Learn How To Read Body Language

Want to improve your ability to read the other person in a negotiation? Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent turned author who’s making the requisite publicity circuit to promote his book, knows all about body language, and in this multimedia slideshow on WashingtonPost.com he explains some of the most common ones. He notes, “Our feet are probably our most accurate indicators of how we feel about things,” which is funny because I’ve never been able to flip anyone off with my toes.

A lot of these gestures and positions may strike some readers as obvious, but chances are you subconsciously lapse into them in various situations. If you can somehow master your body language and strike a pose that’s splayed out, legs crossed, arms akimbo, with your fingers pressed together in a steeple, you’ll probably be able to haggle anything successfully. (Please send us a photo of yourself in this position.)

“What We Say Without Words” [Washington Post]
(Image: Washington Post)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Parting says:

    All of this applies in a certain context. Don’t generalize and don’t assume.

  2. se7a7n7 says:

    That was great slide show.

  3. donkeyjote says:

    *Steeple* EXCELLENT */Steeple*

  4. Don’t show the soles of your feet in a Muslim country. I know that is very offensive.

  5. ideagirl says:

    Interesting, but pretty elementary stuff as far as body language goes. Body language is a complex and powerful thing, and knowing how to use definitely comes in handy.

    Just remember to use your powers for the forces of good : )

  6. petrarch1611 says:

    so we’re supposed to use this when we’re bargaining?

  7. MissPeacock says:

    I often find myself crossing my arms during meetings, and I try to make a conscious effort to uncross them when I realize I’m doing it, as I know how it can come off as defensive or angry to others. But really, sometimes it’s just comfy to cross your arms. And sometimes I’m just cold.

  8. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    What does it mean when a girl puts the palm of her hand in front of your face?

  9. Anonymously says:

    I always treat this type of advice with skepticism. As Victo said, it applies within a certain context.

  10. @AlteredBeast: “Pop off”?

    @MissPeacock: I do the same thing as a way to keep my hands from wandering/fidgeting. I had an old boss always say “Are you upset”?

  11. satoru says:

    I also wonder if a lot of these things are cultural as well. For example a lack of eye contact is considered disrespectful in Western societies, however in a lot of Asian cultures, this is a normal behavior when addressing a superior. Thus they are in fact showing you the appropriate amount of respect from their frame of reference.

  12. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    Thankfully, a raised middle finger isn’t vauge at all.

  13. Tmoney02 says:

    @ideagirl: Any idea where I can learn to become a “master”? I love this kind of stuff so any good resources would be welcomed.

  14. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    @AlteredBeast: I think she likes you. The normal response I get is the bottom of the foot to the face.

  15. nsv says:

    @AlteredBeast: It means “Lick my hand.” It’s a tongue test.

    @petrarch1611: I’ve heard that if you mimic the body language of someone with whom you’re negotiating, they will become sympathetic. I use this during job interviews, but I have no idea if it works.

  16. kepler11 says:

    If you’re a smart person, you can learn to regulate your feelings, not be uncomfortable in any situation, and not reveal to other people these clues.

  17. Gopher bond says:

    I usually stand with one hand akimbo and one behind my back hooking that indexfinger to the thumb on my akimboed hand and I switch up the arms when I get tired. What the hell does that mean?

  18. Bagels says:

    @nsv: If you’re still doing interviews, my guess would be that it’s not working

  19. Kmoney says:

    what does it mean when someone is saying something affirmative but shaking his or her head in a negating fashion? i saw this once in a commericial using “real customer testimonials” and one of the customers said, while shaking his dead no, “this is the greatest product i’ve ever used!”

    i suspect i know what he truly meant….

  20. revmatty says:

    I have chronic joint and back pain. I spend a lot of time with my arms in strange positions that people might interpret as being “closed” or “hostile” when in actuality they are “trying to alleviate physical discomfort totally unrelated to what you’re talking about”. Fortunately my wife and my coworkers have come to accept that I’m just wierd.

  21. nsv says:

    @Bagels: I’m not. Usually once I set my sights on a job in a particular company, I get it. I choose to believe it’s because I’m such a valuable asset to the company rather than my body language skills.

    Or hey, maybe the interviewer feels pity for me, what do I know?

  22. DownwardSpiral says:


    I’m like you I’m really interested in this kind of stuff and I’ve always been sooo clueless about it. When I started learning about it and observing it though, it’s amazing the things you can pick up. There’s a really great book called ‘The Definitive book of Body Language’ by Allan and Barbara Pease. Lots of pictures and examples like in the slide show, and they do a good job putting it all into context, I’d recommend it.

  23. ElizabethD says:


    One thing I learned, and learned well, while undergoing a form of psychotherapy called “short-term confrontational therapy” (a brisker form of cognitive therapy) some years back was to pay attention to my own body language. The things I had been “saying” without realizing it were appalling to me!

    The psychologist videotaped me when I started the program and again at my last session, and the difference was notable. No more shrinking posture, no fluttering fingers near my throat, no extraneous nervous laughter or eyelash-lowering. The body-aware me sat squarely in the chair without slumping, made eye contact, didn’t grimace or ham it up unnecessarily, and overall looked like a grownup instead of a self-conscious kid. Very helpful stuff in the workplace and boardroom.

  24. magic8ball says:

    Isn’t this partly cultural, though? A lot of it breaks down when you’re dealing with someone who was raised somewhere different than you were. Even among western cultures, there’s a lot of variation in what’s acceptable, what’s expected, and what particular physical attitudes or gestures mean.

  25. donkeyjote says:

    @testsicles: That you qualify for adhd medicine…

  26. Shark1998 says:

    I spent nearly 8 years in the USMC and it is required to stand in a respectfull manner when talking to a superior, in our case it was with the arms behind the back called “parade rest” (or the “position of attention” with the arms straight down the side). I always thought that it was a sign of respect, and not a “I’m gonna kick your ass” stance……no wonder people are scared of the Marines. It’s our vicious stance!

  27. Keter says:

    That leaning on your fingers on the desk thing actually means “I’m the boss and I’m about to assign you to the project that will kill your career and I expect you to act happy about it.” It’s particularly vicious when females do it.

  28. dman19 says:

    I like how the lady in the picture has the Lance Armstrong braclet on.

  29. Tmoney02 says:

    @DownwardSpiral: Thanks! I will check it out!

  30. Benny Gesserit says:

    I’ve never been able to flip anyone off with my toes.

    Back in grade 7, my friend Nancy did just that. She always dressed “funky” and once wore those gawd-awful socks where each toe was a different colour. During a heated “discussion” with Sister T in English, she slipped off a shoe, raised her foot and gave Sr the “finger”.

    I laughed so hard I ended up in detention too.

  31. weakdome says:

    Toes in the air when we’re happy and having a good time?
    I think my girlfriend would concur.

  32. FangDoc says:

    Usually, when I play with my necklace, it means, “I like to play with my necklace.”

    Like the man said, sometimes, it’s just a cigar.

  33. TechnoDestructo says:

    Great, now when do we hear from the FBI’s astrologers and phrenologists?

  34. vatica40 says:

    Culture definately does figure into body language. I remember the probably urban legend story about how the Germans or Russians had 4 officers or whatever in a room sitting. 3 of them had their legs crossed. The fourth had his legs in figure four, which gave him away as an American spy.

    I’m terrible at stories.

  35. Citron says:

    One thing I learned from being a linguistic anthropologist is that the “founder” of kinesics (body language interpretation), Ray Birdwhistell, was essentially the laughingstock of the scientific linguistic community. Notably, he did some study kinesics on schizophrenic mothers — and how they diapered their babies. He proposed that because they expressed the body language of pushing their baby away from the diaper when they pinned it (as opposed to pulling the diaper away from the baby, which was the behavior of the “healthy” participants”) — they expressed mistrust that their babies could thusly read, and then become schizophrenic themselves. (Of course, this was back when people thought that schizophrenia was something you contracted, but that’s beside the point entirely)

    It turns out the schizophrenic mothers were just frightened of pricking their children on film and having their babies taken away, and were thusly overcompensating by trying to get as much distance between the pins and their children as possible.

    As cool as it would be if there was, there is no special hidden language that can be derived from body signals. Not that there isn’t some great chance that a person who is red in the face, clenching their fists, and trembling isn’t about to strike you or is very angry — but the fact of the matter is that it’s just . . . not terribly scientific. A lot of the more “minor” kinemes (these are the individual “words” of body language) — like pushing a baby away from the diaper pin, are just far too often meaningless ticks or circumstantial things that you can’t reliably connect to much of anything.

    Kinesics is a lot like well-marketed palmistry. It means well, but it falls short of being anything other than a sexy gimmick.

  36. MercuryPDX says:

    @Tmoney02: Cheapie crash course: [www.amazon.com]

  37. ceriphim says:

    This book’s actually pretty sick. I got it a couple weeks ago after hearing an interview with the author on NPR. Great stuff, especially if you do a lot of security interviews…

  38. Christovir says:

    Many of you have already said it, but it bears repeating…

    These things are cultural and/or human tendencies, not absolutes, which is something I feel was not fully explained in the video. These behaviours indicate increased likelihoods of particular feelings, but that is all they are. Trying to read too much into them is asking for trouble. That said, ignoring others’ body language is bound to lead to social discomfort.

    There is plenty of real science investigating body language, but beware simplistic explanations and promises.

  39. Unfortunately, there are now specialists who can ‘READ’ EVERYTHING about a person.

    Body Language

    It is getting to the point where every element about someone can be subject to some kind of analysis

  40. MonkeySwitch says:

    I do a lot of things that don’t really mean anything. I am always jiggling my foot or bouncing my leg. I don’t even realize I’m doing it unless someone brings it to my attention. I also fiddle with stuff constantly. A sign of ADHD? Maybe. A sign of discomfort or insecurity? Probably not.

  41. Parapraxis says:


    do you fling your poo as well?

    (sorry, couldn’t help it)