People lie with their words. 9 simple facial gestures that give them away. * (Bonus: quick micro-expression test)

What does it mean when someone has crossed arms?

Most people would say that they are closed or uninterested or maybe disappointed in the topic and/or the person speaking.

The real answer is, “It depends”.  According to Patryk Wezowski of the Center for Body Language, there are five principles you can apply when looking to understand someone’s body language to increase your understanding of unspoken intent. They are as follows:

Principle 1
Context influences body language interpretation.  Maybe the person is cold or some other piece of context that would cause her to cross her arms.  Be sure to look beyond the person to his/her environment to help give clues for disposition.

Principle 2
Calibrate what is normal for that person. Observe this person over a period of time and in different situations to see if her normal position of sitting or standing, etc. is to have her arms folded for example.  In my case, I find it comfortable to cross my arms when sitting.

Principle 3
Comfortable positions reflect what’s going on inside. Observe how someone positions himself to get a sense of how comfortable or uncomfortable he is in a given situation.  Leaning back with arms behind head can give off a sense of relaxation and ease.

Principle 4
Change is what you look for.  Observe the person in different situations to confirm your original assumption.  For instance, if you see a young couple posing for a picture in a cozy way.  He may look like he is affectionate toward her but you are not sure.  See how they interact in a different situation to confirm your original assumption or discard it as the new information dictates.

Principle 5
Combinations confirm assumptions.  If Joe is pointing a finger at Steve, this can be interpreted as an aggressive position. However, if, later on, you see Joe and Steve together and they are laughing, joking and interacting in a friendly way, the pointed finger situation may have been one of playfulness. However, if you see Joe with hands on hips and/or arms crossed with a slight scowl then the pointed finger incident may have been aggressive after all.

Bottom line is that there are five areas to run through in your mind if you want to be as accurate as possible when judging someone’s demeanor through body language.

  1. Context
  2. Calibrate
  3. Comfort Level
  4. Change
  5. Combinations

Be sure to apply these when you are looking to understand how the person “across the table” is feeling.  It is powerful stuff in a business setting as the body and face can betray someone’s words and show their true feelings but be careful not to judge without applying the five principles.  Your haste may blow up a big deal or relationship that is close to consummating.

Nine body language examples to look for

  1. Finger in ear – They do not want to hear what is being said. Inner ear tickles so they have to scratch it
  2. Pulling ear – The listener wants to speak.
  3. Hand rubbing neck – Frustrated and/or uncomfortable. Could be they forgot something as well as not happy with what they are hearing.  They may also not understand what they are hearing.
  4. Pulling collar – They feel hot on inside because they may be lying or not really sure about what they are saying.  Frustrated – maybe in a job interview or uncomfortable in general.
  5. Finger in mouth – Somebody needs comfort.  Could be anything put in the mouth like a cigarette or pen.
  6. Touch nose – If someone touches the area under the nose, they are usually lying.
  7. Hand in front of mouth – Could be lying. Literally are trying to block what is coming out.
  8. Touching under the eye – The other person may be getting angry. Blood rushes to the face when one is angry which causes the face to itch slightly.
  9. Rubbing the eye – The literally do not want to see the reality. Could also be lying.

For fun, here is a test from the site where I learned the above lessons (and others) to see how good you are at reading facial expressions.  Giver it a try! (I got 20% on my first round!)

micro expressions test

In conclusion, our body language is driven by a 400 million year old part of the brain that has developed to keep us safe.  It is now an automatic process that we cannot fully control, at least not immediately.  Being more aware of these signs can help you have a better understanding of the relationships (business and personal) and interactions in which you participate.

Have fun!

*Thanks to Mark Bowden and Patryk Wezowski for their work and content in this area that contributed to this post.

Be Exceptional!

I look forward to your comments. If you found this post useful, please share with others.

Published by Bill Flynn

Gazelles Member Advisor and early stage startup specialist with a proven track record with 16 Boston-based startups (9 to date with 5 successful outcomes, advisor to 7 others); SMB to Fortune 500 companies. 20+ years of Senior Sales, Marketing and GM experience in industries including mobile advertising, security, digital advertising, e-commerce and IT. Core Competencies: Player/Coach, Metrics-driven, Execution-based philosophy, Life-long learner

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