We communicate so much about ourselves nonverbally, including our level of confidence, our emotional state, and even our attraction to someone. And according to body-language expert Patti Wood, if you’re feeling any stress or nerves in advance of attending a gathering, it could impact your body language before you even step into a space. “The central nervous system alerts us to potential danger or threat,” she says, “so if there’s any concern about seeing someone you haven’t seen in a while or someone who has a different political view, it can cause physical tension.”
With this in mind, Wood suggests doing a body scan ahead of going to any event to make sure you feel physically safe and comfortable moving forward. Once you do, you’ll also be more in touch with your own body’s natural state, so that when you're at a get-together, you can be attuned to any physical signs of a change in that comfort level (like, say, queasiness or lightheadedness) in real time.
Also be sure to decide ahead of time how you’ll greet people you haven’t seen in a while—particularly, in terms of whether you’ll make physical contact. Many versions of handshaking and hugging are common body language cues for saying hello and showing affection to a loved one, but if you’re unclear on what you and others feel safe and comfortable doing in light of COVID, you could usher in a whole lot of awkwardness. “Instead, make those decisions ahead of time so that when you’re in the moment, your body knows what to do, and you can relax,” says Wood.
Greetings aside, a handful of other common body language cues can signal that you’re really vibing—or really not vibing—with other folks in a social setting. Read on for Wood's refresher of the most telling signs to look (and feel) for.
Here are 4 common body language cues to brush up on post-lockdown:
1. Physical synchronicity
It might seem obvious at first blush, but moving your body in the same way as someone else is a telltale sign that you’re on the same wavelength (or will soon get there). “Actively doing things together creates alignment,” says Wood, who suggests penciling in specific activities for any upcoming gathering that involve matched body movement, like going for a walk together, cooking together, or even cheering for the same sports team together. “That’s an easy way to feel more unified, not only physically but psychologically,” she says.
2. Eye contact
Beyond physical proximity, eye contact is one of the clearest ways a person can signal that they’re listening to you or want to engage more with you. And given that some folks may be particularly wary of closeness at the moment (again, due to pandemic concerns), it’s worth paying extra attention to where peoples’ eyes fall and using your own eyes deliberately, too, says Wood.
That said, she makes the important distinction here between open and easy eye contact and glaring or staring, “the latter of which are signs of disrespect and derision, and can send just as strong a negative message as friendly eye contact could send a positive one,” she says.
3. Shrunken posture
Back in the before times, if someone appeared to be making themselves as small as possible—whether by holding their arms stiffly to their body, balling up their hands, or tilting their head down—you might’ve assumed that they were simply shy or uninterested in chatting with you. But now, in the wake of the pandemic, Wood tends to interpret these common body language cues as examples of COVID-related anxiety about being around other people.
“Part of your response could be to notice it and respect and honor their distance, or you might ask them if there’s anything you can do to make them feel safer and more comfortable,” she says. “But either way, it’s important not to take these behaviors personally when they occur in someone else, as they could simply stem from pandemic-related anxiety that doesn’t have to do with you or the social setting itself.”
4. Angling to face someone
People who are attracted to each other, say, while flirting on a date, tend to turn both feet toward each other, almost subconsciously—and it’s not all that different with friends and family members. Turning to face someone with your whole body can help them feel seen and loved, which Wood says is particularly important during thank-yous, goodbyes, and goodnights.
“I’m finding that since COVID, some people have forgotten the importance of a physical and ritualistic goodbye,” says Wood. And that’s not entirely surprising since many of us are used to remaining in the same physical position while simply clicking off of a video call. Wood suggests making a point of turning to face each person whom you’d like to say goodbye to, and using eye contact and a physical gesture that feels comfortable. “This body language sends a clear message of, ‘You’re important to me,’ and ‘The time we shared here is important to me,’” she says.
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