Understanding Body Language and Facial Expressions

Understanding Body Language and Facial Expressions

Head Movements

The movements of the head are also important non-verbal cues. For instance, in most places around the world, a nod is taken as a yes or as a sign of approval, while shaking your head sideways means no or disapproval. You should watch a person’s head movements carefully.

For instance, a person might be verbally expressing their approval about something, but then they unconsciously and subtly shake their head sideways. While it might be difficult to catch the movement, this is an indication that the person does not agree with what they are saying verbally. The speed of head movements also gives important cues.

For instance, if someone nods slowly in response to what you are saying, this shows that the person is captivated by your words and wants you to continue talking. If the person nods quickly, this might mean that they are impatient for you to finish what you are saying so that they can share their opinion or leave.

A sideways tilt of the head is another sign that a person is interested in what you are saying. If they tilt their head backwards, this could be a sign that they don’t really believe what you are saying.


Gestures can be some of the most direct and obvious body language signals. Waving, pointing, and using the fingers to indicate numerical amounts are all very common and easy to understand gestures.

Some gestures may be cultural, however, so giving a thumbs-up or a peace sign in another country might have a completely different meaning than it does in the United States.

The following examples are just a few common gestures and their possible meanings:

  • A clenched fist can indicate anger in some situations or solidarity in others.
  • A thumbs up and thumbs down are often used as gestures of approval and disapproval.
  • The “okay” gesture, made by touching together the thumb and index finger in a circle while extending the other three fingers can be used to mean “okay” or “all right.”10 In some parts of Europe, however, the same signal is used to imply you are nothing. In some South American countries, the symbol is actually a vulgar gesture.
  • The V sign, created by lifting the index and middle finger and separating them to create a V-shape, means peace or victory in some countries. In the United Kingdom and Australia, the symbol takes on an offensive meaning when the back of the hand is facing outward.

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