The Complete Guide to Body Language

The Complete Guide to Body Language

Studies show that people size you up within two seconds.

Consciously or unconsciously, they’ll take in how you establish eye contact, the strength of your handshake and the way you hold yourself. Even when you’re talking to someone you know, your message consists of more than just the words you say: It also includes the visual and vocal cues you send.

Whether you’re reviewing your salary with your boss or negotiating with the cable guy, it’s important to be aware of your body language, so you accomplish your aims instead of unconsciously turning people off or giving them the impression that you’re a pushover.

These body language tips will help you appear more confident and professional. Read the suggestions below to start making a better impression ... instantly.

People will take you more seriously if you stand tall, which conveys confidence and status. You don’t need to be physically long and lean, but take care to stand erect and keep your shoulders back. It will make you seem taller and more sure of yourself.

When talking to someone, make eye contact in order to establish your trustworthiness, sincerity and confidence—but only hold their gaze directly for a few seconds at a time, which is as long as is comfortable for most people. The only exception? When you enter a room and want to make an impression. In that case, hold each onlooker’s gaze for a beat longer than is comfortable, then look away. This move conveys that you're confident and interested in meeting others. When you’re speaking to a group of people, switch your gaze from one person to another every so often.

When in a casual conversation, crossing your arms may seem natural, but it actually indicates that you're feeling defensive or guarded. Instead, slightly lean into someone to convey interest. Try to keep your arms open and relaxed at your sides—or in your lap or on an armrest if at a job interview. Feel free to occasionally illustrate your points using gestures. Resist the urge to fuss with your hair, fiddle with your jewelry or crack your knuckles, all of which are distracting and can make you seem nervous.

Being the first to reach out for a handshake shows that you are confident and unafraid to take the initiative. You shouldn’t let your fingers go limp, but the goal is not to break the other person’s bones, either. A firm grasp conveys your strength without coming off as overbearing. Limit yourself to one or two up-and-down shakes, then let go.

Don’t invade anyone’s personal space, which makes people feel uneasy and unwilling to stay and listen to you. Face the person directly, keeping about an arm’s length apart, and bridge the connection with eye contact.

When standing, you should avoid crossing your legs, an awkward position that suggests that you feel uncertain and guarded (or that you need a bathroom break). However, sitting with crossed legs is one of the most common positions in many cultures, and if you're wearing a skirt, it's recommended. Just don't cross the arms at the same time: Sitting with both crossed arms and legs signifies that you have withdrawn from the conversation.

If you’re standing still, keep your feet planted slightly apart to convey a sense of confidence. (But keep them narrower than hip-width to avoid shifting your weight from foot to foot frequently, which indicates discomfort or disinterest.) When you’re walking, slow down your pace to seem calmer and more collected.


Body Language Myths

Now that you know what works, here’s a list of some commonly held body language beliefs that aren’t always true. Use these moves with caution—or not at all!

Staring Is Caring

Perhaps because many people believe that having shifty eyes shows that you’re lying, you may be tempted to stare fixedly at the other person to show that you’re honest and sincere. But, unless you're gazing to indicate attraction, staring too long will actually unsettle your conversation partner, because prolonged eye contact can be read as a sign of aggression. What's most natural is to look away briefly and then back again throughout the conversation.

“Prince Charles” Stance Shows Power

The heir to the British throne often stands with his hands behind his back. Because he is such an influential man, some people believe that imitating this gesture will make them seem powerful, too. However, research has shown that this position seems untrustworthy to most people, since it hides what the hands are doing.

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Moving Fast Is Best

Although speaking quickly and using swift, efficient gestures displays energy and enthusiasm, you can make a better first impression by using fewer, and slower, movements. This indicates that you are confident and in control—not excitable and eager to please.

"Steepling" Fingers Illustrates Intellect

This gesture—touching the tips of your fingertips together to create a steeple shape, often when you're leaning your elbows on a desktop—is sometimes interpreted as a sign that you're intelligently pondering an issue. However, that meaning is not obvious and may not come across to those unfamiliar with it. What's worse, those that do know that interpretation of the gesture may suspect you of putting on intellectual airs.

Touching Demonstrates Dominance

You may have heard that those in power illustrate their control over subordinates by touching them as if they own them: a heavy hand on a shoulder or a condescending pat on the back are two examples. However, research suggests that it is in fact lower-status people that initiate touch, often to foster friendship with those of higher status. We're all for making friends; just remember that a firm handshake is the best way to make a good impression. Keep any other kind of contact classy, respectful and work-appropriate.

More Career Tips

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Got any other body language dos or don’ts? Feel free to share them with us in the comments.


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