The subject of body language has spawned dozens of books and learning seminars in the past few decades. For many people, the ability to accurately “read” the way a person stood, sat, held their head, crossed their arms etc. was a key to understanding how the person felt. Outward actions were supposed to be an accurate indication of inside feelings.
For example, it’s rather common to see a person with folded arms and understand that they are not in the most receptive mood. But what do folded arms actually mean in certain situations? If you are talking to someone and they fold their arms slowly it may be an indication of doubt. In some cases, the listener may not agree completely with what you are saying. Other interpretations include saying the person is reluctant to get completely involved with you or the activity you are talking about.
If you are interested in learning a lot about body language, it will probably take careful study of an illustrated book or a video that uses a good narrator. There may be some problems with learning from these sources unless the people who produced the material emphasize that different body positions can mean different things, depending on the situation.
We have to be very careful not to misinterpret certain body language. As with any subject, there are people who claim that certain specific actions don’t lie. For instance, a person isn’t always “interested” in another individual just because they tend to stand a bit closer or lean toward that person. This can be the meaning, of course, but there are other factors to consider. Consistency is a key. Trying to determine a person’s true feelings or opinions from a one-time event involving body language can be a mistake.
Some of the most helpful body-language material emphasizes building knowledge over a period of time. This means that you should have a foundation on which to build your opinion of someone, using body language. If a person always, always stands with his or her arms folded when talking to another individual, it will be very difficult to use this posture as an indicator of how they are feeling. If they never vary in the way they cross their legs when sitting in a relaxed, social setting, it will be difficult to use this as an indicator one way or another. However, if you have been with this person numerous times and they always crossed their legs one way and one way only, you have something from which to measure.
If you see him in another social setting and he is sitting on the edge of the seat with both feet firmly on the floor, you have some material for a good comparison. What is making him change so drastically that he is sitting in a different way? Is the subject matter very interesting? Is he anxious about something and in a hurry to get away?
Remember a couple of other factors when trying to read body language. If a person was raised in another country, with a different culture, the body language might be difficult to understand. Some cultures don’t shake hands, for example. Failure to extend a hand when meeting may tell you very little about this person’s feelings. While some body language can be helpful in communication with others, it is also important to consider voice inflections and eye contact as well.