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Body Language in a Professional Setting: What Your Cues Reveal About You

How many times have you wondered if the person sitting across from you in an interview or a meeting is actually listening to you? They’re there physically, but are they there with you mentally? Not necessarily. Our body language and nonverbal communication is quite the chatterbox when it comes to what we’re feeling.

A few distinct body language cues can be easily read and analyzed by anyone. Yes, that’s right, anyone! You don’t need to have a degree in behavioral psychology to better understand your peers through their cues.

Here are the most common nonverbal cues that we’ve all done or have witnessed:

Hands in Pockets

Who wouldn't feel insecure wearing this shirt? Yikes!

This seemingly harmless gesture can give the impression of insecurity and lack of confidence. It instantly makes you cave your shoulders in and it looks like you’re trying to protect yourself. Not exactly the look you want when going in for a job interview or a meeting with a new client. Be strong and confident; don’t be a ‘Slouchy McGee’ and seem scared to do anything outside of your comfort zone. You’ll inevitably turn away some great jobs if you give the impression that walking to the end of the driveway freaks you out.

Avoiding Eye Contact

How many times did your mother tell you to look her in the eyes when you were talking to her, or use a similar “mom-ism“? Whichever one she used, she was right. It goes further than good manners; avoiding someone’s eyes gives off a dishonest and shady disposition.

It’s okay to be nervous, and yes, catching someone’s gaze is bit alarming when you aren’t expecting it, but it’s a good sign. It means that they’re genuinely interested in what you’re saying! Embrace that feeling, look back at them, and flash them your pearly whites.

Breaking eye contact is along these same lines. It may seem like a harmless offense, but it gives the impression that you’re breaking the connection with the person you’re talking to. If you’re going into an interview or a meeting, be prepared for the other person to stare at you and actively listen to what you’re saying. I promise, it’s a good sign if they’re looking you in the eyes when you’re speaking.

Slouching Back/Leaning Back in a Chair

He's about thirty seconds from rolling his eyes

Another seemingly harmless offense (that we’ve all done at some point during our professional and personal lives) is slouching or leaning as far back as possible in a chair. We don’t intend to be rude, but that’s exactly what this nonverbal cue is telling other people. It tells people that you’re bored, feeling lazy, unmotivated, and are dispassionate about what’s being said.

We should avoid slouching at all costs, whether we’re at our Aunt Sally’s house or at a 7 AM department meeting. It’s about as rude as you can get, and the speaker is probably expecting you to roll your eyes at any moment. That attitude puts them on edge and can make it even harder for them to speak! Instead, be kind and respective. Sit up straight and at least look like you’re semi-interested in what’s being presented to you. You never know, you might just learn something!

Crossing Arms, Standing Behind Chair/Podium:

The Berlin wall created a physical barrier in Germany. Want to know what a nonverbal barrier is? Crossing your arms or standing behind a chair or podium. This creates the same wall, just with much less concrete. You’re essentially telling your audience or the presenter that you’re there physically, but you’re not there mentally. You’ve created a barrier between you and them and what’s being discussed. Don’t use your arms or a chair as a shield, stand out and give your speech or actively listen to what they’re saying.

Smiling

Smile the next time you feel like running out of the office screaming

Showing off those pearly whites not only boosts your mood, but the mood of others as well. Want to try something cool? Try tricking your mind out of a bad mood into a good mood all by smiling. “Smiling forces your brain and nervous system to adapt what’s inside to what’s outside. If you’re smiling, then you should be feeling good. So your body responds accordingly.”

You can smell a lemon until the cows come home (it’s a good way to boost your mood), but give a smile a try first. You won’t only feel better, but you’ll also give the impression of being approachable, cooperative, and trustworthy. Plus, the more you smile, the more you’ll make others smile and put them in a good mood also. Give it a try!

Mirroring Others’ Body Language

This last type of nonverbal communication doesn’t fit perfectly with the others, but it’s so fascinating that I wanted to include it in this post.

Want to feel like a puppeteer? Before you go out and buy some puppets, just go grab some coffee with a friend. While they’re talking, watch and mimic their body language. If they put a hand on their arm, do the same. If they cross their legs, cross yours. If they scratch their nose (not ‘pick’ their nose — if they do that with you I’m not sure why you’re friends with them in the first place), then mirror them. Pretty soon they’ll start mirroring you without even realizing it! This simple technique will put the other person at ease for some reason they won’t be able to put their finger on. But you’ll know that you’re making the other person feel understood and accepted.”

Nervous about an interview? Try this same technique with the person who’s interviewing you (as much as possible) and see how they’ll walk away thinking, “my, my, my, I really felt a connection with that young whippersnapper.” Okay, they maybe won’t say that verbatim, but they’ll feel like a lot better hiring you than the person who slouched in their chair, with their hands in their pockets, and avoided looking at them in the eyes during the entire interview.

If while you were reading this, you thought, “Oh my goodness! I cross my arms all the time! I hope I’m not giving off that impression,” then don’t worry. Trust me, I cross my arms more than Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, sometimes you just do it without even realizing it. Just standing there with your arms crossed isn’t necessarily going to give off a bored vibe. However, standing there with your arms folded, tapping your foot, and staring at your watch will definitely give off that impression.

Make the other person feel like their time is not being wasted by locking eyes with them periodically

Quick Takeaways:

  • Keep your hands by your side and out of your pockets or uncrossed to avoid seeming intimidated, uninterested, or that you’re not listening.
  • Make the person be glad they brushed their teeth this morning with the amount of time you make eye contact with them. They’ll feel appreciated and heard, and you’ll remember what they were talking about.
  • Sit or stand straight whenever possible to give the impression of confidence, engagement, interest in what’s being said.
  • Smile whenever it’s natural to do so to boost your mood and the other person’s mood as well.
  • Try mirroring another person’s body language to create a deeper bond and connection with them by making, “others feel comfortable that you both are similar”. Nobody wants to feel like the weird one or oddball, by mirroring them you’re saying that you two aren’t different.

Have you ever tried these nonverbal cues at work or in your personal relationships? What surprised you the most? Do you hang out with nose pickers? Sound off below!

Image credit to Clipart.com.


Amy Swanson

Amy is one of Quality Logo Products’ content developers and social media coordinators. She is a self-professed newspaper nerd and thoroughly enjoys reading business and financial news and having impromptu discussions about it. Oh yeah, she’s “one of those” people! A true Midwestern girl by nature, she loves riding her bike, photography, and the Chicago Cubs. You can also connect with Amy on

Comments

  1. Kelsey

    This is a helpful post, Amy! I have a really hard time making eye contact with anyone for a long period of time because I start to feel really uncomfortable, but I’m working on it! I think out of all of these, I’ve got the whole smiling thing down… :)
    It’s crazy to think such little gestures can give off such intense vibes!

    • Amy Swanson

      Thanks so much, Kelsey :)

      I know what you mean about the eye contact thing, I’m right there with you about it making me uncomfortable with people I’ve just met. I start to freak out that I’m freaking them out and soon I’m not even paying attention to what they’re saying. Ugh. Yeah, there’s a fine line between being attentive and creepy.

      You most certainly do have “the whole smiling thing down” ;) No question about that! Thanks so much for the comment!!

      • Eric

        Eye contact usually, even if indirectly, will play into how honest or prideful a person is, too. Years ago someone complimented me for it because they consider it speaking personally to someone, and just not in their general director. What in an age of handheld devices, earpiece headsets, and who knows what other distractions, it does make sense when we’ve so much to be distracted by. That, too. Shows focus, attention being paid. I know I’m going on about it, but in an interview setting, it’s one of the best possible things you can do. Interesting post, Amy!

        • Amy Swanson

          Thank you, Eric :)

          I always feel self-conscience when I hear that by avoiding eye contact you’re showing the other person that you’re lying or being dishonest. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I mean, if I’m cooking dinner at home or working on a project at work, there’s a real good possibility I won’t be looking at you in they eye while you’re talking to me, I promise I’m still listening and comprehending everything you’re saying though.

          However, it’s important to note that for job interviews or meeting someone for the first time you can’t apply this same mentality. In these circumstances you only have one job and that’s to actively listen to what’s being said.

          Phew! I’m so glad you found this post interesting. This topic always intrigues me (but I also find news on brands switching up their grocery store displays interesting) so when I was writing about it I was worried nobody else would. Glad to be proven wrong :)

          • Eric

            To be honest, the more familliar you become with someone, I think the less eye contact you make with them. My girlfriend and I, even, sit on the same side of a booth if we’re out to eat. Although there’s nothing directly proportional to trust in eye contact, I do think a higher level of trust and comfort also mean less need to trust the person you’re talking to is listening, etc.

            That, I think, is the most interesting thing. It’s not science. There’s nothing neroulogically occuring that connects eye contact to honesty. But thank to our own interpretation of body language, it speaks even when a person’s not speaking. Interesting stuff!

  2. Rachel

    Great post, Amy! My brother always picks on me when I stand with my arms crossed because, like you said, it looks like I’m putting a barrier in front of myself. So now that’s all I think about when my arms are crossed, hah. These are all great tips — for job interviews, but also for any social situation where you want to make a good impression. Thanks for this! :)

    • Amy Swanson

      I hate when people tell me that too, Rachel! For me, I’m usually always cold so to warm myself up I cross my arms. I don’t mean to look like I don’t care, or I’m distant, or anything. It’s just my ‘default’ setting, haha! That’s why I made sure to add in the statement, “Just standing there with your arms crossed isn’t necessarily going to give off a bored vibe”. I knew I wasn’t the only one who does this without making a conscience decision ;)

      I’m so glad you found it interesting! Yay!! :D

  3. Cybernetic SAM

    I think that the more technology is involved in our daily lives the less social we become. I think that our generation and the up and coming generations are in a slow crawl away from understanding and ability to non-verbally communicate. It is amazing to see that even with verbal communication which seems to be the most evolved and obvious of all the species, yet the amount of non-verbal communication we pick up on sub-consciously. it is really neat that without even being aware we can communicate with each other socially with out even realizing it. It is just sad to see human beings slowly losing their amazing verbal and non-verbal skills the more anti-social we become. Very informative tips! Great Post!

    • Amy Swanson

      You perfectly summed up my thoughts with this quote, Sam, “it is really neat that without even being aware we can communicate with each other socially”. That’s exactly what I was trying to convey in this post, thank you!

      When I first learned about analyzing body language it ruined me forever, haha! There’s been a few occasions where I’ve been paying more attention to what the other person is doing and not enough on what they’re saying. Oh well. Something to work on ;) Thanks so much for reading and the awesome comment!

  4. Jenna Markowski

    Great tips, Amy! I’m a pretty chronic sloucher, so I know that’s one thing I should probably work on (especially because it’s just better for your back if you’re sitting at a desk all day!). It’s really interesting how many of these tips overlap with my tips about interviewing people. It’s amazing how something as simple as making eye contact and cracking a smile can make the other person feel appreciated!

    Your point about mirroring someone else’s body language is interesting. I can see how some people may find that comforting, but I feel like if I picked up on someone else mirroring all of my body language I would get super creeped out or feel like they’re mocking me. I guess it’s a fine line!

    Nice work, Amy! :)

    • Amy Swanson

      Aww, thanks Jenna! In regards to mirroring, you’re right about that fine line between comfort and mocking. It’s really funny when they scratch their nose, then you scratch yours, and then they’ll scratch theirs again. You can easily get caught up in a cycle of nose scratching!! ;)

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    Really great post, Amy. I am 100% guilty of excessively crossing my arms. I guess it’s because I feel weird just having my arms hang at my sides, so would rather lock them securely. But since I’m putting up barriers, I better come up with a new position. :)

    • amy

      Anytime I leave my arms by sides I always start to sing the song, “Do your ears hang low?” in my head for some reason. Letting them just hang there does feel really weird, so you’re not alone with that feeling ;)

  6. mike

    Now I’m extremely afraid of my next encounter :)… I think less and less people will think of these things in face to face meetings as they will have fewer of them do to technology. Bigger advantage for us slightly older folks :)… Thanks Amy as always a great write.

    • amy

      Thanks so much for dropping by, Mike! It’s always awesome to see your profile picture pop up :)

      I think you and Sam are right about up and coming generations not being able to communicate non-verbally. The way technology is going pretty soon we’ll all be standing around with our hands in our pockets looking at the ground when we’re in public and not sitting behind a computer screen, hahaha!

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