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Reading People: A Body Language Translator

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

Read people better with this quick body language translator.

Are you sending mixed messages by saying one thing and doing another? Can you tell when people are trustworthy, bored, anxious or interested by the way they sit or how they look at you? So far in this series on body language, we’ve looked at ways you can use it to put clients at ease and ways to interpret body language in court. Now here is a handy body language translator guide to some of the most common body language messages we transmit — and what they might mean.

Keep in mind, however, that sometimes a rose is a rose is a rose. That is, someone rubbing their eyes has an itch, not a bone to pick with you, and someone with crossed arms is not being hostile, but merely trying to get warm! See below the body language translator.

1. Feet

Action: Feet crossed at the ankles.
Translation: Feeling at ease.

Action: Feet pointed at the door.
Translation: “I’m out of here” (feet are pointing at where they want to go!).

Action: Foot tapping.
Translation:  A desire to leave; anxiety.

Action: Foot shuffling.
Translation: Boredom with current situation.

Action: A person touching their foot to yours.
Translation: Interest, flirting.

2. Hands and Arms

Action: Brushing hair back with fingers.
Translation: Preening (if the person likes you); a conflict with what you are saying.

Action: Crossed arms.
Translation: Closed off to social influences; discomfort with their appearance.

Action: Arms behind neck or head.
Translation: An openness to what is being discussed.

Action: Rubbing hands together (or touching their own body).
Translation: An attempt to self-comfort.

3. Heads

Action: Overly tilted head.
Translation: Sign of sympathy (smiling and tilting the head can be playful, even flirtatious).

Action: Lowered head.
Translation: Something to hide. If lowered after a compliment, though, most likely indicates shyness.

Action: Cocked head.
Translation: Either confusion or they are challenging you.

4. Eyes

Action: Continually pushing glasses back on nose.
Translation: Disagreement (especially if accompanied by a slight frown).

Action: Moving eyes to the sides.
Translation: Nervousness, distraction; lying. However, looking exclusively to the right may indicate lying, while looking to the left is associated with attempting to recall or remember facts.

Action: Looking down at the floor.
Translation: Shyness; being upset or trying to hide something emotional.

5. General Behavior

Action: Mimicking or mirroring.
Translation: Trying to establish a rapport.

Action: Moving closer to a person.
Translation: Warm thoughts about that person; too close into someone’s personal space, however, can indicate hostility and an attempt to dominate.

Action: Straight posture, shoulders back.
Translation: Power and leadership.

More Good Tips on Body Language

Illustration ©

Categories: Attorney Client Relations, Business Development, Communications Skills
Originally published May 25, 2022
Last updated August 12, 2022
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Mary Ellen Sullivan Mary Ellen Sullivan

A Chicago-based freelance writer, traveler and the author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” a blog about joy, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care, for more than 30 years. She was the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides. Mary Ellen passed away in March 2016. You can read about her extraordinary life here.

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