How to Read People: 16 Behaviors Experts Use to Decipher Thoughts and Feelings
Body language experts reveal how to read people using common behaviors, giving you a window into what others are really thinking and feeling
Ever wished you were psychic? It certainly would make human relationships easier, taking the guesswork out of figuring out what someone really means. Unfortunately, mind-reading is limited to the movies, but there is a superpower that’s almost as good: knowing how to read people. And it’s a skill everyone can learn.
Experts quibble about exactly how much of communication is nonverbal versus spoken language, but most agree that what we say without words is just as important as what we say with them. “Body language goes beyond words, using timing, space, appearance, posture, gestures, touches, facial expressions, eye contact and voice tempo and pitch to communicate,” says body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders. “Taken together, this can give you a lot of information about a person—without them even saying a word.”
Learning to see, interpret and understand body language is an important tool that can boost your emotional intelligence. This will help you improve your interactions with just about everyone in your life, from your romantic partner to your boss and even your best (worst?) frenemy.
Using body language and nonverbal cues to peek inside someone’s head may feel like a magic trick, but you can learn how to read people—and it’s not even rocket science. It starts with being present and focused on the other person, not just waiting for your turn to talk. Ask yourself: Does what they’re saying match how they’re saying it? And what are they doing with their eyes, head and hands? Trust your gut instinct.
Understanding how someone really feels isn’t a matter of becoming smarter. It’s about paying attention to nonverbal communication and knowing how to interpret it. To help you do just that, we talked to experts in human behavior who know how to read people. They’ve offered up tips for deciphering thoughts and feelings so you can become a better communicator.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more knowledge, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.
How to read people
RD.COM, GETTY IMAGES (3)
Face it: You don’t always say exactly what you’re thinking. Whether you’re simply being polite or outright lying, you’re using words that don’t match your thoughts and feelings. You might say you’re fine skipping dinner with your pals to work on an assignment your boss tosses your way at the end of the workday, but does your body language agree?
That’s why it’s so important to learn how to read people. Understanding people’s behavior and their nonverbal “tells” can give you a window into their minds. Sometimes they’re even more useful than spoken words.
“One of the reasons I’m not completely sold on teletherapy is that a patient’s nonverbal communication is so telling,” says Jeff Temple, PhD, a licensed psychologist and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “Therapists rely a lot on body language. If someone says they’re doing great but their arms are folded and looking down, then they’re likely not doing great.”
If you, too, would like to decode body language secrets so you can better read people and decipher their feelings, keep reading for the experts’ interpretation of 16 common behaviors.
Picking lint off your shirt
Temple cites this as his favorite nonverbal cue because it’s just so cute. When someone does something to help your appearance—like picking a hair off your shirt or tucking your T-shirt tag in—it means they feel affectionate toward you. The behavior may be romantic, but it can also express a parental or caring type of affection. Similar to monkeys picking bugs out of one another’s fur, this action is a form of grooming that we do only with people we like and consider part of our circle.
Making eye contact
Eye contact is an innately intimate experience, bringing you closer to the other person—for better or worse. “There’s a reason eyes are called the windows of the soul: They say more than any other body part,” says Vince Callahan, PhD, a psychologist known as the “Mind Doctor” and the chief executive officer of the Florida Institute for Neural Discovery.
Making direct eye contact can be a sign of warmth and may signify a desire for connection … or it can be used as a power move to assert dominance. This is why it’s important to consider these body language tips as a whole and not just focus on a single part, he adds.
Avoiding eye contact
Axel Bueckert/Getty Images
If someone looks away or refuses to make eye contact, they don’t want you to see their eyes and possibly read what they are feeling. “Often this means the person is introverted, private or shy, or they come from a culture where prolonged eye contact is not appropriate,” says Goman.
Sometimes, an avoidance of eye contact may indicate that the person is feeling uneasy or unprepared, or that they’re being insincere or trying to hide something, she explains. This one can be tricky to analyze on its own, though. Be cautious when reading a negative implication into it.
Research suggests this isn’t actually the way to tell if someone is lying. A study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior found that liars may actually make more deliberate eye contact, perhaps to come across as more trustworthy. And a study in PLOS One found that gaze aversion is not a sign that someone is being deceitful.
Crossing their limbs
Does the person you’re speaking with have their arms or legs (or both) crossed in front of them? Some people simply stand or sit this way because it’s comfortable, but according to Callahan, the posture may signal that a person is done with the conversation and isn’t listening anymore. It’s also a way of creating physical distance without actually moving away, signaling discomfort, Goman says.
Before you decide which one applies, there’s an interesting brain glitch you should consider: “The human brain pays more attention to negative messages than it does to positive ones and will often read unclear signs in a negative way,” she says. “So your brain’s first instinct will be to assume that someone with a very closed-off posture is in a bad mood or doesn’t want to be approached. That may or may not be true, and you should look at other signals they may be giving.”
Sometimes, reading body language is less about decoding a tough riddle than considering the most obvious answer: Check the temperature—your colleague with crossed arms may simply be chilly and trying to stay warm!
Showing their hands
If someone places their open hands on the table or on their legs, or if they hold up their hands with the palms facing you, they are trying to build trust and rapport with you by appearing nonthreatening and open.
“This gesture is literally saying ‘See, I have nothing to hide’ and signals credibility and candor,” Goman explains. “See this as a positive sign that they are open to more communication.”
Pen clicking, finger tapping, leg bouncing—fidgeting can be distracting and annoying, but many people do it. Why? “Honestly, the most common reason I see for constant fidgeting is ADHD,” Callahan says. It’s true: Many people are diagnosed with this type of neurodevelopmental disorder. Whether the person has clinical ADHD or simply an inability to focus due to something else, this behavior likely has nothing to do with you.
That said, it can be a sign that the other person is feeling nervous or jumpy, so it’s worth paying attention to. If you notice it, you may want to ask if they need a break or if they’re worried about something, Callahan adds.
Our bodies often pick up on our feelings before we even cognitively register them. The quickest changes, says Callahan, are a raised heart rate and increased breathing rate. You can’t tell if someone’s pulse is racing, but you may notice that they’re gulping air or breathing much faster. This is a telltale signal that the person is anxious, fearful or becoming upset.
“This is a good time to pause and just check in with them, see how they’re feeling,” he says. “Depending on how close you are to them, you can ask them, ‘Hey, you look upset—everything OK?'”
Speaking in a high-pitched voice
Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Images
“The depth and tone of a person’s voice conveys a lot of what they are feeling,” Goman says. Fascinating, right? You learn something new every day!
If someone’s voice goes up in pitch, it may mean they are feeling nervous, weak or vulnerable, or scared, she says. On the other hand, a voice that suddenly drops conveys gravity and confidence. It’s one way a speaker will let you know that what they’re saying is very important. In other words, they want you to pay attention.
A voice that drops in both pitch and tone—when someone is speaking low and softly, for instance—signals that the speaker is trying to share something of personal importance with you.
In cartoons, beads of sweat running down a person’s face are a top sign that they are lying or very nervous. Rarely does that happen in real life, though. Callahan says the main causes of visible sweat marks are likely physical—think menopausal hot flashes, broken air conditioning or a run up the stairs.
But if someone is sweating without an apparent physical cause, it could be a sign that they are nervous or that the situation is getting too intense, he says.
Standing to your side instead of facing you
“If someone won’t face you in a conversation, it means you have bad breath,” Callahan jokes. “Actually, you should pay attention to this because their position can say something about how comfortable they are talking with you.”
Facing each other requires eye contact, which can feel overly intimate or personal. If someone chooses to stand next to you, looking in the same direction as you, they may be communicating their desire to keep the conversation light. Or they may not be interested in talking right now. If you’re high in the interpersonal type of intelligence, you’ll read these desires in their nonverbal communication and won’t push.
Making themselves appear smaller
One of the surest signs that someone is uncomfortable in a situation is that they physically back away from you or contract into themselves, making themselves look smaller, Goman says. “When someone contracts inward, by rounding their shoulders, caving in at the chest and keeping the elbows tucked in close, it’s a good guess that they feel insecure, weak or vulnerable—or even ashamed and guilty,” she explains.
Your instinct may be to step toward them to close the distance or reassure them, but this will only make them more uncomfortable. Instead, respect their boundaries, give them space and ask more questions, if appropriate.
Licking their lips
This body signal can be a confusing one! If someone is making eye contact with you and licks their lips, it may mean they are attracted to you, Temple says. But he adds that licking their lips a lot may indicate nervousness or hesitation. Or, you know, chapped lips.
Not sure which it is? Put the puzzle together by considering their words and other body language clues—are their arms crossed or open?—as well as the lip-licking action, he says.
Covering their mouth
Carol Yepes/getty images
Typically an unconscious behavior, this is a clear signal that the person is self-conscious, Callahan says. “They may be physically self-conscious, feeling like they don’t fit in or worrying about their looks, or they may be worried about saying something embarrassing or inappropriate,” he explains. For instance, they may worry about having yellow teeth or smelly breath, or they may be trying not to blurt out a rude comment.
“A wide, open smile is one of the most powerful positive nonverbal cues and signals warmth, openness and empathy, so when someone covers their smile, they give the opposite signals,” Goman says. “We often smile unconsciously, so they may also be covering their mouth to avoid smiling at inappropriate times.”
Either way, the right response is to give them space and do what you can to help them feel more comfortable.
Touching your shoulder
Touching someone else is the neon sign of body language, Goman says. Some touches are clearly intended to be romantic (like a kiss), but most physical touches aren’t as clear-cut.
Is the other person touching your arm to get your attention or to flirt with you? Not only does the answer depend on the type of touch, it also comes down to your relationship to the person touching you. For instance, ruffling your hair conveys very different feelings when done by your mom as opposed to a single co-worker.
This is a very confusing aspect of reading body language (whole books have been written on just this subject!), but it is an important distinction to be able to make. The consequences of guessing wrong can be big, Goman says. Without any additional information, you should err on the side of assuming touch isn’t flirtatious. Reading flirtation where there isn’t any is a body language mistake you don’t want to make.
Non-romantic physical touch—like touching someone on the arm or shoulder—serves an important purpose in human communication and connection, Callahan says. “They are literally trying to connect with you, showing increased care or concern,” he explains.
Still, if there are other indications that the person may be flirting with you—prolonged eye contact, lip licking, standing very close and the like—then it’s likely the touch is meant to be romantic.
Tilting their head
Dogs tilt their heads when they are listening, and it turns out people do the same thing for the same reason. The head tilt shows that someone is listening intently and really paying attention to what you’re saying, Goman explains. This is generally a good sign that they are interested and engaged.
Looking back at you
Throwing a glance at you over their shoulder when they leave may be a signal they’re interested in you, according to Callahan. “They’re literally trying to get one more look at you,” he says. Combined with behaviors like lip licking, hair touching and winking, it can be a clear sign of flirting.
Putting it all into context
As fun as it is learning how to read people, there’s a big caveat when it comes to using nonverbal cues to dive into the mind of someone else: Body language interpretation isn’t always reliable because you can’t always see the big picture. You can have the highest IQ in the world and still flub it when it comes to interpreting human behavior.
That’s especially true when it comes to people you don’t know intimately well, Temple cautions. Take, for instance, someone who’s covering their mouth with their hand. Behavior experts say this may be a sign of nervousness or anxiety, but your colleague may just be trying to hide a yawn during a long meeting. Or think back to the crossed-arm example: Instead of a sign your pal is angry or closed off, it may indicate the air conditioning is cranked up too high.
Goman adds that nonverbal behavior is heavily influenced by a person’s cultural norms, so you’ll need to take that into account as well.
Confused? “With people you are close to, having open communication and trust is key,” Temple says. “You can point out the discrepancy between their verbal and nonverbal behavior.”
Creating a baseline for comparison and asking questions can help. You might say, for example, “You said you’re doing fine, but I noticed you looked away and have your arms folded. What’s going on?” Temple warns against posing such questions to strangers or acquaintances; it may come across as intrusive.
When body language contradicts verbal language
Even if you’ve mastered how to read people, you’re likely to encounter situations where a person’s words don’t match their body language. Which one do you listen to? “If I’m getting conflicting information, I usually go with what their body is saying, as people often don’t control their body language as consciously, so it tends to be more honest,” Callahan says.
But our experts don’t agree: Temple says he prefers to make decisions based on total information, putting together cues from the environment, personal knowledge, outside data and what the other person is communicating. Goman adds that rarely is one signal enough to truly decipher someone’s thoughts and feelings, and it’s so important to use these as clues to help you understand the person better rather than as the answer in itself.
About the experts
- Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is a body language expert, the author of The Silent Language of Leaders and the creator of the Body Language for Leaders, Body Language for Women and Body Language that Sells seminars.
- Jeff Temple, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and the John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He’s the director of the Center for Violence Prevention and has more than 230 scholarly publications in a variety of high-impact journals.
- Vince Callahan, PhD, is a mental health professional and neuro-educational psychologist. Known as the “Mind Doctor,” he is the chief executive officer of the Florida Institute for Neural Discovery.