Uncross Those Arms: How Body Language Plays a role in Life & Fiction

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Human beings are a language-centered species, yet we communicate far more often with our bodies. Each day, we send signals to others via postures, facial expressions, and other seemingly benign gestures. In fact, that body language is often a more accurate indicator of our true feelings than our verbal cues.

Learning to decode the body language of our family members, friends, significant others, and co-workers can often shed great insight into “what is really going on in there.”

A few weeks ago I downloaded a free app on my iPhone called “Body Language Cues.” It came from Matt Sencenbaugh Education. The more I read on the topic, the more fascinated I became. I immediately set to work trying to “analyze” my fellow people. It’s not always easy, after all, nothing is that cut and dry. But I do believe that all day long, we send unconscious clues to others and vice-versa.

This got me thinking. What a great tool for character development! Understanding body language not only plays a major role in our real lives, but for the average fiction writer out there…this could be a wonderful way to enhance our characters’ struggles, conflicts, and emotions.

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*Here’s a general breakdown:

Common Cues

• Balled fists, elbows pressed firmly at the sides and spastic movements indicate fear.
• An arched, inclined, downward facing posture indicates sadness.
• Relaxed, loose muscles and the absence of a rigid form indicate a general sense of happiness.
• Hands that are jammed into pockets often suggest a lack of confidence or feelings of uneasiness.
• Arms that stay resting at the sides with open palms, and feet planted parallel on the floor can be a sign of humility.
• An obvious “up and down motion” of the Adam’s apple suggests anxiety.
• When someone’s upper body is directed towards you, it means he is in agreement with you or he likes you. If someone casts her upper body away from you, it means she disagrees or finds you repelling.
• A deadpanned, impassive facial expression may be interpreted as “Go away!”
• Arms crossed tightly at the chest is a self-soothing gesture. It may be a form of relieving anxiety.
• A shrug shows indifference, surrender, or a relinquishment of accountability
• Tilting the head backwards, or “lifting the chin and looking down the nose” indicates authority, dominance and haughtiness.

Sexual Signals

• Dilated pupils almost always suggest a keen interest in another person.
• If a woman studies her hands during conversation, it often indicates she is attracted to the person she’s speaking with. It may also convey nervousness.
• Women who intermittently cross and uncross their legs may be showing interest in their conversation partner.
• If someone “mirrors” or mimics your actions he or she may be telling you that they find you intriguing or engaging.
• When a woman unconsciously spreads her legs during conversation, it is often a sexual come on.

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Let me out of here!

• Someone who clinks their nails against a drinking glass or rapidly shaking or bobbing his foot likely is expressing that he wishes he were someplace else. This is often a gesture that signals impatience with the situation.
• If a person’s eyes are glossy, “dull or unfocused” they are likely bored to tears
• Fast, rapid nodding of the head can imply annoyance or agitation, while easy nodding shows comprehension and interest.

Liar, Liar

• The tone of voice of a liar will often be flat, unvaried.
• Liars will try to shift the course of conversation by using ironic humor or sarcasm.
• Liars won’t always crack under pressure. If their conversation partners stopping questioning and simply stare at the supposed liars, they will become uneasy. The ones telling the truth will often get indignant.
• Liars will often cough or clear their throats throughout their bogus explanations.
• Liars’ voices will sometimes change in speed and pitch. They might start speaking at a faster or slower rate. Also, they might use some words in a “higher-pitched” tone.
• Liars might display some typical nervous gestures such as nail biting or rubbing their palms down their thighs.
• A lowered gaze might be an indicator that someone is hiding the truth

*Most information came from “Body Language Cues” Matt Sencenbaugh Education.

In conclusion, it’s incredible how often we communicate in nonverbal ways. The culprit may not even be aware of his own actions! With these ideas in mind, it can be a great additional to the characterization in your story. Characters who display subtle signs through body movement and facial expressions will come across more rounded and humanistic.

Recommended: Video from TedTalks. This is a fabulous lecture on “power” body language and how it reflects our success. If you have the time, it’s really riveting

Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are 

Do you know of any other body language cues that I may have left off the list?



Filed under Characters, Writing Process

13 responses to “Uncross Those Arms: How Body Language Plays a role in Life & Fiction

  1. It is amazing what one can glean from body language. I recently bought the book “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It offers authors tools to convey characters’ emotions through body language and other means to avoid always using the same phrases over and over. I haven’t used it yet, since I’m still outlining, but it looks like it will be very useful.

    Great post!

  2. Interesting! Thanks for sharing such a great tool. Reminds me of a TED talk I watched online recently by Amy Cuddy on how you can change your posture to conditions yourself to be more confident, etc.

  3. Like Carrie Rubin, I just picked up The Emotion Thesaurus! 🙂 I was catching instances of ‘stage managing’ my dialogue, but got tired of my characters shrugging all the time, and needed some ideas for body language. Your post is very relevant to me right now!
    One bit of body language that I’ve found to be a giveaway is that when someone is lying they find it nearly impossible to lie while looking you straight in the eyes. Try it, you’ll see!

    • Yeah I know all about those liars who won’t look me in the eye! It sounds like good book. I heard about it only after I wrote this post. I think it’s awesome how many different ways we can bring our characters to life. I love the idea of developing them through their own words and movements rather than commentary from the author or narrator. This way the reader is more likely to make her own conclusions.

  4. Pingback: Body Language! (i.e. are you saying more than you think you are??) « Job Seeking Today

  5. Love this!! Someone once told me about crossing your arms and how it creates an unapproachable person. I have forever been aware of crossing my arms! This was a great post.

    • Thanks! I’ve heard that about arm-crossing as well. I sometimes catch myself doing it, because it IS a comfort move, I believe. But yeah, got to be wary of that one because people could take it the wrong way. But sometimes I’m just cold 🙂

  6. Interesting post. Reminds me of the show Lie To Me. 😉

  7. Nice post, Katie! I also have The Emotion Thesaurus, though I haven’t used it much either (I did send two people out to buy it, though). I was actually just discussing lying body language with my parents last week, when we watched the Jodi Arias trial and I kept pointing out that the direction of her eye movements was fairly indicative of lying behavior. I’ve always found this stuff quite fascinating, and it is helpful to familiarize oneself with while writing. Great post!

    • Thanks Eva. I’ve heard of the Emotion Thesaurus…though not until after this post was written. I think I should look into it! That Jodi Arias girl is NOT to be trusted. She’s totally guilty. And I agree, your observations suggest one thing: Liar!

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