What Is the Role of Body Language in Communication?

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 role does body language play in communication? How can you get better at decoding people’s body language? 

Our bodies convey our emotions and intentions far faster and more accurately than our words. We pick up on body language cues instinctively because they have been wired into us over millions of years of evolution.

Keep reading to learn about the role of body language in communication.

Why Your Body Doesn’t Lie

Body language cues are more accurate indicators of a person’s emotions than their words. This is because we’ve developed immediate and automatic physical responses to stimuli in our environments throughout our evolutionary history. In response to many things, whether it be a cute puppy or a rude coworker, our bodies react more quickly than our conscious thoughts do, making those reactions honest reflections of how we feel.

(Shortform note: In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman refers to these automatic responses as “emotional hijackings.” He provides additional insight into the role of body language in communication and why body language cues are so honest, explaining that we automatically judge whether anything we see is good or bad within milliseconds. He adds that even when you briefly glimpse a photo of something you’re scared of, your body starts to activate its threat response and immediately initiates physical reactions like sweating.)

The Limbic System Controls Your Body’s Reactions

The part of your brain that controls these automatic emotional responses is called the limbic system. Over thousands of years of evolution, the limbic system’s main function has been to keep us alive, governing our instinctive behaviors to avoid harm (like stressful situations) and seek out things that are beneficial to our survival, like shelter. To do this, the limbic system has three consistent and automatic responses to danger: freeze, flight, and fight.

(Shortform note: What exactly happens in your brain when you perceive a threat? According to Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score, your brain transmits all of the sensory information you perceive to two parts of your brain: the amygdala and the frontal lobes. First, your amygdala receives this information and quickly assesses whether it’s a threat. If it identifies a threat, it automatically signals your body to release stress hormones to prepare your body to react. Then, only after the sensory information reaches your frontal lobes does your conscious thinking kick in, allowing you to rationally assess the situation.)

According to Navarro, the secret to decoding body language is learning what physical behaviors are associated with these three limbic responses. After years of evolution, these reactions are strong and hard to suppress, making them noticeable and reliable cues that can indicate a person’s true feelings. Let’s look at each response and why we have it. 

  1. Freeze—Your body’s first automatic response to something threatening is to freeze. This is because movement attracts attention and holding still helps you avoid being noticed. Restricted movement, then, indicates someone is feeling threatened or uncomfortable.
  2. Flight—Your next limbic response is to run or physically distance yourself from the threat. Subconscious distancing, then, also indicates discomfort.
  3. Fight—The last limbic response to a threat is to confront it directly. The body will prepare itself for conflict through aggressive behaviors such as puffing out your chest.
The General Adaptation Syndrome: How Stress Affects Your Body

As Navarro explains, we have specific behaviors linked to our threat responses that can be reliable clues to what we’re thinking. To better understand how we react in such uniform ways, let’s look at a three-stage model of stress called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) that elaborates on Navarro’s insights about freeze, flight, and fight. It also explains how stress continues to affect our bodies beyond the immediate trigger.

1. Alarm Reaction Stage: When you first encounter something stressful, your brain activates one of the threat responses that Navarro discusses (fight, flight, or freeze). When this happens, your body prepares you to run or fight by increasing your heart rate and releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that increase your energy. While Navarro mainly discusses the alarm reaction stage (immediate limbic responses to stress), the next two stages of GAS reveal how longer periods of stress can cause your body to display more subtle cues you can learn to detect.

2. Resistance Stage: In this next stage, you begin to recover from the effects of the initial threat response while your body remains alert. When a stressor is gone, your hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure return to normal. However, during prolonged stress, your body continues producing stress hormones and elevating your heart rate and blood pressure, which can lead to irritability, frustration, and trouble concentrating.

3. Exhaustion Stage: In this final stage, your body loses the physical, mental, and emotional capacity to deal with the stressor, and you experience the harmful effects of chronic stress. These might include health conditions such as depression and anxiety, overall fatigue and burnout, as well as physical illnesses like heart disease or stroke.

Navarro explains that each time you encounter a new threat, your limbic system records your experience to inform how your body responds to future encounters with that same threat. For example, if you were badly scratched by a cat as a kid, your limbic system identifies cats as a threat. Later on, when you encounter cats, your body knows to immediately react with a threat response. Conversely, if you have new, positive experiences with cats, your limbic response to them will change.

Because your limbic response is largely influenced by your experiences, something that might not activate a large majority of people’s threat responses (like cats) may trigger someone else’s. Keeping this in mind allows you to better interpret not only what behaviors someone displays but why they might be displaying them.

(Shortform note: This dynamic nature of the limbic system is important in understanding trauma and how traumatic events can alter your threat responses. In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk writes that trauma is caused by either a single event or an ongoing experience. Although Navarro explains that your limbic system records and remembers threats so that your body can respond appropriately, trauma can cause your brain to misjudge non-threatening things as threats and inappropriately launch into a threat response.)

What Is the Role of Body Language in Communication?

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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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