Why Nonverbal Behavior Matters & How to Interpret It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Definitive Book of Body Language" by Allan Pease and Barbara Pease. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is learning how to read nonverbal behavior important? How can you correctly interpret nonverbal cues?

In The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease, the authors emphasize that up to 80% of how others perceive us is based on our nonverbal behavior. They argue that this makes it crucial to understand and interpret nonverbal cues correctly.

Read on to learn about nonverbal behavior and how to interpret it, according to Allan and Barbara Pease.

Why Nonverbal Behavior Matters

Authors Allan and Barbara Pease explain the importance of nonverbal behavior in The Definitive Book of Body Language—claiming that during verbal interactions, people intuitively respond to each other based more on what they see than on what they hear. They suggest that your body language accounts for 60–80% of how others perceive you. This perception determines how they interpret and respond to your words.

(Shortform note: While it’s true that body language influences the way people perceive you, there’s no scientific evidence supporting the exact percentage breakdown the authors provide. Those who quote numbers on this subject are usually mischaracterizing mid-1960s research by Albert Mehrabian, who argued that 93% of communication is considered nonverbal behavior—including body language and tone of voice—and only 7% is verbal. However, this formula was created for a specific context—to reduce uncertainty in understanding people who send mixed verbal and nonverbal signals. This implies that the more closely your words and body language align, the less attention others will pay to your nonverbal behavior.)

When your body language doesn’t align with your words, people don’t trust you because they feel as though you’re lying or hiding something from them. For example, your partner doesn’t trust you when you tell her you love her because you avoid eye contact and clench your jaw when you say it. As a result, she responds negatively to your words by showing signs of withdrawal—for instance, by crossing her arms, turning away from you, and avoiding eye contact. 

(Shortform note: Research clarifies why we instinctively interpret body language to assess trustworthiness before responding to others. To ensure survival, our ancestors relied on nonverbal behavior to avoid physical danger when forming alliances or assessing potential threats from other groups. Though we’ve since developed the ability to communicate verbally, our innate tendency to avoid danger hasn’t evolved, which is why we continue to seek out signs of trust. However, instead of ensuring physical security, we now predominantly rely on body language to ensure emotional security during social interactions.)

Advice on Interpreting Nonverbal Cues

It’s important to recognize that nonverbal behavior can be subject to misinterpretation. The authors say that this is due to three reasons:

1) A single nonverbal behavior cue can have multiple meanings depending on what other cues accompany it (much like a single word can mean different things depending on what other words are used in a sentence). For example, leaning forward can mean interest when accompanied by a smile, or it can mean aggression when accompanied by clenched fists.

2) A single nonverbal behavior cue can have multiple meanings depending on the context in which it occurs. For example, folded arms can mean defensiveness. However, if the room is chilly, it could also mean that someone’s trying to warm themself up.

3) A single nonverbal behavior cue can mean different things in different cultures. While most nonverbal cues are universally understood—for example, most cultures agree that smiles express positive emotions and frowns express negative ones—cultural differences remain. 

(Shortform note: This guide focuses solely on how Western society interprets body language. However, as the authors state, nonverbal signals vary greatly across countries so it’s worth researching them before engaging with other cultures. For example, in America, the thumbs-up sign is an indicator of agreement or a job well done. However, in Greece or the Middle East, it’s akin to using the middle finger.)

11 Types of Nonverbal Behavior Cues

Vanessa Van Edwards (Cues) also argues that nonverbal cues can be highly context-specific and she offers additional advice to help you correctly interpret them. She suggests that you observe 11 distinct categories of body language to accurately assess how people feel.

1. Facial expressions: There are seven universal microexpressions that reveal our hidden emotions.

2. Body proxemics: Our general movements reveal a lot about our preferences and how nervous we feel.

3. Hand gestures: We read into the way people use their hands to express their emotions, tell stories, or comfort themselves.

4. Ornaments: Our clothes and accessories—and the way we interact with them—are extensions of our body language.

5. Interest: We express our interest in others by using subtle signals, such as flicking our hair, and obvious signals, such as winking or smiling.

6. Eye gaze: Our eye movements reveal our intentions and can indicate emotions such as attraction, skepticism, and stress.

7. Pacifying: These are self-soothing repetitive behaviors that serve to calm us down after experiencing something unpleasant—for example, arm rubbing or bouncing feet.

8. Haptics: The way we express ourselves through touch reveals our preferences. For example, whether we choose to give someone a pat on the shoulder or a hug.

9. Blocking: These cues create barriers against others. For example, touching our mouths or folding our arms.

10. Paralanguage: The pitch and tone of our voice reveal how confident or anxious we are even when people aren’t paying attention to our words.

11. Emblems: There are over 800 cues that we use instead of words, such as a thumbs-up to express agreement. The cues we use depend on our culture and geographic location.
Why Nonverbal Behavior Matters & How to Interpret It

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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