Body Language & Manipulation

Until recently, I thought about body language in obvious terms. I was focused on how people use different gestures, postures and facial expressions to express themselves. However, I’ve come to realize that there is a lot more to it. People also use and read body language in subtle ways, in order to manipulate others. Sometimes this is done unconsciously, and sometimes people are intentionally using this skill to take advantage of those who are unaware.

I want to share two examples of experiences I’ve had recently. The first story is of a situation where I was expressing a lot more than I meant to. And in the second one, someone was sending me subtle signals that I responded to, but didn’t realize that I was doing it.

Read the following twice.

1.) As you read, notice the underlined words.
2.) Read again, and try to express the ideas with the underlined words a different way.

The Signals We Send Unintentionally

A young student of mine and I are working on expanding his basic vocabulary. Every class, we play a game to review the words he had as homework, and he was able to identify all of them correctly. But then, he wasn’t able to use the words in class. What was going on?

I started noticing my body language, and realized my mistake. What he was doing was watching me, and picking up on very subtle clues. Teachers know to be careful of this, and I thought I had mastered the art of keeping a neutral face expression. But I realized that I was nodding my head, just the tiniest bit, when he hovered over the correct answer. I was giving him the answers, even though I was aware that this can happen, and I was trying not to!

I started being even more mindful of my body, and of staying perfectly still when we were reviewing his vocabulary. The jig was up, and my student wasn’t pleased. He started waiting longer, and hovering over the choices longer, and making annoyed face expressions. He even started to get angry, because the old way was convenient, and it was fun to manipulate the teacher.

Luckily, we have a great relationship, and we ended up having a good laugh at what a goof-ball I had been. He started having to do his homework in order to win the games, and we both learned something from the experience.

1.) Describe a time when you said more than you meant to, through your body language.
2.) Think of a time when someone gave themselves away unintentionally.

The Signals we Send Intentionally

I went out for lunch with a new friend, and we had a nice time getting to know each other better. But when the bill came, it felt slightly awkward. It’s hard to put a finger on it. There was faint pause, a reluctance to reach for her wallet. I offered to treat her, to avoid any discomfort.

I don’t mind picking up the check ever now and then. It all comes out in the wash, right? But I hadn’t intended to, I don’t know this person well, and something felt off. We went for coffee the other day, and when the bill came, I observed her movements carefully. There is was again! She rubbed her neck and looked away. She scratched her arm and waited, then when I didn’t offer to pay, her face expression was peevish and resentful, just for a split second.

No dice, lady”, I thought to myself. I wondered if if was an unconscious habit, or if she was aware of what she was doing. I didn’t have to wonder long.

“I didn’t bring any money”, she announced. “Oh gosh“, I said, “I guess you can use your bank card”. Nope, she hadn’t brought her bank card either. “Well, okay. I guess I can pay for your coffee, and you can transfer me the money electronically”.

What a show! The look of deep concentration and pain on her face, as she carefully typed each number into her phone. She had to transfer funds from one account to another, and then transfer the money to me, and she didn’t have the entire four thousand pesos, so she had to dig into her pocket and hand me a couple of cents to make up the difference.

It was clearly an attempt to make me feel as petty and cheap as possible, and to give me ample opportunity to give in and tell her not to bother. “I can see why this trick works for her”, I mused. “This feeling is really uncomfortable. I can see how people might just pay, in order to avoid it.

It blew my mind how the gestures that I hadn’t even noticed before were now so obvious and comical.


1.) Do you think that the narrator is imagining things, or that the new friend is being manipulative? Why?
2.) If you think the friend is being manipulative, do you think the behaviour is conscious or unconscious?
3.) What would you have done differently if you were the narrator of this story?
4.) How would you address the situation if you were the narrator of this story?
5.) Can you think of a situation where someone tried to manipulate or intimidate you with body language? Have you ever done it to someone else?