• Jan Gleisner

How to read body language

Pointing body language - nonverbal communication

Themes in body language

Looking for a quick way into reading body language? Then you'd better start here. This article will describe some of the main themes in body language and give examples of how these themes are shown in a job interview and on a date. As you've may already have guessed this subject goes far beyond an article - that's why there is a blog growing up around it. But for now, let's keep it simple.

I said themes, meaning that there are some major expressions made by body language that are quite easy to spot when you know the non verbal cues. The themes are: Blocking, pointing, touching, proximity and agitation. Get a grip of these and you'll have a good start.


The underlying thesis is that humans instinctively protect their torso and crutch when they feel threatened. A good instinct, one would say, to preserve their own life and the life of humanity. But that instinct kicks in even when not needed. It sets in when a person starts to feel uneasy about something or someone: As the anxiety is building up the person starts to block (protect the torso and crutch): Crossed arms, crossed legs, putting an object (like a bag or a glass) in front of the torso/crutch are some non verbal cues that should be easy to spot. More low key cues could be to start button a jacket, discretely backing or start fideting with a necklace (hence partially covering chest). Sitting by a table the threatened person may build a tiny wall of items available there - you'll see them put pens, eraser, cellphone and paper clips in i neat row across the space between them and the person/persons they feel threatened by. So when you see someone blocking, that person is in defense. Unless there are internal reasons for the blocking like feeling cold or ill.


This is opposite to blocking, which means that a person pointing with the body is in an offensive mode. Not necessarily (but possibly) an attack is going on, but more likely a focused effort. So the body language shows a direction toward the target. The nonverbal cues could therefore be a finger, a hand or a whole arm stretched out. Head, eyes and feet can also point. And while pointing express a focus, the magnitude of the focus may be expressed by how much body is used to point and how much agitation is involved. Pointing is not automatically a negative sign - someone may for example give someone else directions or compliments or express a great desire. To sort out positive from negative pointing one ought to combine this cue with a couple more.


Most of the times touching means that the person is doing something, like working, managing, fixing... Doing stuff. This is not cues in the sense of body language. You need to filter out the occasions when the behavior has no real practical reason. It can be difficult to see the difference. But before we move on to examples; let's look at touching in the sense of body language. A person touches to claim the person or object being touched. Like when leaning against a car, door-post (claiming the building attached to it), sitting in the largest chair or playing keys (that gives access to places). It's about showing a possession, an ownership. And owning things means power. Touching to gain power aims at balancing a feeling of insecurity and is mainly done to level up to or above the person targeted. In other words: Get equal or above the social rank of the other person. A person can also already feel powerful - it's then shown with aditional cues like spreading out the body - claiming more space.

Touching objects is more straightforward while touching persons is more complex. Thou it can mean the same thing it can also mean many other things, so let's keep bodytouching out for now.


The proximity is easy enough to see, the meaning of it a bit trickier to get a hold on. And like for other non verbal cues you have to sort out behavior carried out for practical reasons, like people having to be closer than preferred while riding a crowded bus. On a universal scale a larger distance would mean larger social distance between the opponents. Here the interpretations can here fall into more then one scenarios: Distance can mean dislike but also respect, and both, at the same time. Furthermore distance is not really on a universal scale, but differs a lot between cultures. And cultures differs not only between countries but also between groups within a country. People from crowded areas are often more used to share less space than what are people from rural areas. Therefore the urban people usually keep shorter distance to their opponents than rural people do. From proximity alone you may not be able get a clear message - proximity is best read together with one or several other cues.


This cue does not by itself express much. But it does accentuate the others. How fast people goes into blocking mode and how tight they hold it, how vivid movements are used to point and how strong something or someone is being touched. Simply put: The more agitation, the stronger feeling lies behind the expression. A strong a positive cue could be a hug (open up the front, moving towards the opponent) while a negative cue could be a quick punch in the face (pointing with whole arm in an attack). Down a notch a positive cue could be open, welcoming arms and a negative an arm waving (karate chopping) towards the target of the anger. Even less forceful: A handshake versus a "talk to the hand"-cue.

Many of these cues you see every day and they mainly express weather someone has a positive or negative feeling about something/someone, how strong that feeling is and the social rank between the interaction persons.

Job interview

So, in a job interview, what could it look like? If your are the one being interviewed you will probably be welcomed by some pointing, slightly positive cue like a handshake. During the interview you may keep a notebook and pen in front of you and your legs crossed for practical reasons, but also for protection. If you are the one interviewing you may find yourself grasping for power, if your candidate seems to be more capable than you, leaning heavier on something (like a desk) or playing with your power pen (the one you sign contracts with) or similar.


This is an complex interaction between two people, and the cues described above only grasp the surface. But they do tell the general development. Would you be one the two and make a move you will most certainly get either a positive or negative response back. Like giving a well received compliment is answered with a decreased proximity, more open front (AKA less blocking) and feet pointing more towards you. If you then try a tiny caress and get blocking cues in return like crossed arms, increased proximity and looks away you then know that your are forcing it. If your opponent starts to lean against some object then he/she is trying to get strength, because you give a (maybe too) powerful impression. Now, here starts the more complex part of the interaction. There is a game going on now. And depending on preferences your actions may work or not. Some opponents may need a little push, be challenged, to turn positive. Others will hate you for pushing it. Worth remembering here: Non verbal cues are not rules: Some may be respected and some disrespected.

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#bodylanguage #pointing #hands #feet #proximity #agitation #nonverbalcue #nonverbalcue #interview #date #touching #blocking #defense #possession

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