The most useful body language tip I can start out with is that we’re all sentient animals. When you realize that humans have base instincts and subconscious reactions (like touching a hot stove), you’re able to read people more easily. Interpreting the thought behind a gesture is difficult. Are they angry at me or something they thought about from 5 years ago?
Anytime someone is in a position where they reveal the vulnerable parts of their body to you, you can assume that they do not see you as their enemy. Open legs and leaning forward are good signs. It’s a friendly gesture that says, I know that you could rip out all of my vital organs right now and trust that you will not.
When someone embraces a family member that they haven’t seen in a long time, they throw their head back, open their arms, and display every vulnerable section they have. They are not concerned with being vivisected. They trust them.
An animal must protect itself from predators and things that want to hurt it. Limbs blocking vitals is a sign that their subconscious mind does not trust that you wouldn’t disembowel them. Crossed arms, crossed legs, covering the neck, leaning away: I’m upset. It might be best to take a breather from the conversation.
If your brain wants something, it’ll instinctively point you towards it. You want to leave? Your feet are pointing to the door, so I assume your brain is readying you. Next time you’re in a group of friends, look where everyone’s feet are pointed: the person that they feel is leading the conversation. Maybe there’s a shining star of charisma where all those feet are pointed—take notes on how to be more charismatic.
Joe Navarro, the author of What Every Body Is Saying, points out that many people will play with items on or around their neck. Neckties, collars, necklaces, etc. This is a very vulnerable area. Many women will play with their jewelry.
They are all fidget-spinning the stress away. These gestures indicate that a person feels potentially vulnerable to a topic, person, or thought.
You can (fairly easily) tell what emotion someone is telegraphing by the way they open up or contort their face. This woman is contorting her face from sadness. Some people purse their lips. The best example of pursed lips is in The Devil Wears Prada: Meryl Streep’s character looks away and comically purses her lips, indicating that she is very displeased with the outfit in front of her.
While it’s easy to tell with others, Navarro points out that micro-gestures are more prevalent. Someone pursing their lips may do so for only a split second—and only in a tiny corner of their mouth. People sometimes throw their head back when they laugh: a vulnerable neck is exposed.
Hands & Feet
Intensely leaning away from her opponent, Caroline Garcia is upset. Her head is turned, lips are pursed, and feet are pointed in the opposite direction. It looks like she just lost a point, is very disappointed in herself, and upset with her opponent. For fun, let’s pretend she just said, talk to the hand.
Anyone with this posture during a casual conversation is either deeply offended or doesn’t know how to say goodbye.
This is a nice example, because it’s easy to spot and has its own name. Many people try to assert that they are in charge by holding this pose. Navarro states that many members of the military and police force will hold this pose.
One of my old managers would pose like this during casual conversations. When I called it to his attention, he immediately relaxed and laughed at himself. For many, this is unintentional telegraphing and is a result of being in a position of authority.
Silent Film Actors
Practice spotting these gestures by watching these actors speak through nonverbals. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are probably the most famous actors from this period. Many of these vaudevillian actions are easy to catch and are caricatures of everyday gesticulation.