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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

What is body language?

We all speak without saying a word. Body language is a form of non-verbal communication and typically associated with conveying information about attitudes, emotions, and interpersonal affiliations. One well-known example of bodily behavior communicating such information is posture. For example, leaning back and crossing ones’ arms is often interpreted as signaling a ‘closed’ attitude towards an on-going interaction, the opposite of how we imagine someone to express openness and interest in an interaction; leaning back while we cross our arms behind the head, elbows spread apart, is often associated with signaling power and dominance in an interaction.


However, we have to understand these links between a certain position of a part of our body and the information this is supposed to convey as associations rather than as fixed one-to-one mappings. The notion of body language is often being portrayed as suggesting that there is a bodily ‘code’ consisting of particular body configurations that convey specific things. Consider the following examples (described by Allan Pease in his book Body Language): pointing one’s foot towards a certain person in an interaction expresses romantic interest in this person; blowing cigarette smoke from one’s mouth into a certain direction indicates confidence; and putting one’s hand on one’s hip with one finger in the belt loop expresses sexual readiness. However, there is very little reason to believe that this is how body language works. Bodily communication is a multi-layered system consisting of many levels of behavior that interact with one another, as well as with what we say and do – that is, a complex, context-dependent system. A learnable ‘secret code’ with specific functions does not exist.

Importantly, the notion of body language is fundamentally different to some other forms of non-verbal communication, such as ‘co-speech gestures’. Co-speech gestures are movements of the body, mainly of the hands and arms, which depict information that is closely linked to the speech they accompany (for example, imagine someone drawing circles in the air with their extended index finger to depict a rotating motion while talking about a helicopter). Sign languages, another form of visual-bodily communication, contrast with both body language and these kind of iconic co-speech gestures in that they are fully-fledged language systems. However, both iconic co-speech gestures and signs convey meaning (such as factual information about the world we live in) to an addressee (albeit in different ways; see also the answer to question “Can bodily communication act as a universal nonverbal shorthand for communication?”). As such, both co-speech gestures and signs are fundamentally different to the nonverbal signals that constitute body language.

Does body language contribute anything to human communication? While it can be difficult to determine exactly how much information is conveyed by bodily signals, it is widely accepted that body language is often at least as important as the words we speak - if not more so - and that it provides an important contribution to interpersonal communication. In some situations, the body may convey in an instant what would take a lot of words to say. And sometimes our body communicates things we are not able to put into words at all. 

Judith HollerFranziska Hartung & Charlotte Poulisse

Further Reading:

Allan Pease (1981). Body Language: Gestures in daily encounters (link)

Albert, M. (1971). Silent Messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Argyle, M. (1975). Bodily Communication. Methuen: London.

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos