Published here February 2017.


Musings Index

The Importance of Reading Body Language:
and What It Means to Project Teams

In these days of projects galore, more or less involving virtual teams, we often find ourselves working at separate computer stations, even in separate cubicles, that may or may not be collocated. Under these circumstances, it is much easier to send an Email or text message than it is to get up and go and talk to someone face-to-face (F2F). But how effective and efficient is this situation? Or are we losing something?

It has been suggested that, aside from a much faster resolution to some problem by back and forth discussion, there is much more to an F2F meeting. That's because a significant amount of information is conveyed in "messaging without words". That is to say, in non-verbal communication or body language that inevitably accompanies a personal spoken message, especially when conveying feelings or attitudes.

In fact, it has been suggested that:[1]

  • 7% is conveyed by the words
  • 38% by the vocal tones, and
  • 55% by facial and body expression

So aside from the use of a few emoticons and intelligently written language in an Email message, up to 90% of the real message may be lost. So the potential for miss-communication is considerable, as most of us probably experience far too frequently.

That is also a very good argument for collocation of the project team wherever possible. But where that is simply not possible, we must recognize the hidden challenge. However, where it is possible, then we had better know how to read the signs of Body Language, both positive and negative so that the benefits are not lost. Indeed, reading body language is an important skill, useful in every day contacts in any case. It is also essential in F2F negotiating.

Here follows a typical list of non-verbal body gestures. But be warned, these reflect North American gestures and do not necessarily correctly reflect gestures from other ethnic cultures, especially in other countries.

Positive Body Language


Negative Body Language

  •  Hand to chest
  •  Open arms and hands
  •  Touching gestures
  •  Moving closer, one to another
  •  Preening
  •  Sitting on one leg (for female)

  •  Steepling (fingers touching like a church steeple)
  •  Hands behind back, authority position
  •  Back stiffened
  •  Hands in coat pockets with thumbs out
  •  Hands on lapels of coat

  •  Rubbing palms
  •  Jingling money openly
  •  Crossed fingers
  •  Moving closer

Cooperation, readiness, openness
  •  Open hands
  •  Hands on hips
  •  Hands on mid-thigh while seated
  •  Sitting on edge of chair
  •  Moving closer
  •  Sprinter's position
  •  Hand-to-face gestures

  •  Hand-to-face gestures
  •  Head tilted
  •  Stroking chin
  •  Peering over glasses
  •  Taking glasses off, and cleaning
  •  Putting eye glass ear piece in mouth
  •  Pipe smoker gestures
  •  Getting up from table and walking around
  •  Putting hand to bridge of nose

  •  Touching
  •  Pinching flesh
  •  Chewing pen or pencil
  •  Rubbing over thumb
  •  Touching back of chair on entering room
  •  Biting finger nails
  •  Hands in pockets

  •  Holding arm behind back
  •  Gripping wrist
  •  Locked ankles
  •  Clenched hands


  •  Doodling
  •  Drumming with fingers
  •  Legs crossed, foot kicking
  •  Head in palm of hands
  •  Blank stare

  •  Arms crossed on chest
  •  Legs over chair arms while seated
  •  Sitting in arm chair reversed
  •  Crossing legs
  •  Fist-like gestures
  •  Pointing index finger
  •  Karate chops
  •  Fast eye blinking (I'm lying!)

Frustration, annoyance
  •  Short breaths
  •  Tchsk sound
  •  Tightly clenched hands
  •  Wringing hands
  •  Fist-like gestures
  •  Pointing index finger
  •  Running hand through hair
  •  Rubbing back of neck
  •  Kicking at ground or an imaginary object

  •  Clearing throat
  •  Whew sound
  •  Soft whistling
  •  Picking or pinching flesh
  •  Fidgeting in chair
  •  Hands cover mouth while speaking
  •  Not looking at the other person
  •  Tugging at pants while seated
  •  Jingling money or keys in pocket
  •  Tugging at ear
  •  Perspiring or wringing of hands

  •  Not looking at you
  •  Arms crossed
  •  Moving away from you
  •  Silhouette body towards you
  •  Sideways glance
  •  Feet/body pointing towards exit
  •  Touching or rubbing nose
  •  Rubbing eyes
  •  Buttoning coat, drawing away

Territorial claim
  •  Feet on desk
  •  Feet on chair
  •  Leaning against or touching an object
  •  Placing an object in a desired space
  •  Elevating oneself
  •  Cigar smoking
  •  Leaning back with hands behind head

Reading body language is a fascinating subject and a valuable skill.

1. According to Albert Mehrabian, in Psychology Today (1968)
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