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Body Language

4 Body Language Superpowers

Eyebrow flashes, compliant touch, and baton gestures.

Key points

  • Our faces are designed to convey feelings and emotions to others. Many emotions are easily identified through facial expressions.
  • Through using eye contact, people communicate subtle messages about relationships and sexual interest.
  • Touching others, as well as gestures and body movements are a powerful means of nonverbal communication.
  • Expressive gestures and body movements are the keys to capturing others' attention.

Here are four channels of nonverbal communication/body language that have important effects on ourselves and others.

1. Facial Expressions: The Most Powerful Form of Nonverbal Communication

The evolutionary history of human beings led to the development of a mighty form of communication—our faces. The 42 different facial muscles allow us to configure our faces in numerous ways to display a wide variety of emotions and feelings, ranging from the obvious to the more subtle.

A great deal of research has focused on the facial expressions of our core emotions: happiness, anger, surprise, fear, sadness, and disgust. The facial expressions associated with these are clear—the smile of happiness, the narrowed eyes and baring of teeth associated with anger, wide-eyed cues of fear and surprise, the downward cues of sadness, and the face of disgust (looking like the person is about to vomit—which suggests its evolutionary history).

But our remarkable faces allow us to send more subtle cues—the shy smile, the look of love, cues of dominance and submission.

Research has clearly shown that there are individual differences in peoples’ abilities to both clearly convey emotions to others (think of skilled actors), or to “read” the subtle emotional expressions of others. Moreover, the ability to both send and receive facial expressions of emotions can be learned.

2. It’s in the Eyes

The eyes are a remarkable channel for expressing a variety of messages. For example, one can signal recognition of others through what is called the “eyebrow flash”—a brief raising of the eyebrows, which is seen across many cultures. When we are attracted to someone, not only do we look at them more, but our pupils can dilate, a secret cue of love or infatuation.

Mutual gaze—looking deeply into another’s eyes—is not only a cue associated with love, holding another’s gaze for a bit longer than normal can signal sexual interest.

3. The Secret Powers of Touch

There is good evidence that a positive and subtle touch can have an amazing impact on others’ behavior. For example, in studies of compliance—trying to get another person to do something– a slight touch can increase rates of giving money, signing a petition, and the like. Also, research in restaurants has shown that if a server lightly touches the customer, it can increase the percentage of the customer’s tip.

We shake hands, pat someone on the back, and gently touch their arm–all designed to make a connection. These forms of touch are often used in greetings. But touch, particularly if done subtly, can also be quite seductive. A gentle brushing of hands or touching of knees, when seated together, can be a flirtation cue. Of course, as with all nonverbal behavior, it has to be done carefully. Being overly “touchy” is an obvious turnoff.

By observing the type of touch between a romantic couple, astute observers can often tell a lot about the strength of the relationship between the two. Couples can use “tie-signs,” such as holding hands, or arms around the shoulders, to both signal liking each other, and for telling others that “we are a couple.”

4. The Powerful Effect of Expressive Body Movements

Imagine a captivating speaker, the graceful movements of a dancer, or a person in a crowd who commands attention. These all point to the power of expressive nonverbal cues from our hands, arms, and bodies. In our research on deception and physical attraction, we discovered a clustering of nonverbal cues that lead to someone appearing trustworthy and honest or friendly and likable. These included: subtle head movements while speaking, free and rapid speech without too many speech errors, and outward-focused gestures that punctuated the spoken words. Most important was enacting positive facial expressions (smiling, wide-opened eyes), which suggested both honesty and that the person was trying to connect with others.

Several hand gestures can affect us. For example, our research found that speakers who used fluid, outward-focused gestures (directed toward the audience) were evaluated more positively. It also helped if gestures were fluid and seemed “natural” rather than forced. Pointing an accusing finger at the audience to “punctuate” speech is not evaluated as positively as the “baton gesture,” which is a closed fist with the thumb directed toward the audience (you may have seen politicians use the baton gesture during speeches).

Facebook image: Kzenon/Shutterstock


Ekman, P. (1999). Facial expressions. Handbook of cognition and emotion, 16(301), e320.

Riggio, R. E., & Friedman, H. S. (1986). Impression formation: The role of expressive behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 50(2), 421.

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