Body Talk

What it says to others

Body Talk

About 93 percent of our communication is nonverbal, making body language and facial expressions the majority of our communication. Learn how to master yours!

Do you fidget when you talk to your boss or cross your arms when meeting new people? Or perhaps you greet everyone with a smile and open arms. We’ve all heard that body language often does the talking for us at work, at social events, and even in our romantic lives. So what does it take to become fluent in it?

Body language is important

Often too subtle to be fully aware of, about 93 percent of our communication is nonverbal, making body language and facial expressions the majority of our communication. We read and pick up on others’ body language to make sense of even the most obvious of positive and negative emotions, such as winning and losing at sports.

With the right kind of body language, we can convey openness, honesty, and confidence, which can build trust and co-operation in all parts of our lives. On the other hand, the wrong type can foster mistrust, misunderstanding, or even aggression.

“Body language is so important because it is a not-so-secret language that provides information to others about our feelings about ourselves, those around us, our work, and our environment. It’s important to be aware of the messages we are conveying because those messages are telling our story to others,” says Kim Cochrane, a Toronto-based psychotherapist.

Subtle signs

While we often focus on what we say, we very rarely are aware of what we communicate with our bodies. For example, if you had your hand on your neck while talking to your boss in a meeting this morning, she may think that you feel talking to her is a pain.

Maybe you covered your mouth with your hand while having lunch with your colleagues today. Based on that one subtle move, they may think you are lying, not being open, or that you are insecure. Nervous tics and seemingly benign habits such as fiddling with your pen, jewellery, or hair may tell someone that you are impatient or even bored.

On the other hand, smiling, nodding in agreement, and keeping your chin up suggest confidence and openness. Researchers think that simple behaviours such as a head nod or a smile might also cause physiological changes that activate an entire trajectory of body, mind, and behavioural shifts—essentially altering the course of a person’s day.

“The more open you are with your body language, the more you will be perceived as confident, likeable, trustworthy, and capable. Remember, the other person will be looking to see that your physical gestures mirror your words—keep them both open and positive. And be consistent,” says Esther Kane, a registered clinical counsellor based in Courtenay, BC.

Fake it till you make it

While some people look like naturals at exuding confidence, building trust, and putting others at ease, others don’t know where to start. There is good news, however: body language can be learned.

Research has shown that holding simple power poses makes us feel more powerful and confident, even if we start off not feeling that way. Assuming a high power pose, such as hands above head, shoulders back, and keeping the limbs open for two minutes increases our testosterone, which is linked to power and self-esteem, and decreases our cortisol, which is linked to stress.

That same research showed in a trial that job candidates who assumed a high power pose before their interviews were 80 percent more likely to be hired than those who maintained low power positions, such as hunched shoulders and keeping their chin tucked down.

Power and confidence in our daily lives goes beyond just landing the job; they also affect how well we do in our jobs. People who feel a lack of power perform worse in planning, goal achieving, and even memory.

Researchers showed that people have the ability to “fake it till they make it,” and over time, these minimal changes could improve a person’s general health and well-being. This is particularly important for people who feel powerless because of lack of resources, low rank in an organization, or being part of a low-power social group.

Expert advice

“People-watching is a great way of studying how body language works. Find someone who is a great communicator and start watching how they use their body and trying on some moves for yourself,” says Beth Burgess, a UK-based therapist. She advocates filming yourself talking to someone or giving a speech. “You’ll soon see how your body language enhances or undermines your message and what you can improve on,” she says.

Cochrane says connecting with the body on a regular basis is another great way to create awareness of your own body language. “Take one-minute breathing breaks in each meeting, at lunch, or when you are working together with others in different situations, and check in with your body: how are you feeling and how is your body responding?” she says.

7 top tips for work

  • Stand tall and take up space. Keep your posture erect, your shoulders back, and your head held high. This makes you look sure of yourself and communicates power and confidence. While a power pose may work to boost a woman’s confidence, men displaying a power pose may be seen as aggressive, bullying, or even hostile.
  • Maintain positive eye contact. Eye contact is the single most powerful communication tool between two people and conveys openness, sincerity, and trust. But there is a fine line; too much eye contact can be seen as aggressive or intimidating.
  • Lean in. This shows you are connected, engaged, and interested in what the people you work with are saying and sharing with you.
  • Talk with your hands and use open gestures. Keep your movements relaxed and show the palms of your hands. This communicates you have nothing to hide. Be aware of folding your arms; this may suggest you are closed off and not interested in what is being said or in the person saying it.
  • Reduce nervous gestures. Whether it’s rubbing hands together, playing with hair, or drumming fingers on a desk, fidgeting takes away our credibility.
  • Smile. Smiling enhances our own well-being and tells others we are approachable and trustworthy.
  • Perfect your handshake. A solid, but not crushing or limp, handshake is key at work, especially for women, whose confidence is scrutinized by the quality of their handshake even more than men’s is.

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