As you walk into the room — shoulders back, head poised high, hands confidently grasping your portfolio, stride brisk and intent — I immediately form an impression of you. You carry yourself as someone who is self-assured, approachable, and ready to talk business.
Your colleague, on the other hand, also enters the room — slouched shoulders, feet dragging slightly on the floor, and hands swinging aimlessly at his side — and I immediately form an impression of him. He seems reluctant to be here, looks detached from the purpose of the meeting, and is perhaps wishing he was somewhere else.
Sound Like a Lot of Assumptions and Presumptions?
You bet! I’ve judged you solely on what you look like and how you carry yourself before you utter your first word. That judgement I formed is either positive (“I can’t wait to begin working with/interviewing, you!”) or negative (“What time is lunch? This meeting seems like it will drag on….”).
Body language is a critical part of communicating message and meaning. Particularly in personal branding, your ability to express and communicate your value and message is directly related to the nonverbal communications you deploy.
Even if the second person in our example had been the more qualified and capable candidate for a job, he would have set a tone of disinterest simply by walking in the room. Of course, he can overcome this perception through his conversation and message, but he now has a hurdle to overcome when making his case.
In the study of body language, best practices state that your observers are looking for cues, clusters of behavior, and consistency to indicate what they believe to be true and normal for you. In other words, if I typically experience Susie to be social and outgoing but one day I see her as withdrawn and upset, I consider her new behavior to be not-normal, suggesting she’s having an off day, instead of changing my perception of her.
Body language interpretation, or “reading,” also requires context. People act and respond differently in situations that are unfamiliar, where the temperature has changed (such as getting really cold), or where there is a perceived threat. In cases like these, it would be easy to misread someone’s body language as they are responding to external stimuli that may directly affect their behavior.
Body Language on the Job
At a job interview, our body language is often under a microscope. The interviewer has seen your resume, maybe spoken to you on the phone, and perhaps Googled you online to see how you come across and behave. Meeting in person is the first encounter when your body language becomes important.
On the job, you might interact daily, infrequently and sometimes remotely with colleagues, customers, vendors, and team members. In this case, while the first impression you make is critical, you will have the opportunity to build more context for your behavior, giving you the chance to create more consistency between your body language and your desired personal brand and career goals.
As you consider the ways you want to be perceived by others, think about what your body language could be telling your colleagues and supervisors. Here are some examples of what certain emotions look like in action.
1. Apathy Looks Like…
Eye Contact: An apathetic person sometimes avoids eye contact completely. If we consider that eye contact is a way to build intimacy and connection with others, avoiding looking someone in the eye makes a person seem detached. This can be perceived as apathy.
Posture: The apathetic person exhibits slouched shoulders, has weak posture, walks with a sluggish drag, and seems disconnected from the discussion or action they’re involved in. This sends the message that they might not care about, be concerned with or feel worthy of participating in the conversation at hand.
Handshake: A weak, floppy, and uninterested handshake often signals apathy. This kind of handshake can make the recipient feel uneasy and uncertain about the person displaying such lackluster spirit.
2. Aggression Looks Like…
Eye contact: Aggressive eye contact can make the recipient feel threatened. An aggressive person stares inappropriately and intently (“locking eyes”), failing to give visual relief. In the animal kingdom, we know that looking an animal in the eyes for a long time, in a narrow and assertive way, is perceived as threatening. In business, it comes across as overly aggressive and domineering.
Posture: The aggressive person walks large — he enters the room with force, takes up a lot of space at the table, interrupts others and displays large, broad hand gestures as he communicates his points. While this person often believes he’s demonstrating confidence and command of his materials, his often off-putting behavior can be seen as unnecessarily aggressive.
Handshake: Ever received a bone-crushing handshake? That’s what an aggressive person might offer. Handshakes that are too firm, too long or too stretched-out (one person is too far away from the other) are interpreted as aggressive, not friendly and welcoming.
3. Insecurity Looks Like…
Eye contact: An insecure person (similar to an apathetic one) will rarely make direct eye contact. They look off to the side while speaking to you, or worse, look down at their feet apologetically. Insecurity reads as a lack of confidence in the words leaving their mouth and in their validity in having the conversation altogether.
In contrast to no eye contact, sometimes we also see insecurity in too much weak staring. As opposed to aggressive staring, weak staring is holding eye contact too long, combined with downturned brows and lackluster posture. Again, this is perceived as almost apologetic.
Posture: A stance and posture that is hunched over, lacks stability and seems to wither in others’ presence is often perceived as insecure and unworthy. Most career professionals don’t seek to be perceived this way, but they default to submissive, insecure posturing as a deference to those who are of superior rank in the company. This is not a good thing. Being likable, confident and respectful are the goals, not being seen as weak and insecure.
Handshake: Similar to the apathetic handshake, the insecure handshake lacks substance, focus or passion. It is weak, floppy and unnerving to the recipient.
4. Confidence Looks Like…
Eye contact: The confident person looks you in the eye when addressing or meeting you. Their eyes are wide, bright, and happy. The eyebrows match this by being raised and open.
Posture: The confident person knows to point their belly button towards you when they’re addressing you; this shows you are the center of their attention. Even in group scenarios, confident body language includes relaxed but squared-off shoulders, arms at your side (except when illustrating a point and gesturing appropriately), and the stance is solid and stable, instead of overly wide (as an aggressive posture would be).
Handshake: A confident handshake is solid and firm but doesn’t leave you feeling crushed. The handshake is matched by maybe one or two “pumps” to indicate pleasure in meeting you, and then the grip is released. A confident handshake is consistently matched with other body language to reveal the person as in control of their feelings and able to communicate with directness and authenticity.
Assessing YOUR Body Language
What I offer above is just a sampling of the body language issues/opportunities at play in business today. There are many books, articles, and programs developed on the study of non-verbal communications. They’re worth researching if you think you have an issue with the messages you’re sending through your actions. But for now, here are some action steps you can take.
Evaluate your own body language in terms of your personal branding goals. How you wish to be perceived drives the consistency of your verbal and nonverbal communications. Watch for behavior that might be sending mixed or incorrect messages and, more importantly, try to consciously behave in ways that reinforce the image and brand you desire.
Pay attention to:
1. Your Eye Contact
As we’ve discussed above, proper eye contact supports and reinforces what you’re communicating or listening to. Staring, avoiding eye contact, or aggressive eye contact sends the message that you’re either insecure or overly assertive. This can be off-putting to employers and colleagues.
2. Your Stride
How fast or slow you walk, whether you take long strides or short steps, and the pace at which you enter a room all send signals of your confidence, leadership, and poise. Aim for a stride that’s consistent with the people you’re walking with — don’t drag behind or walk in front of others.
3. What You Do with Your Hands
I’m often asked by people, “Where do I put my hands?” Whether you’re addressing an audience in a presentation, speaking one-on-one with your supervisor, or facilitating a meeting with your team, use your hands to support and reinforce your message.
If you flail your hands around randomly, you might distract from your message. Likewise, taking up too much space with your hands and arms could imply you’re looking to protect yourself (as if you’re keeping everyone else at distance), and this can seem defensive or insecure.
As you build your reputation, consider the consistency and impact of your body language to strengthen your position. Show your empathy, approachability, confidence, and relatability to others as you build rapport and trust with coworkers and managers.