It’s not what a person speaks that matters, but how it is expressed and conceived by the other party.
WORDS say it all, but the body language of a person is just as important. If a person speaks and doesn’t mirror the message of the words he says, then that message can be viewed differently. Observing one’s body language at home, in the office or anywhere else, is interesting and tells us so much about a person. Let me start off with the significance of a wink. In many situations, a wink is not as good as a nod. They give different signals. Are the signals isolated or part of a broader range, a cluster of body messages?
Does body talk mirror the message or its expected response especially when the complicating factors of culture and gender are taken into account?
A key distinction in body reading is between the open and closed. The closed position is when the arms are folded and the body turned away from the speaker.
The hands will be hidden or, if visible, the palms out of sight. But what does this mean —it can be a general sense of being uncomfortable or negative to outright dislike.
In an open situation, the arms will be open, the hands visible, palms exposed and the body will lean towards the listener or speaker. An open posture suggests interest and receptiveness.
We all react positively to and tend to “mirror” an open body posture just as we are suspicious of and negative towards a closed one.
Interestingly, studies have shown that people who are lying or dishonest tend to unwittingly adopt the closed position.
Now let’s focus on the face. Greater eye contact of intervals lasting four to five seconds almost always indicates interest and approval, especially where there is dilation to the pupil. Smaller pupils (contraction) plus restricted or no eye contact suggest a negative response.
Any prolonged eye contact which is longer than five seconds can be regarded as sensitive in terms of gender and culture. One should exercise caution when using such eye contact especially when dealing with acquaintances, colleagues, or with members of the opposite sex or people of a different culture.
To our female readers it is worth noting that when interacting with a male colleague there is such a thing as the business gaze which is when the eyes focus on an area between the eyes and the mid forehead. Such a gaze is purely professional.
In contrast, beware of the social gaze which is more intimate and covers the area from the eyes to that erogenous zone of the mouth. Used in a business setting it could cause confusion or send an unintended sexual message.
Blinking is another body give-away. If it’s frequent with each blink lasting more than a second, it implies boredom or disinterest, and is a subconscious effort to block out the others.
That sideward glance with raised eyebrows, with or without a smile, depending on context of course, is a clue for interest and even flirtation.
The down-turned mouth and eyebrows warn of criticism, suspicion or hostility. And, as we all know, the smiling mouth without eye matching, is a formality rather than real smile.
There are six facial expressions which know no cultural boundaries, though I sometimes suspect there must be more every time I try to board a train during rush hour at KLCC. These are: joy, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger. However, psychologists say that when such an expression lasts for more than 10 seconds it’s probably fake!
Even noses have their own vocabulary: flaring nostrils indicate something physical is being planned while that wrinkly nose look betrays suspicion of what is being said. And looking down the nose with the head tilted up reveals superiority or disdain.
Lips, of course, have their own tale. If your colleague is licking his/her lips then anxiety or concern is being shown. But, in another context, if you’ve just been playing badminton then it’s more likely to be thirst.
Pursed lips commonly suggest either active consideration is being given to a proposal or, less pleasingly, disagreement. Lips pressed tightly together are silently saying, “I am angry or frustrated”, but when shaped as if to blow out air it’s resignation or reluctant acceptance being expressed.
There’s also no getting away with fingers. They really do let the cat out of the bag.
If they touch the mouth or rub the nose then deception may be lurking beneath the verbal message.
Hands are crucial. Keep them in view and when one shows their palms, it is a sign of honesty. Making a gesture with the palm down is sending a negative message, so when you do shake hands, make sure you offer your hand with the palm sideways. When you break off shaking hands, don’t look down – it signals submission.
Lean your chin on your hand with the index finger pointed up your cheek and you are sending a message critical of the speaker. But take away the pointing index finger and have the hand resting lightly on the cheek and you are showing interest.
Head resting heavily on a hand suggests that the person is bored or perhaps even tired.
Even feet have a message. Shuffling feet or feet twisted round a chair suggest untruthfulness.
If the toes of the foot of the upper crossed leg point towards you then there’s interest indicated in your message. Pointed away, perhaps towards the door, it’s the opposite.
High energy foot jiggling on the other hand can indicate either confidence, enthusiasm, or the need for a visit to the toilet!
Personal space is something we are all sensitive to. The intimate zone of 0-45cm is definitely not for the office. The close personal zone, 45-60cm, covers good friends and close business colleagues.
Move an arm’s length apart and we have the far personal zone which has no risk of touching and is reasonably safe in the office.
Even safer is the social zone with a space of about 1-2m which is the preferred space for most business dealings and formal social gatherings.
The public zone puts people more than 6m apart and is mostly found at presentations and public speaking situations.
Interestingly, women who have just met tend to favour a closer distance for speech than men.
Culture is a huge complicating factor with body language and social etiquette. Broadly speaking, there are contact cultures such as those found in France, Spain, Italy, the Middle East and South America where touching of the arm, shoulder, hand (gender-sensitive in the Middle east naturally), plays an important part in business relationships.
In non-touch cultures found in the UK, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Japan, Korea, Australia, North America, touch – other than the hand shake – is much less frequent and body touching is either frowned on or seen as having sexual implications.
Contact cultures are also context cultures. This means that much of the “message” of any interaction is left unspecified to rely on relationships (familial, ethnic, locational, tribal, status, religious) and non-verbal cues. Content, non-contact cultures expect business dealings to be specific and explicit. They want a legally binding deal. Not a deal based on honour or respect.
Next time you make a presentation you know that you can’t hide behind a lectern or laptop.
To get attention and empathy you have to show your whole body. Stand with feet slightly apart. Keep those hands visible and don’t clamp your arms to the sides of your body.
Lean slightly towards your audience. Don’t fidget or rock. Make eye contact with individuals remembering to sweep the entire room with your gaze.
Now what do you see? If there are no folded arms, good eye contact, lots of head-nodding and smiles, then you can be sure your body language and words match and that the audience is with you.
Now that you have finished reading, I hope your eye pupils are wide and that you are stroking your chin, neck or ear. If not … I am glad that I am not there to see.
Alex Cummins is a trainer with the Professional Development Unit of the British Council in Kuala Lumpur.