Understanding Body Language, Touch, and Appearance

When it came to understanding body language, fashion, all of that kind of stuff, I used to be a typical clueless nerd. I didn’t perceive it, and I didn’t think it really mattered.

I know better now.

It matters. A lot.

Over the years I have seen a lot of objections to learning to perceive this kind of thing on a conscious level – but notably these objections tend to come from people who already know how to do it! For those of us who never learned how to perceive these things by default, there is little choice but to go through the usual conscious incompetence route at first, and I wholeheartedly support any geeks who want to learn how to get better at the things that everyone else already does.

To that end, I have written up notes on body language, touch, and appearance, which systematize most of what I know about these important social variables, and I want to make them available to anyone who wishes to learn this stuff. It can be a challenging and even overwhelming road at first, but I think it’s an incredibly important life skill. Remember that social interaction is a positive sum game. You can have increasing social success and other people will find you more fun to be around!

Body Language

General model: humans evolved in a small tribe environment, where interaction with strangers was infrequent and possibly dangerous. The key to encouraging social interaction is not feeling threatened (open body language), and not being threatening to others.

Contagion principle: everyone around you will become more like you (while you are around them). Others want to be open and feel good, so you can provide that to others by being that way yourself. Aim to be slightly higher energy than the surrounding environment: more positive affect, talk louder and faster, more and larger gestures.



  • Leave your hands hanging at your sides – this will feel odd initially
  • Hook thumbs in belt loop, belt or belt buckle, back pockets – second best because it occupies your hands instead of touching
  • Hold your drink low on your body
  • Touch others and gesticulate in conversation, arms out to the side with palms facing upwards, move your hands in line with your words to create visual imagery


  • Cross your arms in any fashion
  • Put your hands on your hips
  • Fidget with items or rub your hands together (heuristic: pretend you have paint on them and can’t touch yourself)
  • Touch your face or the back of your neck
  • Put your hands in your front pockets
  • Hold a drink directly in front of your body


  • Keep your weight on one leg, it’s that simple!
  • Optionally lean against a wall and put one foot behind you
  • Don’t evenly balance your weight on both feet


  • Make eye contact – not too constant: move from eye to eye, occasionally to forehead and lips, and glance away
  • Smile – think of a happy/funny memory, people can tell when you fake it
  • Directing your head towards someone is giving them permission to speak


  • Strengthen your back muscles to improve posture, first with a theraband and later with weight training
  • Lie on a tennis ball or foam roller, relax out and massage your chest muscles, get a massage
  • Hold the best posture that you can without constantly tensing your body
  • Leaning forward shows interest, backwards disinterest
  • The direction your shoulders are facing indicates who you want to be talking to

Comfort Zones

  • Bubble of personal space, inside feels threatening/intimate
  • Asymmetrical: standing side-to-side feels less threatening than directly in front of someone (this is a critical hack for loud venues, to approach near enough to interact easily)
  • Varies culture by culture, larger bubble in East Asia vs. smaller bubble in South America


  • Most important factor is just to feel comfortable
  • Keep toes roughly parallel, turning outwards creates waddling


  • Everything from the above still applies
  • Take up space with the legs by keeping them wide apart
  • Crossing legs: ankle-knee occupies a lot of space, bend knees in ankle-ankle cross to widen legs, or keep legs straight to expand out into the room
  • Open torso and occupy space by putting your arms on the backs of couches, chairs, etc.


Physical Contact

General model: touch literally creates connection via oxytocin release, and is a fundamental human need. People have an inherent need for touch. There is a hierarchy of places to touch corresponding to vulnerable areas of the body, which have increased innervation. Level of comfort determines whether a given level of touch is intimate or threatening. Bare skin is more powerful than through clothing, and more surface area is stronger than less. Gauge the situation to determine the appropriate level of touch.

Touching Essentials

  • Be confident about touching others
  • Touch people immediately upon beginning the interaction to create expectations
  • Touch everyone freely, both male and female
  • Keep your touch very light, do not rest weight on the other person’s body
  • Keep your touch moving at first, do not keep your hand in one place
  • Withdraw your touch before the other person has had enough
  • Always pay attention to the other person’s response!

Building Comfort

  • Initial level of comfort is established by proper body language and similarity
  • Comfort increases with:
    • Shared experiences, historical or created in the moment
    • Similarity along any dimension (including mannerisms and inflection)
    • Reciprocation
    • Physical contact
  • Test comfort by incidental touch, or stepping inside comfort zone – if they flinch or pull away they are not comfortable
  • Building/breaking comfort is highly asymmetrical, if you break comfort you must scale back from your previous level of touch and build more slowly
  • Ideally you want an unbroken chain of escalating physical contact

Hierarchy of Touch

  • The more powerful areas are the more vulnerable ones
  • This feels increasingly intimate when comfort is high, and increasingly threatening when comfort is low
  • Upper arm and shoulder are the most socially acceptable areas to touch, followed by the back, when sitting it can be appropriate to tap someone’s knee
  • My personal favorite introduction: tapping someone on the shoulder with the back of my hand (both appropriate and establishes immediate physical contact)
  • Handshakes: give them a firm grip, and don’t have a limp wrist or elbow – expand the amount of contact by touching the shoulder or adding the other hand
  • High fives and fist bumps are less formal, more fun and playful
  • Patting the back and ruffling the hair can be friendly, or feel like a status grab (note: do not ruffle styled hair)


  • The most bodily contact you can achieve, this is the pinnacle of connection
  • My personal heuristic: hug the person goodbye (gives me a specific touch milestone to aim for, and allows me to hug them upon second contact)
  • Some people are uncomfortable with hugging initially, but most begin to enjoy it once exposed – don’t force a hug on anyone
  • Initiate a hug by looking them in the eyes, smiling, opening your arms, moving forward smoothly
  • Ascending amount of contact: “A-frame” hug, sideways hug, full-body hug – get the best hug the other person is willing to give!
  • Reposition your arms until they touch the other person along their entire length, taller person has arms on top by default
  • Rest your head against theirs, or on their chest if taller, to increase contact further
  • To give strong hugs, squeeze just up to the “squeak point” where they make noise, and back off slightly



General model: your general appearance is a strong signaling mechanism, both about the specific types of interactions you want to have, as well as your general level of social awareness and intentionality. Properly fitting clothes can emphasize your natural features, to look tall or thin or muscular. Dress like the people you want to associate with. Expensive clothing is noticeably different from cheap clothing, so take the time to shop properly, pay money for a few good outfits that work, and take care of them (dry cleaning or cold washing). Consult the relevant experts in each area! Above all else take risks and discover your own unique style over time.

(Note that most of this advice is written by Will, and is more applicable to men. A few comments on women’s fashion by Divia are closer to the end.)

Fitting Pants

  • Pants should sit on your hip bones, not the belly button
  • Waist is tight enough to fit in two fingers and no more
  • Thighs are tight enough to gather a pinch of fabric
  • Length should touch the ground when standing straight without shoes
  • Get straight or boot cut by default
  • Get regular fit by default, use relaxed or even loose fit as needed for extra room (or get spandex or other stretchable fabrics)

Fitting Shirts

  • T-shirts come in pretty simple sizes, figure out yours and stick to it
  • The seam on the top should end at the last bump of your collar bone
  • Leave enough room in a shirt collar to stick in one finger
  • Long sleeves should fall about half an inch above the thumb knuckle with arms straight at sides
  • The torso should also be fitted, so get a shirt that fits at the shoulders and then get a tailor to take in the waist

Matching Colors

  • Almost everyone can wear any color, depending on the shade
  • Many theories abound, with little agreement between them
  • Hold something up to your face and see how it looks, then ask other people what they think to check for agreement
  • Also do this test for metals, and stick with either gold or silver
  • Darker hair and more contrast between hair and skin allows wearing deeper and brighter colors
  • Having a consistent color palette allows a combinatorial explosion of your wardrobe; you can wear many shades of one color, or the same saturation of different colors
  • Patterns: main color matches your palette, keep the size smaller than your fist, when mixing patterns keep the size and design different to avoid blending

Adjust for Body Type

  • Goal is to appear taller and accentuate the V-shape of torso
  • Appear taller and thinner with unbroken vertical lines: clothing that falls straight down, vertical stripes, avoid loud patterns and bulky clothing
  • If short and skinny, wear low-rise jeans to lengthen torso
  • If tall and skinny, emphasize horizontal lines, use multiple layers to add bulk, properly fitting clothes even more important
  • Wearing the same color top and bottom preserves the vertical line, whereas contrasting colors will cut the body horizontally, looking shorter and wider

Belts, Shoes, Accessories

  • Closer to a dress shoe looks older, Converse/skate shoes/athletic shoes younger
  • Black shoes are more formal than brown shoes (with clothes in general darker is always more formal than lighter)
  • Black socks with black shoes, dark socks with brown shoes
  • Color of shoes and belt (and other leather) should always match
  • Belt is one size larger than pants, don’t cinch too tight and bunch up fabric
  • Other accessories are fashionable because they are useless
  • Showing off more will set higher social expectations for you, so don’t play this up until you are feeling ready
  • Take risks, experiment, get feedback, discover your personal style over time

Pick Up the Basics

  • One pair of nice jeans, dark wash, minimal distress (shop until it fits, pay a lot)
  • One pair of casual slacks, dark color, flat (not pleated) and straight (not cuffs)
  • Graphic t-shirts from Threadless or Design By Humans
  • Collared shirts, long sleeves only, no button down collar, wear collar stays!
  • One black suit (or a little black dress), white button down shirt, any color tie
  • One pair of black Oxford shoes, pointed better than round/flat, patterned okay
  • One pair of brown loafers
  • Black socks, other dark socks optional (never white socks)
  • Reversible black/brown belt with buckle of your choice


  • Your effort shows to others, and your hair is a defining part of your style
  • Go to a professional (not Supercuts) and get a proper haircut
  • Ask the hair stylist for how to maintain and style your hair!
  • Shave or trim your facial hair, do not let it grow wild
  • Remove any protruding nose or ear hair
  • Get your eyebrows done once and see what you think (not optional for unibrows, sorry!)
  • Stop biting your nails by carrying nail clippers, file them after clipping
  • Switch from glasses to contact lenses

Formal Wear

  • White tie: men wear “full dress”, women wear a long dress – just look it up
  • Black tie or formal: men wear a tuxedo with black bow tie, women wear a long dress or cocktail dress – in general it is worth renting a tux if you rarely attend such events
  • Semi-formal or informal: men wear a dark suit for evening or any color suit during the day, women wear a short dress (fancier for evening than during the day)
  • Cocktail attire: same as above, but mandated dark suit and fancy short dress
  • Business casual or smart casual or semi-casual: men wear a polo or button down shirt (no tie) with trousers, optionally a sweater or blazer, women wear a skirt or trousers with a dress shirt or sweater set
  • Casual: this really means causal, see the entire rest of this guide!
  • Anything else: look it up!

Women’s Fashion

  • There is far more variation along every dimension for women – consider this an opportunity to have fun and experiment with fashion!
  • Women are expected to wear more accessories and makeup and have more outfits
  • The objective is to look taller, thinner, and accentuate the hourglass figure
  • Look like a woman, hiding your figure with baggy clothing appears insecure
  • Go to a makeup counter, ask them for something minimal and to show you how to apply it yourself