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Body Language

Are You a Body Language Expert or Nonverbally Clueless?

How much do you really know about body language?

Key points

  • People vary in their ability to communicate via body language, yet it is possible to improve.
  • There is no body language “dictionary.” Cultural differences and situational circumstances affect the interpretation of any particular cue.
  • Becoming a body language expert takes dedication and time, but it can be done with learning and practice.

Are some people better at nonverbal communication than others? I have spent the last 45 years studying this very topic: individual differences in people’s abilities to communicate through nonverbal communication. And I can tell you the answer is “yes,” although there are very few people who are truly experts. Here are some of the facts about skills in body language and what research tells us.

There Is No Body Language Dictionary.

Although there are consistencies in some forms of nonverbal communication—such as certain gestures, like the thumb and forefinger that signal “OK” or the two-finger “V” for victory—nonverbal cues do not have universal meanings. For example, our “OK” gesture is an obscenity in some other cultures, and hippies in the 1960s appropriated the victory “V” to use as the peace-sign gesture.

One can, however, through observation and study, become more knowledgeable about body language channels and the use of certain nonverbal cues to convey meaning. There are some very good books on nonverbal communication. Some are listed in the references.

Get Motivated.

Just like any sort of learning, to become an expert at body language, you have to be motivated and committed. Believe me, it’s hard work. When I was a graduate student, I was definitely nonverbally clueless. But after hundreds of hours watching videos of people expressing emotions with their faces or interacting with others, I became much more adept. In fact, I used to entertain my fellow graduate students at our favorite happy hour spots because, with my newfound nonverbal skill, I could predict who would be hitting on whom at the bar by merely observing their body language.

Practice, Practice, Practice.

As I suggested, it takes quite a bit of work to become a body language expert. That means you need to practice reading others’ nonverbal cues (try watching TV shows with the sound off and seeing if you can figure out what’s happening) and working on your ability to express yourself nonverbally (acting classes, improv, and speaking groups, such as Toastmasters, are good opportunities to practice).

Get Feedback.

A critical part of learning to master nonverbal communication is getting some feedback about your “hits and misses"—in other words, finding out if you are interpreting others’ body language correctly and learning if your attempts to communicate nonverbally are hitting their mark.

So, can nonverbal communication skills (most nonverbal researchers don’t like the term “body language” because it mislabels and makes folks think it is an actual translatable language) indeed be measured, trained, and improved? Can we turn a somewhat-clueless wallflower into a charismatic dynamo? Probably not. But with time, dedication, and proper training, nonverbal skills can be improved.


Morris, D. (1977). Manwatching. A field guide to human behaviour.

Riggio, R. E. (1992). Social interaction skills and nonverbal behavior. Applications of nonverbal behavioral theories and research, 3-30.

Rosenthal, R. (1979). Skill in nonverbal communication: Individual differences. Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain.

Sternberg, R. J., & Kostić, A. (Eds.). (2020). Social intelligence and nonverbal communication. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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