There are many books and articles around that tell you how to read a person’s body language in order to know their true intent. We see it on TV shows that feature so-called “experts” giving their opinion on how someone is really thinking by their body language. But is it really that easy?
There are certain signs that people can give that have universal meaning such as shrugging the shoulders or raising an eyebrow but can you really go deeper into it and ‘understand‘ them by their body language? Is it really a method that can be used and trusted?
Not at all, and here’s why…
1. You Can’t Rely on One Gesture Alone
I have seen it written many times that having the hands balled up into fists is an obvious sign of aggression. If I am watching a football game on the TV and my team is about to score, I ball my fist up and if they score that fist gets thrown into the air with a cheer. Not because I’m angry or aggressive but through sheer excitement that I believe my team is about to win.
Now, if you look around the stadium, almost all of that teams fans are doing the same thing. They are not about to start kicking off, they are just happy that their team scored.
My point is that you can’t rely on one gesture alone to ‘read‘ somebody. If you wanted to understand whether someone was ‘aggressive‘ or even ‘happy‘, it takes multiple gestures working together.
2. Many Gestures Can Mean Many Different Things
As we have just seen, gestures can have multiple meanings so it is important that you also understand the context in which it is being observed.
Another example would be that of crossing the arms. This is well known as being a sign of defensiveness. If somebody is giving you a telling off for something that you have done wrong then you may very well cross your arms. But this gesture could also be made simply because you are cold or trying to get comfortable. I often find I’m crossing my arms when I sit back to get comfortable in my chair when I’m watching TV.
Related: How to Become a Human Lie Detector
You must look at the context in which the gesture is being made in order to understand the meaning behind it. It is absolutely impossible to make an accurate judgment by simply observing a single gesture alone.
3. There are Cultural Differences
While body language may make up a large part of our communication, there are cultural differences in how people use body language to communicate. Some gestures may also be idiosyncratic, meaning that they are unique to an individual. Some idiosyncratic gestures can be habitual, meaning that a person does them purely out of habit regardless of how they’re feeling.
If we use silence as an example, here in the UK especially, silence is often seen as problematic. It is often perceived as a sign of inattentiveness or disinterest. However, if you were to travel to China, silence is used to show agreement and receptiveness.
The ‘OK’ sign for us is well known here for its meaning but if you were to do the same gesture in Greece, Spain or Brazil, you’re calling someone an a**hole whereas in Turkey, it’s meant to be an insult towards gay people.
Related: Body Language of a Dangerous Person
There are many gestures that have different meanings depending on where in the world you are so this needs to be taken into consideration.
4. You Can’t Believe What the Face Shows
We live in a society that all too often tell people to “grow up” or “get over it” when they are feeling a certain way. What happens is that those people then start putting a false front on to hide their true feelings. Maybe we are in a room with someone that we don’t particularly like or trust but so as not to appear rude, the mask goes on.
We might smile when inside we want to cry, pretend to be interested in something when really we’re not, and so on. My point here is that you need to look much deeper than what the face shows.
5. You Can Read a Friend Easier Than You Can a Stranger
You can’t expect to pick up a book about body language, practice studying friends, and then expect to be able to study everyone. It just doesn’t work like that. It is easy to study those that you know well as you should already know their ‘usual‘ behavior.
If you have children then you probably already know the signs that start showing as they begin to get bored. You know the signs that start showing when your partner is angry with you or wants you to help them with something around the house. We know these signs because we have spent countless hours around them. Hours that you haven’t spent with the stranger in the street.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t waste your time learning how to read body language, you should! But be very careful when the so-called experts tell you ‘how’ to read somebody. Everyone is different and may each show different signs. If you see one sign that could mean a certain intent, don’t stop there but look for the next sign, and the next, and so on.