Editor's Blog

18 sneaky tactics to figure out what other people are thinking before they say a word

Most everyone has been in a situation where the person you’re dating, or interviewing, or arguing with makes a comment and something just feels … off.

Perhaps it’s less about what they said explicitly and more about how they looked while they said it. As in, their gaze was freakishly fixed on your face or their left leg kept jiggling.

Scientists have spent decades trying to figure out what these nonverbal displays really mean.

And while sometimes they mean absolutely nothing, in other cases they can reveal a lot about what the person is thinking or feeling. Maybe they’re super nervous, or maybe they’re trying to trick you.

Below, we’ve rounded up 18 of the most useful scientific insights into the significance of body language, pulled from Psychology Today, research journals, and a few awesome books.

Keep in mind that context is really important — for example, you can interpret crossed arms to mean that someone’s closed off, or that they’re cold. Use your own judgment.

This is an update of an article originally posted by Drake Baer and Max Nisen.

The shoulder shrug is a universal signal of not knowing what’s going on

According to Barbara Pease and Allan Pease, authors of “The Definitive Book of Body Language,” everybody does the shoulder shrug. 

The shrug is a “good example of a universal gesture that is used to show that a person doesn’t know or doesn’t understand what you are saying,” they write.

“It’s a multiple gesture that has three main parts,” they continue. “Exposed palms to show nothing is being concealed in the hands, hunched shoulders to protect the throat from attack, and raised brow, which is a universal, submissive greeting.” 

Getty/Cindy Ord

Open palms are an ancient display of honesty

Ever notice how when someone swears to tell the truth in a court of law, they put one hand on a religious text and raise their other hand into the air, palm facing whoever they’re speaking to? 

That’s because, the Peases write in “The Definitive Book of Body Language,” an open palm has been associated with “truth, honesty, allegiance, and submission” throughout Western history. 

“Just as a dog will expose its throat to show submission or surrender to the victor,” they write, “humans use their palms to show that they are unarmed and therefore not a threat.” 

If their voice goes up or down, they’re likely interested

Whether you know it or not, your vocal range shows your interest.

“Once a conversation begins, besotted women slip into sing-songy voices,” Psychology Today reports, “while men drop theirs an octave.” 

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