.
In today’s context, a closed torso can often mean a closed mind. If someone crosses their arms or legs during a heated conversation, debate, or negotiation, it’s a clear sign that he or she isn’t receptive to what you’re presenting.
The next time you enter into a conversation with a close friend, take note of their body language in relation to yours. Are they uncrossing their arms as you do? Do they similarly move their hands?
All of these mirroring actions are a good thing. They mean that the other person feels a bond with you. They are interested in the conversation and receptive to what you are saying - unlike the examples we included above.
Taking note of mirroring action is particularly useful when it comes to dating. You can tell a lot about whether or not the other person is interested based on their actions. If they’re mirroring what you’re doing, then the conversation is going well.
Posture is one of the pieces of body language you can manipulate to your advantage. So many of these traits are subconscious, but taking up a lot of space with your posture is relatively easy to master.
Again, this piece of body language is born from before we broke our way out of the food chain. The bigger someone is, the more powerful and comfortable we perceive them as. Certain people create a tidal wave when they enter a room, while others barely make a splash.
Slumped shoulders and a low-hanging head signify weakness. Standing tall, with the shoulders back and the head held high indicates strength and confidence. This piece of body language expression is more about how others view you rather than decoding someone’s true internal feelings.
Legs: Staying or Leaving
Years of awareness has made the face one of the most dishonest parts of the body. Now that you know a smile crinkles the eyes, you can effectively fool anyone into thinking you find them amusing.
The legs, on the other hand, usually tell the truth about how someone is feeling. Most people aren’t aware of how they’re presenting the lower half of their body, which can give telling clues about whether or not they truly want to be where they are.
The placement of legs can sometimes be a result of our natural fight or flight response to being uncomfortable or bothered. We won’t likely square-up with someone talking our ear off about how going vegan changed their life, but our legs will get us ready to bolt at the first opening.
When we’re comfortable with someone, or in a conversation we enjoy, we tend to cross our legs or angle them towards the other person. When we want to be somewhere else or are uncomfortable with another person, or legs will get us ready to leave by angling our feet in the opposite direction.
Knowing when it’s time to let someone leave is an underrated social skill. You might not be the reason they want to walk away, but they might be uncomfortable with the subject matter, or just have somewhere else they need to be.
Reading this cue will give you the ability to let someone leave when they visibly want to. This will improve their view of you - or lessen the damage at the very least.
Not Everyone is the Same
While these physical cues commonly mean the same thing, they don’t apply to everyone. A shy person might be more closed-off at first, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like you or aren’t interested in what you’re saying.
Getting to know someone, along with their actions and reactions is the best way to establish a baseline of behavior. From there, you can use these tips we included to get a better understanding of how they interact in social situations.
Even though these rules aren’t hard and fast, learning and mastering how to read body language is a significant advantage in both personal and professional life. You can start changing your own body language to make people more welcoming to you, and understand whether or not another person is receptive to your social interaction.