By Rob Schaefer
One of my favorite lines from the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid” is from the sea witch Ursula: “Never underestimate the power of body language.” And she is right.
Body language has been used to seduce, betray, and befriend others throughout humanity. Fashion trends have accented certain areas of the male and female body to enhance attraction. Some cultures have traditions of wearing masks, robes or cloaks to hide body movements and facial expressions. And society has developed gestures to garner friendship and open communication. It is believed that the modern wave of the hand began when prehistoric humans wanted to convey to strangers that they held no weapons. On the other hand, having an unreadable expression while gambling will forever be known as a poker face. Thus, we can deduce that modern body language can be a powerful force for career success … and career failure.
Beneficial Body Language
Experts in every field of business and psychology are now drawing attention to how body language affects success. The following tips are pulled from Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman who authored “10 Powerful Body Language Tips” and “The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.”
1. To connect instantly with someone, shake hands. Goman noted that touching someone on the arm, hand or shoulder for as little as 1/40 of a second creates a human bond. The Income Center for Trade Shows found that people are twice as likely to remember you if you shake hands with them. But this nonverbal cue is a double-edged sword. A weak or sweaty handshake can indicate lack of character and poor performance.
2. To show agreement, mirror expressions and postures. When you mimic the body language of others, they feel understood and accepted.
3. To improve your speech, use your hands. Brain imaging has shown that a region called Broca’s area, which is important for speech production, is active not only when we are talking, but also when we wave our hands. Gesturing tightens up our thoughts and speech.
4. To learn the truth, watch people’s feet. Those focusing on their own body language often forget their legs and feet. A tapping or twitching foot can indicate impatience and boredom. Shuffling around shows nervousness and lack of focus.
5. To sound authoritative, keep your voice down. By allowing your voice to relax and slightly lower in volume, your voice will sound more commanding and have more power.
6. To improve your memory, uncross your arms and legs. In a recent study, researchers found that those who kept their hands and arms by their sides retained 38 percent more information than those who crossed them. If you are speaking to a group of individuals with crossed arms, take a break or try to use humor to relax them.
The Power Of Paralanguage
As the world becomes an interconnected society, the study of paralanguage is as fascinating and important as language itself. Paralanguage is defined as the sound, pause, speech rate, pitch of voice, volume, tone, inflection, modulation, accent and accentuation, as well as silence and suspense used to enhance and direct communication. These non-lexical enhancements convey intent, meaning and emotion not fully apparent in the words themselves.
The theatre and movies are full of paralanguage which has become part of our global culture. As an example, the statement “you look great” can be interpreted a dozen ways simply by the tone and spacing of the words. An extended space of “you … look … great” can emphasize how attractive one looks. However, said rapidly and with a high pitch can sound sneering and derogatory. An insult! We see many examples of this in our modern culture under the slang term “a read.” No matter how beautifully your words are, your para- and body language both can give the other person “a read” on how you really feel about them. Basically, be careful what you say but also how you say it. What baby boomers consider common dialect, Generation Z considers demeaning. Sarcasm has become a generational wild card.
During an interview, the distance between you and the interviewer indicates how you are being studied. When you are seated across a desk, they are focused on your facial expressions and speech. When you are seated across from the interviewer in full view, your entire body language and wardrobe are being evaluated. Sit back in the chair and take up as much room as possible to show authority. And when you stand, keep your legs apart and take up as much space as possible. Do not invade the personal space of your interviewer. Four feet of personal space for each individual is recommended in the United States.
As a general rule, look directly at the interviewer and focus your eyes on the eyes/nose triangle. By showing the whites of your eyes, you are giving the impression that you really don’t like what they are saying. So feigning horror, shock or surprise does not work well in your favor. Avoid darting your eyes back and forth or over-blinking. Darting eyes appear shifty and untrustworthy and over-blinking can suggest poor sleeping habits, poor vision or allergies.
You do not have to smile during an entire interview. Relax your face and smile when appropriate. A constant strained smile makes you appear insincere. Keep your hands dry with powder or deodorant. Place your palms down on your lap, table or podium. This gives you a sense of authority. Touching your face or hair can suggest you are lying and clenched fists indicate anger or frustration. Shake hands firmly. Walk confidently without swaying your hips or dragging your feet. Provocative walking or hand gestures generally brand the employee as a risk and non-hirable. And when you leave the interview, take note of your surroundings and smile. Appear as if you want to be there!
The important thing to remember is that facial expression and body language have consequence. Winking at someone in the office can be interpreted as harassment. Yawning in the boss’ face comes across as uninterested and bored. And when traveling internationally, the successful planner researches body language protocol prior to visiting. What is complimentary in America can be insulting somewhere else. And with that, I will leave you in the immortal words of Salt- N-Pepa:
“Lights, camera, action.
Satisfaction guaranteed, that’s what I need.
I celebrate the body and enjoy good health.
And I get down with my bad self.
I am body beautiful.”