How to Understand Body Language – A Non Verbal Way of Communicating

by Marc Segar, Adapted by Autism Spectrum Directory

Body language is a form of non-verbal communication, consisting of body pose, gestures, and eye movements. Humans send and interpret such signals subconsciously. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_language)

Body Language

– Body language doesn’t just include gestures, it also includes facial expressions, eye contact and tone of voice and is sometimes affected by what you are wearing.

– Some people may have body language down to a fine art but many people find it difficult.

– Many people constantly feel paranoid about their own body language, including those who are extremely good at it.

– Showing the wrong emotion or laughing at the wrong time can be embarrassing. You may do this if you’re thinking about one thing and the people around you are talking about something else. If someone reacts to this, tell them that your mind was elsewhere.

– If someone talks to you about something they find emotional and you don’t respond to their body language with your own, they might think you are lacking empathy or that you don’t really care.

– If someone tells you that you do not give enough body language you might have to exaggerate it in order to emphasise what you say but not too much. This will at first feel artificial.

– Part of body language includes courtesy things like ‘excuse me’, ‘please’, ‘thanks’, ‘cheers’, ‘see ya’ and being the first to say ‘hi’. It is often an effort to say these things but then perhaps courtesy is supposed to be an effort. I have given informal courtesies here (not over-polite) but the politeness of the courtesies you choose may have to depend on the people you are with.

– We all have to be careful about standing behind someone when they can’t see us because if they turn round they might get a fright. This is especially important if you are large or tall. In a densely crowded bus or train however you might not be able to help it.

– It can often be an effort to have a shower or a bath three times a week and to wear deodorant but it is much easier to talk to people if you feel you are clean and if you are not smelly. Remember, if you smell you might not be aware of it.

– If you are too good at body language or you look too cool, people are less likely to make exceptions for you if you do something wrong without knowing it.

– If you are an adult and especially if you are a large one, it is better to avoid running in the street unless the street is practically empty. Running for a bus or a train is all right if it will save you having to wait for another half an hour or you are in a hurry to get somewhere. On the other hand if you are going for a jog then wear shorts or track suit trousers so that people can see you are running for the purpose of getting exercise and hopefully don’t feel intimidated.

– When you see someone in the street who you know it can sometimes be awkward but to exchange glances, smile slightly and raise eyebrows to each other is usually enough.




Eye Contact

– Eye contact is hard to get right because it is hard to tell whether you are giving someone too much eye contact or too little when they are talking to you.

While people are not talking and when you are not talking to them, it is often best not to look at them. This is because people can usually see that you are looking at them out of the corner of their eyes and this may make them feel uncomfortable, in which case they might talk about you behind your back. To control your gaze might be difficult for you but it is by no means impossible.

– If you point at someone when you are talking about them to someone else, this may seem rude if they notice. If you are arguing with someone and point at them while giving eye contact, this may come across as quite aggressive. Try not to point at people – it will help you stay out of trouble.

– When you are talking to someone or they are talking to you, you are expected to look at them bearing in mind the following guidelines:

  • To look at someone for less than one third of the time may be communicating that either you are shy (if you keep looking down) or you are dishonest (if you keep looking to the side).
  • To look at someone for more than two thirds of the time may be communicating that either you like them (if you are looking at the face as a whole) or you are aggressive (if you are looking straight into their eyes)
  • To look at someone for the whole time giving steady and unbroken eye contact can mean one of two things. Either you are challenging them (the aggressive gaze) or you fancy them (the intimate gaze). However in other cultures (e.g. Mediterranean Europe) it can also symbolize companionship. For someone with autism it can be very difficult because first we have to be sure that it IS appropriate. Also fixed eye contact can forcefully distract us when we try to talk.

Tone of Voice

– You might be one of these people who almost talks in a single tone without knowing it.

– Ask a trustworthy person if this is true and if it is you may have to exaggerate the intonation in your voice to emphasise what you say, but not too much. This will sound artificial at first.

– If you are reading a story-book to a child then the more intonation the better.

– The intonation in our voices is extremely important in determining whether we are being enthusiastic or sarcastic about something. It is also important in telling whether we mean something seriously or just as a joke.

– To talk in a single tone can make it sound as if you’re depressed. When talking about something good or exciting you have to make yourself sound excited too, otherwise people tend to think it sounds strange.

– If you are a young man whose voice is breaking, then if you find it more comfortable just let it break for good. It may sound strange at first on the inside but it will be sounding much more natural on the outside. If you are worried about what your friends might think which should only be a short term problem anyway, it may be useful to take the opportunity of letting your voice break while you are changing schools.

Finally, remember not to speak too loudly and not to speak too quietly. This should depend on the distance between you and the other person and the voice should be quieter when a bit of secrecy is needed. Whisper when everyone else is whispering (or when there is someone asleep nearby).

– At times when you may need to talk extra loudly and clearly (e.g. on stage or in a play) then you may want to project your voice. To do this keep a nice straight relaxed posture and imagine that your voice is coming from your stomach, however strange this may seem.


Boundaries

– Boundaries are all about not getting too close to someone yet not being too far away.

– The correct boundaries will depend on the person you are talking to and also the time and place.

– If there is a physical attraction between you and someone else you will need give off AND read the correct signals. To do this the simplest rule to work by is that open gestures (such as open hands or arms) and gestures turned towards someone tend to mean attraction, whereas closed gestures (hands in fists, arms across chest) and gestures which are turned away from someone tend to mean avoidance.

– There is something to be aware of called the approach-avoidance trap. Quite often we need to be decisive about whether we are going to approach someone, walk away or do neither.

– Also there is the problem of recognising other people’s territory. If in some one-off situation you unknowingly encroach on what someone else considers to be their territory this can sometimes get you into big trouble. For example, at one time I lent a listening ear to a woman living in a house full of children. She was distraught because her over-possessive and just-out-of-prison boyfriend had just stormed out for no particular reason. I didn’t realise that from his point of view it was his territory. Fortunately my personal safety was spared because he didn’t come back until the next day. If after you make this kind of mistake you later have it explained to you it can all start to look so obvious.


Dress Sense

– What clothes you wear gives off a message about you.

– If you wear bright clashing coloured clothes, perhaps intending to look confident, many people are likely to lose interest in you.

– If you wear cowboy boots, ripped jeans, heavy metal tee shirts and a studded leather jacket people might either be too scared to come near you or will expect to be able to talk to you about heavy metal music systems, life on the streets and various different night clubs. It is a a very difficult image to pull off.

– If you dress in neutral or natural colours such as blue, grey, dark-green, black or white which people cannot laugh at but still look trendy people will judge you on how you come across rather than what you are wearing which is likely to be what you need.

– It is often a good idea to hear someone else’s opinion about what you should wear (talk to someone who you can trust).

Copyright Marc Segar

Other Resources

Book: Winning Body Language: Control the Conversation, Command Attention, and Convey the Right Message without Saying a Word

Book: The Definitive Book of Body Language

Book: What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People and Kindle Edition

Book: Body Language For Dummies and Kindle Edition

Book: The Power of Body Language: How to Succeed in Every Business and Social Encounter

Book: How to Read a Person Like a Book: Observing Body Language to Know What People Are Thinking and Kindle Edition

Book: The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work

Book: Body Language Secrets: A Guide During Courtship & Dating

Kindle Book: The Definitive Body Language Guide

iTunes: iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone Apps for Non Verbal Communication

Chart: Solution Chart for Social and Communication Difficulties for People on the Autism Spectrum

Related Articles:

Complete List of All Articles on Autism Spectrum Directory

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