Can you translate a conversation that does not use any words?

put my hand out toward my sister.

She crosses her arms and frowns.

roll my eyes.

Okay, so what happened there?

This conversation happened entirely using body language.

First, I made a friendly gesture toward my sister. But she is not feeling friendly with me—she used an unhappy gesture and facial expression. Then I got annoyed at her and made a common sarcastic face that English-speakers use: I rolled my eyes.

Do not worry if you do not recognize what this all means! We will explore all that body language and more in this article.

Body language is crucial for communication, in English as in every language. If you really want to be fluent and communicate effectively with English speakers, you will need to understand what types of body language they use.

In other words, you just need to “read” the body language while conversing in English—and this guide will help you with precisely that.

But first, the essential question…

What Exactly Is Body Language?

Body language is communication without words. It is the movement of facial features or body parts, which intentionally or unintentionally express thoughts and attitudes. Here are three key types:

  • Facial expressions: A smile, a slight frown or a straight face are all different expressions that add another layer of meaning to what you are saying. Eye contact is an especially significant part of body language that you need to pay attention to while speaking English or listening to someone else.
  • Hand gestures: When you talk, do you move your hands around or do you keep them at your side? Folded arms, hands on hips or hands in pockets can create different messages even if you are saying the same thing.
  • Body position: The position of your body also means a lot. Leaning forward while somebody is speaking or how far you stand apart from your audience—it all matters.

Why Is Body Language Important for Learning English?

In his renowned research on nonverbal communication, UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian concluded that communication consists of three separate elements: words, tone of voice and body language.

He researched how people communicate feelings and attitudes, and found that only seven percent of that communication comes from words. Meanwhile, 38 percent of messages are communicated by tone of voice, and 55 percent of messages are communicated by body language.

If body language accounts for more than half of your communication, then you need to start learning and improving your facial expressions, hand gestures and body positions today! Learning body language will help you express yourself better and understand others.

It is important to remember that body language will be somewhat different in different English-speaking regions. In this post, we will explore some general rules of body language in English communication—but above all, pay attention to context and how the people around you use facial expressions, hand gestures and body positions.

How to Use Body Language in English Communication

Below, you will learn about essential types of body language that English speakers use, organized by theme. At the end of the list we will provide an exercise to help you practice and master English body language.

Learn This Body Language to Avoid Misunderstandings

If everyone said what they truly meant, it would be much easier to communicate in English (and any language!). Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Sometimes people fail to express themselves clearly with words. Sometimes people intentionally say the opposite of what they mean.

Therefore, learning a few common body gestures that indicate a contradiction, sarcasm or confusion can be helpful to avoiding misunderstandings.

Eye rolling

Most people roll their eyes to show disapproval or annoyance, as in this clip from the American TV Show “30 Rock.”

English speakers will also roll their eyes when they feel skeptical about something.

For example, if your friend rolls her eyes while saying “I wonder if my brother is going to be on time,” she is probably implying that she thinks he will be late as usual.

Many English speakers roll their eyes while using the sarcastic phrase yeah, right. This actually means “I doubt it” or “probably not.”

“He told me he is dating a movie star.”

[Eye roll] “Yeah, right.”

Air quotes

In the English-speaking world, people often make this gesture, where they move their index fingers and middle fingers of both hands up and down. They do this to stress a word or phrase, mainly because they do not think it is the right word to use in that situation. Air quotes usually connote sarcasm.

“My roommate said that she could not come because she is [air quotes] working.”

In this case, the speaker thinks the roommate is not actually working. Maybe she has a habit of using this excuse when she does not want to leave the house.

Arms crossed defensively

If someone crosses his/her arms, it often means that he/she disagrees with what is being said.

For example, imagine you are arguing with a colleague because you think the team should do a task differently. He says, “I hear the basis of your arguments,” but his arms are crossed over his chest. Despite his words, he probably does not agree with your idea at all.

Head shaking

In the English-speaking world, head shaking typically indicates disagreement or disappointment.

Often, you might ask someone a question and instead of answering with words, he/she will simply shake his/her head back and forth. That means, “no.”

Other times, English speakers will shake their head while speaking to emphasize their point.

“Do you think our boss was right to give us extra hours this weekend?”

[Head shaking] “No, way! So unfair!”

When you are using English online, you might encounter the internet slang smh. That means “shaking my head,” and it indicates disapproval.

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