Body language and gestures
New teachers need to be aware of body language and facial gestures, and what they convey. Most teachers are not trained to practice or even be aware of these factors, and are thus unaware of how they project themselves, and how their body language can affect their lectures, students' perceptions of the teacher and of the course, and teacher-student interactions.
Teachers and tutors should pay attention to body language and related behaviors. Effective body language can convey confidence and authority, and can put students at more ease. Ineffective body language can convey nervousness, and can indirectly hinder the student's learning experience if the teacher conveys a lack of confidence in what s/he is teaching, or if the teacher unintentionally sends other distracting signals with his/her body language.
1 Common problems
A common problem for new teachers is not knowing what to do with the arms and hands, and untrained use of these limbs immediately give away the new teacher's nervousness and lack of confidence. They may hide their hands, fidget, play with their hair, play nervously with some objects they are holding, nervously hold on to a chair or lectern, cross their arms, scratch their faces, or many other distracting gestures.
Common mistakes are also to block the body by crossing the arms, crossing the legs, holding the arms behind the back, or holding on to a lectern or chair. These are psychological defensive gestures – hiding or protecting the body – and it is their defensive nature that conveys nervousness or lack of confidence.
Defensive gestures may indicate or convey nervousness, shyness, a lack of confidence, a lack of interest, defiance, or defensiveness. Typically, this involves crossing the limbs, such as crossing one's legs, crossing the arms and holding one's hands in front of the body, or folding the arms. Some gestures can convey impatience, assertiveness or defensiveness, such as folding the arms, closed or clenched fists, or hands in the pockets. Concealment gestures, like hands in the pocket, hands held behind the back, or lowering the head, may convey disinterest, a lack of confidence, indifference, or that one has something to hide.
Nervousness gestures include playing with one's hair, constantly playing with or pushing one's glasses, scratching the face, tapping their feet, or rubbing the fingers together (especially repeated or constant rubbing). Some gestures where one places a hand or fingers on the face can indicate nervousness, especially if scratching the side of the face, while others can indicate that one is thinking about or evaluating something, depending on other things like how much the hand moves and the accompanying facial and eye gestures.
A polite, nervous or fake smile differs from a genuine, warm smile, in that for the fake smile, the person moves the lips and surrounding muscles only, while a genuine small involves moving the muscles around the cheeks and eyes back as well – this kind of smile is hard to fake. Eyes wide open can convey attentiveness and interest, while squinted eyes can indicate skepticism, a negative attitude, tiredness, or eye problems. Eyes rapidly darting around can convey nervousness or social discomfort.
People indicate their interest or receptiveness to another person in several ways. Closing off one's personal space, e.g, defensive gestures or holding the limbs close to the body, indicate a closed attitude, while limbs open indicate confidence or openness. How close a person stands to another, or if sitting, then leaning toward or away from the other person conveys openness or interest. People also tend to point their feet toward the person they are interested in (or pointing away from people or toward an exit, if they want to leave). Tilting the head can indicate boredom, flirting or other emotions, depending on other facial gestures.
2 Basic tips
For starters, teachers can hold a pointer, a PPT clicker/remote, a whiteboard marker, or lecture notes on a piece of paper. One can also pretend to hold notes – a piece of paper in one hand that looks like one is using lecture notes. This occupies at least one hand.
The other hand can be used for motions, like pointing to the board or screen, making readiness gestures, or emphasis gestures (moving back and forth or up and down a few cm).
Eventually, teachers should learn to feel comfortable with both hands. It is best to practice holding nothing, but keeping both hands open in front of the torso. This is the basic, default readiness gesture, which signals "I'm ready and prepared to tell you something." This also conveys that you are confident and at ease. When lecturing, the hands can make gentle circular motions for flow gestures, which helps you with your flow of thought.
Teachers should also practice moving around some. It is not necessary to move across the whole front of the room or stage, but this can get all the students' attention. Nonetheless, you can at least move within 1-2 meters in front of the board, or 1-2 meters by the lectern or computer if you must use those.
Above all, all these movements and gestures should be natural, fluid, and not quick or erratic. It is best to watch good public speakers and watch how they conduct themselves. Many speakers on TED.com and some Youtube sites offer good examples to learn from. Turn off the volume and study their body language and gestures, and learn from them.
3 Summary of body language patterns for teachers
What it conveys
|head nod||agreement, or seeking agreement (like a tag question)|
|head and chin up||fearlessness, superiority, arrogance|
|chin down||negative, judgmental, or aggressive|
|head tilt||submission; interest|
|head shrug or duck||submissive, apologetic|
|smiling excessively|| submissiveness |
Note for women and new teachers: Be careful here, not to smile excessively, especially with dominant males. Also, fake smiles can especially make you look weak (see below).
|straight face, no smile||assertive; cold|
|real vs. fake smile|| Fake smile: Only muscles around mouth move |
Real smile: Also muscles around cheeks & eyes, eyes more open
|jaw-drop smile||laughing or playful|
|sideways looking up smile||coyness, submission|
|dumb grin||dumb, weak, or submissive|
|lowered eyebrows||asserting dominance|
|raised eyebrows||showing submissiveness|
|lowered head, looking up||submissiveness|
|sideways glance||uncertainty, interest, or hostility|
|extended blinking||bored, disinterested, I'm shutting you out|
|excessive blinking||weakness (or eye problems)|
|darting eyes||nervous, insecure (e.g., checking for escape routes)|
|looking at interlocutor's eyes & nose (triangular nose-eye region)||normal social gaze|
|looking at region from eyes down to torso||intimate gaze, or evaluative gaze|
|looking between the eyes (forehead between eyes)||power gaze|
|narrowed eyes, no blinking, focusing on faces (panning from face to face for multiple persons)||power stare|
Arm & hand gestures
|folded arms|| defensive – establishing a barrier; |
|arms crossed, clenched fist||hostility|
|crossed arms w/ double arm grip (hands grasping arm)||insecure; not believing speaker|
|crossed arms, thumbs up||cool, nonchalant, defensive|
|one arm crossed, grasping other arm (self-hug)||insecure, seeking self-comfort|
|clasping hands in front of lower torso||insecurity, inadequacy|
|using handbag, notes, other hand-held objects to form partial barrier||self-conscious|
|one hand on hip||assertive|
|both hands on hips, elbows out||ready to dominate; assertive; readiness|
|cowboy stance: hands on belt, fingers pointing together||staking out territory; unafraid; sexually aggressive; sizing up competition or interlocutor|
|picking imaginary lint||disapproval; person has something to hide|
|holding onto podium or other objects; hiding behind objects||insecurity|
Hand & palm gestures
|palm up or open||open, non-threatening|
|palm down||authoritative, assertive, aggressive|
|pointing finger||demanding, authoritative, aggressive|
|okay sign (thumb & index finger forming a ring)||authoritative but not aggressive (may be inappropriate in some cultures; see below)|
|palm-down handshake||establishes dominance|
|handshake with palm open or turned sideways||non-dominant, establishes equality|
|rubbing palms together||expectancy|
|thumb & finger rub||money|
|rubbing fingers together, or rubbing an object with the fingers||insecurity or discomfort|
|hands clenched together||restrained, anxious attitude; frustration|
|wringing one's hands||nervousness|
|steeple||confidence; I know the answer|
|hand platter (resting chin on hands)||courtship gesture – trying to attract a man's attention|
|holding hands behind the back|| confidence, superiority, authority; |
I have something to hide
|hand gripping wrist behind the back||frustration, trying to control oneself|
|hand(s) in pocket||relaxed, cool; indifferent|
|hand(s) in pocket, thumb protruding||cool, nonchalant; confident; dominance, assertiveness, aggression, self-importance|
|limp wrist||submission (women)|
|palm on cheek or supporting face||boredom|
|fingers in mouth||need for self-assurance; lying|
|hand on face – cheek or chin, index finger pointing up||evaluation|
|hand on face, thumb on chin, finger pointing up||evaluation: critical or negative thoughts|
|chin stroking||evaluation, decision making process|
|playing with glasses, cigarette, etc.||stalling, evaluating, or boredom|
Leg gestures (standing or sitting)
|legs apart (standing)||macho, asserting one's masculinity; or openness|
|foot forward (standing)||one's intentions, where one wants to go|
|legs crossed (standing)||closed, submissive or defensive|
|legs scissor-crossed (standing)||intention to stay (defiant)|
|sitting, legs crossed in figure four||dominant, competitive, argumentative|
|figure four, holding leg||stubborn, competitive, tough|
|ankle lock||holding back negative emotion, uncertainty, or fear; withdrawn|
|leg twine (women)||shy, timid|
|legs spread (sitting)||asserting authority|
|legs or arms over arm of chair||informality, indifference, lack of concern|
|straddling a chair||wanting to dominate, while protecting oneself|
|catapult – hands behind head, holding head, with elbows up||superiority, confidence|
4 Cross-cultural variations
Beware of some cross-cultural differences in body language. # V-signBritish based cultures: insult (palm facing speaker); US: victory; US: two. In some cultures, a sexual or vulgar insult
- "Okay" sign
US: okay!; France: nothing, poor quality; Japan: money, bribe; Mediterranean, Near East, Latin America: sexual insult
- Thumbs up
Westerners: okay, good, cool; Italians: one; Japanese: five; Greeks: a rude gesture
- Holding hands (same-gender)
Okay in East Asia, but this will be misunderstood elsewhere.
- Longhorn sign
US: victory cheer; Mediterranean nations: a sexual insult
- Proximity East Asians prefer to keep a wider space when talking to someone, especially between opposite genders. North Americans and those from other Anglophone cultures like to get closer. Some from Northern Europe, Southern Europe, and Mediterranean cultures may get even closer.
- Light, friendly touching
East Asians engage in relatively little touching, especially between opposite genders. North Americans and Northern Europeans engage in more touching. Southern Europeans like to touch a lot.
- Eye gaze
East Asians avoid direct eye contact, focusing instead on one's nose or between the eyes. North Americans and Europeans like more direct eye contact, even between opposite genders.
5 Lying gestures
No one gesture indicates that a person is lying; rather, a combination of some of these can indicate lying. This is all relative to the individual's normal behavior, which has to be taken into account. While liars stereotypically avoid eye contact, more often, those who are more confident or accustomed to lying engage in excessive direct eye contact. Other cues include: