Your body language reveals more than you realise
Worried you're giving off the wrong signals in the workplace? Anxious about how you come across in a professional setting? And why does Adam in HR fidget with his hands all the time?
Hands up! Who thinks that under 10% of communication is verbal? This mind-blowing statistic can't be right, surely? The words that come out of our mouths, that we choose carefully every time (or sometimes carelessly) must have more bearing than a mere 7%. But that stat is actually true, which means that 93% of communication is nonverbal, with body language making up roughly 55% of that.
Our body language, and how we conduct ourselves, is so integral to us that we often don't consider it; it's just part of how and who we are. You can confirm this by playing a game with colleagues, friends, or family. Fill a room with all sorts of objects - a mop and bucket, a plant, skittles, a beach ball, books… it can be anything. The players have to do something to gain a point. But they don't know what it is that they have to do, so they have to start doing something i.e. throwing the ball against a wall, pretending to mop the floor, reading a book... They'll soon start scoring loads of points, but can't work out what it is that they're doing right. The big reveal is when you let them into the secret - you've been giving them a point each time a team player touches their face. On average, we touch our face 23 times an hour. Often it's just instinctive, so we don't realise we're doing it, just like breathing. But if you focus on thinking about it, that seems about right.
What is body language?
Let's clear up exactly what we mean by body language. The definition is, “the nonverbal imparting of information by means of conscious or subconscious bodily gestures and postures.” Note the words “conscious” and “subconscious” here, as these are key. It means that sometimes we're aware of what we're doing and how we're portraying ourselves, but a lot of the time we're not.
It's all in the eyes…
And the mouth, the nose, the forehead.
Facial expressions are a dead giveaway as to what you're feeling or thinking. We've got 42 individual muscles in the face. How many expressions can we make from those? Five, ten, twenty? From disgust to fear, happiness to sadness, anger to surprise. In fact, a study on dynamic facial expressions of emotion from the University of Glasgow in 2014 suggests that there might only be four internationally recognised facial expressions. That's because facial signals are shared between emotions. For example, fear and disgust both use a wrinkled up nose, and fear and surprise both involve the widening of eyes. In the study, when the basic expressions were used, people couldn't tell them apart. It wasn't until other muscles were activated that people could work out what was going on. This is because the reactions of the facial muscles develop over time, often within milliseconds, but there's still a differentiation.
If you're angry, your face starts showing this anger with just a few muscles, but then activates more and more over time to finish the expression. So it isn't until most of your muscles are flexed that someone can tell that you're angry, and not revolted, by something.
How to read facial expressions
Your resting face, when your face is relaxed and, therefore, often expressionless, is normally only present when you're not interacting with others. So, when you see someone you know, but they haven't seen you, they might look glum or slightly sad. It's just that their face isn't animated. But as soon as they spot you, their face lights up with a smile or a lifting of the eyebrows, to indicate their pleasure at seeing you.
As the saying goes, “the most important thing you wear is the expression on your face.”
Whether you're networking with strangers, listening to the concerns of a colleague, or giving a speech, knowing how to read certain cues will ensure that you understand how receptive other people are, either to you or to the ongoing situation.
So how can you accurately read someone, not from what they're actually saying, but what they're doing with all those facial muscles and expressions? Here's how to interpret some different facial expressions:
The Duchenne smile
What is it?: The most recognisable of all facial expressions, this type of smile is characterised by crow's feet wrinkles at the corners of the eyes and upturned corners of the mouth. It's the real deal.
What it signifies: Genuine happiness, releasing endorphins for both the giver and the taker.
So, smile with your eyes to show pure pleasure by grinning widely enough to push your cheeks up which, in turn, activates the muscles around your eyes. Then, maintain that smile even after the encounter to show it's genuine. Fake smiles can be switched on and off much more easily. We smile countless times during normal encounters, but most of these smiles are due to formality or out of politeness.
What is it?: Eye contact that's mutual, as long as it's neither too long nor too short, as these can mean very different things.
What it signifies: Slightly longer eye contact, especially from high status individuals, such as celebrities, film stars, or the CEO of the company, can make us feel favoured. Increased eye contact can also indicate that the other person is curious. When people are more attentive to their surroundings, their blink rate is generally reduced.
Keep mutual gazing for when you're listening, exchanging ideas, or agreeing with the other person. It helps to boost your perceived sincerity, persuasiveness, and credibility in the eyes (quite literally!) of others. If someone is trying to increase their eye gaze, but then glancing away occasionally, it could mean they're wanting to bond with you more by upping their social skills.
Be aware though - don't make 100% eye contact as this is a sign of aggression and is likely to make the other person feel uncomfortable in your presence. If eye contact is too short, it can be perceived as the person seeming shifty or unreliable.
The eyebrow flash
What is it?: Eyebrows raised slightly for less than a fifth of a second.
What it signifies: A genuine sign of interest, generally used in three ways:
Showing professional interest, typically used as a nonverbal affirmation during a conversation, such as when granting approval, agreeing with something, a way of saying thank you, or confirming something
Showing social interest, when two people recognise each other, signalling that they're happy to be connecting
Showing romantic interest
What is it?: An reflex action where you rapidly close your eyelids, primarily to keep your eyes clear.
What it signifies: If someone's blinking more rapidly than normal, it shows that they're feeling uncomfortable or distressed. On the flip side, someone who's blinking infrequently could indicate that they're intentionally controlling their eye movements, like a poker player blinking less frequently because she's trying to downplay a great hand.
How to read body language
Also known as open body language, positive body language relates to gestures and postures that convey a positive and approachable persona, much sought after, especially if you're a leader of people and want to influence and motivate your team. Try these positive body language examples:
The equal handshake
No one wants to receive a “wet fish” handshake or one that has such a strong grip that it crushes your hand. Despite the pandemic temporarily changing our ways of greeting, the handshake in professional situations is making a comeback, so make sure that yours gives the right first impression straight off.
What is it?: A shake of hands with equal pressure being asserted by both parties. It contains seven elements - respectful eye contact, that Duchenne smile, an extended arm slightly bent at the elbow, fingers pointing down when approaching the other person, equal pressure, a slight lean in towards the other person, and a slow release after between one and two seconds.
What it signifies: Mutual respect for both parties, along with openness and confidence, leaving both participants feeling reassured and comforted. If you find yourself having to shake hands with your boss, let them lead on the length and the pressure of the handshake, and mirror that.
Which leads us on to…
What is it?: Authentic mirroring is the postures and gestures you make to display similar body language to the person with whom you're conversing.
What it signifies: It's undertaken to build rapport with the person, signalling a real desire to connect with them, and is usually only focused on people you like. If someone mirrors your body language, you can be pretty sure that they like and respect you. Mirroring can lead to increased compliance and higher sales (so mirror those you want to persuade), as well as more positive appraisals from managers.
The head tilt
What is it?: Tilting the head slightly to one side while exposing the neck.
What it signifies: As the neck is one of the top vulnerable areas of the body, this gesture is a sign of openness. It's exposing your throat and neck to others, revealing that you feel comfortable enough to do so. It can be a sign of platonic, as well as romantic, interest. Coupled together with the head nod, it can indicate curiosity about what someone is saying. Tilting the head to one side is powerfully disarming, and hence can be used to dissipate tense circumstances or persuade someone to open up. As it's a warm cue, it's best not to overly use it during sales meetings or pitches.
What is it?: This gesture portrays the user as sincere and honest, as they're offering up their palms to be viewed, rather than hidden away, such as when hands are in pockets, behind the back, or with closed fists; all signs that can act as barriers.
What it signifies: Over time, we've come to associate closed palms with potential danger, as that person could be hiding something or concealing a weapon. To combat this, ensure that your palms remain open and visible, facing upwards the majority of the time.
The opposite of positive body language is - surprisingly - negative body language. Ever had the feeling that the person you're talking to is saying all the right things, yet there's something not quite right that you can't put your finger on? It's probably because they're displaying negative body language, also known as closed body language. Watch out for the signs below in colleagues. If you're keen to build a good reputation at work, you'll need to be mindful of your own body language as well.
Remember Adam from HR and his fidgety fingers? What's the meaning behind it? Maybe he could've done with a fidget spinner, the playground craze from a few years back.
What is it?: Playing with objects nearby including pens, keys, jewellery, and yes… even fingers. It also relates to jiggling your feet, shifting in your seat, or tapping a pencil on the table.
What it signifies: Fidgeting covers boredom, anxiety, shortness of time, and a need for sensory reassurance, much like a child yearning for its favourite toy in times of stress.
If you're concentrating hard for a sustained period of time, say, in a meeting, it can be difficult to maintain that focus. Fidgeting may be a sign that it's time to take a break. If you regularly head up meetings, look out for this in colleagues, and give them a break for five minutes.
Everyone's crossed their arms at some point; it's one of the more obvious, and frequently adopted, closed postures.
What is it?: A crossing of the arms, one over the other, and normally the left arm over the right.
What it signifies: It's a projection of stress, anxiety, or anger, and is also referred to as a “self hug,” giving the user a reassuring sign to themselves if they find they're in an uncomfortable or worrying situation. This is why you're only likely to cross your arms when in public and not when you're on your own.
If faced with a hostile arm-crosser in a work situation, try to break down this physical barrier by giving them an item to hold, without being too obvious, such as a book, a pen, or a cup of tea. Asking them to lean forward to look at something usually opens the arms up as well.
Rubbing eyes / face
What is it?: A pacifying action that involves the person rubbing their eyes with their index finger, middle finger, or thumb. It can either be a split second, gentle rub, or a more forceful one of rubbing the whole face.
What it signifies: Its use is to act as a “visual reset,” i.e. you're indicating that you want everything in front of you to just disappear. It's commonly seen during a confrontation between arguing couples or poker players when they've just lost a hand. Or, you could just be tired!
The act of rubbing the eyes actually stimulates the vagus nerve in the eyelid, which can help to slow down breathing and the heart rate. If you spot someone at work rubbing their eyes, it might just be worth noting this and checking in with them to see if they're all right.
Scrunched up shoulders
What is it?: A lifting and hunching of the shoulders, with rounded shoulders and neck hunched forward.
What it signifies: An ingrained defensive position, hunched shoulders indicates that someone is either feeling powerless or trying to hide something as they're closing off their vulnerable neck area. People who are not quite as socially adept as most, such as those with clinical depression, may walk around with a permanent shoulder hunch. But with many of us increasingly hunched over laptops nowadays, it's worth checking your own posture.
How to nail an interview by displaying positive body language
Enter the room confidently, so that you look as professional as you can from the start, with shoulders back and head held high
Give a firm handshake that's equal to the person receiving it, as described above
Sit with a straight back but without appearing too stiff, keeping the small of your back tight against the back of the chair while keeping your legs still. It's quite acceptable to lean forward slightly sometimes, as this shows the interviewer you're being attentive.
Maintain eye contact at a reasonable level to show that you aren't overwhelmed and are taking everything being said on board
Smile even if you're feeling nervous. Just the act of smiling, even when you don't feel like it, can make you more relaxed and comfortable.
Keep your hands in check by not going overboard with gesticulations. If you find that impossible, a tip is to ask if you can take notes. This serves two purposes - it looks like you're paying close attention and keeps your hands busy at the same time.
As we've learnt, your body language says a lot about you. If you feel you're putting people off, take some tips from this article to try to improve your body language. Once you start thinking about it, and how to change for the better, the world becomes your oyster.
While tuned-in body language isn't going to be possible to highlight on your CV, it could make or break your next interview. Upload your CV for a free review to make sure you're on the right track, then check out our interview advice.