Decoding Nonverbal Language
Whether you’re at the grocery store, local dog park, coffee shop or the latest hip ‘n’ trendy hot spot, it’s frustrating to be rejected when you first approach someone you’d like to know better. Even more frustrating is hitting it off with someone for a few minutes but soon finding that your interaction comes to a lukewarm halt while you thought everything was going so well.
With spoken words making up less than 10% of the information exchanged in a typical conversation, you may be missing out on crucial information being transmitted to you via nonverbal body language. By tuning in to the body language of others – as well as your own – you’ll be in a better position to know whether to keep the conversation going or cut your losses and move on.
Understanding Body Language Cues
Body language can be very subtle, and can sometimes be misinterpreted. It’s important to keep in mind that individual body language cues are not all-or-nothing observations. Even if you notice a few indicators of disinterest, it doesn’t mean you don’t still have a chance. It is the sum of all body language cues that will clue you in to how well you’re hitting it off.
The full impact of understanding body language comes not only when you can recognize the body language of others from the very start of your conversation, but when you can also perceive subtle changes in their nonverbal communication throughout your interaction with them. So if you’re hitting it off but then notice that something changes suddenly for the worst, you can assess what turned them off on the fly by thinking about what and how you’re communicating to them.
Most times people are unaware of their own body language and how it might be coming across. You may be saying a lot to a potential romantic partner without saying a single thing! Even socially anxious people who are more sensitive to others’ reactions may under- or overestimate their own behavior. So make sure you also clue in to your own body language cues that you’re giving off in addition to observing the other person.
Body Language Basics
There are two general categories of body language that can help you assess whether someone shares your same interest level: open and closed.
Open body language usually indicates that a person is interested in you or is receptive to your advances. Generally, a person who is expressing open body language is relaxed in stance, with arms and legs uncrossed, and may use their hands to animate their conversation. Also look for these open body language cues:
- Eye contact is relaxed, but eye-to-eye contact between two interested people is fixed for a longer time. In some cases a person’s pupils may dilate in when gazing intently at a person they have interest in
- Preening gestures, such as someone running fingers through their own hair and tossing the head slightly to the side
- Leaning inward or closer toward a person to gauge response
- Subtle head nods while the other person is talking
- Touching the other person on the arm, hand or shoulder when making a point in conversation
- Blocking, or standing between the object of interest and any other potential suitors in the environment
Closed body language usually indicates that a person is expressing some level of disinterest or apprehension in getting to know you further. Generally, a person who is expressing closed body language may appear somewhat tense or defensive in the shoulders, with one or more arms crossed or situated in the “cobra pose,” in which hands are tucked upward behind the head with the elbows facing outward. Also look for these other common closed body language cues:
- Eye contact. A person may avoid eye contact altogether, as if to hide their true feelings about you. They may look around the room, feigning interest in other people or objects to avoid you. Additionally this avoidance may alternate with short periods of aggressive or intense staring when you look away from them for a moment, as if to say, “Back off.”
- Staying perfectly still. Like looking away, freezing the body can sometimes help a person hide negative feelings toward another in their presence.
- Defensive gestures, such as curling their shoulders inward slightly and pointing the chin downward. Subtle aggression can sometimes be seen with tightly clenched fists as well.
- Leaning away from or physically moving away from the other person, even subtly, can indicate a subconscious desire to get away from the person who is communicating with them.
The Role of Mixed Messages
Sometimes mixed messages come into play during a conversation. During these times someone may seem to like you on the whole, but are giving you cues that they are not 100% comfortable. In mixed-message situations, you may find that a person’s body language belies the tone in their voice. (Hint: If you have a hard time picturing this, try shaking your head side to side as if indicating “no” while vocally saying aloud “yes,” or nodding your head up and down as if saying “yes” while saying “no” aloud. This is a mixed message in its truest sense.) Other times, someone may lean in toward you to get physically closer but make little eye contact with you, save for brief period of intense eye-to-eye contact.
Here are three basic explanations for mixed messages:
- Disinterested. The person is not interested in you, or is deceiving you by pretending to like you enough to keep a civil face.
- Nervous. The person may be interested in you, perhaps even a great deal, but they’re really nervous, and are not sure how you feel about them. Really anxious or shy people can come across as aloof and disinterested when they’re anything but that once they feel comfortable with you.
- External conditions. There are external conditions you may not be aware of, such as someone else they’re interested in is across the room flirting with someone else, or perhaps they’re feeling a bit under the weather. Sometimes someone who is cold might have their arms crossed but is perceived as being defensive.
Putting it all together
All in all, the combination of both spoken and unspoken communication will best tell you how well you’re hitting it off with someone you’re interested in. But armed with the basics of body language, you’ll be well on your way to putting it into practice, and once in play, you’ll be several steps closer to knowing that you’re really hitting it off with someone who is eager to get to know you better, too.