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Body Talk: Speak louder, I can’t read your body language

Posted by Deb Muoio

Jun 12, 2014 5:43:00 PM


How do moms always know when their kids are hiding something? How are they able to immediately pick up on the fact that you’re preoccupied with a problem? It might just come down to their secret “mom instincts,” but research has also shown that women are more perceptive to body language than men (Pease & Pease, 2004;, 2010). It’s a perfect loophole for men when their girlfriends or wives complain, “I know I said I’m fine, but my facial expression and crossed arms clearly indicate that I’m not!

“Sorry honey,” they can respond. “It’s a glitch in men’s genetic makeup. This is how we were made.”

Pease and Pease (2004) summed up body language best: It’s “an outward reflection of a person’s emotional condition.” So in order to understand body language, one needs to be able to “spot the contradictions between someone’s words and their body language.” Thankfully, the Peases offered 3 helpful rules in The Definitive Book of Body Language.


Rule 1: Read gestures in clusters

Just like a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, sometimes an individual gesture is just a gesture. I cross my arms because I find it comfortable. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m feeling hostile or self-conscious. But if my arms are crossed, my jaw is clenched, my posture is stiff, and my voice is curt, there’s a good chance that I’m not in a good mood. Gestures come in a group, and need to be viewed the same way as a group of words in a sentence.

Rule 2: Look for congruence

Listen closely to what a person says, and then compare it to what their body is saying. Their words may say one thing, but their gestures may tell a different story. Here’s an example Pease & Pease offer:

Sigmund Freud once reported that while a patient was verbally expressing happiness with her marriage, she was unconsciously slipping her wedding ring on and off her finger. Freud was aware of the significance of this unconscious gesture and was not surprised when marriage problems began to surface. (p. 23).

Body language is really hard to fake. Our words may not betray us but our bodies often will. You’ve probably run into this situation a few times: Your friend has to do something really nerve-wracking (job interview, marriage proposal, ask his boss for a raise, testify in court, etc.). You ask him if he’s nervous, and he confidently replies that he’s totally fine. His body language belies his confident words, however. His eyes are darting; he’s fidgety; he keeps looking at the door (perhaps his survival mode is kicking in and he’s taking note of all the potential escape routes). Clearly, there is a lack of congruence between what he’s trying to communicate, and what his body is saying.

Rule 3: Read gestures in context

Body language, much like words, can be taken out of context. Remember this infamous shot of President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt taking a selfie during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service? The First Lady sports pursed lips, a slightly clenched jaw, with stiff posture and fingers; her body is turned away as if she didn’t want to be associated with the playful trio. When this picture went viral, her body language was mass interpreted as disapproval of goofing around during such a solemn occasion. However, sources say that she was smiling and doing selfies herself a few moments before. What this teaches us is that while it’s important to view body language as a cluster of gestures, it’s also essential to “read” it in the context.

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1)     Napp Nazworth. (October 15, 2012). 'Out of Context' Quotes in the 2012 Election. In The Christian Post. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

2)     Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2004). The Definitive Book of Body Language. Australia: Pease International. Retrieved from

3) (2010). Open Mouth, Insert Foot – Queendom Research Underlines The personality and Professional Risks of Poor Social Skills [Press release]. Retrieved February 20, 2014 from 

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Topics: Employee Attitude, Interviewing, Social Skills, Mentoring, Personal Development, Emotional Intelligence, Coaching

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