[Body Language] Part 1 – Uncertainty, Discomfort, and Clusters

When I’m talking to someone, I apparently do almost everything wrong. Lately, I have both my hands in my pockets, I don’t often face them, I often don’t keep very good eye contact, and I almost never gesture with my hands. Despite doing so many things wrong, the knowledge I have has still been very useful, because I can see what other people are telling me, even if they don’t know it. If I sense someone is uncomfortable with my language, I can try to correct it, or simply come out and say something, without going heavily into body language—I’ve noticed that when I talk about body language, people get quite self-conscious.

A typical example of anxiety and/or discomfort involves my flatmate (roommate, if you’re American) who has anxiety issues himself. I know when he’s getting uncomfortable or anxious because of his body language, which is often very loud. A classic sign of agitation or discomfort, because it’s a self-soothing act, is the rubbing of one’s own neck, or back of the head. It could indicate a few things, such as somebody not quite believing what they’re saying, or are anxious because they just spun you a web of lies, but I think the common reason is stress and discomfort. So, when he starts doing that quite a bit, as he does it a lot anyway, I tend to leave him to it, since I don’t want to stress the poor guy out. Apparently this is linked to when our mother (or indeed father) would stroke our heads when we were young, in order to calm or sooth us, particularly when we were a baby.

This one may seem quite obvious to most of us, but pacing, or generally walking around a lot, is another sign of stress, which I presume is down to the body having a lot of energy as a result of the anxiety and thus feeling the need to move around to burn off the energy; I have this problem myself and have definitely noticed it in others. It’s very important to take note of signs like these, in-case you’re making someone feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that it could also be an indication that someone otherwise has a lot of energy—too much coffee, perhaps?

There’s something called clusters, which essentially means two or more groups of body movements that are a strong indication of something, and are typically separate from the person’s usual body language. One example would be, if I were talking to you about a car I would be trying to sell you, had remained quite still and calm during the conversation, but suddenly itched my eye, rubbed my nose, stroked the back of my head, and avoided eye contact while telling you that the car has “never had any problems,” then I advise you not to buy the car from me, because I’m very likely fibbing or simply unsure of what I’m saying.

When people look into body language, they tend to make the mistake of assuming one action is a clear indicator of something (for example, that someone is lying) when in reality it’s more about these clusters and, particularly, the change from the person’s normal body language. If you’re unsure whether one particular action means something or not, pursue it, by, for example, asking questions and looking for a response. If you’re talking to me about going out to the shops and you spot such a sign as me stroking the back of my head, moving about, and perhaps avoiding eye contact, then ask me if I’m sure I want to go out, and I bet you there’s a good chance I’ll show more signs of discomfort or that I’m unsure, because of my social anxiety, which’ll be a fairly decent indicator that, actually, I don’t want to go out.

I believe that knowing when someone is anxious or just uncomfortable is very important, particularly if you know someone with mental health problems, such as anxiety issues, and you want to avoid stressing them out, or if you have a job that often involves interacting with people.

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