Body Language: Wink, Wink, Nod, Nod

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Body Language: Wink, Wink, Nod, Nod

Words are so futile, so feeble. (Charlie Chaplin, Academy Awards speech, 1972)

Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much. (Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, 1977)

Body language may be coded in verbal language. Consider the following examples taken from the different areas of non-verbal communication:

Body state expression: Emotions are often expressed in terms of body language. We ’shoulder a burden’, ’face up to issues’, try to ’keep our chin up’, ’grit our teeth’, in the face of pain we have a ’stiff upper lip’, ’bare our teeth’, on occasion ’catch the eye’ of another, and ’shrug off’ misfortune.

Eye contact: ’I see what you mean.’ ’Seeing is believing.’ ’I can’t see any other solution.’ ’He has an eye for colour.’

Gesture: ’He gave me the cold shoulder.’

Posture: We like to be ’well balanced’, ’take a firm stand’, ’know where you stand on this’. When uncomfortable people shift their weight from one foot to the other they can be seen to be ’shifty characters’.

Odour: ’I like the sweet smell of success.’ ’He has a nose for where the money is.’ ’Yet she still came up smelling of roses.’ ’He is always sticking his nose in other people’s business.’ ’She always sticks her nose in the air.’ ’I will ensure that I rub his nose in it.’

Orientation: ’I dislike people who are always taking sides.’ ’I feel diametrically opposed to everything he does.’

Territory/distance: ’I feel close to him.’ ’She is very stand-offish.’ ’Back off from me, buster!’ ’I prefer to keep her at arm’s length.’

Touch: ’I felt touched by his concern.’ ’Her plight touched me.’

Verbal and non-verbal communication are pretty intertwined.

There are a few extremely important points to bear in mind with respect to body language. First, it is not random but follows certain rules. In short, it is law-like behaviour. Take eye contact — or mutual gaze — for example. This is in part determined by physical distance (stand too close in lifts and mutual eye gaze drops); topic of conversation (shame and embarrassment are signalled by reduced eye contact); interpersonal relationships (we look more at those we like); co-operative tasks (we look more at co-operators than competitors); and personality (extroverts look more than introverts).


Despite the excellent and careful research in the area, much nonsense is still written about the topic, often by journalists and other self-appointed ’experts’ whose aim is to entertain (and sell) rather than to enlighten and educate.

Misleading and sometimes completely incorrect statements about body language communication seem to fall into various areas:

Symbolism: All Body Communication is Symbolic Expression

People with a fondness for psychoanalytic (Freudian) ideas love to interpret explicit behaviours as manifestations of (often unconscious) desires and behaviours. The temptation of too many body language experts is that they favour an ’unconscious’, Freudian, psychological interpretation over a more obvious explanation. It is too easy to over-interpret incorrectly. For instance, look at the table below and consider two types of explanation for the same behaviour (one innocent, the other not).

Body Language: alternative interpretations


Psychological Explanation

Alternative Explanation

Hands in pockets

The person is secretive, withdrawn, possibly depressed.

It is cold. The person is searching for a small object.

Folded arms

Defensive act for physical reassurance.Indicator of uncertainty and lack of confidence.

It is cold; the arm rests are occupied; it is comfortable.

Crossed legs

Defensive, repressed, even feeling hostile.

Women are taught to cross legs to look more feminine; men do so because it is comfortable.

Nose touching

The person is lying or covering up his or her emotions.

He or she has a cold or itchy nose.

Some non-verbal cues are symbolic of unconscious desires, hopes and urges but many, probably most, are not.

Power (Bodily communication is always more powerful)

It is not uncommon to read statements like: ’Seventy per cent of the communicative power of a message is sent non-verbally’ or ’It is not what you say but it is the way that you say it.’ Body communication pundits have a natural inclination to ’talk up’ their area of expertise, to over-emphasize its importance. Non-verbal communication can, indeed, at times be extremely powerful — sheer rage or terror are often much more efficiently communicated through facial and body expression than through words. Pain or love can also be signalled by changes in facial expressions and by children who articulate their feelings through a limited vocabulary. Ability to communicate a message non-verbally is the whole point of the parlour game charades.

The power of bodily communication lies primarily in the fact that it often tells one about the physiological state of the individual because of changes in the central nervous system. Certainly, extreme emotions like anger ’leak out’ however carefully a person tries to hide them. Sexual excitement is difficult to hide, as often is guilt. These physiological states are nearly always an expression of emotional extremes not that common in everyday life.

Body language can shout and it can be subtle. But those who claim it is so powerful should try to send to a stranger the following, relatively simple messages non-verbally: ’Thank you very much’; ’I totally disagree’; ’I feel very happy for you.’

Controllability (We can control all the messages we send)

Some non-verbal behaviour, such as gestures and touch, are naturally controllable; while others, such as sweating and pupil dilation, are not. Often people want to cover up evidence of their anxiety or specific motives (sexual pleasure) but are unable to do so. Most people in conversation are not particularly aware of others, or of their own legs and feet, which if they wanted they could control. They are not aware of small changes in posture and micro-facial expressions as certain things are said.

You can read people like a book (Decoding non-verbal language is easy)

The curious claim of many popular books is that it is possible simultaneously to read techniques of others but hide your own — to disguise one’s secret intentions, while putting on a believable, poker face.

True experts in the area of non-verbal communication are surprisingly diffident on this point. Experts on lying point out how tricky it is to detect lying in skilful dissimulators. They all highlight how much information one needs to confirm a hypothesis that ’he is lying’, ’she is an extrovert’ or ’they are not competent in this area’.


Collett, P. (2003). The Book of Tells. London: Doubleday.

Furnham, A., & Petrova, E. (2011). Body Language in Business. London: Palgrave.