Workplace Body Language: Do’s and Don’ts
To quote one of the most influential characters of my generation, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, “Never underestimate the power of body language.”
The simplest gestures like a smile or a nod can have the most profound effect on the emotional reactions of the people around you.
“Excellent nonverbal communication skills tell your audience that you’re confident, energetic, engaged, and honest.” – Tonya Reiman, author of The Power of Body Language
Which means that non-verbal cues, when used to your advantage, can have a significant impact on your overall success in the professional world.
So to help you come correct with that body talk, we’ve gathered 10 of the ultimate Do’s & Don’ts of workplace body language.
DO: Make Eye Contact
Culturally-respective eye contact is possibly the most crucial component of non-verbal communication. The ability to maintain eye gaze while speaking communicates confidence, authority, and strength of presence. It also holds an enormous impact on your ability to persuade: try maintaining simple, steady, unwavering eye contact with your romantic partner for a prolonged span of time the next time he or she says something you dislike, and you’ll find that this proves itself.
Another great trick is to simply stare at your coworker and slowly slip grapes into your mouth while they’re debriefing you on the latest meeting. This will paint you as a contemplative, active listener who is also, quite frankly, terrifying.
DON’T: Fail To Smile
After all, how will people know you’re pretty if you’re not smiling all the time?
A smile demonstrates confidence, openness, warmth, and energy. Bonus? It also sets off mirror neurons in your listener, instructing them to smile back, which can be helpful when seeking to diffuse a tense negotiation.
But to make things even more complicated, don’t be a perma-grinner. It’s perceived as insincere and misleading, and will lead people to wonder what you’re hiding.
Which is probably everything, but they don’t need to know that! *smiles*
DON’T: Give a Bad Handshake
In ancient times, the purpose of a handshake was to prove that one had arrived in peace and was not, in fact, merely hiding weapons up one’s sleeve with which to slay the host with. Manners!
These days, the purpose of a handshake is make a great first impression, solidify a business deal, and let your latest Tinder date know that, while you had a nice time, you didn’t have that nice of a time.
The secret to a great handshake is to keep it firm but not overbearing. Level up by including palm-to-palm contact: Grab their hand and slide your hand down into the web of theirs, locking thumbs and applying an equal amount of pressure.
One more thing: “While a great handshake is important for all professionals,” notes Forbes’ Carol Kinsey Goman, “It is especially key for women, whose confidence is evaluated by the quality of their handshake even more than it is with their male counterparts.”
So ladies, grasp that hand and shake it firmly enough to say, “Hey, I know I only make 79 cents to your dollar, lose jobs and promotions to less qualified, less experienced male counterparts, and am unfairly judged and scrutinized when when it comes to my work-life balance, but here’s a firm handshake that will hopefully reassure you that I’m confident enough to stand up to all of your bogus, sexist internal measurement criteria!”
Oh, and don’t forget to smile!
DO: Power Position
As anyone who’s had the poor luck of having to go camping knows, if you’re confronted by a bear, the best option is to make yourself look as huge as possible to convince the animal that you are not to be messed with.
So too for the workplace! Power, status, and confidence are nonverbally displayed through the generous use of height and space. Research conducted at Columbia and Harvard business schools shows that simply holding your body in expansive, “high-power” poses (like a wider stance when standing, or spreading your elbows out at the conference table) for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone–the hormone linked to power and dominance–and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
So stand up tall and take up space! Push your shoulders back, and hold your head high to show a surety of self! Widen your stance to show that you’re comfortable with taking up real estate in this office, because unlike that one time when you were forced to be in actual nature, you belong here!
DON’T: Invade Others’ Space
While it’s important to note that the idea of a “space bubble” is largely an American and European social construct, it’s a crucial one: the colleague who continually invades others’ space tends to quickly become the colleague everyone avoids.
So unless you’ve got a juicy secret to spill about Martha from Marketing, try to keep a distance of about 1.5 feet away from the person you’re holding a conversation with. This is also for your protection–you don’t know who had fish for lunch! What if Bob suddenly decided to take up cycling to work? Your office doesn’t have showers! Thus, think of that space bubble as your own safe space, to be gently guarded from the horrors of halitosis and that one guy in every office who just can’t let go of the Drakkar Noir.
Other space invasions include looking over someone’s shoulder while they’re reading or typing, sitting so close that you touch (the exception to this is if you’ve got a torrid office romance going on that you want everyone to know about), entering someone’s office or cubicle and taking their red stapler, or other precious office gear, without permission.
Big tip: the best way to know if you’re the one invading someone’s space is if they take a step back from you or do that subtle flinching thing with their upper body that Lisa from next door did when you moved to kiss her that one time. Take these non-verbal cues as silent feedback to check yourself and kindly step off of their space game.
DO: Talk with your hands
The physical act of gesturing can help you form clearer thoughts and speak in tighter sentences. Hand motions can also help punctuate your sentences, giving the words you’re saying more declarative meaning.
For you Millennials out there, think of gestures as the emojis of real life.
To use this to your advantage, use open gestures that are signals of persuasiveness, credibility, and candor: keep your movements relaxed and fluid, hold your arms at waist level, and show the palms of your hands.
DON’T: Use Defensive or Sloppy Posture or Gestures
Hot tip: once your eyes are opened to how crossing your arms over your chest is often a signal of defensiveness, you’ll never forget it. While this gesture can communicate confidence or reflect deep thought, stay mindful to avoid this gesture while in a tricky conversation or conflict: it can also communicate contempt, skepticism, and disinterest, which are not exactly conducive to earning respect or reaching satisfactory resolution.
Slouching and sloppy posture tells the world that you have low-energy and lack self-esteem in yourself…which doesn’t exactly persuade your superiors to instill a lot of confidence in your abilities. Even though it can be a total drag, continually prompt yourself throughout the day to sit up straight at your desk and throw your shoulders back while walking to that water cooler. Bonus: Correct posture continually engages your core, which means you’ll be ready for beach season in no time!
Do: Up The Ante with Power Priming
Power Priming is when you use a visual trick to embody the right emotion to convey power.
For instance: the next time you want to project conviction and sincerity while speaking, try making a steeple with your fingers (where the tips of your fingers touch, but the palms are separated). Lecturers, politicians, and executives use this hand gesture when they are quite certain about a point they are making, and also when they’re planning on systemically destroying the lives of those who have wronged them.
DON’T: Speak in High-Pitched Tones or Volumes
Baby voices, uptalking, and hyper inflections while speaking can communicate a less powerful, less competent, and frankly more annoying presence in the workplace. For women especially, a higher-pitched voice communicates a diminutive, passive, and conciliatory character, which is basically the opposite impression you want to give when you’re trying to teach Steve in Accounting that you are not to be messed with.
In order to communicate a more powerful presence, try this nifty tip: take a slow breath in, and on the exhale, mentally relax your shoulders and then speak. The more relaxed you are, the more easily your voice will hit optimal pitch.
In regards to tone, there’s a reason why “speak softly and carry a big stick” was U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s ideology for his foreign policy: lowering the volume of your voice while speaking prompts others to lean toward you so as to better hear what you’re saying. This rewards you with their full attention and places you in a visible position of power and persuasion.
A VISIBLE position of POWER, STEVE!
DO: When In Doubt, Mirror
If you’ve ever read Cosmo (for, you know…the sports tips), you probably already know that when you’re on a date and you really like the person, a cool trick for getting them to like you is to match and mirror their voice tone, body posture, gestures, and movements. Most of the time, people find themselves doing this subconsciously…yet the moment they become aware of it, they quickly realize the power of mirroring.
When you’re at a loss for how to connect with a temperamental boss or coworker, simply practice mirroring their gestures…cross your arms on the table when they do, lean forward and cross their legs when they do, etc. To keep yourself from looking like you’re performing a Vaudeville Mirror Hat Routine, though, do all of this subtly…wait a few beats, and then follow their lead.
These small gestures will subconsciously communicate that not only are you interested in what that person is saying, but that you can easily catch onto the vibe of any conversation and are therefore insightful and savvy when it comes to personal and professional interactions (…and also that you make a great date and some people should really ask you out more because you didn’t pretend to pay rapt attention to their dumb hunting story for nothing).
The best part about these ten Do’s and Don’ts is that–unlike those business professional outfits your mom bought you when you landed your first real job–they can easily be taken from day to night. Being nimble with non-verbal cues in all spheres of your life will increase positive social interactions and leave others with a great, lasting impression of you.
One last thing: while being nimble with non-verbal cues will increase positive professional interactions and leave others with a great, lasting impression of you, remember that they can’t be substituted for actual work. So take care of business and put that nose to the grindstone, remembering to have good posture while doing so! Strike a power pose while you’re standing at the head of that conference table, delivering the best damn ideas that company has ever seen! Deliver on-point feedback to your colleagues, while using open gestures and standing 1.5 feet away from them! Pairing great work with deft social smarts will leave your colleagues smiling and popping an enthusiastic thumbs-up in your wake, which is basically the office version of a Mentos commercial…and if there was one thing we can all agree those Mentos commercials knew how to do, it was communicate through body language*!
* Please don’t copy Mentos commercials when it comes to using socially appropriate body language.
Amber L. Carter is a lifestyle and entertainment writer and the author of THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. A former behavioral therapist, she now puts her extensive background in psychology to proper use by publishing thought pieces on the defining TV shows of our current times (‘The Bachelor’, ‘Vanderpump Rules’, etc). She currently lives, works, and practices passive-aggressive body language in Minneapolis, MN.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.