How To Read Body Language

As writers, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that even while silent, our bodies speak volumes. Nonverbal cues — body language — are the physical behavior, expressions, and mannerisms that communicate how we really feel.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our bodies are sending nonverbal signals when we interact with others. By analyzing gestures, posture, tone of voice, level of eye contact, etc., we can learn many things. Body cues enhance dialogue between characters.

Are you reading those same signals in the real world?

Members of the Animal Kingdom rely on body language to warn each other of potential danger. Crows are especially attuned to their environment. Just sayin’. 😉 I believe animals are our greatest teachers. We can learn a lot by studying how they interact with their environment and with different species. Matters not if a squirrel doesn’t speak crow, raven, or blue jay. That squirrel still knows how the birds are feeling, and vice versa, by reading their body language.

When we say one thing, but our body language says the opposite, the listener may conclude we’re being dishonest. And rightfully so. For example, we may say “yes” while wagging our head from side to side. Because body language is a natural, subconscious act that broadcasts our true feelings and intentions, the nonverbal signal is more accurate than spoken words.

Being cognizant of our own body language and perfecting how to communicate more fully is a valuable skill to learn for interviews, sales, book signings, video marketing, etc…anywhere we interact with others. Profilers and investigators rely on body language to help them dig for the truth.

Face Facts

The human face is extremely expressive, able to convey countless emotions without saying a word. Unlike other forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. Indistinguishable across cultures, facial expressions show happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust, to name a few.

Say Cheese

Not everyone smiles the same way. Some favor a close-lipped smile over a toothy grin. In general, when someone’s authentically happy, their whole face lights up and smile lines extend up to the corners of their eyes. On the flipside, a closed mouth smile may mean they’re masking their real emotion or appeasing their audience to avoid conflict.

Un-kissable Lips

Another mouth-related clue, pursed lips almost always indicate dissatisfaction or anger.

Eye of the Tiger

Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an important nonverbal body cue. The way we look at someone communicates many things, including interest, affection, hostility, or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s interest and response.

If you’re chatting with someone and they narrow their eyes, their body language portrays anger, confusion, or suspicion, and in some cases, deep concentration.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

When someone is being dishonest, they’ll look up to their upper right (your left when facing them). The right side of the brain is our creative side (as you probably know). That glance upward allows them to access that part of the brain, thus thinking more creatively while fabricating the truth. They may also pause—stall—to buy time while constructing a more convincing lie.

Can You Hear My Body Language?

Consider how you perceive others by the way they sit, walk, stand, or hold their head. The way we carry ourselves nonverbally communicates a wealth of information. This type of body language includes posture, stance, and more subtle movements (as shown below).

Hot Crossed Buns Arms

How someone holds themselves says a lot about what they’re thinking, especially when it comes to their arms. A closed-off position indicates self-protection and blocking out a negative source. When we’re comfortable or open to communication, we’re more likely to stand with relaxed arms.

Space Shot

Have you ever had someone invade your personal space? Made you uncomfortable, right? We all need physical space, though that distance differs depending on the culture, situation, or closeness of the relationship. We use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including intimacy, affection, aggression, or dominance.

If someone’s uncomfortable or disinterested, they may slightly turn away from the conversation—whether they realize it or not.

Footprints in the Sand

Take note of the feet. Subconsciously, we tend to point our toes in the direction of where we’d like to go. If someone’s enjoying your company, their feet should point toward you. But if they desperately want to bolt, their feet will likely point toward the nearest exit. One caveat to this research is pain. Hence why we need to consider the person we’re talking to as well as the context of the encounter.

Nervous Nellie

When someone is nervous, they’ll often sit with their ankles crossed. Surprising, right? One exception is when the rest of their body portrays openness. For example, lacing fingers behind their head, reclined, with ankles crossed straight out in front of them. But if they lean back with their arms crossed it signals objection. Hence why you may want to reconsider how the interaction is going. If you’re trying to win someone over, engage them with questions and see if they lean forward instead.

Pat-A-Cake, Pat-A-Cake, Baker’s Hands

Gestures are woven into the fabric of daily life. A wave, point, or animation of hands often express emotion. Interestingly, some gestures vary between cultures. For example, flashing the “okay” hand signal conveys a positive message, but it’s considered offensive in Germany, Russia, and Brazil, for example. Should we discuss raising the middle finger? Hand signals don’t get much clearer than that. 😉

Stroking the chin often indicates a high interest in the conversation. Likely that person will ask probing questions to learn more. If you spot this cue, you’ve piqued interest among a captive audience.

Reach Out & Touch Someone

We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the message behind a weak handshake, or a warm bear hug, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip of the arm.

The Nose Knows

Many people touch their nose, sniff, or breathe heavier when stressed. Breathing regulates the body, eases tension while we communicate, and helps us to regain composure. If we pay attention to these behaviors in others, it’ll help unearth the truth. Again, context is key. If someone is ill or has a health issue, we can safely disregard sniffing. But repetitive sniffing or quickened breaths indicate the person feels unbalanced or is trying to remain composed.

Watch Your Tone of Voice

Never is it a matter of what we say, but how we say it. When we speak, others read our voice while listening to our words. Timing, pace, volume, tone, inflection, and utterances that convey understanding, such as “ahh” and “uh-ha” are all good indicators to watch for. Think about how your tone changes when you add sarcasm, anger, affection, or confidence.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Keep in mind, body language is not always 100% accurate. The context of the situation as well as the individual we’re speaking to are both key factors to consider.

Writing aside, are you aware of body language in the real world? Funny stories always welcome!

On a personal note, I regained full control over my Mayhem Series. Woohoo! Created my own imprint and Indie pubbed all five books. What an amazing feeling! Book 6 is with my editor and I’m working with my cover designer now. Gotta share my new logo. You’ll get a kick outta it. 😉 Still waiting for Amazon to transfer my reviews. Other than that, I’m having a blast with my newfound freedom.


This entry was posted in #writerslife, #WritingCommunity, A Writer's Life and tagged , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

39 thoughts on “How To Read Body Language

  1. Thanks for this, Sue. Could we add teeth gritting to this list? It’s not always obvious unless one watches very closely, yet can sometimes be detected even in international situations.

    Also, I’ve encountered crossed buns, hot or cold, a time or two. Just saying.

    Have a great and freedom-filled week!

  2. Freedom indeed, Sue! Welcome to Indie World.

    Re: Body language. Back in my acting days I had an audition in front of a famous casting director. Or infamous. I poured my heart out in the reading and she sat there, with a cold stare on her face. Didn’t say a word. It was so rude. I slunk out, went home and immediately wrote a short story about a casting director who meets a horrible end. Felt great. Writing as catharsis!

    This was before those t-shirts that say “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.”

  3. Now that I’ve read this post this morning I’ll find myself watching body language more closely than usual to see what observations I make. LOL!

    One thing that can be tricky is what you read into a smile or lack thereof. I, for example, am not a natural smiler, though most of the time I’m perfectly happy. For whatever reason, I do not tend to physically smile all that much—so it would be easy for people to mistake me for being grumpy, sad, etc. even when that’s not the case (now that I think of it, I wonder if I developed that ‘non-smiling’ habit because I’m an introvert and not smiling makes you look less approachable?).

    The other thing I found interesting was mention of stroking the chin indicating high interest. I’m going to make a note to watch for this because when I read the post, it reminded me that I don’t seem to see this gesture much with people any more—either in my own conversations or watching conversations between others. Not sure if that’s genuinely true or I just haven’t been paying enough attention. I’ll be curious to see if I notice it more in the coming days.

    Also interesting that you bring this up because for one of the writing projects I’m developing—I was thinking about what types of professions lend themselves to both the necessity and skill of being able to read people’s body language. The police, obviously, for dealing with criminals. I assume that those in counseling/psychology develop this skill as well, & any medical professional has to develop this to some degree to diagnose/treat along with their assessment & exam. I’m sure there are other professions as well that need this ability.

    Also interesting in the context of a bartender—they are traditionally known in books and movies as lending a listening ear, but how much do they rely on body language observation as well as listening? Anybody worked as a bartender who has thoughts on that?

    • Love how you probed deeper into the post, Brenda! All excellent questions and theories.

      Maybe it’s true that you don’t smile on a subconscious level to keep others at a distance. That could be an interesting trait in character development. Bet you’d learn a lot about yourself at the same time. I’m the opposite, always wearing a smile. My mother was a smiler, too.

      Stroking the chin surprised me, too. We may see it more when discussing intellectual topics.

      As for professions, we all should be aware of body language, especially our own, to make sure we’re portraying the right message. Hence my motivation for this post. 😀

      Bartenders are a lot like hairdressers — everyone tells them their secrets. I’ve never bartended but I did own two hair salons in my past life. Oh, the stories I could tell!

  4. Happy Independence Day, Sue! Crow Talons is a perfect logo for your serial killer!

    “That glance upward allows them to access that part of the brain, thus thinking more creatively while fabricating the truth.” What an interesting tidbit. I knew about the look up to the right but not the reason behind it. Thanks!

    I try to use action/body language tags instead of “he said, she said.” That fulfills two needs at the same time: attribution and conveyance of emotion.

  5. Great post, Sue.

    I often use beats with descriptions of body language in lieu of dialogue attributions. Your list is wonderful. I’ll study this.

    As for hair salons: When I added vasectomies to my medical practice, I started out my marketing in the local hair salons. Not only does everyone tell the stylist their secrets, they talk about EVERYTHING.

    Congrats on the indie publishing! I love your logo.

    • So true, Steve! One time, one of our “regulars” dragged me in the back room and ripped off her blouse and bra to show me her breast enhancements. I just about died of embarrassment. She wasn’t a young woman, either!

  6. Great information, Sue, and timely for me. I’m on the last pass through my WIP before sending it to the copy editor, and I think there are some places I could add body language.

    Congratulations on getting the rights back and going independent. Good luck with it all!

    • For the best body language, I highly recommend the Emotion Thesaurus (my body cue bible).

      Thanks, Kay! It’s an exciting time for sure.

  7. Here’s to publishing freedom, Sue! Congratulations!!

    Body language is one of those things I’m always working on adding in my writing, and trying to vary. Your post is chock full of great points. Interesting thing about smiling is that it can often, in my experience, serve as a non-verbal greeting or acknowledgement, at least in our culture. I might encounter a stranger while walking, smile, and they will smile back. Or vice versa.

    Tone is a tricky beast in my experience, especially if we are fooling ourselves about the tone we are injecting into our speech–perhaps we are more stressed or irritated than we consciously realize, but the tone reveals the truth of how we feel.

    Some of these are subtler than might seem at first glance. Crossed arms, for instance. Sometimes it seems more comfortable to hold our arms that way, but is that the same sort of comfort you might get from sitting from a chair with your back to the wall, because in both cases you feel more secure?

    Lots of great stuff here! Thanks for a terrific post. Have a wonderful week with your newfound freedom!

    • Exactly right about the closed-off position, Dale. In restaurants, I search for tables with no one behind me, because I’ve studied killers for far too long. LOL

      Thanks so much! I’m psyched about my new venture. Wishing you a fab week as well, sweet friend.

    • If a meeting participant crosses his arms, it may be meaningless. He may be reflecting the same posture in another attendee. Try it sometime. Cross your arms and see how many of the others present do the same.

  8. Not necessarily one to believe in coincidence, here’s “one” nonetheless….

    My daily calendar of inspirational quotes had this for today:
    “If you want to build trust in a relationship, make sure you use appropriate body language. When you speak to someone, face them directly (nose to nose, toes to toes), rather than at an angle where their perception may be that you are giving them the ‘cold shoulder.'” – American Therapist Sharon Johnson…

    Hmmmm… 🤔 Hmm? 🙂

  9. Congrats, Sue!

    Loved this post. If only I’d known about the “eyes upward to the right” tip when I had teenagers at home. Another opportunity lost.

    We sometimes watch a program which utilizes body language experts who have served in the national intelligence arena. Extremely interesting to watch an interrogation, a speech, or just a casual conversation, then get the expert’s take on what was really communicated.

  10. Informative post! I use body language in my books as dialog tags as well, but your list gives me more options to consider. I do use the Emotion Thesaurus, Emotion Amplifier, and the Body Beats to Build On. All are good, but your list gave a few others I hadn’t thought about. Thanks!

    And congrats on going Indie!

  11. Yay! Congrats on getting your books back. Love the logo. We called our publishing company Our Noir with a babe smoking a ciggie. Very unPC. So sue me. 🙂

    • Thanks, Kris! I thought of you guys during this process. Five was hard enough to get back up. Can’t even imagine all your books. It’s such a freeing feeling though!

      LOL Thanks! I did a ton of research on imprint names. During which, Poe (crow) landed on the tree next to my window. And bam! It all fell together.

  12. Good on you, Sue, to whip off the TP pants and put the Indie ones on. You’re gonna do this self-stuff right.

    Speaking of body language, a while ago I click-baited “How to Tell if a Woman is Flirting With You”. I wanted to know because, as far as I know, no woman has ever flirted with me so I wanted to know if I missed something, Sure enough, some of the body signs stated in the article seem exactly as you pointed out. One is the foot placement – kinda open and inviting but slightly off to her good side turned toward you. Another is the non-crossed arms and the occasional brushing the other with fingers. Then, this one I was blind to. Hair flipping. The more the flip, the more the flirt. I could go on. Cocked head, flittering eye contact, wide smiles, lotsa giggles, and a bit of language like, “Oh, you are so sweet!” A more than 3-second parting hug. Even the unexpected French kiss when saying so long.

    Looking back, other than these, I don’t recall any woman flirting with me. At least not that I noticed.

  13. Psychologist Todd Grande has made several videos on body language. This fifteen minute one is very detailed:

    “This video attempts to answer the question: ‘Can body language be used to detect deception or reveal other details about thinking, feelings, or behavior?'” Dr. Grande’s take on looking up and to the right is found at 5:25.

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