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Body Language Basics

From a flip of the hair to hands on your hips, how you move, gesture, and make expressions can say as much as what comes out of your mouth.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Angel Rose, 34, an assistant vice president at a bank in upstate New York, was interviewing candidates for a teller position, which required that a person have good people and communication skills, a professional presentation, and a strong focus on customer service, among other abilities.

One candidate in particular stood out, but not in a good way. While she could have been very intelligent, her nonverbal communication and body language were way off. Her handshake was more of a finger shake, her eye contact was nonexistent, and her slouched posture exuded insecurity. For Rose, what the candidate said didn't matter because her body language spoke volumes: she wasn't a good fit for the position.

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"Most communication experts now believe that almost 90% of what we say comes from nonverbal cues, which includes our body language," says Patti Wood, author of Success Signals: A Guide to Reading Body Language.

Body language, she explains, is everything from our facial expressions, to eye contact, to our gestures, stance, and posture. While the nuances of body language are complicated, there are some common body language signs worth a thousand words.

Body Language ABCs

Flipping your hair, shaking hands, making eye contact, and smiling are more than just movements -- they're a part of your nonverbal communication, adding emphasis and emotion.

"Body language represents a separate communication process beyond words," says Ross Buck, PhD, a professor of communication sciences and psychology at the University of Connecticut. "It exists simultaneously with language, but it is emotional and largely happening at the subconscious level."

What are some of the basic body language cues that we display and what kind of effect can they have on the impression we make on other people? Here's a beginner's guide to understanding what our bodies are saying:

Handshakes. A handshake can say so much more than hello, nice to meet you. "The most important part of a handshake is palm-to-palm contact," says Wood. "It's even more significant than the grip."

The palm-to-palm contact expresses an intention of honesty and openness, and that your interaction will be sincere and nonthreatening.

The "limp fish" handshake, Wood explains, seems so uncomfortable because it usually means that the palms don't touch, as Rose experienced in her interview.

Here are other handshake types:

  • Bone crusher: A person may be insecure and trying to overcompensate with an over-the-top hello.
  • Palm-down handshake: A person may be trying to express his dominance.
  • A left-handed wrap of the handshake from the top: A person may be trying to express his dominance.
  • A left-handed wrap of the handshake from underneath: A person may be trying to support and comfort you.

Synchrony. Synchrony happens when two people who are interacting mirror body language cues, explains Buck. What can it mean?

"Synchrony is a signal that both people are on the same page," says Buck. "When you see someone copying your body language, or you notice that you are copying his, it's a clue that you are probably sharing a similar mind-set at the time."

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