Observing and Unraveling Body Language

Grahani Garibaldi
6 min readOct 18, 2020

Why are people? Why do they do what they do? Maybe I keep wondering about this since I was little. I do think humans are interesting to observe. Maybe not all people enjoy people watching. But too me, watching what other people do can be an interesting activity. There is nothing better than going al fresco with a glass of coffee and perceive my surrounding in the absence of my intervention.

Tourists or locals?

I go to café sometimes as its one of the way to boost my productivity (or to get users to do guerilla testing). I usually look at what other people do with their stuff. I can start by watching a customer interacting with the staff, do they display genuine smile while serving the customers? What type of clothes does the customer wear? These nonverbal cues could lead to what the person is trying to communicate.

Clothes are most likely the conspicuous one. Some people that value status, would wear high end brand or items made by exclusive designers. Whereas, those who are more laid back might not put much effort when it comes to clothes. Also, pay attention to their activities such as (but not limited to):

· Do they walk slowly or rapidly? What about the facial expression?

· If a person is making a call listen to the voice tones and try to guess whom the person talking to.

· Standing in the street and frowning might indicate that the person is expecting someone who is not on time.

There are other places where you can do crowd watching besides cafes or course, places like libraries, supermarket or even the MRT station. I would say supermarket is fun to perceive people’s lifestyle. You can look the items in their trolleys and make your own hypothesis about how much money they can spend or see what type of books they’re reading in the library.

How much is it?

Observing people is one of the practices to study about their motives. It’s like letting go all the forces and let them flow in their natural state to discover their real intentions. However, just being a witness is not enough. We still need to talk to people directly to gather further insight.

Reading People during Interaction

You bumped to your best friend at the shopping center, the first thing you asked him/her is how he/she’s doing. Your friend replied “Fine, I’m great” with a sigh and avoiding eye contact. On Saturday you are having a date in some fancy restaurants with someone you met on Tin***, the next thing you notice is that your date is tapping his/her feet on the floor. What does this tell us? Don’t you think it’s like when you caught your Mom making an overcooked dinner for the whole family but still denying it?

Another example can be taken from werewolf game, If I want to point out who has the werewolf card it can be helpful if I am already familiar with each player’s personality there’s a chance you can judge who the werewolf is based on their body language and facial expression, especially if they can’t hide their emotions (obviously that’s not always the case).

I cannot deny the fact that this situation is similar every time I am conducting a usability test. When users stated that they had no issues but the expression revealed otherwise. The best way is to ask them for further clarification without sounding like you’re interrogating them. Hence, this is why talking to them directly while assessing their body language is simply the best combination. Not to mention, there are things to watch out for when assessing other people’s cue.

Below are some of the things (but not limited to) that is worth to pay attention to.


Gesture is very noticeable in conveying nonverbal communications. An executive might smile during the meeting but he also clenched his fist on the table, he is most likely has something to stay but need to stay collected. We tend to make certain gestures without realizing it. Crossed legs towards someone the opposite sex might indicate attraction.


I remember when a participant arrived for an interview, he was slouching in his chair while looking down on his laps. I had to break the ice to make him more comfortable. Posture sends message about our characteristics and how we carry ourselves. Good posture like standing straight demonstrates confident while closed posture is likely a hint of hostility.

Facial Expression

We tend to look at the person’s face when we’re talking to them. We smile when we’re talking to the person we like, our lips pursed when we disagree with other’s idea. Some people are good in hiding their expression, but eye contact can hardly lie. A person might be hiding something when avoiding eye contact but it may also a sign of awkwardness.

Different Countries, Different Cues

When I am working I tend to have laser focus which accidently led people assuming that I am exasperated. Why is that? I live in a country where people are expected to smile and be nice most of the time. Interpreting body language can be varied based on culture. My serious expression might be more ‘acceptable’ in Western culture. Not showing enthusiasm when serving a coffee to your customer might be okay in China but not in the US.

Consider the different cues compare to people in your home country, do they hug when greet each other? Are they comfortable with small talk? Or maybe they don’t like going around the bush and strike to honesty instead. Paying attention to cultural differences is also very crucial when observing people in different countries and if you wanna dig deeper why do they display particular cues, it is always worth to do further research (ex. cultural etiquette) or if you are not travelling (thanks to covid-19) you can try to watch foreign films instead.

Staying Objective

When assessing a person, don’t forget to practice objectivity we are all bias and have the tendency to react based on our past experiences. Each individual is going through a different journey, this is why when reading other people empathy skill plays important role because it is not about us. People also interact differently depending on the venue and whom they are talking to and our interpretation may not be 100% precise all the time.

For instance, this might be a common one, someone who wrapped his arms indicates defensiveness or the person is irritated, whereas in reality this person is just feeling cold. So it is worth to pay attention to specific situation, what is the current circumstance? what is the context? Then again people tend to adapt depending on who they interact with. In some situation it requires to spend time with the person to gain deeper understanding.


We can learn a person’s motive by observing their body language and activity and there is no other way to achieve better insight, than by talking to them directly. However, there’s always a chance that our interpretation isn’t as accurate as we thought. It is very crucial to be aware with the cultural context (there is no such thing as one size fits all). Still, body language can be very complex and requires further study and research.

Further Knowledge






Grahani Garibaldi

I am highly inquisitive and still trying to master the art of deduction. Follow me on Twitter @officialgrahani