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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What's Your Body Language Saying?

At work or in a job interview, you probably think a lot about what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it. But here’s what else you should be thinking about: The majority of the message you communicate (55% to be exact, says a widely cited study by UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian) is conveyed through your body language—not your words.

Think about it: How often do you look at the way people are dressed, the way they’re walking, or the confidence or awkwardness of their interactions, and make assumptions about who they are? If he’s kicked back with an untucked shirt and feet on his desk, you might think he’s lazy. If she’s walking at a rapid pace with strained precision, you assume she’s rigid or a perfectionist (or, well, maybe just late). Right or wrong, accurate or incorrect, we assume and we assign. And people do the same with us!

Those assumptions of may not have a direct impact on your life as you’re walking down the street, but in the workplace, how others perceive you is extremely important to your success. So, how can you make sure you’re coming across as professional, confident, and engaged? Check out these easy strategies for making sure your body is sending the right message. Hint: Body language is often subtle, so pay attention to the details!

Shake it Good

Often times, your handshake is one of the first ways you’ll be evaluated. Think back to the last time someone shook your hand. Was it clammy and weak? A finger shake? An overbearing grab? Or a firm-but-relaxed greeting that conveyed confidence and capability?

The latter is exactly what you want. To do it, first, make eye contact and smile, which both show that you’re confident, friendly, and relaxed. Then, extend your hand for a firm, brief handshake: Keep your fingers closed, make sure the web between your thumb and forefinger meets the other person’s, wrap your fingers around her hand, and shake. Two to three pumps from your elbow—not your wrist or shoulder—is perfect. And make sure you maintain eye contact the entire time!

This isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. If you’re about to hit the interview circuit and there are a lot of handshakes in your future, consider practicing with a friend.

Stand Up Straight

Having good posture is good for your back, but it’s also good for business. Whether you’re seated or standing, your posture can say that you’re interested and engaged—or exactly the opposite.

When you’re seated in a meeting or interview, sit so that your back doesn’t touch the back of the chair. This prevents slouching (which naturally occurs when you’re sitting), plus it can give off the impression that you’re too comfortable.

Plant your feet on the floor or cross your legs at the knees—though this is generally seen as more casual and relaxed, it’s absolutely appropriate. You can also cross your legs at the ankles or press your knees together, slanting your legs to one side. (Just remember that no matter how you cross your legs, a skirt becomes shorter when you sit!)

When you’re standing, put your shoulders back, hands at your sides, and keep both feet on the floor, your weight evenly distributed between both legs. And be still—fidgeting or shifting conveys that you’re nervous or anxious.

Mind Your Mannerisms

Of course, it can be awkward to sit, stand, or talk and not know what to do with your arms and hands. People often solve this by crossing their arms in front of their bodies or by fidgeting, tapping their fingers, or twirling their hair.

But the best, most professional stance is to keep your arms right at your sides. If this feels uncomfortable, make sure you have something to hold, like a notepad or file. Don’t stick your hands in your pockets, which can convey reluctance or cautiousness.

Also try to think about the movements of your hands. Your mannerisms should be small and intentional, and never a distraction to what your mouth is saying. Using too much movement when you talk may give the impression that you’re emotional or unsure of what you’re saying, and motions like pointing at someone, even if your voice is friendly, can be misinterpreted as anger, an ultimatum, or an accusation.

Face It

They call it poker face for a reason: Your facial expressions, like raising your eyebrows, breaking into a smile, or furrowing your brow, can speak volumes about your thoughts and emotions.

Think about what your face is saying, even when your mouth isn’t moving. A small, calm smile will always make you appear neutral, friendly, and approachable, and nodding and raising your eyebrows shows that you agree. Keep eye contact with the person who’s speaking (or shift between everyone in the room when you’re doing the talking). Looking up, down, or to the side (or rolling your eyes) all send different messages—and probably not the ones you want to send.

Whether or not you're doing any talking, your body language will make some strong statements for you. And it’s all in the details. So pay just as much attention to what you’re doing as what you’re saying, and you can be sure you send exactly the message you mean to.

Photo courtesy of Joi Ito.