Body language, also known as kinesics, is one of the great interpretation tools. It's partly instinctive, partly learned. The human face, for example, has more muscles than most of the rest of the body. Facial expression is always a signal to others.
Current theories are that up to 80% of communication among humans is non verbal, based on body language, expressions, and movements.
Body language is interpreted in much the same way, but it even has therapeutic uses.
It was discovered that posture has a lot to do with the emotional state of people, a sort of subconscious reflection of their mental condition. The hunched up posture, for example, meant a defensive, negative, mindset.
A bit of trial and error established that changing the posture was a big help in changing the mental state. It may be that the defensive posture brings with it instinctive mental states, which if not conscious, tend to act as a physical cue for the mindset.
The defensive postures, for example, are covering up, reducing exposed areas, and retreating from proximity. Sort of a cringe, but not quite. If those postures are changed, the mind seems to get out of its previous state naturally.
Body language can indicate a very wide range of mental states:
That's quite a range of expressions. It's not a simple form of interpretation, and it's necessary to consider body language in context with a situation.
You'll notice that some of these body language signs go together. A person can be calm and friendly, or angry and showing distrust.
One of the most interesting things about body language is that some people's body language, when seen without any particular pre conceived notion of how they're feeling, is just plain weird. A person may seem to be exhibiting a set of conflicting body language expressions, hunched up in a defensive mode, but seemingly quite calm otherwise.
This is where body language works as an interpreter. The appearance the person is trying to give is in direct contradiction of their presentation of themselves. They're not feeling calm, they're very tense.
The irony is that people recognize many odd things about others, but often don't know when they're looking odd themselves.
|Upright, standing straight.||Self-confidence||Strong, certain, walking briskly|
|Hunched, cringe position, arms cover body||Defensive||Moves aside or away, may remain in single posture without movements|
|Sitting, leaning forward Standing, at full height||Assertion||Decisive hand movements, chopping cuts in the air|
|Shifting balance, walking back and forth||Impatience||Short, quick movements, meaning 'hurry up'|
|Tense posture, with or without expression, looks tight and ready to spring||Anger||Movements tend to amplify tense posture, literally signs of aggression.|
|Comfortable position, not inclined to move much, tendency to recline||Relaxation||Movements are leisurely, no great effort used|
|Stillness, watchful, seems to be backing away even when sitting in the same place||Withdrawal||Minimal movement||Fixed attention, observing mentally, rather than physically||Thoughtfulness||Set expression, body movements minimal, not looking at objects|
|Distracted, shifting focus, eyes moving around||Indecision||Gestures like questions, very noticeable if in state of real indecision|
|Firm posture in either standing or seated position, focused look||Decision||Authoritative gestures, dismissive of interruptions|
|Alert, ready to move, posture, often doesn't stand still for more than a few seconds||Tension||Movements are rapid, similar to impatience and anger, but not aggressive or threatening|
|Highly defensive, posture, alert and very reactive||Anxiety||Gestures are sometimes wild, as if out of control, or pleading open palm hand movements|
|Stance is invasive of others space, confident||Arrogance||Aggressive, insulting, gestures dismissive of others|
|Seems about to move at any moment, changes into different postures often, looks uncomfortable with sitting still||Restlessness||Irritable, energetic, unfocused movements like walking around the same area for no obvious reason|
|Mainly positive facial expressions, but posture may reflect protective and / or reassuring elements, attentiveness||Friendliness||Generally relaxed movements, considerate of senses of others, peaceful gestures|
|Tense, ready to spring, aggressive or withdrawn, facial expression may be neutral or angry||Hostility||Tense movements, short, cutting hand movements, often staccato|
|Similar to withdrawal, watchful, negative or impassive expression||Distrust||Hand movements may look similar to Halt or Stop|
|A mix of confidence and relaxation, upright, firm stance||Calmness||Similar to relaxation, but may include gestures of authority or peaceful signals|
|Attentive, but curious expression, stance neutral withdrawn or firm||Disbelief||Palm movements, either down, meaning to reduce something, or upward, meaning give something|
This is a whole science, and the interpretations given here are pretty straightforward, dealing with common situations.
It should be noted that not everyone reacts or behaves in identical ways.
Body language interpretation always has a context, and that context may not be clear.
Body language can reflect conflicting emotions, or a progression of emotions.
Some people are extremely impassive, and make a point of being hard to read. This is the Poker Face effect, applied to the whole body. The body language is trying hard to say nothing.
Others are excitable, hyper active, and overstate their movements and exaggerate their posture and other behavior. They can be interpreted as quite irrational, when they're merely being reactive.
Another part of body language is eye contact, which has been creating arguments about interpretation since prehistory. In some ancient cultures, like the Australian Aboriginal cultures, eye contact is considered rude and intrusive. In Western culture, it's considered a direct contact, a sign of honesty or confrontation.
In general eye contact is considered to be the Western version, where a stare or a look is made in context. A stare, in a friendly situation, is a friendly form of body language, but in a hostile situation may be considered an actual challenge.
Facial expression also qualifies eye contact and gives context.
Again facial expressions can be controlled, so interpretation has to be considered, when the person is clearly trying not to be readable.
Another debatable point in body language is proximity, or 'proxemics', which is a measure of reactions to proximity. Some people do not like close proximity of others. Some like it, others are indifferent to it. In many cultures, close proximity is so common that the lack of it causes anxiety.
It can, however, be considered intrusive, an invasion of personal space, by either the person or something caused by their actions, like leaving an article on someone else's immediate space.
Body language is often revealing. If you watch a video of yourself, you may be surprised by your own behavior. To develop their skills, actors often watch their own performances, looking for character traits, as an assessment.
It's sometimes called a 'social language'. Apparently human beings in prehistory had a range of sign languages, which were easily interpreted by other peoples with whom they'd had no previous contact.
Recently, it was discovered that babies are literally born with their own body language. The banging down of a hand, for example, means literally telling someone to be silent.
Perhaps humanity is now learning consciously a language it was born with.