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Body Language Explained – What’s Your Body REALLY Saying?

By Heather Levin

body languageSo, you’ve just sat down for a job interview that you’re really nervous about. Unconsciously, you start jiggling your leg just a bit. You tidy your hair, shift in your seat, cross your arms in front of your body and shift your body weight to the right, leaning more on one side.

One look at you and your interviewer is going to know you’re putting up a front. Why?

Because although you might want to present a positive, confident image, your body language is telling everyone that you’re nervous, maybe even scared. Your body language can be the root cause for an unsuccessful job interview.

Body Language: The Language We Don’t Speak

Have you ever met someone you instantly distrusted? Or, have you ever known someone is lying even when they’re professing to tell the truth?

Most of the time, you probably don’t stop and think about your body language. But your facial expression, posture, and gestures tell the world what’s truly going on inside your head. For example, you might try to tell your boss that you were late for work because of traffic, but that quick glance to the left and the nervous twitch in your smile is going to give you away every time.

These non-verbal signs are so common and so widely recognized that any one, from any culture, can pretty much tell how the person making them is feeling.

For instance, imagine you see a man walking down the street. His shoulders are hunched, and his head is down. You don’t need me to tell you that he had a pretty lousy day. Maybe he got rejected in some way, or lost his job.

Here’s another guy. He’s in a meeting, listening to a presentation. Suddenly he closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. Then, eyes still closed, he starts rubbing the top of his forehead, along his hairline. Do these two gestures yourself and you’ll realize that this guy just heard some bad news in that presentation, and he’s trying to figure out how to deal with it.

See the power of body language? These gestures and facial expressions are telling the world what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. And most of the time, you don’t even realize it.

I find body language to be a fascinating topic because once you’re aware of how powerful it is, you can start using it to your advantage.

Modifying Your Message

Let’s go back to that job interview example we started with. Remember how nervous you were?

Well, you still might be nervous. But now that you’re aware that your body is giving your true feelings away, you can modify what you’re doing to project a more confident image. The interviewer doesn’t need to know that you’re actually nervous!

First, sit up in your chair and square your shoulders. Look up, make eye contact, and ensure that your chin is parallel to the floor. Stop jiggling your leg, and focus on putting your hands calmly in your lap. Next, lean slightly inward so you’re totally focused on what the inteviewer is saying. When you talk about your accomplishments, use deliberate gestures, and talk in a slow, lower tone of voice.

These few adjustments essentially turned a nervous interviewee into a self-confident, charismatic applicant! Who wouldn’t want to hire you now?

Advantages of Body Language

I think knowing about body language techniques is helpful in several ways.

First, you can use body language to your advantage in your career. Slightly modifying your gestures can make you appear confident even when you’re nervous. And I know what you might be thinking…isn’t that like lying? I mean, you’re pretending to be something you’re not. It’s a bit deceptive, right?

Well, you could think of it that way. But body language is amazing in that when you stop making those nervous gestures, you stop feeling as nervous. Adjusting your body language means you’re taking control. When you make an effort to appear more confident, your’e going to feel more confident. It’s pretty incredible.

Another advantage to adapting your body language is that it enables you to better read those around you. You can more easily spot when people are sad, upset, nervous or ambivalent. You can tell if they are truly interested in what you’re saying, or just pretending to be.

I primarily use my knowledge of body language to observe the people around me. Being observant has enabled me to help friends and family members through some tough times. They may try to put on a brave face, but their body language gives me enough of a clue to keep digging and find out what’s wrong.

What to Look For

Body language always tells the truth, and with good reason. Our gestures come straight from our limbic brain, which is reflex only and acts without conscious thought. This is fascinating because many of the gestures we make unconsciously protect our bodies in some way.

For instance, when we feel uncomfortable with someone we often lean back without even knowing. Why? Body language experts claim that this is because we want to put our torso (full of all those vital organs) farther away from that “threat.” When we hear something we don’t like, or feel threatened in any way, we often cross our arms. Again, to protect our torso.

Another good example is the act of leaning in. When we lean in, we give a subconscious clue that we’re interested in what the other person is saying. This shows trust because we’re essentially moving our valuable torso closer to the other person, letting them know we’re not afraid.

The thing about body language is that we have been taught how to override it, at least to some extent. For instance, how many times have you smiled and nodded in agreement, when inside you really wanted to storm off in anger? Yeah, I thought so. Most of us can lie, at least a little, with our faces. This is why you should always look at other signs first to discover what someone is truly feeling.

The best place to look, according to body language expert Joe Navarro, is someone’s person’s feet. Most of us never think about what our feet are doing, which is why they’re often the easiest to read.

For instance, if you walk up to two people talking and they turn their hips toward you, but not their feet, then gracefully exit stage left. They’re most likely showing that they’d rather not have you join them. People often point their feet towards something they like.

Or, imagine you’re sitting with a friend. She’s got her legs crossed, and her foot is bobbing up and down, her toes pointed upward. She’s feeling happy about being with you, and her feet show it!

So what are other some classic signals you can watch out for?

  • Hands clasped behind your back with squared shoulders –  this projects power and confidence.
  • Sitting in a chair with your hands behind your head – easy going, confident gesture.
  • Preening gestures (such as touching the hair or ears, running a finger along the hairline or lips, etc.) –  this often indicates nervousness, or it could be flirtatious, depending on the situation.
  • Any upward movement of the hands or feet – this shows extreme happiness and excitement!

There are also “situational signals” that clue you in to someone’s real feelings.

For instance, imagine you’re in a meeting and the guy next to you sits down and proceeds to lay out a ton of paper and books on the table, taking up some of your table space as well. He puts his arms on the table, fencing in his spread. Is he just untidy, or is he being a jerk?

Well, he’s trying to show he has more power than he does because he’s establishing his “territory” in a subconscious way. Yeah, now you’ve got his number.

Here’s another situation. You’re at a car dealership negotiating for a new car. The car dealer swears he can’t go any lower. He then crosses his arms, holding his clipboard against his chest.

Unless he does this all the time, he might be lying. The reason? He’s protecting his torso, especially putting that clipboard in between the two of you. Busted!

It’s NOT One Size Fits All

It’s important to point out that body language is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

For instance, many body language experts say that crossing your arms in front of your chest is a defensive gesture, signaling that you’re closed off, angry, or don’t want to communicate.

However, this is a natural gesture for me (what experts call “baseline behavior”) because I’m so often cold. So this “signal” doesn’t really apply to me because I do it all the time. Another example? Experts say that rubbing your eyes often signals doubt or disbelief. But again, this is something I do all the time just because it feels good.

If you’re interested in body language and want to learn more about it, keep in mind that you can never rely on just one signal to determine what someone is truly thinking or feeling. All of us have our own quirks that we do on a regular basis, and may mean nothing at all. So it’s definitely not an exact science. Always look for several clues or signals before making any kind of judgement.

If you want to learn more about body language, and how to read it, I’d highly recommend reading Joe Navarro’s book, What EveryBODY Is Saying. It’s one of my favorite books, and Joe is an expert (he was an FBI specialist for over 20 years). The book is fascinating!

What are your thoughts on body language? Are you aware of the image your body is projecting?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

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Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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  • http://thegdk3.blogspot.com The GDK

    Interesting! I liked how you put it through and it has helped me very well . Now I can confidently meet my publisher and put my proposal in front of him even if I’m nervous. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Heather Levin

    @GDK- Great, I’m so glad you’ll be able to use some of this info. Thanks for reading!

  • http://afford-anything.com Afford-Anything.com

    Most psychologists believe that people communicate more through non-verbal cues (like body language and facial expression) than through verbal cues. Therefore, being self-aware of what you’re communicating is extremely important!!

    (Incidentally, this is why digital communication — where we can’t see body or facial cues — can be so easily misinterpreted. It’s hard to convey tone or feeling in an email.)

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