Set aside at least fifteen minutes a day to study and read the gestures of other people, as well as acquiring a conscious awareness of your own gestures. A good reading ground is anywhere that people meet and interact. An airport is a particularly good place for observing the entire spectrum of human gestures, aspeople openly express eagerness, anger, sorrow, happiness, impatience and many other emotions through gestures. Social func¬tions, business meetings and parties are also excellent. Having studied the art of body language, you can go to a party, sit alone in a corner all evening like a wallflower and have an exciting time just watching other people’s body language rituals! Television also offers an excellent way of learning non¬verbal communication. Turn down the sound and try to understand what is happening by first watching the picture. By turning the sound up every five minutes, you will be able to check how accurate your non-verbal read¬ings are and before long it will be possible to watch an entire program without any sound and understand what is happening, just as deaf people do.

How To Tell Lies Successfully

The difficulty with lying is that the sub¬conscious mind acts automatically and inde¬pendently of our verbal lie, so our body language gives us away. This is why people who rarely tell lies are easily caught, regard¬less of how convincing they may sound. The moment they begin to lie, the body sends out contradictory signals, and these give us our feeling that they are not telling the truth. During the lie, the subconscious mind sends out nervous energy that appears as a gesture that can contradict what the person said. Some people whose jobs involve lying, such as politicians, lawyers, actors and television announcers, have refined their body gestures to the point where it is difficult to ‘see’ the lie, and people fall for it, hook, line and sinker.
They refine their gestures in one of two ways. First, they practise what ‘feel’ like the right gestures when they tell the lie, but this is only successful when they have practised telling numerous lies over long periods of time. Second, they can eliminate most gestures so that they do’ not use any positive or negative gestures while lying, but this is also very difficult to do.
Try this simple test when an occasion presents itself. Tell a deliberate lie to an acquaintance and make a conscious effort to suppress all body gestures while your body is in full view of the other person. Even when your major body gestures are consciously suppressed, numerous microgestures will still be transmitted. These include facial muscular twitching, expansion and contraction of pupils, sweating at the brow, flushing of the cheeks, increased rate of eye blinking and numerous other minute gestures that signal deceit. Research using slow motion cameras shows that these microgestures can occur within a split second and it is only people such as professional interviewers, sales people and those whom we call perceptive who can consciously see them during a conversation or negotiation. The best interviewers and sales people are those who have developed the unconscious ability to read the microgestures during face-to-face encounters.
It is obvious, then, that to be able to lie successfully, you must have your body hidden or out of sight. This is why police interroga¬tion involves placing the suspect on a chair in the open or placing him under lights with his body in full view of the interrogators; his lies are much easier to see under those circum¬stances. Naturally, telling lies is easier if you are sitting behind a desk where your body is partially hidden, or while peering over a fence or behind a closed door. The best way to lie is over the telephone!


A commonly asked question is, ‘Is it possible to fake your own body language?’ The general answer to this question is ‘no’ because of the lack of congruence that is likely to occur in the use of the main gestures, the body’s microsignals and the spoken words. For example, open palms are associated with honesty but when the faker holds his palms out and smiles at you as he tells a lie, his microgestures give him away. His pupils may contract, one eyebrow may lift or the comer of his mouth may twitch, and these signals contradict the open palm gesture and the sincere smile. The result is that the receiver tends not to believe what he hears.
The human mind seems to possess a fail-safe mechanism that registers ‘tilt’ when it receives a series of incongruent non-verbal messages. There are, however, some cases in which body language is deliberately faked to gain certain advantages. Take, for example, the Miss World or Miss Universe contest, in which each contestant uses studiously learned body movements to give the impres¬sion of warmth and sincerity. To the extent that each contestant can convey these signals, she will score points from the judges, but even the experts can only fake body language for a short period of time and eventually the body will emit signals that are independent of conscious actions. Many politicians are experts in faking body language in order to get the voters to believe what they are saying and the politician who can successfully do this is said to have ‘charisma’.
The face is used more often than any other part of the body to cover up lies. We use smiles, nods and winks in an attempt to cover up, but unfortunately for us, our body signals tell the truth and there is a lack of congruence between our body gestures and facial signals. The study of facial signals is an art in itself. Little space is devoted to it in this book and for more information about it I recommend Face Language by Robert L. Whiteside.
In summary, it is difficult to fake body language for a long period of time but, as we shall discuss, it is good to learn and to use positive open gestures to communicate with others and to eliminate gestures that may give negative signals. This can make it more comfortable to be with people and can make you more acceptable to them.

Status and Power

Research in the field of linguistics has shown that there is a direct relationship between the amount of status, power or prestige a person commands and that person’s range of vocabu¬lary. In other words, the higher up the social or management ladder a person is, the better able he is to communicate in words and phrases. Non-verbal research has revealed a correlation between a person’s command of the spoken word and the amount of gesticula¬tion that that person uses to communicate his or her message. This means that a person’s status, power or prestige is also directly related to the number of gestures or body movements he uses. The person at the top end of the social or management scale can use his range of words to communicate his meaning, where¬as the less educated or unskilled person will rely more on gestures than words to communicate.
Throughout this book, most of the ex¬amples given refer to white, middle-class people but, as a general rule the higher the person on the socio-economic scale, the less gesticulation and body movement he uses.
The speed of some gestures and how obvious they look to others is also related to the age of the individual. For example, if a five-year-old child tells a lie to his or her parent, the mouth will be deliberately covered with one or both hands immediately after¬wards (Figure 6). The gesture of covering the mouth alerts the parent to the lie and this gesture continues to be used throughout the individual’s lifetime, usually varying only in the speed at which it is done. When the teenager tells a lie, the hand is brought to the mouth like that of a five-year-old, but instead of the obvious hand slapping gesture over the mouth, the fingers rub lightly around it (Figure 7).
This mouth-covering gesture becomes even more refined in adulthood. When the adult tells a lie, his brain instructs his hand to cover his mouth in an attempt to block the deceit¬ful words, just as it does for the five-year-old and the teenager, but at the last moment the hand is pulled away from the face and a nose touch gesture results (Figure 8). This gesture is nothing more than the adult’s sophisticated version of the mouth-covering gesture that was used in childhood. This is an example of the fact that, as an individual gets older, many of his gestures become sophisticated and less obvious, which is why it is often more difficult to read the gestures of a fifty¬ year-old than those of a much younger person.

Other Factors Affecting Interpretation

A man who has a ‘dead fish’ hand shake is likely to be accused of having a weak charac¬ter and the chapter on hand shake techniques will explore the reason for this popular theory. But if a man has arthritis in his hands, it is likely that he will use a ‘dead fish’ hand shake to avoid the pain of a strong one. Similarly, artists, musicians, surgeons and those in vocations whose work is delicate and involves use of their hands generally prefer not to shake hands, but, if they are forced to do so, they may use a ‘dead fish’ to protect them.
Someone who wears ill-fitting or tight clothing may be unable to use certain gestures, and this can affect use of body language. This applies to a minority of people, but it is important to consider what effect a person’s physical restrictions or disabilities may have on his or her body movement.

Gestures in Context

In addition to looking for gesture clusters and congruence of speech and body movement, all gestures should be considered in the context in which they occur. If, for example, someone was sitting at a bus terminal with arms and legs tightly crossed and chin down and it was a chilly winter’s day, it would most likely mean that he or she was cold, not defensive. If, however, the person used the same gestures while you were sitting across a table from him trying to sell him an idea, product or service, they could be cor¬rectly interpreted as meaning that the person was negative or defensive about the situation.
Throughout this book all gestures will be considered in context and, where possible, gesture clusters will be examined.


If you, as the speaker, were to ask the listener shown in Figure 5 to give his opinion of what you have just said and he said that he dis¬agreed with you, his non-verbal signals would be congruent with his verbal sentences, that is, they would match or be consistent. If, however, he said he was enjoying what you had to say, he would be lying because his words and gestures would be incongruent. Research shows that non-verbal signals carry about five times as much impact as the verbal channel and that, when the two are incon¬gruent, people rely on the non-verbal message; the verbal content may be disregarded.
We often see a high ranking politician standing behind a lectern with his arms tightly folded across his chest (defensive) and chin down (critical or hostile), while telling his audience how receptive and open he is to the ideas of young people. He may attempt to convince the audience of his warm, humane approach while giving short, sharp karate chops to the lectern. Sigmund Freud once noted that while a patient was verbally expressing happiness with her marriage, she was unconsciously slipping her wedding ring on and off her finger. Freud was aware of the significance of this unconscious gesture and was not surprised when marriage problems began to surface.


One of the most serious mistakes a novice in body language can make is to interpret a solitary gesture in isolation of other gestures or other circumstances. For example, scratch¬ing the head can mean a number of things -dandruff, fleas, sweating, uncertainty, forget¬fulness or lying, depending on the other gestures that occur at the same time, so we must always look at gesture clusters for a correct reading.
Like any other language, body language consists of words, sentences and punctuation. Each gesture is like a single word and a word may have several different meanings. It is only when you put the word into a sentence with other words that you can fully under¬stand its meaning. Gestures come in ‘sen¬tences’ and invariably tell the truth about a person’s feelings or attitudes. The ‘perceptive’ person is one who can read the non-verbal sentences and accurately match them against the person’s verbal sentences.
Figure 5 shows a common critical evalua¬tion gesture cluster. The main one is the hand¬-to-face gesture, with the index finger pointing up the cheek while another finger covers the mouth and the thumb supports the chin. Further evidence that this listener is critical of the speaker is seen by the fact that the legs are tightly crossed and the arm crosses the body (defensive) while the head and chin are down (hostility). This non-verbal ‘sentence’ says something like, ‘I don’t like what you are saying and I disagree with you.’

The V Sign

This sign is popular throughout Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain and carries an ‘up yours’ interpretation. Winston Churchill popularised the V for victory sign during World War II, but his two-fingered version was done with the palm facing out, whereas the palm faces towards the speaker for the obscene insult version. In most parts of Europe, however, the palm facing in version still means ‘victory’ so that an Englishman who uses it to tell a European to ‘get stuffed’ could leave the European wondering about what victory the Englishman meant. This signal also means the number two in many parts of Europe, and if the insulted European were a bartender, his response could be to give an Englishman or an Australian two mugs of beer.
These examples show that cultural mis¬interpretation of gestures can produce embar¬rassing results and that a person’s cultural background should always be considered before jumping to conclusions about his or her body language or gestures. Therefore, unless otherwise specified, our discussion should be considered culturally specific, that is, generally pertaining to adult, white middle class people raised in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, North America and other places where English is the primary language.

The Thumb-Up Gesture

In Britain, Australia and New Zealand the thumb-up gesture has three meanings; it is commonly used by hitch-hikers who are thumbing a lift, it is an OK signal, and when the thumb is jerked sharply upwards it becomes an insult signal, meaning ‘up yours’ or ‘sit on this’. In some countries, such as Greece, its main meaning is ‘get stuffed’, so you can imagine the dilemma of the Australian hitch-hiker using this gesture in that country! When Italians count from one to five, they use this gesture to mean ‘one’ and the index finger then becomes ‘two’, whereas most Australians, Americans and English people count ‘one’ on the index finger and two on the middle finger. In this case the thumb will represent the number ‘five’.
The thumb is also used, in combination with other gestures, as a power and superiority signal or in situations where people try to get us ‘under their thumb’. A later chapter takes a closer look at the use of the thumb in these particular contexts.

The Ring or ‘OK’ Gesture

This gesture was popularised in the USA during the early nineteenth century, apparent¬ly by the newspapers that, at the time, were starting a craze of using initials to shorten common phrases. There’ are many different views about what the initials ‘OK’ stand for, some believing it stood for ‘all correct’ which may have been misspelled as ‘oll korrect’, while others say that it means the opposite of ‘knock-out’ that is, K.O. Another popular theory is that it is an abbreviation of ‘Old Kinderhook’, from the birthplace of a nine¬teenth century American president who used the initials as a campaign slogan. Which theory is the correct one we may never know, but it seems that the ring itself represents the letter ‘O’ in the ‘OK’ signal. The-,’OK’ mean¬ing is common to all English-speaking coun¬tries and, although its meaning is fast spread¬ing across Europe and Asia, it has other origins and meanings in certain places. For example, in France it also means ‘zero’ or ‘nothing’; in Japan it can mean ‘money’; in some Mediterranean countries it is an orifice signal, often used to infer that a man is homosexual.
For overseas travellers, the safest rule to obey is, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. This can help avoid any possible embar¬rassing circumstances.