4 Big Mistakes You Make When Reading Someone's Body Language

Test your body language skills.

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It's a common misperception that body language, or nonverbal communication, is a true "language" — that certain nonverbal cues have clear, specific meanings and definitions.

But it's much more complicated than that.

And sometimes, there are specific communication mistakes we make when we incorrectly read someone's body language.

RELATED: 5 Subtle Body Language Clues That Someone Is In Deep Psychological Distress


Here are 4 common mistakes people make in interpreting body language.

1. Misunderstanding when a smile is not a smile

Research has shown that people — women in particular — cover discomfort with a smile.

In one study, women were subjected to mild sexual harassment in a job interview, and a common response was to give an uncomfortable (and fake) smile.

The problem was that some men interpreted this positively — as a seductive invitation.

Research on facial expressions has distinguished between true smiles of enjoyment (called "Duchenne smiles") and fake smiles.

The key is in the eyes, where true smiles include narrowed, squinting eyes that produce "crow's feet" at the corners.


2. Believing we can tell lies from truths

Research has shown that very few people can detect lies at levels above chance.

We are simply not very good at reading complex nonverbal communications — and lies are typically complex interactions — due to the misreading of cues and our stereotypes about what deception looks like.

In one of our studies, we found that people actually engaged in more eye contact when lying than truth-telling, presumably because they knew the stereotypes about liars avoiding eye contact, and so they over-compensated.

RELATED: 8 Common Body Language Mistakes That Destroy Relationships

3. Assuming that touch means affection

We believe touching others is a sign of affection, but touch can communicate many things.


Studies of gender and touching suggest that at times men may touch women as a sign of dominance.

Also, in some very interesting studies, it was found that waitresses who touch their customers — just a light touch when delivering the bill — get larger tips.

There are other individual differences in touching, with some people being "touchers" and others generally avoiding contact.

A toucher may hold your arm to keep your attention, but not necessarily have positive feelings for you.

4. Thinking that saying 'uh' suggest nervousness

What your middle-school teacher told you is wrong: filling pauses with "uhs" while giving a speech does not necessarily indicate nervousness or forgetfulness, but can actually be a way to improve the flow of communication.


Our research found that the incidence of "uhs" was associated with more positive ratings of speakers, presumably because the "uhs" filled in the dead space between words or phrases and made the speech seem more fluid and uninterrupted.

We can become better readers (or "decoders") of nonverbal communication, but it takes a lot of time and practice.

One wise strategy is not to rely on "common sense" and simply make assumptions about what a particular nonverbal cue actually means.


There is no dictionary of nonverbal communication. But knowing these cues can help you better understand someone's intentions.

RELATED: How To Tell What Someone Is Really Feeling — Just By Looking At Their Lips

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of over 150 books and research articles on topics of leadership, relationships, and social psychology.