Interest in non-verbal behavior or body language has grown rapidly in recent years, especially because in this fast-paced and time-poor world we’re constantly judged on first impressions (Borg, 2009). People are making snap decision to whether they trust, like, want to work with, or have a love affair with us – and much more. As research continually points out, words alone don’t provide the whole picture. It is the nature of the human condition that we communicate more through the body than merely through language (Borg, 2009).
To quickly define it, body language is a kind of nonverbal communication where thoughts, intentions, or feelings are expressed by physical behaviors such as facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space (Borg, 2009).
Body language is a two-way street. You need to be aware of your own body language – and the messages you are giving out. In addition, you need to know how to read the body language of others to determine the messages they are putting out.
There is no one size fits all on how to use your body language. What you do might be interpreted in several ways, depending on the setting and who you are talking to. You’ll probably want to use your body language differently when talking to your boss compared to when you talk to a girl or guy you’re interested in.
You can change your body language, but as with all new habits it takes a while. Behaviors like keeping you head up might take extra time to correct if you have spent thousands of days looking at your feet. What follows are 15 ways for you to start improving your body language. (Just don’t try and change too many things at once or it might become confusing and overwhelming!)
- Don’t cross your arms or legs – You have probably already heard you shouldn’t cross your arms as it might make you seem defensive or guarded. This goes for your legs too. Keep your arms and legs open.
- Have eye contact, but don’t stare– If there are several people you are talking to, give them all some eye contact to create a better connection and see if they are listening. Keeping too much eye-contact might creep people out. Giving no eye-contact might make you seem insecure. If you are not used to keeping eye-contact it might feel a little hard or scary in the beginning but keep working on it and you’ll get used to it.
- Don’t be afraid to take up some space– Taking up space by sitting or standing with your legs a bit apart, for example, signals self-confidence and that you are comfortable in your own skin.
- Relax your shoulders– When you feel tense it easily winds up as tension in your shoulders. They might move up and forward a bit. Try to relax. Try to loosen up by shaking the shoulders a bit and move them back slightly.
- Nod when listening– nod once in a while to signal that you are attentive. But don’t overdo it and peck like Woody Woodpecker.
- Don’t slouch and sit up straight– but in a relaxed way, not in a too tense manner.
- Lean, but not too much – If you want to show that you are interested in what someone is saying, lean toward the person talking. If you want to show that you’re confident in yourself and relaxed lean back a bit. But don’t lean in too much or you might seem needy and desperate for some approval. Or lean back too much or you might seem arrogant and distant.
- Smile and laugh– lighten up, don’t take yourself too seriously. Relax a bit, smile and laugh when someone says something funny. People will be a lot more inclined to listen to you if you seem to be a positive person. But don’t be the first to laugh at your own jokes, it makes you seem nervous and needy. Smile when you are introduced to someone but don’t keep a smile plastered on your face, you’ll seem insincere.
- Don’t touch your face– it might make you seem nervous and can be distracting for the listeners or the people in the conversation.
- Keep your head up– Don’t keep your eyes on the ground, it might make you seem insecure and a bit lost. Keep your head up straight and your eyes towards the horizon.
- Slow down a bit– this goes for many behaviors. Walking slower not only makes you seem more calm and confident, it will also make you feel less stressed. If someone addresses you, don’t snap your neck in their direction, turn it a bit more slowly instead.
- Realize where you spine ends– many people (including me until recently) might sit or stand with a straight back in a good posture. However, they might think that the spine ends where the neck begins and therefore crane the neck forward in a Montgomery Burns-like pose. Your spine ends in the back of your head. Keep your whole spine straight and aligned for better posture.
- Don’t stand too close–one of the things we learned from Seinfeld is that everybody gets weirded out by a close-talker. Let people have their personal space and do not invade it.
- Mirror– Often when you get along with a person, as you develop a connection you will start to mirror each other unconsciously. That means that you mirror the other person’s body language a bit. To make the connection better you can try a bit of proactive mirroring. If he leans forward, you might lean forward. If she holds her hands on her thighs, you might do the same. But don’t react instantly and don’t mirror every change in body language, or weirdness will ensue.
- Keep a good attitude– last but not least, keep a positive, open and relaxed attitude. How you feel will come through in your body language and can make a major difference.
Take a couple of these body language bits to work on every day for three to four weeks. By then they should have developed into new habits and something you’ll do without even thinking about it. If not, keep on until it sticks. Then take another couple of things you’d like to change and work on them.
One suggestion is to practice in front of a mirror or video tape yourself on your phone or tablet. It might seem silly, but no one is watching you. This will give you good feedback on how you look to other people and give you an opportunity to practice a bit before going out into the world.
In addition, you may also want to observe friends, role models, movie stars or other people you think have good body language. Observe what they do and you don’t do. Take bits and pieces you like from different people. Try using what you can learn from them.
Borg, J. (2009). Body language: 7 easy lessons to master the silent language. FT press.