Other gestures of confidence and assertiveness include that favorite of politicians and businessmen the world over: “hand steepling.” The fingertips are pressed together so they form a little steeple. It’s the classic negotiating gesture, signaling confidence, poise, and certainty about your power and position, as though the hands were merely resting and calmly contemplating their next move.
On the other hand (pun intended) wringing and rubbing the hands is more likely to demonstrate a lack of feeling in control or doubt in one’s own abilities. Again, this is a pacifying gesture designed to release tension. Hands are our tools to effect change in the world and bring about our actions. When we fidget, wring our hands, or clench our fists, we are demonstrating a lack of ease and confidence in our abilities or find it difficult to act confidently.
What about the legs? These are often overlooked since they might be concealed under a desk, but legs and feet are powerful indicators too. “Happy feet” can bounce and jiggle—on the other hand, bouncy legs paired with other nervous or pacifying gestures may indicate an excess of nervous tension and energy or impatience . . . or too much coffee, you decide. Toes that point upward can be thought of as “smiling” feet and indicate positive, optimistic feelings.
Physiologically, our legs and feet are all about, unsurprisingly, movement. Busy feet could suggest an unexpressed desired to get moving, either literally or figuratively! It’s also been said that feet point in the direction they unconsciously wish to go. Both toes turned toward the conversation partner can signal “I’m here with you; I’m present in this conversation” whereas feet angled toward an exit could be a clue that the person really would prefer to leave.
Other clues that someone is wanting to move, leave, or escape are gestures like clasping the knees, rocking up and down on the balls of the feet, or standing with a bit of a bounce in the step—all of these subtly communicate someone whose unconscious mind has “fired up the engines” and wants to get going. This could mean they’re excited about possibilities and want to get started as soon as possible, or they may have a strong dislike for the current situation and almost literally want to “run away.” Again, context matters!
Legs and feet can also reveal negative emotions. Crossing the legs, as with the arms, can signal a desire to close off or protect the body from a perceived threat or discomfort. Crossed legs are often tilted toward a person we like and trust—and away from someone we don’t. This is because the legs can be used as a barrier, either warding off or welcoming in someone’s presence. Women may dangle shoes off the tips of the toes in flirtatious moments, slipping a shoe on and off the heel again. Without getting too Freudian about it, the display of feet and legs can indicate comfort and even intimacy with someone. On the other hand, locking the feet and ankles can be part of a freeze response when someone really doesn’t like a situation or person.
So having discussed the face, hands, legs and feet, and torso in general, what else is there? Turns out, a lot more. The body as a whole can be positioned in space in certain ways, held in certain postures, or brought further or closer to other people. The next time you meet someone new, lean in to shake their hand and then watch what they do with their entire body.
If they “stand their ground” and stay where they are, they’re demonstrating comfort with the situation, you, and themselves. Taking a step back or turning the entire torso and feet to the side suggests that you may have gotten too close for their comfort. They may even take a step closer, signaling that they are happy with the contact and may even escalate it further.
The general principle is pretty obvious: bodies expand when they are comfortable, happy, or dominant. They contract when unhappy, fearful, or threatened. Bodies move toward what they like and away from what they don’t like. Leaning toward a person can show agreement, comfort, flirtation, ease, and interest. Likewise, crossing the arms, turning away, leaning back, and using tightly crossed legs as a barrier show a person’s unconscious attempt to get away from or protect themselves from something unwanted.
Those people who spread out on public transport? They feel relaxed, secure, and confident (annoying, isn’t it?). Those that seem to bundle themselves as tightly as possible may instead signal low confidence and assertiveness, as though they were always trying to take up less room. Similarly puffing up the chest and holding out the arms in an aggressive posture communicates, “Look how big I am!” in an argument, whereas raising the shoulders and “turtling” in on oneself is nonverbally saying, “Please don’t hurt me! Look how small I am!”
We’re not much like gorillas in the forest, beating our chests during heated arguments—but if you look closely, you may still see faint clues to this more primal behavior anyway. Those postures that take up room and expand are all associated with dominance, assertiveness, and authority. Hands on the hips, hands held regally behind the back (doesn’t it make you think of royalty or a dignified soldier who is unafraid of attack?), or even arms laced behind the neck as one leans back in a chair—all signify comfort and dominance.
When you are becoming aware of people’s body language, ask in the first instance whether their actions, gestures, and postures are constricting or expanding. Is the face open or closed? Are the hands and arms spread wide and held loose and far from the body, or are the limbs kept close and tense? Is the facial expression you’re looking at pulled tight or loose and open? Is the chin held high (sign of confidence) or tucked in (sign of uncertainty)?
Imagine you have no words at all to describe what you’re looking at; just observe. Is the body in front of you relaxed and comfortable in space, or is there some tightness, tension, and unease in the way the limbs are held?
A lot of the art of body language is, once pointed out, rather intuitive. This is because each of us is actually already fluent in its interpretation. It is merely allowing ourselves to de-emphasize the verbal for a moment to take notice of the wealth of nonverbal information that’s always flowing between people. None of it is really concealed. Rather, it’s a question of opening up to data coming in on a channel we are not taught to pay attention to.