Up Your People Watching Game- With Science

It’s all about the non-verbal cues.

You’ve heard the Dr. Mehrabian quote, right?  “Communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal.”. [1]  Well, according to his work, there’s a lot to be said about what goes unsaid. Out of that 93%, 55% is body language, and the other 38% is tone of voice. The funny thing is; we’re already doing it all the time. We pick up on these cues without even being aware of it. Think about your text conversations versus speaking to someone in person. Is it the same? Do you get the same depth of understanding? Probably not! [1,2]

We give off cues, or hints, during our interactions that act in the same way as verbal communication. We are constantly showing, or in some cases hiding, behavioral representations of our internal states (like emotion), that give a wealth of context and information that could be better used in understanding a speaker.


The possible historical and evolutionary reasons for it.

Evolutionary theory has a big role in psychology. When people are born with innate abilities to understand one another, we want to understand why, and where it came from, right? If we look at this through an evolutionary theory lens, let’s take in to account all the other creatures on this planet that communicate to one another. Do they have as complex a language system as we do? No. Then how do they do it?  Non-verbals. Body language and tone.  [1,2]

Take other primates for example. A sneer, a lifting of the lip, narrowing of the eyes, and baring of the edges of the teeth is a universal signal. It’s a gesture of aggression, or defensive posturing. One way or another, persisting with a creature that’s sneering is likely to go bad. What about cats? Have you seen them pull their ears back, bare their teeth, and hiss? It’s another non-verbal gesture that tells us the same signal:  back off. [2]

Now back to us. Think about our expressions. There are many of them, and not only that; these expressions are innate. In 1966, Dr. Paul Ekman did a study across the world to compare the uniformity of expressions across humans and cultures that had never met or been introduced to one another. Even distant tribes (The Fore) in Papua New Guinea.  His findings showed that there were facial expressions, universal ones, that had the same meanings in every single society and people studied; “Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness, and Surprise.” [3]. When showed pictures with these facial expressions, people were able to identify each of those expressions with emotions, without being taught their meaning. It’s innate to us humans to be able to read the faces of others, regardless of what language they speak. [1,3]

That being said, there are some non-verbal gestures that are learned as well, and have different meanings across countries and cultures. The raising of certain fingers, for example, could have harmless connotations in one place, and be seen as vastly rude in another. Keep culture in mind. [1,3]

man sitting on chair. Isolated white background. Body language. picking nonexistent lint

How Body Language and Cues Work

Let’s preface this. Reading body language and cues follows the same rules as communication with language; sometimes you can interpret them correctly, and sometimes you can interpret them incorrectly. Non-verbal cues take both listening for tone, and visual contact with the communicator in order to piece together the broader picture. Research and experts on the topic, have given us some simple ground rules that can help minimize these misinterpretations. [1,2]


  1. Look at the Gestures and Cues in Clusters-  Think about it this way. One word can convey a small amount of meaning, but a sentence can convey much more. It’s context and finding how it all fits together. When reading gestures and cues, you need that same amount of context. If cues are data, you want as much as you can get before jumping to conclusions.

    Misinterpreting Clusters:
    “Oh! They looked at me from across the room! This must mean that they are secretly interested!”.

    Does it? Could one glance, which may have been accidental, be a certain sign? Maybe it’s best to get a broader picture of more non-verbal behavior that follows. [1,2]

  2. Congruence with Words.-   When what someone is saying is not matching their body language; it’s a much better bet to go with the body language (clusters, not single movements/tones).
    Misinterpreting Congruence: “They said they were ‘Fine’, but then ignored me for 2 weeks! I wonder what I missed?”.

    Are the words congruent (fitting/matching) with tone, or gestures? An angry face and tone of voice can say much more about a situation than a single word. [1,2]

  3. Context, Context, Context- Take the context in to consideration. Some gestures and motions are brought about by external/environmental stimuli as well, and may not be what you initially interpret them to be.

    Misinterpreting Context: “I see that they crossed their arms over their chest. Clear sign of defensive posturing! I’d better not talk to them… Gee, it sure is snowing pretty hard today.”

    One behavior that could be used to warm yourself in a snow storm could be another non-verbal cue during conversation. It is always important to take context in to consideration, because gestures/non-verbal are not mutually exclusive. [1,2]

Working Examples

The number of gestures we could cover here could cover entire volumes, but here are a few that you can take and use without much practice.

Facial Expressions:

Facial expressions are easy for some people to pick up on, but deciding when to check in on the facial expression of your partner is much more important than simply being accurate when you try. Checking in often gives you the chance to gauge changes in non-verbal cues. Let’s look at some facial expressions below.


Can you discern the message that each expression above is trying to convey? Probably very easily! But let’s focus again on checking in. What would happen if during the course of your conversation, the person’s expression goes from the first expression on the Top Row, to the first expression on the Bottom Row? It may not be as big a difference as Happiness to Anger, but there may be signs of disapproval.

How might you use that observation in your conversation? Change tone? Change topic? Inquire about their opinion? One simple check-in on their facial expression could turn the tide of your engagement with them. What about if they went from the last image on the Top Row to the last image on the Bottom Row? What you might have just said, or a change in a setting stimulus, may have turned a situation of low positive engagement, to a much more open opportunity to engage. [1,2]

Open vs. Closed Postures

Business speech

Take a look at this image above. This has some key components of what is called an “Open Posture”. An Open Posture is a posture in which the vulnerable parts of the body are exposed. The chest is uncovered by the arms, the palms are out, and there is no tensing or covering of the neck. Feet are facing forward and there is also a gap between the legs and a wider stance. Open posture is often perceived as communicating a positive attitude, agreement, or engagement. When someone is poised like this and showing these types of non-verbal cues, you can likely infer interest in their current engagement and their cues of willingness to receive interaction. [1,2]

Using the 3 Rules on an Open Posture:

  1.  Are you looking at the cues in clusters? An open posture, with a high rate of speaking, and positive/affable tone is a good sign that you are interpreting this posture correctly.
  2. Is there congruence? Does the person exhibiting this open posture have the  speaking style to match it?
  3. What about context? Are there any other environmental factors going on that could be causing these cues to appear outside of the role of communication? Culture may also play a role in how often these gestures are exhibited.

Woman crossed arms

What about this picture above? This has some key components of what might be called a Closed Posture. Notice that the expression on the face is not holding direct engagement with any speaker, the arms are crossed protectively across the chest, and the legs/feet are also crossed. As opposed to the Open Posture, which bares “vital areas” to others, the closed posture is protecting and shielding them. Closed posture often gives off impressions of social detachment, disinterest in speakers, and possible hostility. [1,2]

Using the 3 Rules on a Closed Posture:

  1.  Are you looking at the cues in clusters? Closed posture, like the picture above, shows a collection of these features and lends to a higher degree of validity about what it might mean. One crossed arm, or half a crossed leg, may demonstrate uncertainty, rather than anger.
  2. Is there congruence? Does the person exhibiting this closed posture have the  speaking style to match it? Are they speaking at all to the person/people in front of them?
  3. What about context? Are there any other environmental factors going on that could be causing these cues to appear outside of the role of communication? (Cold, for example.). Culture may also play a role in how often these gestures are exhibited.


Nodding is something that most people interpret fairly easily, and in most cultures (but not all) demonstrates agreement. There is a second use to nodding, though. Research has shown that nodding is also used to encourage further interaction. When one person hears something they like, they may engage in repeated nodding in order to encourage the person they are speaking with to continue.

Specifics of the gesture are important, however. Curt (quick and sudden) nodding, may encourage a faster rate of speaking for the purpose of ascertaining a point quicker. Slow nodding with a smile, may simply be encouraging the conversation to continue longer based on the enjoyment of the interaction. [2]

Using the 3 Rules on Nodding:

  1.  Are you looking at the cues in clusters? Could a single nod tell you much of anything? It may be affirmation, encouragement, or rushing a conversation. Other cues could help differentiate this.
  2. Is there congruence? Does the person exhibiting nodding speak, or not? Do they withhold their words while the other person speaks? This may be agreement. Do they nod and interject? This may be rushing the conversation. Two very different purposes.
  3. What about context? Could someone in a group be nodding to just one specific person, over another speaking at the same time?


Proximity, or closeness between communicators is important. When we say closeness here, we are not speaking of emotional closeness, but rather actual distance between people when engaging. Have you heard the term “personal space” or “personal bubble”? In general, there is an area of distance between speakers that “feels comfortable”. When people engage comfortably, it is generally at arms length, without that distance becoming a factor to interrupt the conversation.

Experience with the speaker is also an important factor here. People who know each other longer can be comfortable in closer proximity, than say someone they had just met. Longer distances (2 arms length or more) may show signs of uncertainty or a factor of group dynamics (avoiding intrusion). Crossing into people’s personal space by reaching, is often done briefly, as to avoid a negative reaction. People also may use closing proximity to test the comfort of their speaking partner with their presence (although this is often seen as impolite and may further distance the speaker).

Consider the following situations of proximity/closeness: Shoulder to shoulder sitting beside a friend, and shoulder to shoulder with a stranger in the elevator. These two very different scenarios have two very different outcomes in terms of what interactions might occur between these individuals. Closing proximity may also even be used in threatening gestures or posturing. Judging distance and proximity relies judging other social cues and mediating a safe and comfortable middle ground for both speakers. [2]

Using the 3 Rules on Proximity:

  1.  Are you looking at the cues in clusters?  Someone brushing by another person while walking does close proximity, but there is no sustaining of that proximity. Judging the intention of proximity with other cues is important.
  2. Is there congruence? Is a person crossing the room to speak in a positive and open tone, or aggressive and hostile? Wording may give more information of intent with proximity.
  3. What about context? Proximity is often mediated by crowds, or availability of space. A tight fit in a room may not suggest the person engaging in closer proximity has any intention of gauging closeness, interest, or hostility; it is simply happenstance of the environmental condition.


Let’s get Behavior Analytical.

When you look at behavior, you can not try and study it in a vacuum. Behavior is something that is ongoing, and goes through the processes of reinforcement (strengthening that behavior’s use in the future) or punishment (reducing that behavior’s in the future). Non-verbal behavior follows this same type of adaptation.

When we engage a person, or observe them, their non-verbal cues are both reactions to the environment/speaker, and also operant behaviors (behaviors that act to change or get something) on the environment/speaker. A smile after a compliment is both a reaction to the compliment, and a non-verbal communication to reward that compliment (intentional or not). It creates a chain of reactions and responses that lead in to longer and longer chains. Observing how one stimulus (cue, word) precedes a response (reaction, cue, etc), and then becomes the very stimulus that leads to a response from the original speaker shows us that it is a constant back and forth, each link in the chain both reinforcing and being reinforced (or punishing and being punished), as the conversation or interaction continues. [4].

Keeping that in mind, let’s also talk on what might modify the meaning of some of the cues above.

  • Frequency/Rate- What is the rate of interaction? Is a person engaging in these cues consistently, and how often are they responding to the speaker/situation?  A person engaging quickly with another person, both communicating in cues and words, may show greater interest. Higher rate means more engagement, which leads to higher rates of that interaction being reinforced (or punished, in some cases).
  • Extent in time- How long is the engagement going on? Let’s say you walked up to someone, spoke with them for 20 seconds, then moved on. Do you think that would be enough time to get a broad idea of their communication cues? How about 20 minutes? How might that give us a better idea and practice on picking up on this person’s cues?
  • Locus in time- This is both a factor of time (when), but also latency (how long it takes to get a reply). You might see this phenomenon more in texting, but it also may appear in group conversations. Imagine you speak to a person, and it takes them 5 minutes to get back to you; (assuming your follow the rules and take context into the picture) how might that effect your assessment of their interest?
  • Baseline- This is a very important factor in reading non-verbal communcation, or any communication in general. What information above is consistent with the individual? Do they talk often or less? Do they engage often or rarely? Do they speak slowly or quickly? Changes in these cues can be more important in determining non-verbal factors than the cues themselves. A person who appears calm and confident in posture, suddenly losing composure, gives us emphasis that a person who is erratic in their postures/expressions might not.

Taking all these things in to consideration can give a much broader and more accurate depiction of the people you engage with (or watch), and with a little practice, can improve observation skills in and out of conversations.

Questions, comments, thoughts? Leave them below!


1. Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(3), 248-252. doi:10.1037/h0024648

2. Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2006). The definitive book of body language. New York: Bantam Books.

3.  Ekman, P. (1980). The face of man: expressions of universal emotions in a New Guinea village. New York: Garland STPM Press.

4. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.

Photo Credits: https://stock.adobe.com

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