What is body language? Signs and meanings explained - and positive and negative examples

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Being aware of what different non verbal signals mean can help us improve our social interactions, according to experts

Body language is something we all use, consciously or unconsciously, to express ourselves and let others know how we are feeling. This form of non-verbal communication is also something we often try to read from other people to determine what they are trying to say to us, without saying a word.

The body never lies, as the American dancer Martha Graham put it.

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With that in mind, it’s important that we all understand both positive and negative body language, as it can improve our social interactions and connections with others, both personally and professionally. Positive body language can help to build rapport and make others feel comfortable around us, which in turn helps to create a bond. Negative body language, on the other hand, can convey discomfort, disinterest, or even aggression, but this can help to signal when a change needs to be made in a situation.

So, to help us all learn which signs we should be looking out for - and also which are good and which are bad - we asked two experts for their best advice.

What are examples of positive body language?

Positive facial expressions and actions convey happiness, interest, or approval, according to award-winning neuro-linguistic programming trainer Andy Coley. Some common positive examples of body language, as highlighted by Coley and body language guru Carole Railton, include:

  • Smiling: A genuine smile is one of the most universal signs of happiness and positivity, says Coley. It can help to put others at ease and can convey warmth and friendliness.
  • Maintaining eye contact: Keeping eye contact with a person shows interest and engagement in the conversation, says Coley.
  • Nodding: This signifies agreement, understanding or support for what someone is saying. It can also indicate that we are paying attention and actively listening, says Coley.
  • Open posture: An open posture, such as uncrossed arms and legs, conveys a friendly and approachable demeanour, says Coley. Maintaining good posture can also make us appear more confident.
  • Raised eyebrows: This can convey surprise, interest, or excitement, says Coley. It can also show that we are paying close attention to what someone is saying.
  • Wide open eyes: This expression can indicate surprise, interest, or excitement. It can also show that we are paying close attention to what someone is saying, says Coley.
  • Keeping both feet on the ground: Standing on both feet quite literally shows you are grounded and can calm you down, says Railton. Someone is more likely to be believed if they have both feet on the ground and it makes them appear more confident too. 
  • Flipping of the hair or playing with the hair: This can be a strong signal that a person is powerful, sassy or confident, says Railton.
Award-winning neuro-linguistic programming trainer Andy Coley. Photo by Amanda Clarke Photography.Award-winning neuro-linguistic programming trainer Andy Coley. Photo by Amanda Clarke Photography.
Award-winning neuro-linguistic programming trainer Andy Coley. Photo by Amanda Clarke Photography. | Amanda Clarke Photography

What are examples of negative body language?

Negative facial expressions and actions are those that convey sadness, anger, frustration, or disapproval, says Coley. Some examples of negative body language, as given by Coley and Railton, include:

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  • Crossing one’s arms: This can be seen as a sign of defensiveness, says Coley.
  • Avoiding eye contact: Avoiding eye contact can be perceived as a lack of interest or dishonesty, says Coley.
  • Slouching: Never a good look in job interviews, this can give the impression of being disinterested or bored, says Coley.
  • Fidgeting: This can be seen as a sign of nervousness or discomfort, says Coley.
  • Frowning: A frown can indicate sadness, disappointment, or frustration, says Coley. It can also show that we are not happy with what someone is saying or doing.
  • Lip biting: This action generally highlights a hidden insecurity, anxiety, embarrassment, vulnerability or a lack of self confidence, says Railton. It can also indicate that someone believes that their ideas will not be received well. 
  • Scowling: This can indicate anger, frustration, or annoyance. It can also show that we are not pleased with the situation or the person we are communicating with, says Coley.
  • Closed eyes: Aside from being asleep, if you do this during the waking hours it can indicate boredom, frustration, or disinterest, says Coley. It can also show that we are not paying attention or are not interested in what someone is saying.
  • Furrowed brow: This can indicate confusion, anger or frustration. It can also show that we are not sure about what someone is saying or are not happy with the situation, says Coley.
  • Moving feet: Someone who is stressed will jump around, hop about or move from one foot to another, says Railton.
Body language guru Carole Railton.Body language guru Carole Railton.
Body language guru Carole Railton. | Carole Railton

What else should we know about body language?

Coley and Railton say that all of the advice given above is general, and suggest that people should take the particular circumstances they are in into consideration when trying to understand body language.

Railton says: “Where these movements or signals happen is very important as we behave differently at work compared to at home, for example, or also when under stress compared to being free from worries, and this ought to be taken into account with all analysis of body language.”

Body language is something we all use, consciously or unconsciously, to express ourselves and let others know how we are feeling. Body language is something we all use, consciously or unconsciously, to express ourselves and let others know how we are feeling.
Body language is something we all use, consciously or unconsciously, to express ourselves and let others know how we are feeling. | NationalWorld/ Mark Hall

Coley adds: “It is important to understand that body language can vary greatly from culture to culture, as different societies have different norms and expectations when it comes to non-verbal communication.

“For example, in some cultures, direct eye contact is seen as a sign of respect, while in others it can be considered confrontational or rude. In addition to conveying emotions and intentions, body language can also influence the way others perceive us. It’s important to be aware of our own body language, as well as that of others, to ensure that we are sending the right message and interpreting the messages of others correctly.”

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