How To Tell You're Making Someone Feel Uncomfortable Through Their Body Language Cues
If you're talking to someone about a sensitive subject, you probably instinctively know to watch out for signs that they're uncomfortable with the conversation. But you don't always know what topics could upset someone, so it's useful to understand body language cues that you may be making someone uncomfortable. If you're ever in doubt about whether someone is feeling safe and relaxed while spending time with you, it never hurts to ask them. Knowing what to watch for can be helpful for knowing when to pause and consider how things are going, according to experts.
It's definitely important to keep in mind that body language alone can't always tell the whole story about how someone's feeling about you in a situation. "There are so many things that you need to 'listen' to in order to really ascertain how someone feels," Karen Siff Exkorn, a body language expert and speech and media coach, tells Bustle. For example, in addition to listening to what someone is saying, you could also watch out for the pitch of their voice, their tone, and even how loudly they're talking. "Also, be aware of their emotional state," she says. "For example, when someone is feeling stressed or depressed and they are trying to share something intimate, their body language may not be reflective of their intended message."
Here are some body language cues that someone may be feeling uncomfortable, according to experts.
1. Pointing Their Feet Away
When you're chatting with someone, you probably aren't taking the time to examine their feet unless they're wearing some pretty cool shoes. But this could actually give you a sign about how they're feeling in the moment. If someone is pointing their feet away from you, that could be a sign they're feeling uncomfortable in the current circumstances, Viktor Sander, B.Sc., a behavioral scientist specializing in social psychology, tells Bustle. "This is a sign that someone consciously or subconsciously wants to get going," he says. Of course, they could just be sitting a certain way, so if they seem comfortable and engaged otherwise, you probably don't need to worry.
2. Scratching Themselves
If you're talking with someone outdoors and they begin to scratch a mosquito bite, you probably think nothing of it unless it's to suggest that you head inside. But if there's no explainable reason for someone to scratch themselves, this could be a body language cue that they're uncomfortable. Someone suddenly getting an itch and an urge to scratch could be a sign that they aren't feeling totally at ease, Sander says. "Look out for this sign just after you've made a statement. If someone starts scratching somewhere on their body, often around their ear, it could be that they disagree."
3. Blocking Their Body
"When a person crosses something, i.e. their arms across their chest or their legs or both, this can either mean you’re making them uncomfortable," Exkorn says, "or else they feel defensive or disagree with something you said." For many people, crossing their arms or legs could just be a habit, and it could mean nothing more than it's a comfortable position for them to sit or stand. But this could also potentially point to the fact that they're not feeling as relaxed as they should be while chatting with you. If you're talking about something controversial and you notice that the other person is crossing their arms, try checking in and asking whether the conversation is making them uncomfortable.
4. Unsteady Eye Contact
When you have someone's full and eager attention, they're probably staring into your eyes so that they don't miss a single word you say. But if someone isn't so happy to be talking with you, they're probably less likely to look at you. "If the person doesn’t maintain eye contact with you but instead looks around while pretending to be interested in what you’re saying, then you’re in trouble," Exkorn says. If you're wondering whether this is the case for someone you're talking to, ask them if they see someone they know the next time their eyes wander to someone else. This gives them the opportunity to excuse themself.
5. Shifting Hips
"Unless their shoes are extremely uncomfortable or the music is really awesome, if you see someone swaying side to side or shifting their stance while you’re speaking," Exkorn says there's a good chance they may be feeling uncomfortable. This might be the perfect opportunity for you to interrupt what you are talking about and say something like, "I don't want to keep you." That way, if they are truly uncomfortable, they can tell you that they do have to go. If they're really OK, they can say that they're fine and glad to keep hanging out with you.
6. Self-Soothing Gestures
Maybe you have a nervous habit, like jiggling your leg or twisting a piece of hair around your finger. These are also habits you can look for in someone else when you're interacting with them. "When someone is uncomfortable around you, they might start engaging in self-soothing behaviors," Adina Mahalli, MSW, a certified mental health and relationship expert, tells Bustle. "This could even be a subconscious reaction but things like playing with an earring, fidgeting, or neck rubbing," she says, "all suggest that you might be making someone uncomfortable." Use this as a chance to reflect on what you're saying. If it could be offensive or worrisome for someone else, try to branch into a more peaceful subject.
7. Backing Away
When you think of someone being uncomfortable around you, you probably don't imagine them literally running away. But sometimes signs are pretty literal like that. "A big body language cue that someone is uncomfortable is if they create physical space between themselves and their source of discomfort," Mahalli says. "If you’re talking to someone and they take a step back, possibly without even realizing it, they’re using blocking body language," she says, "to signify that you’ve made them uncomfortable."
While these cues can be helpful for guiding you to know whether you're making someone uncomfortable, it can probably help to just ask them. That gives them the chance to ask for a different conversation topic without feeling like they're offending you.