A person’s demeanor is just as revealing – if not more telling – of the way a person feels as the words they speak. Nonverbal cues include facial expressions, body postures and physical actions, which account for about 90 percent of a person’s communication, according to experts. So, if you want to understand what a person is really feeling, pay close attention to his body language.
Facial expressions are universal, meaning that they look the same and have the same meaning in all people throughout the world. Therefore, when you make a judgment about a person’s emotions based on a facial expression, you will probably be pretty accurate. Researchers have identified seven major universal facial expressions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise, according to the American Psychological Association. For example, when you see a person with a big smile and relaxed eyes, you can determine that he or she is happy. Conversely, when a person’s expression includes narrowed eyes, down-turned brows and perhaps a pursing of the lips, you may recognize that he or she feels angry.
Individuals’ physical posture often will provide clues about their thoughts and emotions. Body language is automatic – the brain sends cues to the body parts, instructing them to react in a way that is appropriate for physical and psychological safety or to reflect comfort or discomfort. For example, a person cowering in a corner is likely feeling fearful, and a friend who extends his arms to greet you is feeling happy to see you. Other times, body posture will reveal the view a person has of herself or her feelings about the current environment. For example, a person sitting with outstretched, relaxed legs is feeling comfortable and content, whereas a person with tightly crossed legs may be feeling insecure or anxious.
Emotions lead people to take action. When you see a person engaged in certain behaviors, you may be able to understand which emotion the person is feeling. For example, fear prompts people to take avoidance action, to get away or protect the self from the object of fear. A person using avoidance behaviors may be running, hiding or shielding himself from the perceived threat. Other emotions trigger different reactions. A person who feels content may be inactive, a person who feels angry may use threatening actions, and a person who feels disgust may use rejecting actions, like pushing an object away.
A person’s eyes will gaze, shift, peer, blink and adjust in other ways, depending on a person’s state of emotion. Someone who feels comfortable with an activity or a conversation will direct his gaze toward the object or person. Conversely, a person who repeatedly darts his eyes away from the subject is likely feeling uncomfortable, shy or distracted, or he may be trying to hide his true feelings. You may also understand a person’s emotions by watching the frequency with which he blinks his eyelids. Although blinking occurs naturally, excessive blinking may indicate the person is anxious, uncomfortable or excited. Too little blinking may indicate that the person is consciously trying to control his eye movements, in an attempt to mask discomfort. Lastly, the size of a person’s pupils may also give you a sense of a person’s feelings. Small pupils may indicate that the person is angry or dislikes someone’s comment or behavior. A person with larger pupils is likely feeling comfortable and interested.
- American Psychological Association: Reading Facial Expressions of Emotion
- Psychology Today: Body Language Basics
- Web MD: Body Language Basics
- Psychology Today: The Ultimate Guide to Body Language
- Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research; A Formal Model of Emotion-based Action Tendency for Intelligent Agents; Bas R. Steunebrink et al.
- Capital EAP: Behavioral Issues: Body Language: What We’re Really Saying
- Photo Credit John Lund/Blend Images/Getty Images
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