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Body Language Glossary

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absorbed actions
actions stimulated through unconscious mirroring.
active listening
listening very attentively and empathizing and reflecting back understanding through body language and usually words too.
small signals given when anxious or when behaving in a way that does not comfortably match the feelings, for example lip-biting or face-touching, which are self-comforting signals.
alerting/announcement gestures
indicating need to speak, for example raising a hand, or taking a breath and lifting the shoulders.
american leg cross
the 'American' or 'Figure-4' leg cross entails the supporting leg being crossed just above the knee by the ankle or lower calf of the crossing leg. This makes a figure-4 shape, hence the name. The posture is called the American leg cross because of its supposed popularity in the US compared to the UK, notably among males.
the study of humankind in all respects - especially culturally, socially and in evolutionary terms, and how these key aspects inter-relate. The word anthropology is from Greek anthropos meaning human being. Anthropology, like psychology and ethnology and ethology, is a science which over-arches the study of body language, and provides useful (and for serious students, essential) context for understanding the reasons and purposes of body language. Anthropology has been studied one way or another for thousands of years and became established under that name in the 1500s. The Human Genome project, which basically mapped the human genetic code (started 1990, completed in 2003, and ongoing) is probably the largest anthropological study ever performed.
describing gestures or facial expressions, especially a smile, that are not symmetrical (equal on both sides), which tends to indicate incongruence or a mixed signal and not what it might initially seem to mean.
describing self-touching gestures and actions.
autonomic/automatic signals
effectively involuntary stress-induced physiological behaviours, such as crying, shaking, blushing, quickened pulse-rate, and in extreme cases retching, vomiting, fainting, etc. Involuntary in the sense that it is virtually impossible to control these signals because they are controlled by the very basic part of the brain responsible for our most basic bodily functions. Breathing rate is perhaps the exception, which while in many cases will speed as a physiological response to stress, can often be controlled and slowed or deepened given suitable conscious effort.
positive body language reactions to a speaker.
baton signals
gestures which reinforce the rhythm of speech.
describing signals in which the hands or arms or a table, or adjusting clothing, etc., form a defence or obstruction between two people, such a folded arms.
buttress stance
weight bearing leg is straight, while the front leg is forward, usually with the foot pointing outwards from the body. Regarded as a signal of reluctance or readiness to depart.
term for a group of body language signals, which more reliably indicate meaning or mood than a single signal.
cognitive dissonance
conflicting understanding or feelings - cognition is understanding things through thought; dissonance is disharmony or conflict. This is a widely used term in psychology and the effect arises very commonly in relationships and communications. Conflicting body language signals can sometimes indicate this attitude or reaction in a person.
submissive behaviour, hence compliance signals or signs, which indicate this.
an old term for (typically) male-female relations from initial meeting through to going-out relationship stage. Courtship in olden times (broadly since the middle ages up until the mid-late 1900s) referred to quite formal steps of increasing familiarity between male and female, through to intimacy, perhaps with a little touching of hands or kissing, and lots of going out for walks and visits to the cinema or theatre, etc. Sex might not rear its scary head for weeks, months or years; and sometimes, especially if the female was from an elite or religiously obsessed family, not until the wedding night. Nowadays 'courtship' is a much speedier affair and among modern young people can be started, fully consummated and effectively forgotten in a matter of minutes.
signals of denial effectively undo or contradict more conscious typically false or manufactured body language, thereby betraying true feeling or motive.
a stress signal typically prompted by suppression of natural reaction due to fear or other inhibition, for example biting fingernails, picking at finger(s) or thumb.
signalling prompted by stress, usually quite inappropriate to the needs of the situation, for example stretching and relaxing, or pausing to take a drink when an emergency arises.
emotional intelligence
also known as EQ, Emotional Intelligence is based on 'feeling intelligence' (rather than IQ - Intelligence Quotient - based on logical intelligence), and the capability to understand and communicate with others very empathically, which requires awareness of emotional behaviour and ability to deal with people sensitively. See Emotional Intelligence.
emphatic/emphasizing gestures
gestures which reinforce the meaning of spoken words, e.g., jabbing fingers, weighing hands.
erogenous zone
any part of the human body particularly sensitive to touching and sexual arousal - the word erogenous first appeared in the late 1800s which suggests when the effect was first analysed and recorded in any serious sense. The word erogenous derives from Eros, the Greek god of love (Cupid is Roman), from which the word erotic also derives. Erogenous zones contain high concentration of nerve endings and are significant in flirting and sex. Aside from the obvious genital areas and bottoms and breasts, erogenous zones include necks, inner side of arms and wrists, armpits and lips. Incidentally the G in G-spot is named after Ernst Grafenberg (1881-1957) a German-born gynaecological doctor and scientist who as well as being an expert on the female orgasm, was first to invent and commercially market a IUD (intrauterine device or coil) for female birth control.
the study of different ethnic people and their differences and relationships. Ethnology is a branch of anthropology, concerned with ethnic effects, and where this involves behaviour it certainly relates to body language. The word ethnology is derived from Greek ethnos meaning nation. The establishment of the science and word ethnology is credited to Slovakian/Austrian Adam Franz Kollar (1718-1783), a nobleman, professor and librarian who became a Court Councilor for the Habsburg Monarchy of the Kingdom of Hungary, as it once was. The modern study and awareness of ethnology is arguably hampered by sensitivities around racism. Ethnic differences between people obviously exist, and ironically where over-sensitivity to racism and equality obstructs debate, society's understanding of these issues remains clouded and confused.
ethology is primarily the science of animal behaviour, but increasingly extends to human behaviour and social organization. The word ethology first appeared in English in the late 1800s, derived from the Greek word ethos meaning character or disposition. Ethology became properly established during the early 1900s. Austrian zoologist and 1973 Nobel Prizewinner Konrad Lorenz (1903-89) was a founding figure. Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, is an ethologist. So is the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Where ethology considers animal evolution and communications, it relates strongly to human body language. Charles Darwin's work pioneered much ethological thinking.
eye flash
a sudden direct glance to attract attention or warn, usually followed by some other more specific signal.
eyebrow flash
quickly raising and lowering both eyebrows - typically in greetings, recognition, acknowledgement, or surprise. An eyebrow flash can therefore also be a signal of positive interest.
eye shrug
upwards eye-roll signalling frustration.
face frame
framing the face with the hands to hold or attract listeners' attention.
the study of human touch, from the Greek word haptikos, meaning able to touch. The word haptics in this sense entered the English language in the 1800s, which indicates when human touch began to be a serious area of study.
hybrid expression
a term apparently originated by Charles Darwin, it refers to a facial expression which combines two seemingly different or opposing meanings, for example a smile with a head-turn away from the person the smile is meant for. Hybrid expressions provide further emphasis of the need to avoid reading single signals. Combinations of signals and context are necessary, especially to make sense of hybrid expressions which contain different meanings.
illustrative gesture
gestures which shape or describe the physical dimensions of something by using the hands in the air.
index finger
first finger of the hand - usually the most dominant and dexterous finger, hence used mostly in pointing gestures.
an obscure term describing a single body language signal (devised by body language expert Dr Ray Birdwhistell, c.1952, from the longer term kinesics).
the technical term for body language. Kinesics is pronounced 'kineesicks' with stress on the 'ee'). The word kinesics was first used in English in this sense in the 1950s, from the Greek word kinesis, meaning motion.
labial tractors
a wonderful term for the muscles around the mouth. The word labial in phonetics means closure or part closure of the mouth, and additionally refers to the resulting vowel sounds produced, like w, oo, etc.
leakage signals are the small signs which are most difficult to control or mask, and which therefore offer clues even when someone is generally in good control of their outgoing body language signals.
using body language, usually intentionally, to deceive others as to true feelings or motives.
metronome/metronomic signals
these are any rhythmic tappings or movements which indicate a readiness or self-prompting to speak or take action- a termed devised by body language expert Judi James.
tiny body language 'leakage' signals, often unconsciously sent and interpreted, more likely to be seen and reacted to unconsciously rather than consciously, unless concentrating determinedly.
mime/miming gestures
gestures used consciously to convey a specific message, such as extending the thumb and little finger by the ear to say "Phone me," or wiping imaginary sweat from the brow to express relief after a crisis subsides.
the synchronizing or matching of body language (and speech characteristics), usually between two people, which helps build feelings of trust and empathy. Mirroring works like this because similar signals produce unconscious feelings of affirmation. When a person's signals are mirrored the unconscious mind thinks, "This person is like me and agrees with the way I am. I like this person because we are similar, and he/she likes me too." See NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), and Empathy. Pacing refers to the mirroring of someone's speed of movements.
NLP/Neuro-linguistic programming -
a branch of psychology developed in the 1960s which combines language, body movement and thought to optimise self-control and development, and relationships and communications with others. NLP research has fuelled much of the analytical aspects of modern popular body language, notably mirroring and eye movements.
inside surface of the hand - significant in body language because an open palm has for thousands of years indicated that no weapon is concealed, which survives as perhaps a genetically inherited signal of peace, cooperation, submissiveness, etc.
phallus means penis, from the ancient Greek word phallos of the same meaning. Phallic refers to something which looks like or represents a penis, often called a phallic symbol. Phallic symbols are prevalent in psychology and aspects of flirting or sexual body language. The female equivalent term is a yonic symbol, from yoni, Hindu for vulva and a symbolic circular stone representing divine procreation. Yoni was originally an old Sanskrit word, meaning source or womb.
an obscure yet related concept to body language. Physiognomy refers to facial features and expressions which indicate the person's character or nature, or ethnic origin. The word physiognomy is derived from medieval Latin, and earlier Greek (phusiognominia), meaning (the art or capability of) judging a person's nature from his/her facial features and expressions.
the branch of biology concerned with how living organisms function, notably parts of the human body.
physiological signals
body language produced by the unconscious basic brain which controls bodily functions, which in body language can be signals such as sweating, blushing, breathlessness, yawning, weeping, feeling faint, nauseous, repulsion, etc.
primary emotions
first identified by Charles Darwin, typically represented as happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, surprise, and linked to universal facial expressions and recognition.
the technical term for the personal space aspect of body language. The word and much of the fundamental theory was devised by Edward Twitchell Hall, an American anthropologist in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The word is Hall's adaptation of the word proximity, meaning closeness or nearness.
pseudo-infantile gestures
gestures of childlike vulnerability, often made to avert attack, attract sympathy, or to induce feelings of compassion, attention, etc.
pupil - the round black centre of the eye which enlarges or contracts to let more or less light into the eye. The pupil generally enlarges (dilates) in the dark, and contracts in brightness. Enlarged pupils are also associated with desire and allure. Enlarged pupils are not a symptom of smoking drugs as commonly believed. This is probably a confusion arising from the fact that conditions are relatively dark when such judgements are made.
rictus - a fixed grimace, usually resulting from shock or nervousness. From Latin word meaning 'open mouth'.
scissor stance
scissor stance - standing leg cross. Various meanings very dependant on context and other signals.
self-motivating gestures
gestures signalling attempting to increase mental work-rate or activity, like tapping the head repeatedly or making circular motions with the hands, as if winding the body up.
show - (noun)
a 'show' is term recently adopted by body language commentators referring to a body language signal. The term is slang really, not technical. For terminology to become casually 'hip' in this way reflects the mainstream appeal of body language as a subject.
forming the fingers into a a pointed roof shape, often signalling elevated thinking or arrogance.
describing body language which signals inferiority feelings towards another person. May be conscious and formal as in bowing, or unconscious as in slightly lowering the head and stance.
a technical term equating to mirroring or matching of body language between two people. Synchronizing is technically more appropriate since it naturally includes audible signals (voice pace and pitch, etc), whereas the mirroring term normally makes people think of visual signals only. The principles of synchronized body language definitely include audible signals in addition to physical visual signs. See mirroring.
tell - (noun)
tell - a 'tell' - a slang term similar to 'a show' recently adopted by body language commentators which means a signal.
tie signs/signals
signals between lovers or intimate couples which discreetly convey messages to each other and which are not usually intended for anyone else.
Level 20