Our new shelter-in-place reality has opened a Pandora’s box of Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom communication. Body language on video chat adheres to a different set of rules than in-person conversations with your colleagues, friends, and romantic interests. And so, I asked two body language experts to translate.
The part to of the brain responsible for body language is known as the limbic system, explains Joe Navarro, ex-FBI agent and author of What Every Body is Saying, who has made a career studying nonverbal communication. Composed of the structures in the brain that deal with emotions and memory, the limbic system operates in the background to keep us safe. “This system doesn’t do any thinking; it just reacts to the world,” says Navarro.
In the case of interpersonal communication, it prompts human beings to move in a way that’s indicative of your emotional state. If you’re flirting, for example, your feet will turn toward your love interest to signal that attraction in a nonverbal way. And while you probably can’t see the shoes of the person your Zoom-chatting, Navarro says you can absolutely pick up other indications of frustration, worry, interest, flirtation, and more through pixels on FaceTime.
How to translate body language on video chat
1. eyebrow-arching signals agreement
While one eyebrow lifting indicates a cartoonish dubiousness, two eyebrows going up is a sign that your boss, friend, or date is agreeing with you. “We use this one to greet people, to say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ We’ll often see it when people are silent when they agree with something somebody has said,” says Navarro.
2. A bite of the lip spells uncertainty
“The lip biting or lip compression means “I’m struggling with something’ or, ‘I want to say something but now it’s not a good time, or they’re having some sort of difficulty,” says Navarro. This is a good indication that you might want to derail the conversation for a sec to ask the person on the other side of the call how they’re feeling, or offer to assuage their worries in some way.
3. The bunny nose means, “aw, heck no.”
If eyebrow arching is a sign of agreement, Navarro says the bunny nose indicates the exact opposite. The person on the other end of FaceTime isn’t picking up what you’re putting down, so now might be a good time to open up the conversation to their perspective.
4. The jaw shifting to the side means doubt
Not quite as dismissive as the bunny nose, a slight tilt to the jaw indicates that your FaceTime friend isn’t quite sure how they feel about you or your ideas yet. Keep talking, but make sure to hear them out as well.
5. A touch of the neck indicates insecurity or concern
“When people touch their necks, this is usually reflective of some sort of insecurity—especially in the front of the neck,” says Navarro. Body language experts believe this particular evolutionary gesture stems from a primitive desire to protect the neck during predator attacks. It’s also where the expression “clutching your pearls” comes from.
6. A touch of the hair with an open palm is flirtatious
Navarro tells me that not all hair-touching means, “Wow, I’m into you.” “It’s not so much that they’re touching their hair, it’s how they’re touching their hair,” he says. “If they like the person in front of them, even on the screen, they’ll be touching their hair with the underside of their wrists facing outward. So if you were to rotate your hand so the inside of your wrist is facing out, then you are definitely very comfortable with this person.” Again, this distinction comes down to vulnerability. An open palm means the person is feeling open to you.
7. The head tilt means denotes genuine interest
“This is true in any setting—business or otherwise—and the reason has to do with neck exposure. Our limbic system only allows us to expose our necks when we’re comfortable around people,” says Navarro. If their neck suddenly straightens, you can take that as an indication that they’re no longer quite as engaged with whatever you’re saying—so maybe cut that “fun” anecdote a bit short.