Body talk: The art of reading body language in the digital era

Body language expert Judi James on Meghan Markle, Prince Harry, Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump

We’ve been unconsciously doing it since time immemorial, but even in the last decade, the art of reading each other’s body language has shapeshifted. Our relationship with technology has seen our entire physicalities alter, while the #MeToo movement has changed the way we occasionally interact in the workplace.

"Even if you look at modern body language there has been an evolution to it," notes renowned expert Judi James. "When I started writing about it (26 books ago), people were sitting in offices talking to one another. Now, we're hunched over laptops, or communicate with social media or just walking down the street looking into phones. It's evolved much more quickly than ever."

As the UK's foremost body language expert, James has been kept particularly busy by watching the every move of celebrities like Meghan Markle, Theresa May and Donald Trump. Demand for her services is at an all-time high.

“It’s interesting – I’d say we’re experts in body language, and we’re constantly reading whether we realise it or not,”James observes. “Twelve minutes after a baby is born, he mimics the movements of the adults around him for survival. Funnily enough, kids are told it’s rude to stop and stare at others, but what they’re really doing is reading people’s body language. If anything, we get worse at the skill as we get older.”


James recently identified the meaning of a number of Irish smiles, noting that that the human face is so complex that it can do more than 2,000 types of smile.

Symmetric smile

“Sometimes it reaches the eyes, sometimes people frown and smile,” she explains. “Nearly all of them are a deliberately produced gesture. We want to look pleasant and show others we are friendly and pose no danger. But sometimes you see someone smiling, and yet you’re not getting a message of happiness from them.

“Sometimes, then, we get a real winner,” James adds. “Kate Middleton manages to produce this symmetric smile that is pitch-perfect all the time. Not many of us can do that, and she has this capacity for ‘long distance’ smiling.”

James’s career started in the corporate sphere, and it’s precisely here, she says, that the greatest gains can be had from knowing a thing or two on how to read other people.

“There are those ‘high performance’ moments – where people are giving big business presentations and the like – that are really important,” she explains. “Getting the business won’t necessarily ride on body language, but we often buy an idea, or are persuaded to agree with others, through their charisma. When someone can produce congruent, charismatic signals, they look as though they know what they’re selling is a good idea.”

These signals affect the limbic part of the brain – the part that is illogical and makes us feel hard-to-pinpoint feelings.

“Trump can sell to the limbic part of the brain,” James says. “On paper, he shouldn’t even be in the running for the presidency and everything about him is wrong, but he evidently had an effect on the limbic part of people’s brains. It led them to believe that he would be a better candidate for them.

“Trump grew up as the second son around strong, alpha, old-school men, and that’s precisely where he got his body language,” James adds. “He can’t help bigging himself up. When he gesticulates with his index finger, it registers as ‘I’m in charge’. The ‘o’ sign he makes with his hands registers as ‘if you do as I tell you everything will be okay’. It’s almost like subliminal advertising.”

Subliminal advertising that others can access. Those wanting to chance asking the boss for a raise, for example, can better their chances by preparing a power pose.

“People think they’ll walk into a room and warm up when they get there, but you can look hunched and haunted when you’re making a first impression if you do that,” advises James. “Make sure to stand as tall as possible, with the shoulders back and down. Signs of tension might make your boss think you’re grovelling for money.

Romantic interest

“You also need to ensure an ‘upturned’ gap in the armpit area,” James continues. “Women often ‘glue’ their upper arms to their torso and it’s an animal signifier of fear.

“The intrinsic message in your mind will eventually come out in your body language, so talk with yourself beforehand about why you deserve the raise.”

In dating, meanwhile, there are “very obvious” signifiers of a person’s romantic interest, or lack thereof.

“The most obvious one is the use of the mobile phone,” says James. “If it’s still switched on and the person is glancing at it during the date, it’s an obvious distraction signal. As you move to the second and third date, their listening signals and eye contact should become more intense. If they’re still looking distracted, it’s not going anywhere. Look at their feet, too. If one is pointing towards the door, it’s never a good sign.

“Where people like you, whether it’s romantic or otherwise, they’ll start to use body language mimicry, so your movements become synchronised.”

James uses Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to prove her point: “Initially, they were slightly counterintuitive with their signals,” she reveals, “now, they’re like two peas in a pod, and when they meet with a crowd you’ll notice that they keep in contact with each other with tiny taps and touches on the back”.

Another telling move the rest of us can look out for is the mid-hug pat: “When people hug in business and one person pats the other on the back, that means they want to break quickly,” explains James. “You might also notice the involuntary step back. Never a good sign.”

It may not feel like it at the time, but subconsciously, we are picking up on every signal, but it’s possible to train oneself to register these interactions in the moment.

“I think the big problem is that we’re not always looking for these things in every interaction,” notes James. “We often worry about overly looking at others, but it’s still possible to read them without them ever knowing.”


Meghan Markle and Prince Harry on the day of their engagement
"Everything about her showed that she was more confident than him. The first gesture she used on him as they approached the press was a reassuring arm rub, as if to say, 'I'm taking this on as I'm used to it'. I think she might be misreading him as this shy, retiring violet."

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in Northern Ireland
"Harry cracks open this 'bull' hand gesture. I think it's like a paperclip and he's closing himself off a bit. It's like he can't believe his luck with Meghan. They're comfort gestures. All women need to take note of this intense, up-close eye contact that Meghan is using. It runs out after three months of marriage. This is classic American presidential wife body language – such open adoration as though she's selling him to the public."

Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump manspread
"I know this sounds sexist but this is the 'mansplay' that Trump uses with world leaders when he takes them into this room. It's polite to place hands in a barrier gesture, but this a power move. It's interesting to see Leo mimicking it, and here I think Leo might have won the battle of the mansplay. It might be an accidental 'outsplay' on Leo's part – his facial expression doesn't look smug so maybe it's more by accident than design."

Varadkar, Trump and the power pat
"This is a classic Trump power technique. The patting looks kind, but it's a power pat. Who do we pat in real life? Small dogs and children. This is designed to diminish the status of the person being patted. Justin Trudeau managed to get in with the first pat when this happened to him, so Leo loses a couple of points here."