How to Nonverbally Communicate Openness and Set Boundaries

News stories have increased awareness of the amount of unwanted sexual attention that women receive from men.  It can leave women feeling more vigilant and men feeling wary – and super-cautious about approaching a woman.  This greater awareness is an opportunity for more communication about sex and desire between men and women, not less. Women and men still love each other and want to be in romantic relationships.

Being more mindful of the signals we’re sending and receiving may be the key to staying connected and enjoying contact. There’s a wealth of research on nonverbal communication that can help you to understand and be more aware of these signals.

1. Notice your posture. Your posture can give off a lot of information about your availability to being approached.  Phone gazing slouch, (sometimes called iHunch) in which you’re looking down with your shoulders slumped and your neck crunched and head down signals disengagement, but also puts you in a submissive posture.  Research shows that posture not only sends signals to the observers but it also affects how you feel.  Nair et al. (2015) found that compared with upright sitters, the slouchers reported significantly lower self-esteem and mood, and much greater fear; linguistic analyses revealed that slouchers were much more negative in what they had to say. So by sitting or standing upright and keeping your head straight, eyes level and shoulders back, you’ll be signaling assertiveness and positivity to others – and even yourself!  Amy Cuddy says, “Your physical posture sculpts your psychological posture, and could be the key to a happier mood and greater self-confidence.”

2. Use your gaze deliberately.  Meeting someone’s gaze can signal respect, interest, attraction, or threat depending on the context and the other nonverbal messages you’re sending. When you first meet someone, it can be challenging to hold a steady gaze. Research shows that meeting someone’s gaze for a few seconds is optimal to signal interest. Don’t look away abruptly if you’re interested – they may take it as rejection or that you’re too easily distractible and/or untrustworthy. But don’t stare a hole in their forehead either – this can come off as threatening. Gently move your gaze around different areas of their face. We naturally shift our eyes when we recall information from memory as we talk.

3. Watch the flutter. Eye blinks are correlated with autonomic arousal aka anxiety. The more you blink, the more anxious you are (and appear to be to others). You might be feeling anxious because someone you like is giving you their attention or you might be feeling anxious because someone you don’t like is giving you their attention. The thing is they can’t tell the difference – they just know you’re having a reaction to being looked at by them.  If you’re not interested, look away skillfully.  Don’t flutter or look down or tilt your head then turn away. If you flutter, tilt and look down then look away – you’re signaling submission and they might think you’re just being shy. If you keep your head level and simply pivot your head and/or your body away and remove your gaze, it comes off as decisive non-interest.  If you are interested, stay open, smile – and meet their gaze.

4. Where’s your attention? In recent articles, on dominance and attention and the Male Gaze, I discussed the importance of knowing where your attention goes in social interactions. If someone is giving you unwanted attention the natural tendency is to feel more self-conscious and anxious. Ironically, self-consciousness can act as a magnet and draw more attention to you when you don’t want it. So keeping your attention out and on the other person is better until you’re sure you want to draw the person into your private personal experience. By focusing on the person giving you unwanted attention, it takes you out of focusing on your reaction to them and reacting; you’ll feel more in control and won’t draw them closer.  Bottom line: Keep them out by keeping your attention out; Draw them in by focusing inward.

5. How you look versus how you feel. In social interactions, we sometimes take a third person perceptive of imagining how we look to others. Psychologists call this self-objectification; it can be triggered anytime we notice someone looking at us and we start to imagine what they’re seeing. We may also self-objectify when we look in the mirror imaging how we will look to others as we prepare to go out in public. It’s good to be able to take this perceptive but sometimes we can get stuck there: that is, acting as though others are watching us (whether they are or not). To the observer, this can come off as inauthentic and it can backfire because we’re less aware of what actually happening in the moment. Research shows that self-objectification takes us out the present moment, disrupts concentration, and makes us less in touch with our body sensations and emotions. So it’s better to stay in touch with yourself and not worry about what you look like to others. Sometimes your body knows before your mind does. If you’re focused on how you look to others, you’ll short circuit this powerful channel of intuitive information.

Knowing how to send and receive clear signals helps you feel confident and comfortable in any social situation. It shows respect and dignity for yourself – and for others too.


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