You know the gut feeling you get when you first meet someone? Body language—movements gestures, facial expressions, and the way a person shifts his or her body—strongly influence our perception of the other person. Body language can even tell a different story than the one coming from a person’s mouth.
Get the Read and Be Read
A lot of reading someone’s body language is intuitive to humans; most of the time, you just know at a glance what the person is thinking. According to Joe Navarro’s article in Psychology Today, humans have been reading body language since prehistoric times. Based on the limbic system, our ancestors instantly reacted to the world in real time, indicating danger, disapproval, and distaste—all important survival messages to others around them. For this reason, body language is universal across ages and cultures.
The following examples of body language can send positive or negative messages:
Poise through posture: Erect posture shows confidence, interest, and engagement, while slumped shoulders and a curved spine send a different message.
The eyes don’t lie: From eye contact to blinking, the eyes quickly show everything from happiness and fatigue to whether someone is lying. For example, there is an art to eye contact. Not looking the other person in the eye silently says you are shy, untrustworthy, or not interested, while too much eye contact can appear threatening and even a little creepy. The right amount shows interest and engagement with the person or the topic.
How about blinking? You probably never thought about it, but blinking too much indicates distress or discomfort. Infrequent blinking may indicate a desire to control eye movements so you don’t give anything away. For example, a poker player might blink less frequently because he is purposely trying to appear unexcited about his hand.
A mouthful: A smile shows happiness and affection, as well as a variety of other emotions. Chewing on your mouth can indicate worry, fear, or insecurity; pursed lips indicates distrust or disapproval. Covering your mouth usually means you are trying to hide something—a yawn, a smirk, or even a laugh.
The Feet Show Where They Want to Go: Whether seated or standing, the direction the feet face indicate where the speaker wants to go. For example, when joining a conversation between colleagues in the hallway, if your colleagues stay in place, but twist their torso when acknowledging you, they do not want you to join in the conversation. If they adjust their feet to include you, they welcome you in. Similarly, if a female colleague is facing you but her legs or feet are turned toward the door, she is telling you she wants to leave.
At Arms: Most people don’t know what to do with their hands, especially if they are nervous or apprehensive about a conversation with another person. The best thing to do is clasp them behind your back because this indicates confidence. When you cross your arms, what kind of message are you sending? Most likely you don’t intend to come across this way, but you appear to be defensive and angry.
Use Body Language to Your Best Advantage
As humans evolved, body language has stayed with us and is usually pretty easy to read in others. It can be difficult to be aware of in yourself, though. Make an effort to ensure your sending the message you want to through your body language.
Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk tells how assuming powerful poses helps us get better jobs and even make us more successful. In fact, just changing the position of your arms and legs can change your testosterone (power hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone) levels. In an experiment, Cuddy asked people to spend two minutes in a room in either a power pose (visualize Wonder Woman) or a powerless pose (essentially curled in a ball).
The power posers had higher testosterone levels and lower cortisol levels, and when meeting with interviewers came across in a much more positive manner. Her conclusion: nonverbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves. Her advice: don’t only fake it until you make it, fake it until you become it.
The next time you have a stressful meeting or a client presentation, be aware of the messages your body is sending out. You’ll no doubt be much more confident.
Tell us a story about how body language played in your favor in a positive way. Email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.