We have all been there. It is so much easier to say something like: The woman sat in her doctor's office with a worried expression on her face. As writers, we must resist the temptation to tell our readers what is going on in a scene when we should be showing them. We should say: The woman teetered on the edge of her chair. Her eyes fell from the clock to the door as she waited for the doctor to enter. Her brow furrowed and she bit her quivering lip as her narrowing eyes glanced towards the clock once more. Showing the woman's fear is significantly more powerful than simply stating the facts.
So, where do you start? First off, I would suggest doing a little research. Gestures and facial expressions indicate certain emotions or feelings. ChangingMinds.org is a great resource. This website describes different types of body language and how they can be identified. For example, one of the categories is "Confident Body Language: Appearing assured and comfortable." Once you select a type of body language you will see a page that details how a confident person carries themselves and the types of body language and facial expressions they exhibit. Below is an excerpt from the Changing Minds website:
Confident Body Language
How do some people appear confident, while others seem unsure or anxious in some ways? If you can get others to think you are confident, then they may well trust and believe you more easily. In contrast, if you appear uncertain, how can they accept what you say as being true?
Anxious people are tense, and it shows. Their bodies are always moving, typically in jerky movements that betray their muscular tension.
When an anxious person is standing, they typically get 'happy feet', stepping around the place. A confident person is comfortable standing in one place, without even tapping their feet.
Balance your weight evenly, with feet planted a hip-width apart. When weight is on one leg, it indicates readiness to move. When you are balanced, you are firmly planted, indicating intent to stay and having no fear of attack.
When sitting, place yourself comfortably, leaning back in the seat rather than anxiously forward. You may put your hands on your lap or behind your head when relaxing, or steeple them when making evaluative decisions.
Keep the lower body still, with both feet planted on the ground or loosely crossed for comfort. Entwined or twitching legs are signs of anxiety.
One of the simplest ways to show confidence is to hold your head still. Anxious people are always looking for threats. Fix on a point in front of you to help you keep your head in one place.
Keep your head upright and with your chin level, as if you were suspended from a point at the crown of your head. Anxious people tend to hold the chin low, originally in order to protect the vulnerable neck from attack.
We often wave our arms about when talking or clasp them together when concerned. While you can make smaller movements, generally you can allow them to be still, resting in your lap or hanging at your side. A common confident pose with hands is held lightly in front or behind the back (this is typical of royalty and presidents). Holding one's own hands can be seen as a sign of anxiety so do be careful with this.
Fidgeting is a sign of anxiety. Confident people can keep their hands still without the need to move or hide them. Showing one's hands is a way of building confidence as it indicates you are not twitchy, have no weapons nor are balling fists. For this reason it is a good idea to keep your hands out of any pockets, although thumbs lightly in pockets can indicate a casual confidence.
A common effect of anxiety is that people speed up, speaking faster and moving their body quickly. A confident person does not need to act quickly and shows this by acting at a measured and steady pace.
When you move, do so steadily. This does not mean going at an unnaturally slow rate, although it might seem this way. This may feel so strange, it can be useful to get feedback from someone else as to what seems natural and relaxed.
Also reduce the speed of your speech. We think much faster than we talk and it is easy to end up speaking so fast others cannot understand us. They may also assume our fast talk is related more to anxiety than thinking speed.
In movement, take good-sized strides, rather than timid or hurried steps.
As well as generally going slower, add pauses, both in your speech and your movement. For example when you are getting up, move to edge of the seat, pause, then get up. Likewise when walking, point the way you are going, then step.
Pausing sends a signal to other people, letting them process what you are about to do and so reduces the chance of them being surprised or worried. This is just one way that confident people inspire confidence in others.
Even a period of silence or inaction can be comfortable for a confident person. Silence is unsettling for many and it can hence be a useful persuasive device that also enhances your image of quiet confidence.
When we are feeling anxious, we tend to cover ourselves with our hands and bodies, protecting vulnerable areas from attack. Confident people do not feel the need to defend, and show this with a clear openness.
When people are feeling defensive, they use closed body language. When they are feeling confident, they use open body language, exposing vulnerable parts of the body and staying relaxed.
Confident people feel able to express emotions, including with movement of their bodies. They tend not to over-do emotion as people who are too expressive really be seeking sympathy or trying to coerce others. Confident people do not need to do this. They also smile more, including with their eyes.
Above all else, a confident person appears natural. They do not look like they are managing their body, nor that they need to do so. For this reason, confident body language is often evidence of real confidence as opposed to it all being an act.
Anxious people hedge their bets, already being ready to escape. If you are confident, you can be direct, without sending a signal that you are uncomfortable and ready to leave at a moment's notice. Instead, you can confidently engage with the other person, showing you feel safe.
Greet people assertively, looking them in the eyes and smiling. Keep your body relaxed. When you shake hands, do so with a firm grip (but not one that is aggressively strong).
When engaging with another person, you may face them directly, perhaps leaning in. Do not do this in a dominant way, getting too close too soon. Dominant people often have insecurities and use aggression to cover up a lack of confidence.
Confident people look at others. They do not need to scan their environment in search of threats. They hold people with their gaze, which is relaxed and without either narrowing nor opening wide the eyes.
Anxious or dominant people often feel the need to speak. Confident people do not need their beliefs verified nor their egos stroked, and so are comfortable just listening, which is of course a great way to get closer to other people.
A confident person makes limited, firm and smooth gestures, typically to amplify what they are saying. They neither defensively hold themselves in nor make large power moves that grab space. They often use open, relaxed palms.
At root, confidence is a lack (or effective control) of fear. A confident person does not feel threatened by others, as many of us do. This can lead to false confidence and naivety when there is a real threat, which is why an effectively confident person has a realistic threat assessment and may well have a contingency ready so they know they can cope with dangers as they appear.
There is a fine line between others interpreting your body language as being a sign of confidence or or arrogance, so care is needed here. A quietly confident person is liked and admired. An arrogant person, on the other hand, is disliked and despised. The difference is that the arrogant person uses confidence to gain status as they feel (or want to feel) superior to others. The quietly confident person, on the other hand, feels equal to others (Changing Minds, 2013).
The Changing Minds website also provides information for aggressive, assertive, attentive, bored, closed, deceptive, defensive, dominant, emotional, evaluating, greeting, open, powerful, ready, romantic, sales, and submissive body language.
In addition to the categories of body language, the Changing Minds website also has a section to describe what actions or inactions of individual parts of the body represent. Below is the page that describes "Eyes."
Eyes Body language
The eyes are often called, with some justification, 'the windows of the soul' as they can send many different non-verbal signals.
For reading body language this is quite useful as looking at people's eyes are a normal part of communication (whilst gazing at other parts of the body can be seen as rather rude).
When a person wears dark glasses, especially indoors, this prevents others from reading their eye signals. It is consequently rather disconcerting, which is why 'gangsters' and those seeking to appear powerful sometimes wear them.
When a person looks upwards they are often thinking. In particular they are probably making pictures in their head and thus may well be an indicator of a visual thinker.
When they are delivering a speech or presentation, looking up may be their recalling their prepared words.
Looking upwards and to the left can indicate recalling a memory. Looking upwards and the right can indicate imaginative construction of a picture (which can hence betray a liar). Be careful with this: sometimes the directions are reversed -- if in doubt, test the person by asking them to recall known facts or imagine something.
Looking up may also be a signal of boredom as the person examines the surroundings in search of something more interesting.
Head lowered and eyes looking back up at the other person is a coy and suggestive action as it combines the head down of submission with eye contact of attraction. It can also be judgemental, especially when combined with a frown.
Looking at a person can be an act of power and domination. Looking down involves not looking at the other person, which hence may be a sign of submission ('I am not a threat, really; please do not hurt me. You are so glorious I would be dazzled if I looked at you.')
Looking down can thus be a signal of submission. It can also indicate that the person is feeling guilty.
A notable way that a lower person looks down at a higher person is by tilting their head back. Even taller people may do this.
Looking down and to the left can indicate that they are talking to themselves (look for slight movement of the lips). Looking down and to the right can indicate that they are attending to internal emotions.
In many cultures where eye contact is a rude or dominant signal, people will look down when talking with others in order to show respect.
Much of our field of vision is in the horizontal plane, so when a person looks sideways, they are either looking away from what is in front of them or looking towards something that has taken their interest.
A quick glance sideways can just be checking the source of a distraction to assess for threat or interest. It can also be done to show irritation ('I didn't appreciate that comment!').
Looking to the left can indicate a person recalling a sound. Looking to the right can indicate that they are imagining the sound. As with visual and other movements, this can be reversed and may need checking against known truth and fabrication.
Eyes moving from side-to-side can indicate shiftiness and lying, as if the person is looking for an escape route in case they are found out.
Lateral movement can also happen when the person is being conspiratorial, as if they are checking that nobody else is listening.
Eyes may also move back and forth sideways (and sometimes up and down) when the person is visualizing a big picture and is literally looking it over.
Looking at something shows an interest in it, whether it is a painting, a table or a person. When you look at something, then others who look at your eyes will feel compelled to follow your gaze to see what you are looking at. This is a remarkable skill as we are able to follow a gaze very accurately.
When looking at a person normally, the gaze is usually at eye level or above (see eye contact, below). The gaze can also be a defocused looking at the general person.
Looking at a person's mouth can indicate that you would like to kiss them. Looking at sexual regions indicates a desire to have sexual relations with them.
Looking up and down at a whole person is usually sizing them up, either as a potential threat or as a sexual partner (notice where the gaze lingers). This can be quite insulting and hence indicate a position of presumed dominance, as the person effectively says 'I am more powerful than you, your feelings are unimportant to me and you will submit to my gaze'.
Looking at their forehead or not at them indicates disinterest. This may also be shown by defocused eyes where the person is 'inside their head' thinking about other things.
The power gaze is a short but intense gaze that is used to impose one's will on another, showing power without aggression.
It is difficult to conceal a gaze as we are particularly adept at identifying exactly where other people are looking. This is one reason why we have larger eye whites than animals, as it aids complex communication.
People who are lying may look away more often as they feel guilty when looking at others. However, when they know this, they may over-compensate by looking at you for longer than usual. This also helps them watch your body language for signs of detection.
The acceptable duration of a gaze varies with culture and sometimes even a slight glance is unacceptable, such as between genders or by a lower status person.
Non-visual gaze patterns (NVGPs) involve rapid movements (saccades) and fixations while we are 'inside our heads', thinking. Rapid movements happen more when we are accessing long-term memory and fixations more when we are accessing working memory. This is useful to detect whether people are thinking about older events or recent events (or old events that are already brought to working memory).
Glancing at something can betray a desire for that thing, for example glancing at the door can indicate a desire to leave.
Glancing at a person can indicate a desire to talk with them. It can also indicate a concern for that person's feeling when something is said that might upset them.
Glancing may indicate a desire to gaze at something or someone where it is forbidden to look for a prolonged period.
Glancing sideways at a person with raised eyebrows can be a sign of attraction. Without the raised eyebrow it is more likely to be disapproval.
Eye contact between two people is a powerful act of communication and may show interest, affection or dominance.
A softening of the eyes, with relaxing of muscles around the eye and a slight defocusing as the person tries to take in the whole person is sometimes called doe eyes, as it often indicates sexual desire, particularly if the gaze is prolonged and the pupils are dilated (see below). The eyes may also appear shiny.
Making eye contact
Looking at a person acknowledges them and shows that you are interested in them, particularly if you look in their eyes.
Looking at a person's eyes also lets you know where they are looking. We are amazingly good at detecting what they are looking at and can detect even a brief glance at parts of our body, for example.
If a person says something when you are looking away and then you make eye contact, then this indicates they have grabbed your attention.
Breaking eye contact
Prolonged eye contact can be threatening, so in conversation we frequently look away and back again.
Breaking eye contact can indicate that something that has just been said that makes the person not want to sustain eye contact, for example that they are insulted, they have been found out, they feel threatened, etc. This can also happen when the person thinks something that causes the same internal discomfort. Of course, a break in eye contact can also be caused by something as simple as dried out contacts or any new stimulus in one's immediate area, so it's important to watch for other signals.
Looking at a person, breaking eye contact and then looking immediately back at them is a classic flirting action, particularly with the head held coyly low in suggested submission.
Long eye contact
Eye contact longer than normal can have several different meanings.
Eye contact often increases significantly when we are listening, and especially when we are paying close attention to what the other person is saying. Less eye contact is used when talking, particularly by people who are visual thinkers as they stare into the distance or upwards as they 'see' what they are talking about.
We also look more at people we like and like people who look at us more. When done with doe eyes and smiles, it is a sign of attraction. Lovers will stare into each others eyes for a long period. Attraction is also indicated by looking back and forth between the two eyes, as if we are desperately trying to determine if they are interested in us too.
An attraction signal that is more commonly used by women is to hold the other person's gaze for about three seconds, Then look down for a second or two and then look back up again (to see if they have taken the bait). If the other person is still looking at them, they are rewarded with a coy smile or a slight widening of the eyes ('Yes, this message is for you!').
When done without blinking, contracted pupils and an immobile face, this can indicate domination, aggression and use of power. In such circumstances a staring competition can ensue, with the first person to look away admitting defeat.
Prolonged eye contact can be disconcerting. A trick to reduce stress from this is to look at the bridge of their nose. They will think you are still looking in their eyes.
Sometimes liars, knowing that low eye contact is a sign of lying, will over-compensate and look at you for a longer than usual period. Often this is done without blinking as they force themselves into this act. They may smile with the mouth, but not with the eyes as this is more difficult.
Limited eye contact
When a person makes very little eye contact, they may be feeling insecure. They may also be lying and not want to be detected.
Eye contact is very important for persuasion. If you look at the other person and they do not look back at you, then their attention is likely elsewhere. Even if they hear you, the lack of eye contact reduces the personal connection.
If you want to persuade or change minds, then the first step is to gain eye contact and then sustain it with regular reconnection.
Staring is generally done with eyes wider than usual, prolonged attention to something and with reduced blinking. It generally indicates particular interest in something or someone.
Staring at a person can indicate shock and disbelief, particularly after hearing unexpected news.
When the eyes are defocused, the person's attention may be inside their head and what they are staring at may be of no significance. (Without care, this can become quite embarrassing for them).
Prolonged eye contact can be aggressive, affectionate or deceptive and is discussed further above. Staring at another's eyes is usually more associated with aggressive action.
A short stare, with eyes wide open and then back to normal indicates surprise. The correction back to normal implies that the person would like to stare more, but knows it is impolite (this may be accompanied with some apologetic text).
When a person stares at another, then the second person may be embarrassed and look away. If they decide to stare back, then the people 'lock eyes' and this may become a competition with the loser being the person who looks away first.
The length of an acceptable stare varies across cultures, as does who is allowed to stare, and at what. Babies and young children stare more, until they have learned the cultural rules.
The eyes will naturally follow movement of any kind. If the person is looking at something of interest then they will naturally keep looking at this. They also follow neutral or feared things in case the movement turns into a threat.
This is used when sales people move something like a pen or finger up and down, guiding where the customer looks, including to eye contact and to parts of the product being sold.
Narrowing of a person's eyes can indicate evaluation, perhaps considering that something told to them is not true (or at least not fully so).
Squinting can also indicate uncertainty ('I cannot quite see what is meant here.')
Narrowing eyes has a similar effect to constricted pupils in creating a greater depth of field so you can see more detail. This is used by animals when determining distance to their prey and can have a similar aggressive purpose.
Squinting can be used by liars who do not want the other person to detect their deception.
When a person thinks about something and does not want to look at the internal image, they may involuntarily squint.
Squinting can also happen when lights or the sun are bright.
Lowering of eyelids is not really a squint but can have a similar meaning. It can also indicate tiredness.
Lowering eyelids whilst still looking at the other person can be a part of a romantic and suggestive cluster, and may be accompanied with tossing back the head and slightly puckering the lips in a kiss.
Blinking is a neat natural process whereby the eyelids wipe the eyes clean, much as a windscreen wiper on a car.
Blink rate tends to increase when people are thinking more or are feeling stressed. This can be an indication of lying as the liar has to keep thinking about what they are saying. Realizing this, they may also force their eyes open and appear to stare.
Blinking can also indicate rapport, and people who are connected may blink at the same rate. Someone who is listening carefully to you is more likely to blink when you pause (keeping eyes open to watch everything you say).
Beyond natural random blinking, a single blink can signal surprise that the person does not quite believe what they see ('I'll wipe my eyes clean to better see').
Rapid blinking blocks vision and can be an arrogant signal, saying 'I am so important, I do not need to see you'.
Rapid blinking also flutters the eyelashes and can be a coy romantic invitation.
Reduced blinking increases the power of a stare, whether it is romantic or dominant in purpose.
Closing one eye in a wink is a deliberate gesture that often suggests conspiratorial ('You and I both understand, though others do not').
Winking can also be a slightly suggestive greeting and is reminiscent of a small wave of the hand ('Hello there, gorgeous!').
Closing the eyes shuts out the world. This can mean 'I do not want to see what is in front of me, it is so terrible'.
Sometimes when people are talking they close their eyes. This is an equivalent to turning away so eye contact can be avoided and any implied request for the other person to speak is effectively ignored.
Visual thinkers may also close their eyes, sometimes when talking, so they can better see the internal images without external distraction.
The tear ducts provide moisture to the eyes, both for washing them and for tears.
Damp eyes can be suppressed weeping, indicating anxiety, fear or sadness. It can also indicate that the person has been crying recently.
Dampness can also occur when the person is tired (this may be accompanied by redness of the eyes.
Actual tears that roll down the cheeks are often a symptom of extreme fear or sadness, although paradoxically you can also weep tears of joy.
Weeping can be silent, with little expression other than the tears (indicating a certain amount of control). It also typically involves screwing up of the face and, when emotions are extreme, can be accompanied by uncontrollable, convulsive sobs.
Men in many culture are not expected to cry and learn to suppress this response, not even being able to cry when alone. Even if their eyes feel damp they may turn away.
Tears and sadness may be transformed into anger, which may be direct at whoever is available.
A subtle signal that is sometimes detected only subconsciously and is seldom realized by the sender is where the pupil gets larger (dilates) or contracts.
Sexual desire is a common cause of pupil dilation, and is sometimes called 'doe eyes' or 'bedroom eyes' (magazine pictures sometimes have deliberately doctored eyes to make a model look more attractive). When another person's eyes dilate we may be attracted further to them and our eyes dilate in return. Likewise, when their pupils are small, ours may well contract also.
A fundamental cause of eye dilation is cognitive effort. When we are thinking more, our eyes dilate. This helps explain 'doe eyes' as when we like others people, looking at them leads to significant thinking about how we may gain and sustain their attention.
Pupils dilate also when it is darker to let in more light. Perhaps this is why clubs, bars, restaurants and other romantic venues are so dingy.
People with dark irises (the colored circle around the pupil) can look attractive because it is difficult to distinguish the iris from the pupil, with the effect is that their dark pupils look larger than they are. People with light irises make the pupils easier to see, so when their pupils actually do dilate then the signal is clearer to detect, making them more attractive 'at the right time'.
The reverse of this is that pupils contract when we do not like the other person, perhaps in an echo of squint-like narrowing of the eyes. People with small pupils can hence appear threatening or just unpleasant.
When a person is feeling uncomfortable, the eyes may water a little. To cover this and try to restore an appropriate dryness, they person may rub their eye and maybe even feign tiredness or having something in the eye. This also gives the opportunity to turn the head away.
The rubbing may be with one finger, with a finger and thumb (for two eyes) or with both hands. The more the coverage, the more the person is trying to hide behind the hands (Changing Minds, 2013).
Other helpful resources include: Facial Emotion Indicators, 100 Words for Facial Expressions, Body Language: Understanding Non-verbal Communication, and Daily Writing Tips: Vocabulary Archives.
Reference (because plagiarizing isn't cool)
Changing Minds. (2013). Using body language. Retrieved from http://changingminds.org/techniques/body/body_language.htm