Body Movement

Types of Body Movement in Nonverbal Communication

Body Movement is the voluntary or involuntary movement of parts of the body such as hands, feet, legs, and shoulders, which may either reinforce or contradicts what is communicated verbally.

Body movements are strong indicators of how you feel—they indicate feelings such as nervousness, excitement, and anxiety.

The following are the most common body movements humans convey during a communicative encounter:

1.   Shoulder shrug

image depicting shoulder shrug
Fig 1. An image depicting Shoulder Shrug

The most common shoulder movement is the shrug. It consists of an up-and-down movement of both shoulders and may be accompanied by appropriate facial expressions and head movements, often conveying the messages ‘I don’t know’, ‘I don’t care’, ‘I am doubtful’, or ‘What can you do?’ A single shoulder being shrugged usually means ‘take your hand off my arm (or shoulder)’ or ‘leave me alone’.

2.   Palm rub

image depicting rubbing of the palms
Fig 2. An image depicting Palm Rub

As a people, we nonverbally communicate pleasurable anticipation by rubbing palms together. The speed at which a person rubs his palms together indicates a positive outcome of a situation, and who it might benefit. For example, you are interested in buying a home and you contacted a real estate agent.

After describing the property you are seeking, the agent rubs his palms together quickly and says, ‘I’ve got just the right place for you!’ The agent has signaled that he expects the results to be to your benefit. However, if he rubbed his palms together very slowly as he told you that he had the ideal property, he would appear to be crafty or devious; thus, giving you the feeling that the ensuing outcome would be to his advantage rather than yours.

Important Hint! 

Note that it could be misleading to attach a single meaning to every situation. This is because nonverbal messages are more ambiguous than verbal messages, mainly because they can be unintentional. For example, a person who is standing at a bus terminal in freezing conditions and rubs palms together briskly does not necessarily do so in expectation of a bus. It is done because the person’s hands are cold!

3.   Thumb display

image depicting thumb displays
Fig 3. An image depicting Thumb displays

Thumb displays are positive signals, often used in the typical pose of the ‘cool manager’ who uses them in the presence of team members.

Thumbs often protrude from people’s pockets, sometimes from the back pockets in a secretive manner in order to try and hide the person’s dominating attitude. Dominant or aggressive women also use this gesture.

An arm folded with the thumb pointing upwards is another common thumb gesture position. This gives a double signal: (a) a defensive or negative attitude (folded arms); and (b) a superior attitude.

4.   Mouth guard

image depicting mouth guard
Fig 4. An image depicting Mouth guard

The mouth guard is one of the few adult gestures that is very obvious. The hand covers the mouth and the thumb is pressed against the cheek as the brain subconsciously instructs it to try and suppress the words that are being said.

Sometimes this gesture may only comprise putting several fingers over the mouth or even putting a closed fist there, but its meaning remains the same—lying or discomfort with what is being said.

Sometimes people attempt to disguise the mouth guard gesture by giving a fake cough. If the person who is speaking uses this gesture, it indicates that he is telling a lie. If, however, the mouth is covered while you are speaking, it indicates that the person who does this feels that you are lying!

5.   Nose touch

An image depicting Nose touch
Fig 5. An image depicting Nose touch

The nose touching gesture is a sophisticated, disguised version of the mouth guard gesture. It may consist of several light rubs below the nose or it may be one quick (almost imperceptible touch). Like the mouth guard gesture, it can be used both by a speaker to disguise deceptionOpens in new window and by a listener to suspect a deceit.

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6.   Eye rub

An image depicting Eye rub gesture
Fig 6. An image depicting Eye rub gesture

The eye rub gesture consists when your brain subconsciously attempt to mask the deceit, doubt or lie that it sees or to avoid having to look at the face of the person to whom you are telling a lie.

Men are often found using this gesture—rubbing their eyes vigorously and if the lie is a big one they will often look away, usually at the floor. Women also use this gesture by giving a gentle and slight rubbing motion just below the eye to avoid smudging their eye make-up. Sometimes they choose to avoid a listener’s gaze by focusing their look at the ceiling.

7.   Ear rub

An image depicting Ear rub gesture
Fig 7. An image depicting Ear rub gesture

The ear rub gesture is a signal that the person has heard enough or may want to speak. It is the sophisticated adult version of the hands-over-both ear gesture used by the young child. Other variations of the ear rub gesture include rubbing the back of the ear, the finger drill (where the fingertip is screwed back and forth inside the ear), pulling at the earlobe or bending the entire ear forward to cover the ear hole.

8.   Neck scratch

An image depicting Neck scratch gesture
Fig 8. An image depicting Neck scratch gesture

In the neck scratch gesture, the index finger of the writing hand scratches below the earlobe, or may even scratch the side of the neck. This gesture signals an element of doubt or uncertainty and is characteristic of the person who says, ‘I’m not sure I agree.’ It is very noticeable when the verbal language contradicts it, for example, when the person says something like, ‘I can understand how you feel.’

9.   Fingers in the mouth

An image depicting Fingers-in-the-mouth
Fig 9. An image depicting Fingers-in-the-mouth

Sometimes in the midst of undue pressure, users of this gesture often put fingers in their mouth. However, most hand-to-mouth gestures convey a feeling of lying or deception, the fingers-in-mouth gesture is an outward manifestation of an inner need for reassurance— giving the person guarantee and assurance is appropriate when this gesture is encountered.

The movements and alignment of our body give us powerful means to communicate nonverbally. There are different cue categories of body movements.

Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen identify five categories of nonverbal behaviour that we can use to describe bodily cues—emblems, illustrators, regulators, affect displays, and adaptors. Within the remainder of this entry, we'll be exploring each in turn.


Emblems are deliberate movements of the body that are consciously sent and easily translated into speech, such as a wave that means “come here,” a thumbs-up gesture that means “okay,” and a wave that means “hello” or “good-bye.”

Oftentimes, we use emblems when noise or distance makes it less feasible that we will be understood through the use of words alone. Traders on the floor of a stock exchange and sports umpires and coaches on the playing field use emblems regularly; for them, emblems compose a gesture system.


Illustrators are bodily cues designed to enhance receiver comprehension of speech by supporting or reinforcing it.

As we do with emblems, we use illustrators consciously and deliberately. For example, when you give someone directions, you use illustrators to facilitate your task. When you want to stress the shortness of a member of a basketball team compared to the average height of team members, you use your hands to emphasize the difference.


Regulators are cues we use intentionally to influence turn taking—who speaks, when, and for how long.

For example, gazing at someone talking to you and nodding your head usually encourages the person to continue speaking, while leaning forward in your seat, tensing your posture, and breaking eye contact traditionally signals that you would like a turn. If we ignore or remain unaware of another’s use of regulators, the other person may accuse us of rudeness or insensitivity. Your use or misuse or regulators reveals much about your social skills.

Affect displays

Affect displays are movements of the body that reflect emotional states of being. While our face is the prime indicator of the emotion we are experiencing, it is our body that reveals the emotion’s intensity.

Typically, we are less aware of our affect displays because often we do not intend to send many of them. People who “read” our bodies on the basis of its demeanor can judge how we genuinely feel. For example, you might describe another person’s body as slumping and defeated, still and motionless, relaxed and confident, or proud and victorious. Those of us who characteristically show a lack of affect or feeling make it especially difficult for others to relate to us meaningfully.

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Adaptors are unintentional movements of the body that involuntarily reveal information about psychological state or inner needs, such as nervousness. They include nose scratches, hand over lips, chin stroking, and hair twirling.

Individuals interacting with use or observing us interpret these as signs of nervousness, tension, or lack of self-assurance.

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