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10 Body Language Cues That Can Instantly Give You Away

Do you know that no matter how hard you try, there are a few body language cues that can immediately give you away, no matter how hard you try?

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Can other people “read your body language like a book” (the title of a best-selling book from the 1960s)? Not really. Body language is not a true “language.” In other words, there is no one single meaning to a particular nonverbal cue. There are, however, some cues that an astute person can use to infer what you are thinking or feeling.

What are some of these body language cues that give you away?

1. Fake smiling. 

Fake smiling

Nonverbal communication expert psychologist Paul Ekman distinguishes between true smiles (what he calls “Duchenne smiles”) and fake smiles.

Duchenne smiles indicate true happiness. Fake smiles don’t. We use fake smiles when we are trying to look amused, but really aren’t, or when we are uncomfortable around someone, but want to appear like we’re having a good time.

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What is the key between “real” and “fake” smiles? Both have the upward turned corners of the lips, but in Duchenne smiles, the eyes become narrowed and the outer corners crinkle into what we call “crow’s feet.”

Want to know more about how body language cues can give you away? Read Your Body Language Doesn’t Lie. Here Is How You Can Strip Down Naked Everyone’s Personality

2. Self-soothing. 

This is an easy one. When we are anxious, stressed, or uncomfortable, we tend to engage in self-soothing nonverbal cues – hand rubbing, hand-to-body contact, stroking a leg, or neck.

It is our attempt to calm our anxieties through self-touching.

3. Posture. 

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The way we carry ourselves is a subtle clue, but one that can give away our true feelings. When we are proud and confident, an erect posture might give us away. Sad and dejected, we may be slouching with head down.

4. Gaze behavior. 

Are the “eyes the window to the soul”? Maybe not, but they can tell others something about our interest in them (Do we look at them when they are talking, or look away? Are we sizing them up with our eyes? Sexual attraction?)

5. Shortfall signals. 

These are nonverbal cues that suggest that we are under-reacting. The fake smile is one type of shortfall signal – that we are not really happy or amused. Another shortfall is when we show limited, or fake, outrage at something someone has said.

Typically, shortfall signals suggest that we are not as engaged in what’s going on as we might/should be.

Looking to know more about how someone’s body language can tell you everything you need to know about them? Read Body Language: From Common Signs to Spotting Lies

6. Pupil dilation. 

A very subtle cue that only the most astute observers can detect is pupil dilation. Our pupils dilate when we are interested in something or someone (that magnificent car that we desire).

7. Displacement activities. 

When we are very tense or anxious we engage in nonverbal behaviors that help us cope with the anxiety–scratching your head, rubbing your hands, fiddling with jewelry, and other self-soothing behaviors.

Such self-soothing behaviors are sometimes used by customs agents or law enforcement officials as signs of nervousness that suggest that someone might be guilty of smuggling or criminal activity.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D.
Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology and former Director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College. Professor Riggio is the author of over 100 books, book chapters, and research articles in the areas of leadership, assessment centers, organizational psychology and social psychology. His most recent books are Leadership Studies (Elgar, 2011), The Art of Followership and The Practice of Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2008, 2007), Applications of Nonverbal Behavior (co-edited with Robert S. Feldman; Erlbaum, 2005), and Transformational Leadership (2nd ed.), coauthored with Bernard M. Bass (Erlbaum, 2006). Professor Riggio is an Associate Editor of The Leadership Quarterly, and is on the Editorial Boards of Leadership, Leadership Review, Group Dynamics, and the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, and he was the originator of the Shoptalk column at the Los Angeles Times, a Q&A column dealing with workplace problems/issues.
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