The Dummies Guide to Body Language

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  Haven’t you wondered how possible it is to know what people are thinking in certain situations? “A good speaker is said to be one who ‘instinctively’ knows when his audience is interested in what he says and when his hearers have had enough” said Allan Pease in his book Body Language. Well, you’re so lucky […]


Haven’t you wondered how possible it is to know what people are thinking in certain situations?

“A good speaker is said to be one who ‘instinctively’ knows when his audience is interested in what he says and when his hearers have had enough” said Allan Pease in his book Body Language.

Well, you’re so lucky you are reading this right now. The techniques mentioned here are everyday life gestures that we’re too busy to even identify. These are elementary tricks of being able to read people so I’ll just name this The Dummies guide to noticing what you’re ought to know already: Body Language.

Research has shown that more human communication takes place by the use of gestures, postures, position and distances than by any other method. Non-verbal communication is, however, a complex process involving people, words, tone of voice and body movements. Albert Mehrabian found that the total impact of a message is about 7% verbal, 38% vocal (including tone of voice, inflection and other sounds) and 55% non-verbal. It is also estimated that the average person actually speaks words for a total of about ten or eleven minutes a day and that the average sentence takes only about 2.5 seconds.

Crossed arms with thumbs out

Do you think your partner is lying to you?

Gestures come in sentences, so one has to be perceptive to read the sentence of a body language as each gesture is a word. It is generally not easy to fake body languages as the subconscious automatically responds with honesty so your verbal and non-verbal might be congruent (verbal matches the non-verbal), meaning a liar can be easily caught if you read the sentence very carefully to the ‘gesture clusters’ (verbal doesn’t matches the non-verbal).

When someone is lying, their pupils contract so it may be pretty easy to discern whether your partner is lying to you or not as well as a scratch/rub of the nose, eye, ear, head or the neck. Other people tend to start sweating or you’ll notice an increase rate of eye blinking. Some people have mastered the ‘art’ of lying that it is pretty difficult to catch them out however their subconscious gives them away with very subtle such as a collar pull or palms hidden behind their back in a sophisticated manner (Mind you, some of these auto responses occur when one is nervous).

A fist with a pointed finger

“Please tell us about yourself”

Open palms are considered as a sign of truth, openness, submission and honesty. Hence at court an open palm is held with a Bible before they can give their testament.

When you’re in an interview it is advisable that while talking to have a palm-up position (when your palm is facing up) it subconsciously symbolises submission and that you’re not a threat. The palm-down position symbolises an authoritative/dominant person, you’re looking for a job, not a politician.

The most irritated gesture which should never be portrayed at all is a closed hand with a pointing finger it gives an impression of an aggressive and autocratic person or even a tyrant.

There are several kinds of handshakes which most people barely pay attention to, I know some will say “It’s just a handshake” and that’s the very reason you need to understand a Dominance handshake, a submission handshake, equality handshake, a dead fish handshake and a knuckle grinder.

When you turn your hand so that your palm faces 11 ó Clock down in the handshake is considered a dominance handshake and the reverse of the dominant handshake is the submission handshake in which you offer your hand with the palm facing upward. The equality handshake is a vice-like hand shake with both palms remaining in the vertical position. Then there’s the Dead fish handshake; a soft and feeble handshake which is characterised with a weak character (if you have such a handshake you’re advised to consider changing your hand to be very firm for in the corporate world a weak character is never taken seriously). The most popular handshake is the knuckle grinder an aggressive painful handshake associated with bullying and/or aggression.

Tip: For disarming the dominant hand-shaker that can enable you to intimidate the other person by invading his personal space. Step forward with your left foot as you reach to shake hands. Next, bring your right leg forward, moving left in front of the person and into his personal space. Now bring your left leg across to your right leg to complete the manoeuvre then shake the person’s hand. This tactic allows you to straighten the handshake. It also allows you to take control by invading the other person’s intimate zone.

Presentation with different gesture

May I have your attention please

Other gestures you may want to be aware of especially when you’re doing a presentation are the rubbing of hands, the hand-clenched fist the steepling hands for these are the feedbacks that your audience is giving you without saying a word. When people rub their hands together they’re usually expecting something positive and when someone is frustrated or is having a hostile attitude they may show it with a hand-clenched fist. And if however you’re not familiar with the audience you’re presenting to you usually should look for the superior candidates, they regularly have the steepling hand gesture (when fingertips of one hand are touching the other with both hands in front of your face) or they also reveal their thumb towards the public which denotes strength of character, ego, dominance or even aggression. On the other hand when the head is fully supported by the hand it is a sign of boredom, the other sign of boredom is when the head is on the table with music of “Zzz”, so be sure to avoid such by interaction with your audience. Every presentation has the scrutinizers for example an evaluator is spotted with a closed hand resting on the cheek and an index finger pointing upward or a critical thinker of mostly negative thoughts is seen when the index finger points up the cheek and the thumb supports the chin (not to be confused with the chin-stroking gesture, which signals that the listener is making a decision). When the hand is on the cheek but not supporting the head the listener may be genuinely interested in your topic, this is good!

Steepling fingers

When can you tell that she’s mad…?

We’ve all seen them during a tense argument when they have their arm-crossed with one foot tapping. That’s a bad sign. She’s being defensiveness altogether with a negative attitude and frustration, anything you say at this point is – pointless! Or have you noticed when you get to a public service place and there’s that one huge guy in khaki shorts with his full arm-cross and clenched fists while giving you ‘the look’. Oh uh! A lot of hostility in here (sometimes it is accompanied with clenched teeth).  An arm-cross with hands tightly gripping the upper arms shows a negative restrained attitude.

Rubbing hands

Can we be lovers or…?

The distance that two people who are kissing keep their hips apart can tell you something about the relationship that exists between them. Lovers press their torsos hard against each other and move within each other’s close intimate zones. This differs from the kiss received from a stranger on New Year’s Eve or from your best friend’s spouse, both of whom keep their pelvic area at least 15 centimetres away from yours.

If you want people to feel comfortable in your company, the golden rule is ‘keep your distance’ unless permitted otherwise. The more intimate our relationship is with others, the more likely you’re permitted into their intimate zone (distance of 15cm to 46cm).


Task: Set aside at least fifteen minutes a day to study and read the gestures of other people in public areas like malls or restaurants. Just don’t stare in a creepy and paranoid manner. Or turn down the television sound and try to understand what is happening by first watching the images while turning the sound up every five minutes to monitor your accuracy.

N.B: This is primarily a summary to prep you on how to stay alert in our everyday lives. The rest, is up to you!



Illustrations from [i] Body language: How to read others’ thoughts their gestures, by Allan Pease

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