While most people know that facial expressions and body language can tell others something about what we’re thinking and feeling, there’s a less well-known use for body language: changing our own attitudes and moods.
Follow the smile
Take smiling, for instance. According to research, a person who is unhappy but who tries smiling will tend to become happier. Strangely, while our brains send signals to our bodies to broadcast the mental state we’re in, our bodies also send signals back that our brain tends to obey. While a forced smile will feel awkward (and often look fake) at first, our brains can soon begin to catch up, transforming the smile into a genuine one–as long as our intention is actually to be happy rather than to try to fool someone else into thinking we are.
Another good use for changing our body language is to become more open and confident. Typically when we feel threatened, defensive, or resistant, our bodies reflect this by closing off and turning away: we’ll find ourselves pointing a foot toward the door instead of the person who’s talking, or cross our arms in front of our chests, or turn our bodies away, or clasp our hands. If we want to feel more open and receptive–and to broadcast that to the person we’re talking to, even if they have no conscious knowledge of body language–then we can turn our bodies and feet to face the speaker, spread our hands, and even turn our palms up. This conveys to the speaker that we’re listening and keeping an open mind, which may help that person relax–at the same time that it helps us relax, be open, and pay attention.
Reading our own body language
Mindfulness of our own body language also has a lot to offer us. Just noticing that you’ve crossed your arms or clasped your hands, for instance, can help make hidden discomfort conscious so that something can be done about it. Or you might say something and then notice that you’ve touched your nose–a classic signal that a person may not be telling the whole truth, that something’s being held back. Realizing what we’re broadcasting with our bodies offers the chance of noticing the undercurrents of our own moods and thoughts and of trying to change them if we want to.
One shark does not make a feeding frenzy
One final note that’s worth considering whenever we talk about body language: a single gesture is not a reliable indicator of a person’s mood. If you want to read body language, including your own, it’s important to take in the whole person. For example, sometimes a person’s nose genuinely itches while they’re talking–no matter how open and truthful they’re being–and crossing arms can mean that a person feels cold instead of threatened. Reading body language can provide terrific hints toward what’s going on as long as we avoid taking a single gesture as ironclad proof of anything.
The book I recommend on this subject, if you’re interested in learning about it in more depth, is The Definitive Book of Body Language.