How to Actually Understand Body Language

October 15, 2020

  minute rEAD

You are always talking with your body, even when you’re not conscious of it. Everyone else? They’re doing it too.

Learning the basics of body language will serve you throughout your life and in the arena of sex and relationships in particular. It takes time to become fluent in body language, and it’s hard to know where to start. 

What you’ll learn today breaks down body language to some essential elements and give you the building blocks to understand and use it in dating and relationships.

Learned or Innate

Body language is learned by spending time with others. Generally, it’s not taught directly. This poses a challenge because, if you were more socially isolated growing up, you’ll likely need a bit of practice to become proficient in body language.

Babies are great with body language because they have no filter, and it’s one of the primary modes of communication available to them. Meaning body language is innate. Something changes between infancy and adulthood, around sex and relationships specifically, that makes everything a bit messy.

“Body language is as rich and as full of nuance as any spoken language.”

Why is body language so important to sex and relationships? When you’re approaching potential partners, even if it’s not conscious, they are paying attention to what you are saying with your body.


The Two Principles of Body Language

Where anything related to body language is concerned, you must keep in mind the two principles that underpin everything the body does in life:

  1. The body’s first job is self-protection. Your body prioritizes survival over everything else.
  2. The body’s second job is to move toward pleasure and away from pain.

Keep these in mind as we explore body language further.

The Four Dimensions of Body Language

Next, all body language communication happens along four dimensions:

  1. Open vs. Protected
    Open body language indicates a general sense of feeling safe. Typically, in protected body language, people typically will protect their midriff or their neck. For example, when feeling safe you keep your arms by your side, but when you don’t yet feel entirely safe, you cross your arms in front of your body.

    As another example, you may place a hand on your neck when you’re not entirely sure if you trust a person or an environment yet, whereas you leave your neck uncovered when you feel safe.

  2. Relaxation vs. Tension
    Relaxation and tension go hand in hand. Tension will be found most often in the face, arms, and sometimes back. When you’re at ease you’re most likely to exude relaxed body language, while tension is like bracing for impact.

  3. Direct vs. Indirect
    Direct body language is characterized by pointing, gesturing, and eye contact all oriented toward someone, where indirect body language is oriented away from someone. The body is a compass and tends to point towards what it wants: generally, direct body language indicates that you are interested (thought not necessarily sexually) in the person across from you.

  4. In vs. Out
    In vs out body language usually is an indicator of engagement and refers to whether you move your body toward someone, or away from someone.

All or some of the dimensions can present themselves at that same time, and sometimes the information is contradictory. Typically, this indicates that the other person is still trying to figure things out, step back, and study some more. 

Top Tip: when experimenting with intrigue, try sending opposing messages along the same dimension of body language. If you’re interested in flirty energy stick with dimensions 1 and 3 but if you’re interested in a spicier experience experiment with 2 and 4. 


The best way to improve your skills at reading and understanding body languages is to observe body language in the wild. 

Next time you’re out on a walk, can you spot some examples? 

Stock photography is another great way to examine and become more conscious of body language in general, and in turn, become more conscious of how your body is talking to others.

About the Author

Sarah Martin, MA, CSC is CEO of Dignified Hedonist, a sexuality support company that guides introverted men to lead desire-led, sex-forward, and pleasure-focused lives. Sarah is the host of the Sexual Craftsmanship podcast, a weekly podcast packed full of actionable information and advice for sex and relationships in the 21st century. Sarah loves rainbows, books, and Pokemon Go.

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