How to Read Emotions From Body Language

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Every Body Is Saying" by Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What can body language tell you about a person’s emotional state? What body language cues should you pay attention to when trying to decipher someone’s feelings? 

Body language cues can reveal a lot about how someone is feeling. If a person is feeling relaxed, secure, and comfortable, they’ll display open and expressive body language. If, on the other hand, they’re feeling insecure or threatened, they’ll exhibit closed and comforting body language. 

Keep reading to learn how to read emotions from body language.

Emotions and Body Language

Since our limbic systems induce strong responses (freeze, flight, or fight) to things that make us uncomfortable, most unconscious behaviors reflect either feelings of security or insecurity. We can see these emotions in body language.

When we see something we dislike—whether it be a person, a word, or a situation, our bodies display signs of the freeze, flight, or fight responses. When we see something we like, we won’t experience a threat response—we’ll be open, expressive, and eager to interact. With that in mind, you can gauge how secure someone feels by observing the direction in which their body moves, their posture and range of movement, and the presence of self-comforting behaviors following a threat response.

How Our Likes and Dislikes Form

According to Navarro, some things we dislike are strong enough to trigger our threat responses, but what determines what we like or dislike? Researchers explain that we develop our unique likes and dislikes based on the experiences we have through a process called respondent conditioning. Essentially, everything we encounter makes us feel positive, negative, or neutral. Positive experiences lead us to like the stimuli associated with them, while negative experiences cause us to dislike the stimuli associated with them. If something that originally makes us feel neutral occurs alongside a positive stimulus, we may find ourselves liking the neutral thing more.

For example, a student might find a new school subject like chemistry to be neutral. However, based on their experiences in that class, they might associate with chemistry either more positively or more negatively. If the experience was very negative, the student might find themselves experiencing some threat responses when starting a new chemistry class, such as sweating or having a closed-off posture.

1) Observe the Direction a Body Points or Leans

Navarro argues that one major way to read a person’s level of security is to pay attention to the direction their body points or leans. Since the limbic system controls our emotional responses, most people subconsciously turn away or distance themselves from things they find threatening.

(Shortform note: In addition to the direction someone orients their body, another factor you can note is distance. Researcher Edward T. Hall argues that how close someone stands to you can indicate how familiar or intimate you are with them. He identifies four distance categories based on relationship intimacy in North Americans: intimate, personal, social, and public. An intimate distance is less than 18 inches away from your body. A personal distance is anywhere from 18 inches to four feet away. A social distance is anywhere from four to 12 feet. Lastly, a public distance is anywhere from 12 feet and beyond.)

Direction the Body Points: Since the feet and the legs are the most honest body parts, note whether a person’s feet point toward or away from you. Navarro explains that our bodies naturally orient toward things we like and away from things we dislike. For example, if you watch a horror movie at a theater, you might notice people cringing away from an unpleasant scene with their knees and legs pointed sideways. In your daily interactions, if someone is speaking to you but they’re standing with one foot directed toward the exit, their body might be subconsciously signaling their desire to leave.

(Shortform note: While Navarro says people direct their bodies toward and away from things they like and dislike, you also orient your body toward novel stimuli. This is called the orienting reflex, which happens when something new or unexpected occurs in your environment. When this happens, your pupils and blood vessels dilate so that you can pay full attention to the new stimulus.)

Direction the Body Leans: Next, assess security by noticing what direction a person’s body is leaning, if at all. Navarro explains that it takes more energy to lean your body than it does to hold yourself straight, which is why leaning is often an indicator of a person’s true sentiments. Like with pointing, a person leaning toward you is comfortable while a person leaning away is uncomfortable.

(Shortform note: Leaning away might not always indicate dislike. In fact, some experts suggest you lean back when you first interact with a stranger, especially when flirting, to present non-threatening body language that respects their personal space and helps them feel secure. As they become more comfortable with you, you then lean forward to communicate interest.)

2) Observe a Body’s Range of Movement and Openness of Posture

In addition to observing the direction someone moves, you can assess security by evaluating how much someone moves and how open their posture is. A comfortable person will move more expressively and present their body in a vulnerable and open way. On the other hand, an uncomfortable person will have restricted movements and closed body language—such as hiding, shielding themself, or preparing to escape from whatever’s causing discomfort.

Range of Movement: When we’re insecure, we naturally restrict our movements because our limbic system has activated our automatic freeze response. Navarro explains that insecure people tend to hold their arms and legs close to their bodies to avoid attracting attention. You might notice examples of this in public speaking—someone who’s uncomfortable in front of an audience will struggle to gesture emphatically and move around. They’re more likely to remain glued to the spot and struggle with voice inflection.

When we feel secure, our threat responses aren’t being triggered. According to Navarro, a comfortable and confident body takes up space and often makes what he calls “gravity-defying behaviors,” such as rising onto the toes when greeting someone or raising the arms above your head to emphasize a point. For example, consider a class of students. When asked a question, students with their hands raised above their heads exude more confidence than those with bent arms at shoulder height.

Posture: Navarro explains that a comfortable body has an open and vulnerable posture, whereas an uncomfortable body is more closed off. When we feel secure, nothing activates our body’s limbic instinct to protect itself. For example, if someone’s leaning back in a chair with their hands folded behind their head, they’re not conscious of themselves or the environment they’re in. Crossed legs while standing, Navarro points out, is also a sign of security because it is more vulnerable—this position leaves you more off balance. People in a heated debate, for instance, won’t stand with their feet crossed.

Navarro adds that people often enlist their arms to protect their bodies. They might shade their eyes with a hand or cross their arms tightly across their chests. Some examples of this shielding behavior might be rearranging nearby objects to act as a barrier, clutching a protective object like a pillow, or buttoning up a shirt.

3) Observe the Presence of Self-Comforting Actions

If you notice someone displaying the insecure behaviors we’ve explored above, observe if any self-comforting acts follow. According to Navarro, people perform self-comforting acts as a natural coping mechanism for stress. These are subconscious and take on many forms such as touching the body and engaging in distractions.

Self-comforting Touch: According to Navarro, people often comfort themselves when under stress by rubbing or massaging their necks, faces, or limbs. He explains that the neck and the face have many nerve endings that, when rubbed, release calming chemicals inside the brain and lower heart rate and blood pressure. These self-comforting behaviors can manifest in different ways for men and women—women tend to cover the dimples between their collarbones, while men prefer touching their faces.

There are numerous other ways a person might use touch to soothe themself, such as sliding their hands down their thighs while seated (which serves to both calm them and dry any sweat from their palms), hugging themselves, or rubbing their inner cheek with their tongue.

Self-comforting Distractions: When people experience discomfort, they seek distractions as a way to relieve stress, such as tidying their clothes, playing with their hair, or adjusting jewelry. Navarro explains that, in moments of stress, the limbic system instructs the body to distract itself from the stressor. People might drum their fingers on a table, speak to themselves, or whistle a tune.

How to Read Emotions From Body Language

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Here's what you'll find in our full What Every Body Is Saying summary:

  • A guide from a former FBI agent on how to decipher body language
  • How to master the language of nonverbal communication
  • How to detect when someone is lying to you and access their true thoughts

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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