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 understanding body language important? What are the main categories of body language?
In a world where words are only part of the story, understanding the language of the body is crucial. Communication experts Allan and Barbara Pease unveil the secrets of nonverbal cues in their groundbreaking book, The Definitive Book of Body Language.
Read on to discover the five main categories of body language, according to Allan and Barbara Pease.
Understanding Body Language: The Five Categories
To get a better understanding of body language, it’s important to learn about the main categories of body language cues. According to communication experts and best-selling authors Allan and Barbara Pease, each displays a person’s level of friendliness, confidence, dominance, interest and agreement, and honesty.
(Shortform note: The authors organize body language cues according to specific body parts in The Definitive Book of Body Language. We’ve chosen to organize them into these five categories to demonstrate how they relate to specific emotions or intentions.)
Let’s explore each of these categories in detail to gain a better understanding of body language.
Category #1: Friendliness
Understanding the body language cues that express friendliness can be helpful in new social situations. You can use this information to make yourself appear more approachable, or you can use it to gauge whether other people are open to conversing with you before approaching them.
According to Allan and Barbara Pease, people who are friendly and approachable tend to hold a relaxed and open posture (for instance, standing tall with their arms held loosely by their sides), raise their eyebrows to signal that they’re happy to engage in conversation, make eye contact, and smile. On the other hand, people who don’t want to be approached tend to hold a stiff or guarded posture (for example slouching with their arms folded), avoid eye contact, and frown.
(Shortform note: Leil Lowndes (How to Talk to Anyone) adds insight into how appearing approachable makes it easier to navigate social situations. She says the need to be liked governs all social interactions and people gravitate toward those who appear to like them. This is because everyone wants to feel adored, appreciated, and good about themselves. She explains that holding a guarded posture makes people unsure about whether you like them, and this makes them feel self-conscious around you. On the other hand, holding a relaxed posture assures them that you do like them, and this encourages them to feel at ease around you and enjoy your company—because you make it easy for them to feel good about themselves.)
Category #2: Confidence
Understanding the body language cues that express confidence can serve a variety of purposes. For instance, you can use this information during professional situations to appear more self-assured and competent. During social interactions, you can use it to figure out how comfortable and at ease others feel around you.
According to Allan and Barbara Pease, confident people tend to stand or sit up straight with their feet apart and their heads held high and make regular eye contact. On the other hand, unconfident people tend to slouch, guard themselves (for example, by folding their arms, crossing their legs, or holding something in front of their bodies), fidget (they might bite their nails, tap their feet, or play with jewelry), and avoid eye contact.
Category #3: Dominance
Understanding the body language cues that express dominance can be helpful in various contexts. For instance, you can use this information to make yourself appear more authoritative when giving a speech or to navigate the power dynamics in social and professional groups.
Allan and Barbara Pease suggest that dominant people tend to hold an expansive posture (for example, standing with their legs spread and hands on hips, or sitting upright with elbows pointed out), lower their eyebrows, maintain eye contact on the area between the other person’s eyes, place their palms on top and face down when shaking hands, and keep their palms face down while they talk.
On the other hand, submissive people tend to hold a reserved posture (for example, sitting with their shoulders hunched, their head tilted, and their elbows tucked inside the chair), raise their eyebrows, break eye contact first, keep their palms beneath and face up when shaking hands, and keep their palms face up when they talk.
Category #4: Interest and Agreement
Understanding the body language cues that express interest and agreement can help you navigate various situations. For instance, you can use this information to express enthusiasm and build rapport when on a date, gauge the level of curiosity potential customers have about what you’re selling, or assess whether your manager supports your ideas and proposals.
According to Allan and Barbara Pease, when people are interested in and agree with what’s being said, they plant both feet firmly on the ground while pointing them toward the person talking, maintain eye contact for more than two-thirds of the time, slowly nod their heads, and mirror the gestures of the person speaking.
On the other hand, when people aren’t interested or don’t agree with what’s being said, they point their feet away from the person speaking and either shift their weight from foot to foot or stand on the balls of their feet as if ready to move, lower their eyebrows and look everywhere but at the person talking, conceal their hands in their pockets or use them to support their heads, and nod their heads quickly or shake their heads from side-to-side. They may also fidget a lot—for example, putting something in their mouths, picking imaginary lint off their clothes, or scratching their necks.
(Shortform note: Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) expands on this subject by suggesting that, to receive interest and agreement from others, you must first demonstrate it. Demonstrating that you value their perspectives makes people feel understood and appreciated, which makes them more receptive to your ideas. Carnegie’s strategies for expressing interest and agreement with someone include appealing to their self-interest, actively listening to what they say, and asking open-ended questions. Additionally, he emphasizes the importance of being authentic in these interactions as people often sense when someone is insincere. This can undermine the trust and respect necessary for building positive relationships.)
Category #5: Honesty
Understanding the body language cues that express honesty can help you build strong relationships and protect you from being taken advantage of. For instance, you can use this information to build trust with others or to assess whether others are lying to you about their intentions or actions.
According to Allan and Barbara Pease, when people are honest about their intentions, they tend to display the signs of friendliness and confidence that we’ve already discussed. For instance, they hold a relaxed posture, keep their palms face up while talking, and maintain eye contact. On the other hand, when people are dishonest about their intentions, they tend to make gestures that cover their mouths, eyes, or ears; blink their eyes faster than normal; and avoid eye contact.
Exercise: Practice Understanding Body Language
Allan and Barbara Pease suggest that understanding body language helps you interpret how people feel when interacting with you. Let’s explore how you might interpret nonverbal cues in different scenarios.
- During a job interview, your interviewer leans toward you, slowly nods her head, and maintains eye contact throughout the conversation. Write down at least one emotion her body language might convey.
- At a party, the person you’re talking to bites his nails and taps his foot. Based on his body language, write down at least one emotion he might be feeling.
- During a team meeting, one colleague crosses their arms, frowns, and avoids eye contact with you. Write down at least one emotion their body language might imply.
- At a bus stop, the person you’re interacting with huddles in their coat and hops from foot to foot. Write down at least one way to interpret how they feel.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Definitive Book of Body Language summary:
- The role body language plays in shaping your daily interactions
- Why other people respond to body language the way they do
- How to adapt your body language to garner positive responses from others