This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

A Look At Body Language: What Is It Really Saying?

A smile can speak a thousand words.

We've all seen Donald Trump's infamous handshake. The 'yank and grab' movement that makes you, and the recipient, cringe and try to decipher what the greeting actually means.

What we might not realise, however, is how our own subtle non-verbal movements could be communicating something very different to what we intend. Likewise, we can avoid assuming the meaning of other people's body language by learning a few tips.

According to a TED Talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, our mind changes the way our body moves. Body language can affect not only how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves.

So how do we know what something as small as a smile, as open as a hug, or as powerful as a 'yank and grab' handshake, is actually telling us?

Open palms can indicate trust and openness.
Open palms can indicate trust and openness.

How to read people

Australian body language expert David Alssema told HuffPost Australia knowing the communication environment will help you understand non-verbal meaning.

"We read body language more than we say we do, more than we speak and use words," Alssema said.

"But it's important to know the environment and know the circumstances -- things like cold weather outside can restrict our body movements."

Knowing people is important to understand their body language.
Knowing people is important to understand their body language.

Knowing the person will help you understand the meaning behind their movements, Alssema explained, and facial expressions are best read instantly. It's important to look out for facial gestures like eye contact, rather than lower body movements such as folded arms or crossed legs.

Recognising levels of hierarchy in an encounter will also help you decipher body language.

"If you walk into your boss's office and they have their feet on the desk, they're allowed to do that because they're the boss -- if you did that, you'd get in trouble, so authority matters," Alssema said.

What your body language is saying

Sending and receiving body language signals happens on both conscious and unconscious levels, but being aware of your movements can help you avoid those awkward 'what did you give me that look for?' conversations.

Alssema explains, while the way we feel will change the way we act, we can learn how to alter our body language.

She might just be cold...
She might just be cold...

"When we're interested, our pupils dilate. When we're lying, blood rushes to our nose. We know that if our palms are facing downwards, we're less engaged," Alssema said.

"So, we need to practise body language to portray body language -- it's like learning to drive a car."

Alssema suggests to first take note of the communication environment, then consciously alter your posture, facial expressions and gestures to reflect a response.

Being aware of your own body language is key to understanding what movement message you're sending to other people.

Tricks of the trade -- recognising body language

  • Wandering eyes: focus is key to maintaining eye contact. A non-focused listener won't hold your gaze for very long. (Be wary not to stare, though, as you don't want to scare anyone away.)
  • Giveaway smiles: a smiling face is a sign of happiness and interest, signalling someone wants to communicate. But genuine smiles involve the whole face -- keep an eye out for crinkles around the eyes.
  • Folded arms: this protective stance most commonly indicates disagreement, or that the conversation has touched a nerve. Keep in mind, though, the person might just be cold.
  • Sweaty palms: palms that face upwards create a non-threatening gesture and a sense of openness, while palms that face downwards can indicate dominance and authority.
  • High brows: raised eyebrows could mean one of three things -- disbelief and mistrust, surprise and shock, or they've been drawn in the wrong place.

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