Hi and welcome to the body gestures series. Here we’re gonna talk about 2 sets of gestures:
- Gestures that involve our torso and hips – the trunk of our body.
- Gestures that are not particular to a single limb, or a string of several actions that happen simultaneously.
I know that it seems a little strange to talk about gestures and the torso. After all, in contrast to other body parts, we don’t consider the trunk of our body as a very expressive or “mobile” part.
And that’s true, the amount of information and displays we make solely with the torso is very limited.
But my point in this series is to focus on behaviors that expose or, in contrast, guard our frontal vulnerable area.
Our torso, especially on the ventral side (the front) is a very vulnerable section of the body, it includes the neck, chest, abdomen, and crotch.
These parts contain valuable organs critical to our survival, so it’s only natural that we are born with an automatic safeguard system installed to protect them even at the expense of other, less critical parts, such as the hands.
OK, so if I said that protecting our ventral side is a priority, shouldn’t we just walk with body armor all the time? Or at least be on guard?
Why of course not, with all due respect to safety we still need to live a life, right? We want to move freely and enjoy ourselves without the constant fear of attack.
This means that when we feel physically and emotionally safe – we feel comfortable exposing our torso and making open body gestures.
When we do feel discomfort or anxiety, we often resort to gestures and actions that shield our body, make it smaller, and hide behind objects.
So when judging someone’s gestures ask, “Is this action exposing his ventral side, or shielding it?”
Does this person feel comfortable and safe enough to stand with his chest out or is he hiding behind his arms and tucked chin?
To give a few examples:
- After a good lunch, sitting back and relaxing with a full stomach bulging forward (and perhaps tapping on it happily) is an obvious display of satisfaction and comfort.
- When we feel deeply depressed we lower our head and curl into a fetal position – a defensive curl.
- Strong and authoritative figures walk with their chest out and head high, they avoid hiding behind objects and walk with firm steady paces. They have nothing to fear from their surroundings.
Just imagine the mean demeanor of a strict teacher walking around the room and in contrast the small posture of the student late to the class.
With this in mind, we can examine many body gestures more accurately.
Taking Space and Growing Bigger
Another point it’s important to get is this: Dominant and powerful figures take more space than submissive and insecure ones.
It’s the same as in the animal kingdom, where the alpha male gets the biggest share of food, females, and space, and it’s also true to our species – it’s just manifested somewhat differently – read here about territoriality.
So sending arms aside, laying the legs on the table, and putting hands on hips all tell the same – “I feel good and strong, this is my domain”
These positions often leave a person in a vulnerable position – he’s not ready for an attack, simply because he doesn’t believe anyone will try it.
Bullies who pester weaker opponents do so by puffing their chests and pushing their opponents. They appear intimidating that way, but this is not a good battle stance, they are sure of their strength (or the weakness of their victim).
By the way, this is why we get so mad when someone who’s in a lower social status than ours makes such dominant gestures, especially when it’s in OUR territory.
Examples. A teenager who leans back spreads his arms, and smiles when being reprimanded undermines the authority of his elders and therefore shows them disrespect.
“Sit up straight and look at me when I’m talking to you!” sound familiar?
Think about it – these are the instructions to make someone more submissive and obedient – like a soldier.
Beating on a puffed-up chest is an aggressive display that we share we other primates (Gorillas!). Think about it – not only do we expose the chest – but we also pound on it to show we don’t fear combat.
Honesty and the Truth Plane
When we want others to trust and believe us we need to show that we have nothing to hide. By exposing the ventral side and removing physical objects in front of us we remove the physical block – which leads to a more open communication channel.
One of the popular ways to show sincerity is to expose the palms – the ventral side of our hands. It says: “Hey, I have nothing to hide, just look at my hands!”
No wonder the open arms gesture became a universal signal for acceptance peace and freedom.
Alright, but does it mean that it’s possible to lie and still look believable using such body gestures?
Yes, it does, and many “professional liars” do. The thing is that it needs some practice and a very conscious control over your body language to make it successful.
Interestingly enough it’s hard for us to lie if we try to appear honest. If we use open body language we will instantly become more open and honest.
Because it feels exposed and vulnerable in the open, as if someone put a spotlight on us, we want to avoid the embarrassment and stress of being caught.
So remember, usually, honest people will not be afraid to be open with you both physically and verbally.
- Touching the chest and exposing palms are two gestures that complement each other well – we show that we speak from our heart and we have nothing to do with the accusations.
This is often the gesture that accompanies “I don’t know” = I honestly don’t know
Alright, so in the first part, we talked mainly about the ventral side of our body, and how we can understand the meaning of many body gestures by the way they expose or guard it.
In this second part… well let’s jump straight to it:
Leaning is the body’s way of showing involvement or lack of it. Simple as that.
When we talk and lean forward we’re engaged and reveal that the matter is important to us, it doesn’t mean that it’s always a positive body gesture – when we’re mad we also lean forward aggressively.
Backing off happens when a person is bored, has disdain, superiority, or even fear.
What we get, eventually, is that you can’t tell what the lean says except the level of involvement of whom you observe.
I imagine it as some sort of driving stick: forward is engaged, backward is hitting the brakes and the middle is the standby attention.
How to use Body Gestures during Conversation
Firstly, if you’re trying to sell something, even if it’s an idea or yourself (during an interview) look to see if your listener approves it – when all you see is a lean back with crossed arms it means it’s time to change your strategy.
You can often guess what is going to be the reaction of the listener by these and other preceding signs.
When people evaluate suggestions they usually curl a finger around their mouths or touch their face somewhere. But the question is, do they lean forward or back while they do that? Leaning back is a critical evaluation and leaning forward is a more enthusiastic evaluation.
Secondly, since most people understand the meaning of the lean subconsciously, you can use it to your advantage – if you want to show enthusiasm, even if a little fake, lean in and nod. (Don’t overdo it! Nobody likes ass-kissing)
If you want to stay cool and keep your facade – lean back and signal that you’re not impressed, they need to try harder.
The shoulder shrug is one of the universal gestures – meaning everyone does it the same.
Now, the full-body shrug consists of several gestures (as described by Desmond Morris):
Exposing the Crotch
Who does that, right?
Well, many do, just not in the way you think.
We have many body gestures that either emphasize or cover the genital area of our body. These gestures are more frequent in men because we have a subconscious drive to show females that we are virile and strong, by emphasizing our virile part.
All these signs are associated with dominance, sexual aggression, and little regard for social norms. This means you will often see these signs in young men trying to establish their social status and reveal their sexual desires.
When these signs appear in females they send a strong image of disregard for what others may think and a free spirit personality – “I do what I want and get what I want.”
The opposite body gestures send the opposite message – covering your genitals by holding hands over them sends messages of insecurity and shyness. It often appears in times of distress and vulnerability. Like when we’re being reprimanded.
This gesture with a combination of the shoulder shrugs sends a strong message of innocence. Watch Paris Hilton walk out of prison with the good girl look on her (she was instructed to do so):
If there is one gesture that can define authority – it’s the hands-on display – AKA arms akimbo.
In this gesture the message is action, or to be more precise – action readiness. It can be the impatience of a passenger in the waiting line, the anxious wait of the boxer before his fight, or the stance of a parent waiting for an answer from his misbehaving child.
What happens when a subordinate uses this gesture with his superior? It sends a message of defiance, even if it’s not the intention it may very well perceived that way. The manager might think: “Why does he look so puffed? Does he think he runs the show here?”
Note: Remember when we put our hands on the hips we grow bigger and therefore more dominant and threatening – we take more space!
Powerful and determined women prefer the more delicate way of putting only one hand on the hip.
We finished with body gestures for today! Some words to conclude what we learned:
The torso might not be the most expressive part when it comes to body language, but we can learn a lot from the way others treat it.
The bottom line is this – the torso and the body gestures revolve around it only give you a general attitude, “the skeleton” for your reading. But don’t read too much into it because without additional tells it’s very ambiguous.