A Quick Guide to Understanding and Improving Body Language

Woman in an office talking to her co-workers.
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Body language and nonverbal communication make up a large part of what we understand about others, our first impressions, and the messages that we convey to those around us. Body language can be particularly important if you have social anxiety.

If you live with social anxiety disorder (SAD), you might be unknowingly projecting a number of different nonverbal cues of anxiety. Learning different cues can help you practice becoming more confident and approachable.

It can also help to reduce behaviors that can turn other people off (even if you don't realize you are doing them!). Though you might feel awkward at first, over time it will feel natural to behave in more open and confident ways.

If you are looking to improve your ability to read the body language of others, the following tips can help.

Appear More Approachable

If you live with social anxiety you probably exhibit a lot of "closed" behaviors that make others think you don't want to be approached. Things like crossing your arms, looking down, or standing at a distance all say "Leave me alone."

If you want to change things up and start creating a more inviting aura, stary by practicing some more approachable body language. Some strategies that can help include:

  • Avoiding fidgeting or other nervous habits
  • Keeping your head up
  • Making eye contact
  • Nodding as you listen to others speak
  • Smiling

Watch for Mistakes

If you have SAD, it is important to watch for body language signals that might communicate things you might not intend. In general, these are closed behaviors that make you appear unapproachable, aloof, disinterested, or uncomfortable.

Although these behaviors might feel natural due to your anxiety, the message that they send to others is that you are not an easy person to get to know. If you want to change your social success, start by looking to see if you are making these body language mistakes.

A few body language behaviors that can send negative signals include:

  • Awkward or fake smiles
  • Crossing your arms
  • Fidgeting
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Looking down
  • Moving away from people
  • Slouching

Appear More Confident

People with social anxiety tend to judge themselves harshly. Because they evaluate themselves negatively, they also tend to believe that other people see them in the same unflattering light. This can often lead to poor self-confidence and low self-esteem.

Some actions that can help you have greater confidence or appear more confident include:

  • Having a firm handshake
  • Standing tall
  • Walking with broad strides

Using body language that conveys greater confidence can even help make you feel more confident.

One way to begin building better confidence is to carry yourself in a confident manner, even before you feel that way on the inside.

Notice Facial Expressions

Beyond the language of the body, the language of the face tells a lot about what a person is feeling. We know that there are seven universal emotions that are experienced by everyone.

People with social anxiety disorder often have trouble with things like eye contact, which can make it more difficult to notice the facial signals that other people send.

Some facial movements that can convey emotion include:

  • Covering the mouth with the hands
  • Lowered eyebrows
  • Pursed lips
  • Raised eyebrows

If you are interested in becoming better at reading facial expressions, first learn these basic emotions and then look to see indicators of each during a conversation.

Recognize Deception

Anxiety can sometimes make it so you don't notice the body language signals that other people are sending. Common behaviors such as not making eye contact or looking down can mean you might miss some of the common signs of deception.

If you've ever suspected that someone might not be being honest with you, it can be helpful to look at both their spoken words and their body language. Some signs that someone might not be truthful include:

  • Engaging in grooming behaviors such as playing with their hair
  • Holding their body stiffly
  • Not making eye contact

Of course, none of these actions alone means that a person is necessarily lying. When you are interpreting body language, it is often helpful to look for signals as a whole.

There are many reasons why a person's body language might not match the spoken word; one of these is that the person is telling a lie.

Understand Nonverbal Communication

Are you looking for a quick guide about how to decode the body language signals that others are giving you? It really boils down to two dimensions: comfort and discomfort.

Look to see which of these manners your conversation partner is exhibiting and think about what that means for what is being said. If there is a disconnect between words and body language, usually body language may sometimes be a more reliable indicator.

Some things that you can do to help improve your understanding of nonverbal language include:

  • Asking questions about what people mean
  • Looking for nonverbal signals that don't match up to spoken words
  • Noticing tone of voice
  • Pay attention to the context and situation
  • Utilizing body language to emphasize your words

While body language can be revealing, it is also important to remember that body language signals can be misread. Focus on looking at a person's signals as a whole, both their words and their body language, to better understand what they are trying to convey.

A Word From Verywell

Learning how to improve your body language skills doesn't have to be difficult. With plenty of practice, many of these skills will become easier for you.

As with anything, exposure to what you fear will reduce your anxiety. Once your anxiety is lowered, it will become easier to read other's body language and make sure that your own nonverbal behavior is aligned with the message that you truly want to send.

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Article Sources
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  1. Willis ML, Dodd HF, Palermo R. The relationship between anxiety and the social judgments of approachability and trustworthinessPloS One. 2013;8(10):e76825.

  2. American Psychological Association. Reading facial expressions of emotion.

  3. Brinke LT, Stimson DS, Carney DR. Some evidence for unconscious lie detectionPsychological Science. 2015; 25(5):1098-1105.