Updated: Oct 20
We think we read nonverbal behaviors well- we don’t. We really can't (shouldn’t) assume what people are thinking. Just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean they are upset with us.
Just this week, my husband came into the kitchen looking a little surly. He was getting ready to take our college-aged son to the store for a bit, but first he had to go to a doctor’s appointment, I asked him a few general questions about the day and his answers were very short. I felt like maybe he was upset with me. I asked if he was okay, and received a minimal response.
When I took a few minutes to pray about it, I realized that my husband had been up ALL NIGHT at work. It’s now 8 a.m. and he’s still going to have to be awake for another 4 hours, at least. I would be a bear if that were me. No wonder he was acting a bit surly. He was exhausted.
That was when I remembered that we really aren’t as good at interpreting body language as we think we are. We study how to read body language from some websites. I know what they say - “If their feet are pointing toward the door, they want to make a quick exit” and “If they look at their watch, they want to be done talking with you.”
The Truth About Body Language
Well, sort of. Yes, they may have somewhere to be, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy talking with you. I tend to turn out when I stand, which often turns one foot toward the door, but it doesn’t mean I want to leave. Likewise, with all the smartwatches available, people tend to look at their watches for dozens of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with time.
Tone of Voice
And when we hear someone that sounds like they may be upset, it’s not necessarily about us. We can’t read people’s minds. We have no idea what they are thinking unless they tell us. Therefore, sharpening our communication skills is key to avoiding misunderstandings (links).
When it comes to knowing how to read body language when someone is lying to you, well, we are REALLY bad at that! Yes, there can be a few telltale cues, but some people are just dang good liars. Better to live in relationships with truth (see Matthew 6:33).
Knowing how to read people’s facial expressions doesn’t fare much better. Our faces reflect so many emotions. For instance, Ekman and Friessen found that the area above the masks we all wore for a year communicates 22 different emotions - in just that one little area!
Faces have micromomentary expressions that are so fleeting, we may catch them but have zero time to really proces what it means. And people generally aren’t aware how their face looks to others, so if you ask what someone’s facial expression means, they likely can’t tell you. A better question is to ask what they are thinking about. This is a better question because our thoughts tend to be reflected on our faces.
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
It’s so easy to latch onto a bad explanation for someone’s behavior. We tend to jump right to the notion that someone might be upset with us. Miscommunication can be caused by many factors, and jumping to conclusions is pretty high on the list. However, love calls us to “keep no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:5-6). When we remember these verses, we can see God demonstrating them, and realize that we can live them, too.
So next time you may be tempted to interpret a loved one’s body language as negative, remember these verses and instead, ask questions and reassure them of your love.
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