Nonverbal communication is complex. It takes time and practice to increase awareness and perception of others’ body language.

Everyone from FBI agents to human resource professionals examine body language for clues about a person’s character.

It’s common for media commentators to scrutinize the postures, gestures, and facial expressions of public figures for insights into attitudes, beliefs, and inner worlds.

An angry look on the faces of celebrity lovers raises concern in the headlines about trouble in paradise, for example, or a halfhearted handshake between politicians becomes a debate about perceived disunion.

In the early 1970s, Albert Mehrabian, an engineer turned pioneer nonverbal communication researcher, found what is sometimes known as the 7-38-55 rule.

This means that of all messages, only 7% is verbal (words only), 38% is vocal (tone of voice, intonation, and other sounds), and 55% is through nonverbal (no words) forms of communications.

Nonverbal messages are so important for success in life that leaders in many fields even hire personal body language experts to help them communicate better without words.

For the average person going about the day, much of your perception of body language is seemingly automatic.

Your supervisor gives you an instruction and your nod likely lets them know you understand, for example. Your friend smiles and you may assume a warm connection.

Yet when it comes to truly understanding how people communicate nonverbally, it’s worthwhile to learn the ins and outs of body language.

At the most basic level, body language is an external signal of a person’s inner emotional state. Body language is the story our bodies tell about how we think and feel.

Understanding body language requires an overview into the different types of nonverbal communication and what they can mean.

According to Barbara and Allan Pease, authors of “The Definitive Book of Body Language,” researchers have recorded almost a million nonverbal cues and signals.

Some of these cues and signals include:

  • facial expressions (raised brow indicating surprise, scowl indicating anger, frown indicating sadness)
  • nonverbal cues (smiling, winking, nodding)
  • hand gestures (thumbs up, a wave, pointing)
  • posture (hunching, tilting head, sitting up straight)
  • eye contact

“Most people are remarkably unaware of body-language signals and their impact, despite the fact that we now know that most of the messages in any face-to-face conversation are revealed through body signals,” wrote Barbara and Allan Pease in their book.

Reading and understanding body language takes time and is important in navigating several aspects of life, including:

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you work on improving your nonverbal communication skills.

Record yourself

Blake Eastman, creator of The Nonverbal Group and former adjunct professor of psychology in New York, suggests that recording ourselves communicating either in presentation form or with a trusted friend is one of the best tools for growing our body language awareness.

“Raw behavioral data — displayed via video — is the reality of what is happening,” he says.

According to Eastman, analyzing video allows us to slow down and more closely study how we communicate nonverbally.

Tune into microexpressions

Becoming a perceptive observer of nonverbal communication takes paying careful attention to subtle movements, such as tilts of the head, rolls of the eye, or small shifts of the mouth.

Watching someone’s face or body for subtle movements can help you more closely tune into what they may knowingly or unknowingly be expressing.

Investigate your assumptions

Just as much of our body language is automatic, so is much of our perception of others’ body language — and it often goes unquestioned.

Someone might have a blank expression on their face that you might take for disinterest or even anger. But this isn’t always the case. Maybe that expression is how they express contentment — or maybe their thoughts are somewhere else entirely.

Where socially appropriate, you may consider asking for gentle clarification to match emotions with facial expressions. You might ask, “How are you feeling about what I just said?”

Put nonverbal communication in context

Nonverbal communication is interpreted differently across varying cultures and settings.

A kiss on the cheek could be a romantic gesture in America but merely a platonic greeting in parts of Europe. Sustained eye contact could signal polite attention at work but could seem rude at a public park.

Becoming a student of human behavior through body language in part requires studying the unspoken rules of the subcultures and surroundings that you inhabit.

Leave room for the unknown

When we interpret others’ nonverbal communication, it’s easy to assume that the meaning we give to the interaction is the correct one.

Eastman, who has coached thousands of clients on how to improve their body language, advises to acknowledge what we don’t know about how others communicate.

He says, “There’s [often] a behavioral disconnect between what people want to show and how they show it.”

Beyond behavioral disconnect, it’s not helpful to overlook the impact of bad days, illnesses, and distractions that might influence a person’s body language in any given interaction.

“We are never in a state where we are not transmitting information,” said Joe Navarro, author of “The Body Language Dictionary,” in an interview with Wired magazine.

Navarro, a former FBI agent, knows firsthand how much information we can learn through gestures, body movements, facial expressions, and tone of voice. He also knows just how careful we have to be in how we interpret body language.

For example, let’s say your spouse crosses their arms. You may assume they’re closing themselves off, but what if their crossed arms indicate a self-hug instead? Or maybe your co-worker clears their throat and you wonder if they might be telling a lie. But is it possible they have a cold?

According to Navarro and Eastman, these are common false body language narratives. Crossing the arms and clearing the throat can both be self-soothing or pacifying behaviors and are not necessarily evidence of disinterest or deception.

The meaning we give to others’ nonverbal communication can be highly misleading or even ableist.

Let’s say you view someone as unfriendly because they do not smile as much as socially expected. But it’s possible that individual could be nicer than you perceive. In fact, some people experience a flat affect, where they show fewer facial expressions than others.

Eastman says, “The first step in reading behavior is to really understand how often you’re just so wrong.”

Nonverbal communication is shaped by several forces including:

  • personality
  • environment
  • biology
  • culture

Understanding what we say without words takes practice and curiosity — and a willingness to sometimes be wrong — about human behavior.

It’s admirable to desire to improve how you read and understand body language. Doing so may help you gain further insight into the human experience.