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Lesson 7

Body Language

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According to behavior scientists, during face-to-face conversations, 5% of our message is verbal, 38% vocal (including tone of voice), while 55% is non-verbal - through gestures. By that they mean we communicate with our bodies in the form of gestures. Everybody communicates using these gestures and if you understand the gestures and their meaning you will be in a position to read people and know what they are really communicating to you. One researcher went as far as to say that we speak to hide what's on our minds. But gestures cannot lie.

Here is a guide to the main gestures and their meaning.

Palm, hand and arm gestures: An open palm facing upwards or away from the body indicates honesty and openness, as used by footballers and my cat. Every time footballers trip an opponent, they raise their hands, with open palms facing the referee as if to say, 'I didn't touch him.' When I walk into my bedroom, my cat jumps on the bed, rolls on its back and stretches out its front feet. Like the human animal, she's telling me, 'I want to play and mean no harm, look I'm even exposing my chest and stomach.' By contrast, when the palm turns towards the body or faces downwards, it's a sign of reasserting or assuming authority. But if you ask a work colleague to lend you a report while your palm faces the floor he'll frown at your arrogance. And if you combine it with a pointing fore-finger, he will feel intimidated, as the pointed finger symbolizes a stick beating him into submission. Many fights break out after someone jabs the air with a pointed finger at another person.

During handshakes the palm-up or palm-down positions also carry the same meaning. When one person grips the other person's hand with his hand on top, palm facing downwards, he is signaling his intention to dominate. And vice versa. But if both palms remain in a vertical position, both persons are putting each other on equal footing. Ever met someone who squashes your fingers? That's the 'tough man's' handshake. The politicians' handshake takes another form: he wraps your hand between his hands to give the impression of a warm and trustful personality. Beware of people who shake your hand in this way.

Another gesture that signals a confident and superior attitude is when someone cups both hands together behind his head. If you walk into your boss' office and he leans back in his chair and lifts both hands behind his head, he's telling you, "I'm smarter than you, I have all the answers."

Other superior gestures are thumb displays. Whether the thumb is hanging out of a pocket or standing out as your hands grip the opening of your coat, you're saying, "Look at me, I know it all."

Hand to face gestures: A friend was talking about her uncle's business in Australia. As she recounted how he generated millions, she lightly rubbed her nose with her fore-finger. That indicated she was exaggerating. In children this gesture is more obvious, covering their mouth with one hand to block the lie; the nose-touch version by adults is more refined.

"Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil," Allan Pease, in his book Body Language, captioned the hand-to-face gestures that are an attempt to block deceit.

My friend, besides rubbing her nose, also rubbed her eyes, which is an attempt by the brain to avoid looking into my eyes when lying. Another gesture having the same meaning is the ear rub, the hear-no-evil gesture. Note that these gestures are used both to block what another person is saying or what the person doing the gestures is saying.

Everyone recognizes the boredom gesture and you may even remember it from your schooldays, when your hand supported your face on the desk as you strained to keep your eyelids open. But don't confuse it with the interested evaluation gesture, when a closed hand with the index finger pointing upwards rests beneath the cheek. Notice this in a meeting when someone springs an interesting idea. If the idea is a bit far-fetched, however, observe the listeners shift their thumb underneath their chin, showing critical evaluation. Then, when the chairperson asks for comments on the idea, most members will start stroking their chin with their fore-finger and thumb, indicating they are making a decision.

Arm and leg barricades: We cross our arms and legs to shield our body in hostile situations. In demonstrations the police stand in a line with their arms crossed, clenching their fists beneath their armpits. Crossing arms is a defensive stance adopted by people when surrounded by strangers who are too close for comfort, such as in queues, trains and elevators.

We use anything at hand as a shield, and not only when we face a tight corner, but also when we are unsure of ourselves - in parties or public places for example. In a party someone who's just been introduced to a group of strangers may play with the cuff of his shirt, forming an arm barrier. Then, as that person begins to relax, his hands will drop to his sides and he lifts his head, showing that he now feels comfortable.

When two people gaze into each other's eyes for more than two-thirds of the time they face each other, it means one of two things: they're either interested in each other, or one of them is hostile to the other and the gaze is a non-verbal challenge. In fact, if you stare at a strange dog for a long time, he/she will feel threatened and attacks you or retreats. We react in the same way.

To decipher gestures correctly, put each gesture in context. It's easy to jump to conclusions. If someone is standing outside with his hands and arms crossed, the reason may be because he is cold not defensive. Don't look at isolated gestures. Gestures often occur in clusters, one following the other, each one reinforcing a particular attitude. Skeptics sometimes claim that they, for example, cross their arms and legs for comfort not defense or to argue. But if they observe themselves closely, they would be surprised to discover that their gestures are a carbon copy of their feelings, as described above.

To learn to decode gestures, the key is to watch yourself first, to spot the link between your gestures and your thoughts. Then start observing others, looking for the motive behind the gestures.

*Source: "You are what you gesture" - Victor Paul Borg

  1. behaviour - държание, поведение
  2. face-to-face conversation - пряк разговор
  3. verbal - словесен
  4. gesture - жест
  5. palm - длан
  6. upwards - нагоре
  7. to trip - препъвам (се), спъвам (се)
  8. referee - рефер, съдия
  9. to mean/think no harm - нямам лоши намерения
  10. to expose - откривам, излагам
  11. downwards - надолу
  12. to assert - отстоявам; изтъквам се, налагам се
  13. to assume - предполагам
  14. authority - тежест, авторитет
  15. to lend - 1) давам назаем, заемам; 2) оказвам (помощ)
  16. to frown - мръщя се, намръщвам се
  17. fore-finger, index finger - показалец
  18. to feel intimidated - чувствам се заплашен/застрашен
  19. stick - пръчка, тояга
  20. submission - послушание, подчинение
  21. to break out - избухвам, разразявам се
  22. to jab - пробождам, намушвам
  23. handshake - ръкостискане
  24. intention - намерение, стремеж
  25. vice versa - обратно
  26. on an equal footing, on a footing of equality - на равна нога, при равни условия
  27. to squash - мачкам
  28. to wrap - завивам, загръщам
  29. trustful - доверчив
  30. beware - внимавай, пази се
  31. superior - превъзхождащ
  32. to cup (-pp-) - държа, поставям (като) в чаша
  33. thumb - палец
  34. recount - разказвам, разправям
  35. to rub (-bb-) - трия, потривам
  36. to exaggerate - преувеличавам
  37. refined - рафиниран, изтънчен, фин
  38. caption - заглавие на статия/книга/глава
  39. deceit - измама, лъжа
  40. boredom - отегчение, скука, досада
  41. to strain - напрягам се, напъвам се
  42. eyelid - клепач, клепка
  43. cheek - страна, буза
  44. far-fetched - пресилен; невероятен; изсмукан от пръстите
  45. to shift - местя, премествам, отмествам
  46. underneath - долу, отдолу
  47. chin - брада, брадичка
  48. chairperson - лице, председателствуващо събрание и пр.
  49. to shield - защитавам, браня
  50. to clench - стискам, свивам
  51. fist - юмрук
  52. armpit - подмишница
  53. stance - позиция, поза
  54. queue (BrE) - опашка
  55. cuff - маншет, ръкавел
  56. to retreat - отстъпвам, оттеглям се
  57. conclusion - заключение, извод
  58. cluster - група, купчина
  59. to reinforce - подсилвам
  60. carbon copy - копие направено под индиго; прен. точно копие
  61. to spot - разг. забелязвам, съзирам
 Break or Brake


Meaning: an old proverb said of people who do not want to be drawn into a situation (concept in denial of the truth that evil exists). The saying is often written under a picture or statue of three monkeys; the first covering his eyes, the second covering his ears, and the third covering his mouth. An American might say, "I looked out my office window when I heard the child scream. Nobody stopped to help. I guess they thought…see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

* * *

"It is a fallacy that the Three Wise Monkeys, who hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil, are indigenously Japanese. It is true that they have had their domicile there for many centuries. But originally they came from China and were introduced into Japan by a Buddhist monk of the Tendai sect, probably in the 8th century A.D. The monkeys were at first always associated with the blue-faced deity Vadjra, a fearsome god with three eyes and numerous hands. Their characteristic gestures of covering their ears, eyes and mouths with their paws were a dramatic pictorial way of conveying the command of the god. This shows an early realization of the psychological fact that a striking picture is more impressive and lasting more than a spoken message. Nevertheless, the story has been told in various traditions in prose and poetry. It dates back to at least the 7th century and is part of the teaching of the Vadjra cult that if we do not hear, see or talk evil, we ourselves shall be spared all evil. In the folk etymology and by a play on words the very names of the three monkeys – Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru – express their three gestures and thus anyone by merely referring to them immediately proclaims their message."

"How Did It Begin: A fascinating study of the superstitions, customs, and strange habits that influence our daily lives" by R. Brash (Pocket Book, New York, 1969)

Test it out!

Fill the gaps in the sentences, using the phrases below:

hand-to-face gestures, wraps your hand, boredom gesture, intention to dominate, assuming authority, upwards or away, superior attitude, pointed finger, to shield our body, on equal footing

1. An open palm facing from the body indicates honesty and openness.
2. Many fights break out after someone jabs the air with a at another person.
3. When the palm turns towards the body or faces downwards, it's a sign of reasserting or .
4. When one person grips the other person's hand with his hand on top, palm facing downwards, he is signaling his .
5. If both palms remain in a vertical position, both persons are putting each other .
6. The politicians' handshake takes another form: he between his hands to give the impression of a warm and trustful personality.
7. Another gesture that signals a confident and is when someone cups both hands together behind his head.
8. "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil," Allan Pease, in his book Body Language, captioned the that are an attempt to block deceit.
9. Everyone recognizes the and you may even remember it from your schooldays, when your hand supported your face on the desk as you strained to keep your eyelids open.
10. We cross our arms and legs in hostile situations.

Body language around the world

Roger Axtell, former international business executive and now professional speaker and author, has cataloged a variety of gestures and their appropriate uses in cultures around the world. His collection of examples shows clearly that an intended message may not always be communicated successfully. Some common miscommunicated meanings include:

  • The "two-fingered salute." In most of the contemporary world flashing the index and middle finger in a "V" shape, palm outward, signifies "victory" or "peace" (depending on the vintage of the communicator). However, in England, Australia, and several other countries, a simple turn of the wrist (flashing the sign with the palm toward the communicator) changes this gesture to a highly insulting one: a two-fingered version of our "one-fingered salute."

  • "The fig." Brazilians clench their fists with a thumb jutting between the index and middle fingers to signal good luck and help in warding off evil spirits. In Greece and Turkey, however, this same gesture is quite insulting, whereas in Holland and Tunisia it has sexual connotations.

  • "Hook 'em Horns." Texans, especially Austinites, know that an outstretched index and pinky finger signal a cheer for the University of Texas Longhorns to do well on the playing field. This same gesture signals a curse in Africa, a good luck sign in Brazil, and an Italian chide that the recipient is being cuckolded.

  • Signaling that someone is "crazy" can take on a variety of forms. In Germany it is done by rotating the forefingers back and forth around one's temples. Italians send the same message by tapping their hands to their foreheads. To complicate matters, in Holland a forefinger to the temple means "intelligent" whereas a forefinger to the forehead signals "crazy." The common North American gesture of a circular motion around the temple actually signals "There's a phone call" among Argentineans.

  • "Nice job!" Flashing a "thumbs up" to a friend usually signals that the person has done well or that the communicator wishes good luck. In Australia, however, it is considered the equivalent of the "two-fingered salute" discussed above, whereas in Japan it signals "five," in Germany it indicates "one," and in Bangladesh it is considered obscene.

  • "Pointing" is accomplished in North America and Europe by using the index finger. In Malaysia the thumb is preferred, whereas in Japan and China an open hand is used.

  • The "hand sweep." Moving one's hand and arm across a table in a sweeping motion signals "someone is stealing" in Latin American countries. In Peru, this same gesture means "pay me."

  • Extending the palm of the hand toward someone might be a way of saying "no more" or "no thanks." In Greece, however, it is an extremely insulting gesture mimicking shoving dirt (and other brown matter) into someone's face.

Axtell, R. E. (1991). Gestures: The do's and taboos of body language around the world. New York: Wiley.


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