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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at York U chapter.

We have all had encounters where we wanted to know what the other person was thinking, whether that’s during an interview, on a date, or even when speaking with friends. The best-case scenario would be conjuring up mind-reading abilities, but for the common folks like me, we’ve got to stick with learning the cues of body language. Here’s your guide for understanding the inner workings of someone’s mind, so that you’re well prepared in such situations. Now, different parts of our bodies each say something different about what we’re feeling, thinking and planning to do.

Original Illustration Designed in Canva for Her Campus Media
Let’s start with the limbs, which are usually the most common tell-tale signs. When someone’s arms are crossed, it usually means that they feel defensive or self-protective. Basically, they may be in disagreement with something you said or could have felt accused by taking your comment personally. This is the same when people sit with crossed legs since they could feel closed off or require privacy. A signal that someone is bored or even anxious during a conversation is when they hold their hands behind their back. This could sometimes be both since they could want to leave the conversation but too nervous to say it out loud, so their body shows these signs subtly. That is the case when they hold their hands during a conversation. However, if you are trying to approach someone who has their hands joined behind their back, it would be best to give them their space because it signals they want distance. Even if you might not notice it, posture can be pivotal when differentiating whether someone is open to communication or closed to it. If they have a closed posture with faded arms and legs, it indicates hostility or unfriendliness, so it might be best to give them their space. However, if their posture is more open and relaxed, they would tend to be more friendly and open to starting a conversation.

Illustration by Sketchify in Canva
Next are gestures, which really come in hand when analyzing what someone means at a particular moment. People gesticulate to emphasize the statement they’re making and to have a more significant impact on your recall. So if you’re ever trying to stress a point, gesturing has a higher probability of the other person remembering it in the future since the message will be potentiated. The obvious one is when people have clenched fists; they’re either angry or are exhibiting solidarity. When we feel threatened, concerned or scared, closing our fingers is our body’s way of ensuring our fingers aren’t loose if there’s a threat. Most of us have heard about coping mechanisms, which help people manage painful or difficult emotions. Well, we also have pacifying mechanisms to assure us we’re doing well and persevering at the moment. When we were kids, we sucked on our thumbs as a self-pacifier, but as we grow up, that is not socially acceptable; so many of us pacify ourselves in different ways. One way is massaging our thumbs when we’re waiting for something to happen, or when we are nervous speaking about something personal, so it depends on the situation. Another way is any hand-to-body touching or stroking, which is pacifying. Commonly, people who are less confident stroke their hair or touch their arm while speaking rather than using gestures to emphasize their point. 

Original Illustration by Gina Escandon for Her Campus Media
Lastly, understanding when people say one thing but mean another is helpful when speaking to someone. Especially since facial expressions are more complicated to observe and decipher as many of us engage with face avoidance or face blocking to hide our genuine emotions, intentions or motives. When people avoid face-to-face contact even when they’re near someone, they are engaging in face avoidance. This is more obvious when people change where they’re looking or their demeanor because there’s no consistency between what they’re saying and what they’re doing. Then there is face blocking, which people exhibit as they keep their elbows on the table with their hands held neatly to their face. Their hands represent a psychological barrier that helps insulate them from stress or a lack of confidence. From here, you can understand that distinct bodily postures and movements convey different feelings and emotions.

To summarize, there are various ways to study one’s body language and different interpretations that come along with them. Depending on the situation, these contextual communication cues will help you glide through any conversation and adapt to a person’s behavior changes. It’s key to note that some of these cues can mean different things, so it’s up to you to deduce which at the moment. Most of us are aware when people agree with us because we’re more observant to them since it’s self-pleasing; however, noticing when others disagree with you gives you an advantage of turning around the situation in your favor.

I love taking pictures of the evening sky or competing in video games to the point where I’m so in the zone but I definitely love discussing about topics from human rights issues to fashion advice so my interests do have a wide range.
Lisa is a former writer, executive member, and Chapter Leader of Her Campus at York U. She graduated from York University in 2021 with a BA in Anthropology. She is a Kappa Phi Xi alumni and is currently pursuing a Paralegal studies accelerated diploma at Seneca College.