It’s also best to understand some of the theories and ideas behind interpretations of body language. Firstly, research has demonstrated that people display certain postures regardless of their culture or conditioning, suggesting that some expressions have universal meaning. One of the most prolific examples is an expression of success and triumph, such as when an athlete wins a race. Signals such as pumping your fist in the air or raising your arms above your head are displayed almost regardless of where you were raised or your ethnicity – even people who have been completely blind from birth and have never seen others do this still do these signals to display success.
Likewise, most facial expressions have a universal interpretation. No matter what culture people come from, they will be able to tell whether an expression is happy or sad or even nuanced ideas such as disgust. This is both a benefit and a curse to people who wish to alter their body language; for the most part, your gestures and expressions will be understood, regardless of whether you wanted to reveal them or not.
A lot of our facial expressions consist of micro-expressions. Most of us have an ability to partially mask how we are actually feeling – we can smile while we are sad and we can pretend to be angry or like someone we don’t. However what most people cannot control are these micro-expressions, which typically last for a fraction of a second. These ultra-quick expressions reveal our true face and show what we are feeling. Micro-expressions typically occur when we are trying to repress or mask what we are feeling.
You can train yourself to recognize micro-expressions to gain better insight into what other people are truly feeling and improve your emotional intelligence. You can even train yourself to recognize your own micro-expressions and gain insight into what you might be feeling under your level of conscious awareness. If you are interested in this topic, it is well worth researching Paul Ekman, the psychologist who pioneered the concept of micro-expressions and the following research into them.
Psychologists have also argued that a lot of physical body language revolves around concepts of dominance and submission and how these relate to our physical safety. When we are feeling submissive or insecure, the tell-tale body language such as crossed arms or a hunched position are thought to be an instinctive response to protect ourselves. Crossed arms protect our vital organs, whilst hunching down and making oneself smaller present less of a target and covers vulnerable areas such as the throat or face.
By contrast ‘relaxed’ positions such as open legs, wide and open shoulders, hands on your hips, standing fully upright, leave you exposed. In these positions your body is vulnerable. There are two interpretations of what this means, however. These relaxed positions can be interpreted as a feeling of security and ease – we display them around people we trust, in environments and situations when we feel comfortable. There is no need to protect ourselves and minimize threat, because there is no threat to begin with.