Interpreting Body Language
The study of body language looks at both specific body language movements as well as how both the sender and the receiver interpret those movements. Interpreting body language is critical to fully understanding communication but interpretation is tremendously subjective depending on situation, culture, and other circumstances.
Different Situations, Different InterpretationsInterpretations of a single body language message may vary greatly depending on both the situation and the person doing the interpreting. Whether you are at work, at home, at a restaurant, in a car, etc., any given non-verbal message will have multiple, often wildly different, meanings.
Let’s look at one simple action – a hug between two people – and how its meaning varies in different situations;
- At work – Work is a relatively formal situation so a hug between two people usually appears a bit out of place. When it occurs, it may be a sign of support, friendship, flirtation, or even dominance. It can also meaning a person is nervous, extroverted, or simply has a very large boundary of personal space.
- At a party – A party is a relatively informal situation so a hug between two people usually appears much more natural and appropriate. When it occurs, it may be a sign of greeting, happiness, affection, flirtation, or departure from the location.
- On a date – A date can range from ‘getting to know you’ to spending time within an intimate relationship. Because of this, when a hug occurs it may be a sign of greeting, flirtation, support, affection, closeness, couple status, a desire for increased intimacy, or even a desire to avoid the greater intimacy of a kiss.
- Between two men – A hug between two men is a relatively rare occurrence in some situations and quite common in other situations. When it occurs, it may be a sign of masculinity, friendship, happiness, affection, intimacy, awkwardness, informality, or confidence.
- Between two women – A hug between two women is much more common and likely to happen in a greater number of situations. When it occurs, it may be a sign of friendship, emotion, surprise, happiness, sadness, support, comfort, welcome, warmth, and even introduction.
- Between a man and a woman – A hug between a man and a woman often happens in informal and intimate situations, but may also happen in situations that are more formal. When it occurs, it may be a sign of attraction, affection, intimacy, greeting, flirtation, friendship, familiarity, dominance, status, comfort, or even control.
Different Cultures, Different InterpretationsSome of the greatest differences in body language interpretation occur between different cultures. These variations can range from what is considered appropriate in formal versus informal situations, to professional versus personal situations, to specific symbolic meanings.
For instance, in cultures where body language is typically quite expressive (Italy, Latin America, Spain) a hug or a kiss on the cheek is often interpreted as nothing more than a common greeting. However, in cultures where body language is more reserved (Japan, the Middle East, some parts of Europe) the same hug or kiss would often be interpreted as inappropriate, too familiar, rude, or even threatening.
Another example is the common body language of holding hands. In the United States, it is interpreted as a sign of intimacy and couple status between two people, or protection and guidance between an adult and a child. Take a walk in Japan or Saudi Arabia, though, and holding hands is interpreted as a sign of friendship between two women but a sign of promiscuity and even vulgarity between a man and a woman.
Gestures are a form of body language that can literally have entirely opposite meanings in different cultures. If you hold up two fingers in a ‘v’ sign it means victory or peace in the United States when the palm is facing outward, but in the UK it means ‘up yours’ when the palm is facing inward.
Another gesture with vastly different interpretations is called the ring gesture. It is formed by touching the tips of your thumb and index finger to form a circle and extending the rest of your fingers outward. In France, it means you think someone is worthless, but in Japan, it means you’re referring to money.