The changing social environment over the last few months has affected many of us, and it has increased the relevance of understanding nonverbals. You may be able to sense other’s apprehension at being in public places. Perhaps you feel anxiety about this yourself. Many things have changed, including one mainstay in our wardrobes: masks. It is common courtesy in some areas of the world to wear a mask if you are sick, or even just traveling amidst large numbers of people. In other parts of the world, however, this practice was not so common until recently. In fact, seeing a person walk toward you with a mask on could very well have inspired fear at one time. Now, much the opposite is true.

Despite the numerous changes to societal norms this year, the importance of nonverbals remains the same. In normal settings, parts of our body like our eyes, mouth, and face are giving off important cues. Now that our faces are half covered, however, we may find it difficult to differentiate between emotions that may appear similar, such as fear and surprise or anger and disgust. Let’s see how other parts of the body can help us in this new predicament.



Torso and Belly

In The Dictionary of Body Language, Joe Navarro states that “The torso is… the area of the body we tend to cover up first when we feel threatened.” He includes two observations regarding the torso that we can all learn to pay attention to. The first is clavicle massaging. Joe notes, “Under stress, individuals will massage the clavicle (collarbone) on the opposite side.” The second is postural echoing (mirroring). He states that “Our torso tends to echo the posture of those with whom we feel comfortable.”

Try clavicle massaging right now. Take your dominant hand and massage your collarbone on the opposite side. Chances are that this movement will feel familiar and comforting, even if you previously didn’t know what it was called. The next time you’re in a conversation with a friend, take note of your body language compared to theirs. Have you started mimicking (mirroring) their stance, or gestures? Practicing awareness of these behaviors in yourself will help you be attuned to when others use them.

Legs and Feet

The two behaviors described here are also from The Dictionary of Body Language. Feet are a huge indicator of how an individual is feeling. They carry us where we want to go. At times, they start to carry us in the direction we want without our conscious knowledge. Legs are indicators of desire. Joe says, “Legs and feet will gravitate toward… a person we are interested in. Or we might lean away as if to leave but our legs remain frozen in place because we like the person we are with.”

Foot turning away is another cue to pay attention to. “When we’re talking to someone, we might signal that we need to leave by gradually or suddenly pointing one foot toward the door,” says Navarro. Likewise, if we are interacting with someone and notice their foot turning towards the door, we can take the cue to let them be on their way.

The Benefits of Self Awareness

With the general population being more wary these days, we can use these nonverbals to help us understand if someone we meet is feeling comfortable or not. If we are aware of their feelings, we will be able to adjust our reactions to be accommodating and make our day-to-day interactions with people more positive. During the Social-Engineer’s weekly Instagram Livestream, Maxie Reynolds made the statement that “Self-awareness is the underpinning of being able to communicate effectively or read communications effectively in a nonverbal context and manner.” In this episode, she and Chris Hadnagy dove into nonverbals, and how self-awareness can enhance our day-to-day interactions.

One example was given during this Instagram livestream that can help bring all these points together. Imagine that a tall, large man rounds a corner in a grocery store quickly and startles a petite woman. Both are wearing masks. The man sees the woman’s lower eyelids tense and her arms move to block her stomach. If he is not self-aware, his first reaction could be to call out her fear. This would certainly be a negative interaction from the woman’s perspective.

However, if the man is self-aware, he will be able to recognize that he may have rounded the corner quickly or aggressively, startling the woman. He can then apologize for coming around the corner so fast, which may turn this interaction around. If he says something like “I’m so sorry, I rounded that corner like a bull in a china shop,” he may see her posture relax, perhaps her feet even turning back to face him. This would certainly leave the interaction on a more positive note. While we all battle this world filled with fear and aggression, a little self-awareness and kindness can make all the difference in your day.

Worth the Effort

An employee at SECOM recalled a time when self-awareness and understanding yielded positive results for her. While having breakfast with some colleagues, she noticed they had turned slightly away from her and were conversing among themselves. Her first reaction was to feel left out. But once she took a minute to reflect on her body language, she realized she had not been smiling, making eye contact, or paying much attention to what was being said! Understanding this helped her realize it was her own body language that had resulted in their natural response. By saying “Hey guys, sorry, my coffee hasn’t hit yet,” her colleagues laughed, and she was able to re-enter the conversation.

If this employee had not taken the time to assess her own body language, she may have left that breakfast feeling upset and confused, and her colleagues could have felt much the same! Self-awareness can yield practical and positive results with just a little effort on our part. Becoming self-aware of our own nonverbal communications will help us be more attuned to other’s. This, in turn, will help us better understand the feelings of those around us. Having this understanding will enable us to increase the number of positive interactions we experience on a day-to-day basis. Such results make the effort well worth it!