You may have heard that when people are interpreting what you say to them, they rely on your body language 93% and your words only 7%. This is actually a distortion of a study that’s been spread by the press. The study found that facial expressions were worth 55%, words 7% and tone of voice 38%. But the study was flawed, so even those results can’t really be trusted.
However much people rely on body language, it’s a mixed blessing. Body language can indeed tell you when someone’s lying or uncomfortable but not admitting it, etc. But most of us probably overestimate our ability to accurately read body language. For example, some people don’t give away much with their body language, and others use lots of facial expressions and gestures. To the second group, someone from the first might seem evasive, when in fact they’re just reserved. And to the reserved person, the people who uses her face a lot in communication might seem angry or goofy or emotionally extreme when in fact she’s just expressive. Culture and how we were raised has a lot to do with it.
But the fact is, people use non-verbal cues to interpret our meaning. If you find people misinterpreting you a lot, you might benefit from learning some basic universal body language signals that will enhance your communication skills.
Body language tips
- Don’t cross your arms or legs. This can make you seem anywhere from guarded to outright hostile or aggressive. If you’re just cold or you never know what to do with your hands, you can get away with crossing your arms as long as you leave both hands visible. When crossing your arms, the natural tendency is to tuck one hand into the fold of the opposite elbow. Just don’t do that, and you’re fine. Put that hand on the outside of your arm instead. See the picture to the right.
- Don’t touch your face or neck while talking to someone. It can signal nervousness or lack of certainty about what you’re saying.
- Eye contact. This one is really difficult for many people. There is a right amount of eye contact to give, and too much can seem creepy while too little makes you seem mousy. This one also varies culturally, so it’s a real pain. Generally, you want to maintain constant eye contact, but glance away now and again – maybe every 30 seconds. Watch people talking to each other and note their eye contact. Also note the reactions of the person you’re talking to. If they keep glancing away, you may be maintaining too much eye contact. If they don’t take you seriously, you might not be making enough.
- Don’t hold anything in front of your chest. A coffee, some books, anything in front of your chest can make you look like you’re shielding yourself against attack. Just hold things out from you, or near your leg if you’re sitting down – or set them down if you can.
- Don’t talk too softly for people to hear. Not a body language issue per se, but some people have a tendency to mumble at such a low volume that anyone wanting to hear them has to lean in. This can make you seem either mousy or like you’re trying to get attention by forcing everyone to be very quiet and lean in to hear your ever banal remark. You may just be shy or uncertain of what you’re saying, so work on either speaking up or not speaking at all. People who say little but say it with confidence can come across as very intelligent, thoughtful and worth listening to.
- Don’t stand too close. Some people have an unconscious tendency to stand closer than is comfortable for the other party. Unfortunately, the expected “space cushion” varies even within the United States, from one region to the next. Notice how close other people stand in your region, and also be aware if people you’re talking to keep backing up discreetly. Standing within someone else’s personal space bubble is a sign of intimacy. Coming from someone you don’t know well, it’s very disconcerting – is the person hitting on you? Do they think you have a closer relationship than you think? Don’t let this signal indicate something you don’t mean.
- Nod every once in a while. To let people know you’re listening, you can nod now and again while maintaining eye contact. Nodding frequently can look phony – like you’re not listening but want them to think you are. Nodding without looking at someone also looks disingenuous.
- Mirroring. When you’re getting along with someone, you and that person tend to unconsciously mimic one another’s body language. When you’re not sure what to do with your body language, consciously mirroring the person you’re talking to is a great solution. Obviously, you’re not going to literally mimic their every gesture, but observe how they’re sitting or standing. How close do they get to you when talking? Copying body language like that isn’t noticeable, but it can help you communicate better with someone you don’t know, or someone from a culture with different body language from your own.
- Avoid fidgeting. Fidgeting makes you look nervous or inattentive. Become aware of your fidgets – toe taps, hair twirling, rubbing lint off your clothes – and stop every time you catch yourself doing them.
- Stand up straight. Slouching can be fine with people you know, but to project that you are calm and confident, you should stand up straight.
- Smiling. Smiling is tricky. Too much of it makes you look desperate to appease the other person – which encourages jerks to take advantage of you, in my experience. Too little of it can make you look gloomy or resentful. What has worked for me personally is: I put the smile into my tone of voice. I keep it “up” and bright to indicate friendliness or enjoyment of the conversation. I do smile now and then, when I feel like it. For example, upon meeting someone new, I will smile as we shake hands, but after that, I rely on my tone of voice unless something happens to amuse me or thrill me. This makes people take me seriously, but find me approachable and friendly, too.