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What is your body language saying about you?

Forget trying to fake your face. You can’t do it. Not according to Dr. Paul Ekman, who has been studying facial expressions for more than 40 years among cultures all over the world. (You may have seen the TV series Lie to Me, which is based on his work.) Facial expressions are created with more than 52 facial muscles; these morph into more than 5,000 expressions that signal others about what’s going on inside your mind.

Consider the following examples of negative body language that may diminish you. At best, the various gestures may reveal secrets you don’t want to communicate.

I’m Nervous; I Need Reassurance
Some gestures show signs of inward stress. They relieve tension building up on the inside: smoking rituals, gum-chewing, nail-biting, finger-tapping, foot-tapping or -shuffling, hair-tossing, sleeve-adjusting, watch-band adjusting, lint-picking, ring-twisting, knuckle-cracking, button-adjusting, coffee-cup shuffling, leg twining around each other, hugging yourself (one arm grasping the other and hugging it tightly to the trunk of the body), hands rubbing neck, holding your own hands in front of you or behind you (in imitation of having a parent hold your hand).

When you stand to speak or walk, a few more gestures scream “I lack confidence”: pacing, waving your hands frantically and randomly, crossing one or both arms across the chest for protection, locking your arms behind your back, clasping your hands tightly in front of or behind you. Some people clutch props such as a handbag, portfolio, or file folder in front of themselves for protection as they walk nervously in front of a group.

I’m Arrogant
The universally recognized gesture of arrogance is the raised chin. We frequently hear the cliché, “She walked by with her nose in the air.” It signifies a smug attitude. Jutting your chin out at someone says, “I see you and recognize you, but I’m not bothering to speak.”

You’re Crazy
The sarcastic eye roll or eye shrug as in “whatever” so typically delivered from teens to their parents conveys boredom, sarcasm, frustration, or lack of respect.

I’m Lying Now, So You Can’t Trust Other Things I Say Either
Consider some small lies tactful (such as responses to “How do you like my haircut?”). Other lies lead to growing doubt for important messages, and over time they diminish trust and personal credibility. So what are the signs of lying?  Sweating. Flushing. Increased swallowing. Irregular breathing. Hand-to-mouth and hand-to-nose touching. Either frequent blinking or a stare (the opposite of what’s typical for the person). A frozen face (an attempt to be expressionless and not give away any secrets).

I’d Rather Flirt Than Talk Business
Whether subconsciously or intentionally, women suggest their femaleness by glancing over a raised shoulder. Or, they dip their head to the side and peep upward. This head tilt is a submissive gesture that makes a person look smaller and more vulnerable. When women feel attracted, they often expose the inside of their wrist and display the silky smooth skin there.

When men feel attracted, they  proudly hang their thumbs over their waist-band to frame their frontal area, as if to say, “Look at me.” Women often add the pelvic tilt to this hands-on-hip gesture (think fashion model on the catwalk) to say, “Look at me!”

Body language always trumps words. Make sure your body doesn’t betray you.

Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications, is the author of 45 books, published in 25 countries and 19 languages.  Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised Edition. As CEO of Booher Consultants and as a high-caliber keynote speaker, Dianna and her staff travel worldwide to deliver focused speeches and training programs to address specific communication challenges and increase effectiveness in oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational communication.

5 thoughts on “Communication Skills: Does Your Body Language Undermine Your Words?”

  1. LOVE the show “Lie to Me!” These are some great insights into body language….I’ll just have to remember to keep my wrists tucked in! Who knew? ha ha. Thanks, Dianna! I always enjoy your blog posts!

    1. Thanks, Kristin, for reading. You’re a dynamic keynoter anyway. Loved your keynote at the NSA convention this summer!

  2. Body language interpretation is and can only be a subjective projection by the interpreter of their own thoughts onto the person they are observing. No scientific research exists to confirm the claims made and whenever some research is produced it is not hard to find research which entirely contradicts it. Human beings are not robots and while there may be observed similarities to non-verbal behaviour it does not follow that the thoughts and feelings associated with those behaviours are also similar. So one person may sit wither their arms folded and be feeling cold while another will be feeling ‘defensive’ while another angry, while another….that is, the physical posture is irrelevant to the internal emotional experience and so the posture can only be subjectively associated with the emotion through the observer’s projection.

    1. There is an impressive body of research on how accurately body language reflects one’s emotions and attitudes. But you are correct in that body language must be read in total. That is, gestures, facial expressions, and posture have to be read in clusters. Additionally, one gesture alone means nothing unless you know someone’s “baseline.” That is, if someone routinely crosses their arms, that’s their baseline. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are defensive or “closed off” to another’s point of view. It just means that they are comfortable crossing their arms. That’s why people must understand the basic principles of interpreting body language. That’s why judges, lawyers, doctors, and psychologists make it their business to understand the research behind body language and understand the principles of interpreting it appropriately.

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