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How to Read Body Language in the United States


Body language says what words can’t, and it can serve as an effective maneuver around poor English skills—or difficulties in any other language for that matter! On top of that, body language complements verbal language; it acts a lot like slang in that it makes for more fluent and lively conversation.

However, in order to make this work for you, you need to know how to read body language. Nonverbal communications in English are just as important as they are around the world. This guide on body gestures in our English lesson will help you get a better grasp of American nonverbal communication.

Learn about body language in American culture, as well as an array of body gestures in English, with, and prove yourself an avid language-learner through this unspoken language! Start with a bonus, and download your FREE cheat sheet – How to Improve Your English Skills! (Logged-In Member Only)

Table of Contents

  1. Body Language in the United States
  2. “Personal Space” in the United States
  3. Body Postures
  4. Hand Gestures
  5. Facial Expressions
  6. Different Physical Movements
  7. Bonus: Combinations of Body Language Signals
  8. Conclusion

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1. Body Language in the United States

Woman smiling and covering her mouth

Before you can learn how to read body language in the United States, it’s important that you know what it is and what it looks like.

First things first: What is body language?

Essentially, body language is how we communicate our thoughts and feelings through gestures or other movements—whether intentionally or not.

For example, most people begin to smile or laugh when they’re feeling happy; they don’t have to say, “I’m feeling happy,” you can just guess that based on their actions and the context.

Context is just as important in learning how to read body language as the actual movements. For example, let’s say that the person mentioned above was smiling and laughing, but you were in the middle of a big fight with them. They probably aren’t happy. Their emotions are just so chaotic that they’re smiling and laughing despite the negative tension.

From rude hand gestures in America to body language in American culture itself, there’s a lot to learn about how to read body language. It’ll take some time to truly master recognizing, reading, and mirroring these gestures and actions, so be patient with yourself and practice as much as you can!

We’ll do our best in this article to present you with relevant body language definitions and examples.

Now, let’s move onto another facet of English body language and gestures—the concept of personal space.

2. “Personal Space” in the United States

Two Men Shaking Hands at a Distance

Talking about body gestures in English requires that a quick glance at a common aspect of United States culture. Perhaps one of the first things you should know when it comes to body language in American culture is the concept of “personal space” that Americans possess. This is one of the most important concepts to understand when it comes to English body language and gestures.

More so than in many other countries and cultures around the world, Americans cherish their personal space (or as some people call it, their “personal bubble”). This personal space represents the distance that Americans feel others need to keep away from them, both physically and emotionally. And Americans definitely get uncomfortable or even annoyed if this space is invaded in the least.

In the United States, people like for other people to keep their distance—when talking, when walking, when waiting in line, when at home, and when out and about. Obviously, “rules” about personal space vary from person to person, and from relationship to relationship.

However, according to The Spruce, typical personal space rules in the United States are as follows:

  • Approximately 0 to 20 inches for intimate couples
  • Approximately 1-1/2 feet to 3 feet for good friends and family members
  • Approximately 3 feet to 10 feet for casual acquaintances and coworkers
  • More than 4 feet for strangers
  • More than 12 feet for speaking to a large group

As someone who’s new to the United States, you’ll probably be forgiven for not following these rules to a tee. But it’s definitely polite to try your best and stick to these norms; you’ll be a lot more likely to gain the favor of many an American.

That said, let’s look at some American body language gestures, and gain more insight into English gestures and body language.

3. Body Postures

You can tell a lot about how a person is feeling by their body posture, even if they’re not really doing anything. Let’s explore a few examples of American body language postures and what they mean.

1- Leaning Forward

  • Meaning: Leaning or bending forward while sitting down usually means that you’re interested (or even intrigued) by what the other person is saying. It shows attentiveness.
  • How to do: While sitting during a conversation, you can lean forward slightly from the bottom of your spine; don’t overdo this, as it can come across as rude or awkward.
  • When to use: This is probably best used in informal settings, and should be used sparingly. You can lean forward a little bit if you’re having a talk with a friend about something that interests you.
  • Example situation: You and your friend are out getting coffee together and she starts telling you about a police chase she saw on her way to the cafe. You lean forward slightly as she describes the details of this enthralling chase scene.
  • Additional notes: In addition to simply leaning slightly forward, some people also raise their eyebrows or put their hand to their chin as these can be indicators of deep thought or interest.

2- Leaning Back

  • Meaning: Leaning back in your chair while sitting down usually indicates that you’re very relaxed, and can even be a way of showing satisfaction or relief.
  • How to do: There’s no set way to do this. Basically, you lean slightly backward instead of sitting straight, often ridding yourself of tension in your back. Some people also put their legs out in front of them, crossed or uncrossed; others hang their arms over the chair/sofa in relaxation, or put their hands to the back of their head in a stretch.
  • When to use: You can use this any time you’re feeling relaxed, relieved, or laid-back about something (or any of those things in general).
  • Example situation: Let’s say you’re sitting at your computer and you just finished a huge project that’s due tomorrow. You save and close the assignment, turn off the computer, and lean back in your chair as an outward show of relief.
  • Additional notes: While this posture usually indicates relief about something or general relaxation, you should be careful about when you use it. For example, leaning back in your chair during a school lecture or during a business meeting will indicate that you’re uninterested or just don’t care enough to sit straight—not a good impression to make on people in your professional life. Some people also consider this a “defensive posture.”

3- Crossed Legs (at the knee)

  • Meaning: Crossing one’s legs while sitting is basically just a comfortable way of sitting. It usually denotes relaxation and ease.
  • How to do: While sitting down straight, move one of your legs (it doesn’t matter which one) so that it’s on top of the other one. Usually, your mid-thighs and knees will overlap, while the calf of the leg you put on top hangs slightly over your other calf.
  • When to use: You can use this just about anytime and anywhere, but it’s typically best suited to more informal occasions. If you’re hanging out with friends at a coffee shop, reading a good book at home, or at any type of informal social gathering, it’s completely acceptable to use this posture while sitting. But you should be very cautious about sitting this way during business meetings or other events where you’re expected to be professional.
  • Example situation: You’re out getting pizza with some friends, and you’re all sitting around a table together. If you start to feel uncomfortable sitting straight and “proper,” you can shift your weight in a way that’s more comfortable to you by crossing your legs.
  • Additional notes: While this is one of the most common sitting positions in the United States (and quite convenient and comfortable), there’s a lot of debate around it. Many people are starting to claim that this posture is bad for you, and that sitting straight and proper is best. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people saying that there may actually be health benefits to sitting this way.

Another thing to keep in mind is that when a woman crosses her legs at the knee, it’s sometimes considered an alluring posture—this depends on various factors, though, such as what she’s wearing and who she’s with.

4- Arms Crossed

  • Meaning: More often than not, having one’s arms crossed usually denotes anger, frustration, or insecurity.
  • How to do: To cross your arms, begin bringing your arms together just under your chest. Arrange them, as you’re bringing them toward your chest, so that your left hand will rest under the crook of your right arm, and vice-versa. Your left arm will rest on top of your right arm where they intersect.
  • When to use: Crossed arms can technically be used in any situation, but it’s best used sparingly as it usually has a negative connotation. You can use the crossed arms posture when you’re feeling angry or “put off” with someone, or when you’re in a situation that makes you uncomfortable (crossing your arms can feel almost like giving yourself an extra layer of protection, and is often done unconsciously for this reason).
  • Example situation: You and a coworker are arguing over the best way to complete a project, and in a moment of frustration you cross your arms.
  • Additional notes: Crossed arms can be used for more emotions and situations than listed above, though the ones listed above are the most common and standard. Crossed arms can also be used when you’re feeling chilly, and even for no other reason than more comfortable posture when standing for a long time.

Woman Crossing Arms

5- Slouching

  • Meaning: Slouching is usually received negatively, and often indicates laziness or other negative characteristics. It’s also considered bad posture in general, and can be done standing or sitting.
  • How to do: Though you probably don’t want to slouch, this is usually done by slumping your back and/or shoulders, so that you’re no longer standing or sitting straight. This is different from leaning forward or backward because when you slouch, your overall posture is very bad and the act of slouching usually involves your shoulders (as opposed to only a slight change in the position of your back).
  • When to use: Slouching can be done anywhere and at any time. It should be especially avoided during formal occasions.
  • Example situation: You’re sitting at your desk working, and suddenly realize that your back and shoulders are drooping or hunched over; you quickly correct your posture.
  • Additional notes: As mentioned earlier, slouching should be avoided as much as possible (though it’s easy to find yourself in this position by accident). It’s considered rude and has an overall negative connotation, not to mention slouching is terrible for your postural health.

4. Hand Gestures

A list of body language examples wouldn’t be complete without covering popular hand gestures. Here’s a list of some of the most common hand gestures in America and what they mean.

Hand Gestures

1- Thumbs-up/down

  • Meaning: A thumbs-up means “okay,” or a similar positive word. A thumbs-down usually means “no,” “not good,” or a similar negative word.
  • How to do: To do a thumbs-up hand gesture: Turn your hand sideways (usually your right hand), so that your thumb is on the top side. Then, curve all of your fingers so that they’re curled in your palm and extend your thumb out in an upward position.

    To do a thumbs-down hand gesture: Turn your hand sideways (usually your right hand), so that your thumb is on the bottom side. Then, curve all of your fingers so that they’re curled into your palm and extend your thumb out in a downward position.

  • When to use: The thumbs-up gesture is often used in place of the word “okay,” and can also be used as a general sign of approval. The thumbs-down gesture is the opposite, and is used as a general sign of disapproval.
  • Example situation: Let’s say you and a friend are out shopping together, and you stop by the food court. Your friend asks if you would like to get food from the Panda Express window; you give the thumbs-up gesture and nod to show that you would like to eat there.

2- High-five

  • Meaning: A very American hand gesture, the high-five is a way of expressing congratulations or excitement, usually for a job well done. It’s one of the most common hand gestures in America.
  • How to do: As the linked video shows, there are several different ways to do the high-five. But here, we’ll just go over the basic, most common high-five. To do this, you and another person hold your palm out flat, fingers spread. Then you both raise the arm you’ll be high-fiving with, and thrust them toward the other person’s arm so that your outstretched hands will hit each other and make a clapping sound. (The video will make this make a lot more sense.)
  • When to use: The high-five is typically used in order to express congratulations or excitement about something, and is best used with friends in informal settings.
  • Example situation: Let’s say your friend applied for their dream job, waited weeks for a response, and then comes over to tell you they got the job. You might be so happy for your friend that you initiate a high-five (and then go out for ice cream together).
  • Additional notes: High-fives can be notoriously tricky, and even people who have been high-fiving their entire life mess it up sometimes. It’s not complicated, but unless both people are completely prepared for the high-five it might not go as planned. Be patient with yourself while you learn this one, and realize that you’ll probably never have it down 100%.

3- Wave

  • Meaning: Waving is basically a way of greeting someone, usually from afar.
  • How to do: While there are several types of “waves” you could do, we’ll go over the most basic greeting one. To do this, extend your arm (usually your right arm) into the air so that the person you’re waving to can see it, and move your wrist from left to right several times.
  • When to use: Waving is typically used to get someone’s attention and greet them from a distance.
  • Example situation: You’re in the checkout line at the grocery store and you spot someone you know in the line next to yours. You look in their direction, and start waving if they happen to be looking in your direction too.
  • Additional notes: Sometimes just waving isn’t enough to grab someone’s attention; in this case, you can also say their name while waving so that they’ll hear you and maybe come over to talk.


4- Extending Hand

  • Meaning: Extending your hand to someone almost always means that you want to shake their hand (though it could have other meanings that we’ll look at later).
  • How to do: To extend your hand to someone, simply extend your arm in their direction, usually with your hand sideways and loosely held.
  • When to use: This is usually used when you first meet someone, especially a new colleague or a friend of a friend.
  • Example situation: You’re at work and a new colleague is introduced to you. The first thing you’ll probably do is shake their hand.
  • Additional notes: Oftentimes, when shaking someone’s hand, you’ll also exchange names and say something like “Nice to meet you,” or “Pleasure to meet you.”

Extending your hand can have more meanings than simply wanting to shake someone’s hand. For example, you may extend your hand to someone if they’ve fallen down and you want to help them up. You can also extend your hand to someone if you want them to take it while walking together, such as a man may do to a woman he’s courting.

Man Reaching Out

5- Waving Toward Yourself

  • Meaning: You may wave toward yourself if you want someone to come closer to you.
  • How to do: Extend your arm outward, then sweep it toward yourself (usually just once or twice).
  • When to use: You can use this any time you see someone you know at a distance and want to chat with them or otherwise have a conversation with them.
  • Example situation: You’re walking down the street and see someone you know. You catch their attention and wave toward yourself so that you can say hello.
  • Additional notes: You can also use this gesture if you want someone to follow you; if done in this context, you’ll usually be walking or running a certain direction, and will wave more in the direction you’re going than actually at yourself.

6- Pointing Index Finger Away from You

  • Meaning: Pointing your index finger away from you usually means one of two things: 1.) It’s a way of telling someone to go in the direction you’re pointing, or 2.) You’re pointing toward something as a way of indicating what/who you’re talking about. (The meaning is usually indicated by the context.)
  • How to do: Extend your arm in front of you, and then fold all of your fingers except for your index finger.
  • When to use: You can use this as a way of indicating that you want someone to go in that direction, or if you need to show the person you’re talking to what or who you’re talking about.
  • Example situation: You tell your friend that their crush is just a few feet away, and you discreetly point toward him/her to show your friend.
  • Additional notes: Keep in mind the old adage that “It’s rude to point.” While it’s sometimes okay to use this gesture as described above, it’s best not to point directly at a person (especially if there’s a good chance they’ll see you!). And if you’re pointing in a general direction or at a specific place, it’s good practice to make sure there’s no one around who will think you’re pointing at them. In order to get around this, some people use their arm as a whole to do this gesture, not using a finger to point.

Kid Pointing

7- Raise Hand

  • Meaning: When you raise your hand, you’re almost always indicating that you have something you want to say during a group discussion of some kind.
  • How to do: This is usually done while sitting in a group, though it can also be done while standing. Simply extend your arm (usually your right arm) upward above your head. Make sure that your fingers are pressed together (not spread apart or in a fist).
  • When to use: You can use this gesture to catch the main speaker’s attention (for instance, a teacher or professor in a classroom) so that they’ll “call on you,” or allow you to speak/ask a question. You can also use this during any group discussion where taking turns talking is mandatory; raising your hand indicates you have something to say or a question you want to ask.
  • Example situation: Your bioscience professor is talking about a very complicated topic and you have a couple of questions about something he said. You can raise your hand as described above, and your professor will address you either by allowing you to speak or letting you know you can ask questions after the lecture.
  • Additional notes: Raising your hand can also be done if you have a request during a group meeting, especially in a classroom setting. For example, if you need to use the bathroom during class or have to leave early for some reason, you can raise your hand to attract the teacher’s or professor’s attention so you can tell them.

Crowd Raising Their Hands

8- Clapping

  • Meaning: Clapping can mean multiple things depending on the context, but is usually a form of applause.
  • How to do: The most common way to clap is to slap your palms together several times to make a “clapping noise.”
  • When to use: Clapping is very common after a performance or show of some kind, as a way of applauding or congratulating the person or people for a job well done.
  • Example situation: You attended a concert put on by local bands; you really like the music they’re playing, and so you clap along with the rest of the audience after each performance.
  • Additional notes: Keep in mind that clapping can also be done sarcastically. Let’s say your friend tries performing a magic trick for you and totally messes it up; you can clap as a way of warmly teasing your friend about it.

Also, clapping can have other meanings and purposes. For example, a lot of people clap their hands together when they’re trying to remember something (or a loud, single clap once they’ve remembered it or had a great idea). Clapping can also be used while dancing or otherwise enjoying music, such as clapping your hands to the beat.

A Pair of Hands Clapping

9- Snap Fingers

  • Meaning: The meaning of snapping your fingers is similar to the secondary reasons for clapping your hands.
  • How to do: Join together your thumb and middle finger on either hand (or both hands). Then, press your middle finger harder on your thumb and simultaneously swipe it downward. If done correctly, this should produce a snapping sound.
  • When to use: You can snap your fingers to the beat of music, after you’ve remembered something or have a good idea, or when you’re trying to remember something.
  • Example situation: You’re telling a friend about an interesting person you met at a party, but you can’t remember their name. You start rapidly snapping your fingers as you try to remember, out of frustration and a sense of urgency to remember.
  • Additional notes: Some people also use snapping their fingers as a way of establishing dominance over someone (such as when someone snaps for someone to bring them something), or as a way of being “sassy” or “fierce.” In these cases, it’s usually only a single snap and you can tell the intention based on the context.

10- Cross Fingers

  • Meaning: Crossing your fingers can have two basic meanings: 1.) You’re wishing or hoping desperately for something, and 2.) If done behind your back, it means you plan on breaking a promise you’re making (this is sometimes referred to as “crossies”).
  • How to do: In order to cross your fingers, simply lay your middle finger on top of your index finger.
  • When to use: You can use this when talking to someone and wishing them luck, or when you’re making a promise you don’t plan on keeping (but this is obviously rude and frowned-upon).
  • Example situation: Your friend is talking to you about a promotion they would like to get. You can cross your fingers as a sign that you hope they get it.
  • Additional notes: Most of the time when someone crosses their fingers, they’ll also say the words “fingers crossed,” in a hopeful voice. On some occasions, people will say “fingers crossed,” but not actually cross their fingers.

Girl Crossing Her Fingers

11- Thumb to Index Finger

  • Meaning: This gesture usually means “okay,” “good,” or “very good.”
  • How to do: Simply join your thumb and index finger so that it forms a circle.
  • When to use: This is common to use when eating, as a way of indicating that the food is good. It can also be used similarly to the “thumbs-up” gesture.
  • Example situation: You’re eating at your favorite restaurant with some friends, and they ask you how your food is. You do the thumb-to-index finger gesture to indicate that it’s very good.
  • Additional notes: While doing this gesture, it’s also common to actually say the words “okay,” “good,” or “very good,” though you don’t need to.

12- So-so

  • Meaning: This gesture indicates that something is “so-so” or just okay.
  • How to do: Hold your hand (usually your right hand) in front of you and tilt it from side to side.
  • When to use: You can use this gesture if someone asks you how something was or how you liked something, and you don’t have a particularly strong opinion about it either way.
  • Example situation: Your significant other asks you to watch a movie with them that you’re not particularly interested in. After the movie, they ask you what you thought of the movie. You do the “so-so” gesture to tell them it wasn’t great, but you’ve seen worse movies.
  • Additional notes: When using this gesture, it’s common to also say the words, “It was okay.”

13- Middle Finger

  • Meaning: Also called “flipping someone off,” giving someone the middle finger is a very rude way of indicating anger, frustration, or strong disapproval.
  • How to do: Stick out your middle finger and turn your hand over so that your wrist is facing upward. Point your finger in the direction of the person you’re flipping off.
  • When to use: It’s best not to. But if you really feel the need to, this rude gesture is used most often when driving once “road rage” kicks in or when someone’s driving very badly or dangerously. It can be used in various other contexts too, but as mentioned earlier, it’s best not to.
  • Example situation: You’re running late to work, traffic’s really bad, and someone pulls out in front of you unexpectedly and you almost collide. You honk your car horn and give that driver the middle finger.
  • Additional notes: This gesture should be used very sparingly, if at all. And above all else, never use this gesture toward someone of authority or high status, such as a teacher, professor, boss, or police officer. This is one of the most rude hand gestures in America.

14- Clenched Fist

  • Meaning: Clenching your fist usually shows that you’re angry, though some people also clench their fists as a show of frustration or fear.
  • How to do: Curl all of your fingers tightly around each other in the shape of a fist, with your thumb either inside the fist or outside.
  • When to use: This gesture is usually used when someone is angry or frustrated, whether at a specific person or at a situation they can’t control.
  • Example situation: For instance, let’s say your friend finds out that they’re going to be laid off from their job. If they feel like this is unfair or have other negative attitudes toward the company/their boss, they may start clenching their fists while telling you about it.
  • Additional notes: Sometimes, people repeatedly clench and unclench their fists, usually as a show of great distress or frustration.

15- Index Finger to Lips

  • Meaning: This gesture indicates that you want someone to quiet down or stop talking entirely, or that you want them to keep a secret.
  • How to do: Put your index finger (usually your right index finger), pointing upward, to your lips.
  • When to use: Use this gesture to tell someone to be quiet or to keep something you told them private.
  • Example situation: You and your friend are talking about something in private, and someone you know starts approaching. You’ll quickly look at your friend and put your index finger to your lips to let them know to stop talking.
  • Additional notes: When doing this gesture, a lot of people also make the “shh” sound, otherwise known as “shushing.”

Man Shushing Someone

16- Air Quotes

  • Meaning: This gesture is meant to represent quotation marks, and means that you’re either quoting someone/something, or are sarcastically saying something.
  • How to do: Keep all fingers curled except for your index and middle finger; keep those two fingers close together. While you’re saying the quote or the sarcastic phrase, bend the top parts of those two fingers on each hand up and down.
  • When to use: Use this gesture when you’re either quoting someone/something or saying something in a sarcastic manner.
  • Example situation: You and your significant other are at the store, and they say that they’re going to buy a chocolate bar for you. “Oh,” you’ll say, “you’re buying a chocolate bar [air quote] for me [air quote]?” But you know full well they want the chocolate more than you do.

17- Star Trek’s “Live Long and Prosper”

  • Meaning: This very American gesture is a way of saying “Live Long and Prosper,” which is a famous line (and gesture) from the popular Star Trek series.
  • How to do: Separate your thumb from the rest of your fingers. Then, split your remaining four fingers so that your index and middle finger are joined and your ring finger and pinky are joined together. It should form a “V” shape.
  • When to use: This is best used in informal settings, and can be used as a nerdy way of wishing someone well.
  • Example situation: You and a friend are about to part ways after spending the day together. Before you leave, you tell your friend “bye” and use this gesture. This is best used with friends who have watched Star Trek and know what this means.
  • Additional notes: Not everyone is able to make this symbol with their hand, and even for those who can, it’s harder for some than for others. So if you’re not capable of doing this, it’s really nothing to worry about.

Star Trek Gesture

5. Facial Expressions

In American body language, there’s an array of facial expressions to learn about and explore for yourself. Body language, when speaking in English, consists of many of the following facial expressions:

1- Doubt

  • Meaning: When someone makes a face that expresses doubt, it means that they aren’t entirely sure about something—this can be something you said, information they heard, or uncertainty about a situation.
  • How to do: Oftentimes, people express doubt through shifting their mouth to one side, raising their eyebrows, and looking hard at someone or something.
  • When to use: You can use this type of facial expression whenever you’re unsure of something.
  • Example situation: Your friend tells you that they spend two hours at the gym every night. You give them a doubtful expression because you don’t believe them.
  • Additional notes: There can be multiple ways of expressing doubt through facial movement. What I outlined above just represents what’s most typical based on my own experiences.

2- Confusion

  • Meaning: When someone makes a face that expresses confusion, it means that they are visible confused about something or have no idea what’s going on.
  • How to do: Oftentimes, people express confusion through widened eyes, scrunched eyebrows, and putting their hand to their chin or other place on their face.
  • When to use: This type of expression is often used when someone’s having a hard time understanding something or when they’re told new information that doesn’t match up with what they know already.
  • Example situation: In an economics class, you’re told that it’s a bad idea to change insurance companies because it will lower your credit score; you’re later told by the same teacher that sometimes it’s good to change insurance companies. You make a confused face and then raise your to hand to ask for clarification.
  • Additional notes: As with expressing doubt, there are many ways to express confusion. What’s outline above is just the most typical way of doing so based on my experience.

3- Anger

  • Meaning: When someone makes a face that expresses anger, it shows that they are angry, frustrated, or just sick and tired of the person they’re with (or situation they’re in).
  • How to do: Oftentimes, this is done through scrunched eyebrows, the face reddening, tightened lips (or a snarl), and sometimes a distant or overly focused look on the face.
  • When to use: You may use a facial expression similar to the one above without even realizing it when you’re angry.
  • Example situation: You just found out that someone you trusted with a secret told someone else about it. When you confront the person about it, you make an angry face.
  • Additional notes: Different people express anger differently, and so there really is no set way to express anger. (For example, there’s “hot” anger and “cold” anger which are expressed quite differently.)

Angry Woman About to Throw Laptop

4- Clenched Teeth

  • Meaning: Clenched teeth usually mean one of two things: 1.) It can mean that the person is angry, or 2.) It can mean that you’re cold.
  • How to do: This is done by clamping down on your jaw so that your teeth are clenched together.
  • When to use: You can use this when you’re feeling angry (or particularly if you’re trying to keep from saying or doing something you’ll regret while angry), or when you’re feeling cold (as this is often an automatic reaction).
  • Example situation: You’re getting more and more upset with someone for doing something that annoys you. You’re definitely angry, but trying not to say anything rude or mean, so you’re clenching your teeth.
  • Additional notes: Clenched teeth can honestly mean a multitude of different things, though the two mentioned here are the most common. For example, some people also clench their teeth when nervous or when focusing intently on a task.

5- Sticking out Tongue

  • Meaning: When someone sticks out their tongue, it’s usually a way of saying something along the lines of, “So there,” or “Whatever,” in a sarcastic manner. It shows mock anger or frustration.
  • How to do: Stick your tongue out of your mouth at someone; this is usually done along with squinting your eyes and giving a mock sigh of contempt.
  • When to use: You can use this facial expression after someone does or says something that mildly annoys you.
  • Example situation: You just lost a card game five times in a row to a friend, and now they’re gloating about it. You stick out your tongue at them to playfully let them know they should stop gloating.
  • Additional notes: There’s a slightly similar facial expression where someone opens their mouth and points with their finger into it; this has a different meaning and is usually a sign of disgust with someone or something.

Girl Sticking Tongue Out

6- Raised Eyebrows

  • Meaning: Raised eyebrows can have a variety of meanings. Usually, raised eyebrows are used in expressions of doubt, surprise, or even frustration.
  • How to do: To do this, you just raise both of your eyebrows.
  • When to use: You can use this in a variety of situations, but most especially if you’re surprised or in doubt about something.
  • Example situation: Someone tells you a bit of news that you’re not sure is true, so you raise your eyebrows to let them know you’re in doubt.
  • Additional notes: There’s also the gesture of raising one eyebrow, which can have the same meaning as this, or can be used to appear more charming.

7- Eye Roll

  • Meaning: An eye roll is the epitome of sarcasm. It basically means, “Yeah, right,” “Whatever,” or “I don’t care.”
  • How to do: This can be done with your eyes open or closed. Simply take a moment to roll your eyes in a circular motion.
  • When to use: Usually, an eye roll is used when someone is telling you something and you’re frustrated or angry with them. It can also be used if you don’t believe what you’re being told, if you don’t really care, or if you’re frustrated about a situation in general.
  • Example situation: A child is pulled aside by his parent to be scolded for rude behavior. He rolls his eyes while his parent is talking (and gets in even more trouble for it).
  • Additional notes: As in the above situation, keep in mind that it’s never a good idea to use the eye roll toward someone who’s superior to you in any way (though this is usually when it’s most tempting to do so!). Do you best to only use it in informal situations, and use it sparingly.

8- Avoiding Eye Contact

  • Meaning: When someone avoids eye contact, it usually means that they’re feeling insecure (either because they’re shy or they’re being dishonest about something).
  • How to do: Avoiding eye contact is simply done through focusing your sight on something besides another person’s eyes (or that person in general, depending on the circumstances).
  • When to use: This is usually used when you’re feeling insecure about something or aren’t being honest.
  • Example situation: You’re asking a friend an important question and you notice that they won’t look you in the eyes while they’re answering. You suspect they may not be telling you the whole truth.

9- Biting Lip

  • Meaning: Biting one’s lip can have multiple meanings. Some of the most common are uncertainty, being deep in thought, or thinking about what to say.
  • How to do: This is usually done one of two ways: 1.) Digging slightly into your lower lip with your top teeth, or 2.) Digging slightly into your upper lip with your bottom teeth.
  • When to use: You can use this facial expression to tell someone that you’re not sure about something or need to think before you respond to what they said.
  • Example situation: You’re at the library with your crush, returning a book that they suggested to you. They ask you if you read all of it and what you thought. You bite your lip, then reveal that you really didn’t care for it and only got a couple of chapters in.
  • Additional notes: Some people also find it endearing and charming when someone bites their lip.

10- Wink

  • Meaning: A wink usually indicates either a secret between two people, or is a way of acting cute or flirting.
  • How to do: Blink only one of your eyes in the direction of another person; this can be done either discreetly or more openly, depending on your reasons for winking at them.
  • When to use: You can wink at someone as a lighthearted way of quietly bringing up a secret between the two of you, or if you’re trying to be cute in front of someone you like.
  • Example situation: Your waitress at a restaurant helps you find a better deal on the menu than what you were going to order. You thank her. She winks and replies, “No problem.”

Woman Winking

11- Funny Face

  • Meaning: A “funny face” has no actual, solid meaning.
  • How to do: There’s no set way to make a “funny face.” It can literally be anything you do to your face that doesn’t look like a “normal” expression.
  • When to use: Funny faces are usually used when taking selfies, either alone or with friends. They make for interesting and often hilarious memories.
  • Example situation: You’re at a family get-together, and someone decides to take a group photo. They might ask for one “normal” photo where everyone’s smiling, and then ask for a “silly” photo, where everyone makes a funny face of some kind.
  • Additional notes: Funny faces can be used outside of picture-taking as well, such as when you’re discussing something funny with a friend or feel the need to be extreme or sarcastic about expressing your emotions on something.

6. Different Physical Movements

Aside from the gestures and postures mentioned above, there are a few other movements that you should know about. Let’s take a look at these English body gestures.

1- Nodding

  • Meaning: Nodding can have multiple meanings. Usually, it’s used as a way of saying “yes.” It’s also used to show someone that you’re listening to them while they’re talking.
  • How to do: Simply bob your head up and down. If you’re using it to say “yes,” you should do this a little bit faster than if you’re simply using it to acknowledge that you’re listening.
  • When to use: Use this if you want to tell someone “yes,” or give them your approval about something. You can also use it during a conversation in which the other person is doing most of the talking. These both can be used in just about any situation.
  • Example situation: Your friend asks if you would like to go get sushi with them. You nod your head and say, “Yeah, that sounds great.”
  • Additional notes: On occasion, a single nod is also used to indicate “yes,” as opposed to nodding multiple times.

2- Shaking Head

  • Meaning: This is usually used as the opposite of nodding, and can also be used as a general expression of disappointment or disapproval.
  • How to do: Move your head from right to left or vice-versa.
  • When to use: Use this in place of saying “no,” or use it to show that you’re disappointed or disapprove of something.
  • Example situation: After you’ve had sushi with your friend, they ask if you’d like to see a movie as well. You shake your head, then explain that you need some down time.
  • Additional notes: Sometimes when this is used as a way of showing disapproval, people use the “tsk” sound while doing it.

3- Shrug

  • Meaning: This usually means “I don’t know,” or “I don’t care.”
  • How to do: This is usually done by lifting your shoulders, with your hands lifted to just above your stomach, palms up.
  • When to use: You can shrug when you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, or that you don’t really care to answer.
  • Example situation: Your friend asks you what toppings you would like on the pizza you’re going to share. You shrug, and say “Whatever you want.”
  • Additional notes: Shrugging is often accompanied by tilting one’s head, shifting their mouth (or pouting), raising their eyebrows, or similar gestures.

4- Fidgeting

  • Meaning: Fidgeting can mean a variety of things, though it usually indicates boredom or stress. Sometimes, fidgeting gestures are also referred to as “tics.”
  • How to do: There’s no set way to “fidget” as this can look different from person to person. We’ll talk about some examples below.
  • When to use: Fidgeting is usually done when someone is bored or as a way of relieving stress.
  • Example situation: You’re really stressed about a project you’re working on, and after working on it for several hours you realize that you’ve been tapping your foot and touching your face a lot.
  • Additional notes: Some common examples of fidgeting gestures or tics include, but aren’t at all limited to: biting your nails; playing with your hair in any manner; tapping your foot; clicking a pen; tapping on your desk; cracking your knuckles or other body part; picking at your skin; looking around too much; excessive stretching; and the list goes on.

There are certain situations where engaging in a fidgeting gesture is especially rude, such as in most professional settings. Though most fidgeting gestures are a force of habit and are very difficult to break, it’s always good to do your best to avoid them in settings like this. (Or if you’re around someone who’s particularly annoyed with your fidgeting.) This is definitely not a very desirable American body language in business.

7. Bonus: Combinations of Body Language Signals

Woman shrugging and Smirking

As you may have noticed above, there are times when someone will use multiple body language signals and gestures at the same time. While these sometimes combine well and make perfect sense, it can sometimes be confusing to understand why they’re using the gestures they’re using.

Instead of giving you a long list of possible gesture combinations and what they could mean (which would be impossible to finish!), I’ll just point out that it’s totally fine if you can’t always follow someone’s body language signals.

While some gestures come naturally to just about everyone and make perfect sense almost universally, it’s important to remember that everyone is unique and so their way of expressing themselves is too. Just do your best to learn some of the basics outlined here to get a good idea of what to expect while in the United States, and how to mirror what the people around you are doing.

Good luck!


We went over so many American body language and gestures! We hope that you learned a little more about how to read body language in the United States and what you can expect during your visit (or your stay!). Further, we hope that you now understand why human body language in learning English is so important and how it can enrich your communication.

If you want to learn even more about the English language and the United States, be sure to visit us at We offer a good variety of vocabulary lists as well as insightful blog posts on various topics. You can discuss various topics with other English-learners using our online community, and don’t be shy to download our MyTeacher app for a one-on-one learning experience as well!

We wish you the best in your language-learning journey and hope that you’ll continue practicing these body gestures until you’re a pro. Learning American gestures and body language can be hard, but we believe in you. 🙂

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