NOTE: To keep this simple, I am going to assume heterosexual roles for each of my hypothetical people in these situations.
One of my earliest posts was called Body Language in Human Mating Rituals. While the observations in it were correct, I have to admit I kind of bombed that one. It was quickly written without adequate time nor thought given to it. Body language can be very complex. Sometimes it is as if every part of someone’s body is singing to you and you’re trying to merge each voice into a chorus that tells you a truth beyond words.
The first thing that I teach anyone about reading body language is to look at the feet. Not only are they one of the easiest, most unambiguous things to read on a person, they tend to tell the truth on a body that may be lying. Sometimes consciously but I would guess most times not, people try to stifle their body language. They tend to do this from the head down. Keeping a poker face would be the first thing you think about. Keeping your upper body stiff or unnaturally held would be next. Your legs and feet, however, seem to be oblivious to your mendacity and just hang out down there doing their own thing.
Let us start with two people. A couple of people having a good, mutually-interested conversation will normally keep their feet parallel and pointing straight at each other or slightly askew. If there is amicability or attraction, the legs may be mutually crossed and there will be mirroring of movements from toe to head. Most people think of the closed-positions (arms crossed, a book held in front of the body, etc) as a negative sign but for two people in conversation, mutually crossed legs show a sign of rapport and trust. Digging back into our ancestral pasts, having your legs crossed is not a good survival strategy. It would impede your ability to run and you would be easy to push over in that stance. To stand like that in front of someone shows comfortableness.
That is a conversation when things are going well, but what about when they are not? Instead of parallel feet pointing at each other, almost always only one will have a foot pointing elsewhere. If the other person needs to go to the bathroom, it will point towards that. If they want to leave, it will point towards the exit. If they want to talk to someone else, the foot will choose that person. Your conversation partner, simply just wanting out of the conversation, could be pointing to any of the above. If I notice this I like to be able to say “I guess it’s time for you to go.” or “I’ll let you get to the bathroom” so I can watch the quizzical look on their face as they try to figure out what gave them away.
As someone who likes to sit back and watch the great and secret show of corporeal conversations, I find the feet in group dynamics the most fascinating. Let’s take the scenario of two people having a mutually interesting conversation again. Someone liked and/or acceptable to them comes to join the conversation. The original two will keep the feet that are furthest away from the newcomer pointed at each other while shifting the feet closest to that person out until they are making a ‘V’ with their feet. The newcomer will also be making a ‘V’ and they are now forming a rough triangle. As more people accepted into the social grouping come, the circle and feet widen.
When someone unwanted to the group comes along, the feet do not open up, even if the people at the point of entry into the circle slightly open their bodies as to not be rude. When there is a mixture of feelings in the circle, things get interesting with a temporary mismatching of feet until the group reaches homeostasis and unspoken consensus. The bad part about being able to read body language is knowing when someone finds you unlikeable or unattractive.
A lone female in a circle (in this case as small as 3 and a relative term) will keep one foot planted where it was in the ‘V’ shape and move the other one out more than her other foot or anyone else’s. It will unlink from the group and point at the man that she finds most attractive. Often the man reciprocates and you will usually see these two pair off for a one-on-one conversation later.
That’s just the standing feet positions and it does not take into account all the combinations of body talk or alternate possibilities. I will quickly touch upon feet and legs while sitting. Two people sitting next to each other that find each other acceptable or attractive will enclose themselves with crossed legs. Whether in a ‘figure 4’ or ‘over the leg’ crossed-leg position, the leg on the opposite from the acceptable person will move over the leg closest to the acceptable person and the foot will either point directly at the person or towards that direction. If both are doing this, it creates a scenario as if they have their own personal bubble created by the locked legs. If someone were to find you unacceptable or unattractive, they would move the leg next to you over their outer leg, turn slightly and possibly lean away. In this case, it is as if they are blocking you with their thigh.
There is so much more but I don’t want to reach terminal verbosity. A few quick tips as it pertains to feet:
- When people are uncomfortable they tend to lock their ankles and draw them underneath their chair.
- When someone finds you attractive while sitting, they tend to bounce their feet in your direction. A female bouncing her foot in and out of her shoe in your direction is a particularly strong sign.
- When the feet start or stop bouncing, there is some major shift in brain activity.
- When people put their hands on their knees (and always when they put their hands on the arm rests and lean forward in the “starter’s position”) it is usually a sign that they are ready to go.
Sometimes a group not opening to you might mean that you are interrupting an intense or interesting conversation. People may have their feet at angle because their hip hurts or their leg towards or away from you because of an itch, pain or something else. You really have to read everything in context of all the other body language, social clues, environment and your personal history with people. It’s not always that easy.