Work / Life

11 Common Body Language Mistakes (And How to Bust Them)

Illustration of people engaging in a video chat

The way you say something is just as important as the words you use, so you need to be extra careful in making sure that confused body language doesn’t muddle your message.

What about the 55-38-7 rule?

On lots of psychology sites and even in some books, you might have read that body language accounts for 55% of a communicated message.

The 55%-38%-7% rule, which states that only 7% of communication is verbal, has soaked into marketing canon–but it’s not actually true.

This “rule” is based on a study that was done in the 1960s by Albert Mehrabian, an Armenian psychologist.

But Mehrabian himself includes this disclaimer on his website: “These equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like–dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, [they are not] applicable.

In other words, he did come up with that equation, but its application is limited.

On top of that, no studies have actually been done to properly calculate how much of communication is based on body language. Let’s forget about the 55-38-7 rule and go back to the drawing board.

The fact that the Mehrabian equation is not universally applicable doesn’t mean that body language isn’t important–studies have shown that body language awareness is crucial for delivering a message–we just don’t have a number for how important it is (yet).

So what is body language?

Body language is an aspect of nonverbal communication where physical behavior is used (as opposed to or in addition to words) to convey information.

Body language includes:

  • facial expressions
  • posture
  • gestures
  • touch
  • the use of space
  • eye movement

It’s also known as “kinesics.”

Interpretations of body language vary from country to country, and from culture to culture.

It’s important to practice awareness of how your local culture interprets nonverbal cues so that you can prevent miscommunications from occurring.

Many nonverbal gestures are made up of different parts.

According to Barbara and Allan Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, “The shoulder shrug is a universal gesture that expresses confusion. It has three main parts. Exposed palms show nothing is concealed in the hands, hunched shoulders protect the throat from attack, and raised brows serve as a universal, submissive greeting.”

The expression you make when delivering bad news, the posture you take while leading a meeting–these are all manifestations of body language.

We express and interpret these bodily signs without even thinking.

Try watching one of Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies.

See how his eyebrows move, and how his arms flail during particularly tense moments?

His body language pulls us deeper into the narrative–when he frowns, we frown. When he runs off, we lean back in anticipation. When he tilts his head back and laughs, we laugh along with him.

Practicing these nonverbal cues is an important aspect of business etiquette. In order to succeed as an entrepreneur or manager, it’s crucial to communicate effectively, with our words and body language.

What about remote work, where meetings are virtual? Body language still matters. Many of these body language guidelines apply even when you’re not in the same room with someone.

Want to know about common body language mistakes you might be making?

It’s important that our body language synergizes with our words.

When they fight each other, our message is weaker. If you say, “I’m so excited for the party tomorrow,” but you’re slouched and looking off in another direction, it’s easy to assume that you’re not so enthused.

We can’t control all aspects of our nonverbal communication.

Have you ever been reprimanded in public by your boss, and felt your face getting red and hot?

That’s an example of a physiological change that’s nearly impossible to control. Here we’ll talk about the manageable ones.

1. Rubbing your hands together during an important meeting

This could mean, “Wow, it’s really chilly outside,” but in a business setting, it usually conveys, “I’m not buying it,” or “I’m not impressed.”

It’s great for intimidating someone you don’t like, but if you’re listening to an employee presentation or meeting with colleagues, it establishes distance between you and your audience.

The fix: When you want to connect with your audience, keep an open stance. Leave your arms out on either side of you–resting on the handles of your chair, for example. This conveys trust and warmth and helps make your audience feel closer to you.

It goes without saying, of course, that the fix only works for virtual meetings if you have your camera on. If you leave your video off, you may not run the risk of looking unimpressive, but you also lose the chance to connect more deeply.

2. Leaning back while meeting with a friend or close colleague

When an employee walks into their boss’s office and sees her lounging back on their chair, feet spread out, the message they get is that their boss doesn’t care very much.

A nonchalant position like this would be great if you’re close friends with your audience, and are simply going over their house to hang out or play video games. But in a business setting, it’s highly unprofessional.

The fix: Stand up straight. Keep your legs relaxed, but not totally straight (keep them bent at an angle, basically). Lean in if your audience says something interesting.

3. Crossing your arms during an interesting conversation

If you want to end a meeting quickly, then crossing your arms is the way to go. This creates a physical barrier between you and your audience, and signals, “I’m done.”

The fix: If you’re not ready to end a conversation, don’t cross your arms. It conveys aloofness and disinterest, and, at worst, hostility.

If you’re holding a meeting and see some participants leaning back and crossing their arms, though, it’s a great idea to wrap it up.

To take control of your time and properly schedule meetings, try using Toggl Track, a handy time tracking app that can help you figure out if you’re spending too much time in meetings.

4. Not making eye contact

There’s a reason romcom heroines often say, “Look into my eyes and say that you don’t love me.”

It’s hard to lie while making eye contact with your audience, because it’s such an open way of interacting with a person.

Avoiding eye contact reads as dishonest, or as if you have something to hide–and when you’re trying to gain the trust of a boss or potential business partner, this can be fatal.

The fix: Practice looking at people with a friendly, open gaze. Feel free to smile a little–they’re not going to shoot daggers out of their eyes! If you find it intimidating, try looking at the bridge of their nose (this works especially well when you’re speaking to audiences).

5. Making too much eye contact

Trained liars often practice eye contact, so don’t immediately assume that lots of eye contact is a good thing. Being heavy handed with the eye-contact seems aggressive, and you might even get a reputation as the office creep.

The fix: Don’t stare at someone in the eyes. Instead, make eye contact for a second or two, but do it often.

6. “Shrinking”

Shrinking happens often with women, who are more likely to be praised outside of business situations for being submissive and demure.

Unfortunately, lowered heads, hunched shoulders, and a “cocooned” stance tells your audience that you are submissive or upset. Shrinking conveys ineptitude and insecurity and causes your team and subordinates to lose trust in your abilities.

The fix: According to psychologist Amy Cuddy in a somewhat controversial TED Talk, people who practice expansive body language feel more confident as a result. Don’t be afraid to take up space. If you want to break into a managerial position, or you recently earned one, then claim your space boldly. Keep your head and chin up.

7. Fidgeting

No matter who you’re speaking to, fidgeting tells them, “I’m feeling pretty nervous.” It undermines your message.

Think of your legs as your foundation–if they’re shaky, how can your audience be sure that the building is steady?

Readjusting your standing position, shaking your leg, or tapping it restlessly gives your audience the feeling that you’re uneasy, and they’ll feel suspicious of the information you’re telling them.

The fix: Practice speaking in front of an audience. Set up a mirror, or rope in one of your friends or siblings as guinea pigs to practice your presentation. Calculated, controlled movements are the key–by taking deliberate steps, you will look more capable and seasoned.

8. Making exaggerated gestures with your hands

Have you ever gotten really riled up about a topic?

Often, when people get excited or enthusiastic, their hands match their mood.

People are more likely to make chopping motions with their hands, point at members of the audience, and make other grandiose gestures.

Other movements such as playing with or twirling your hair, biting your nails and lips, and cracking your knuckles can create an air of insecurity (especially when taken to the extreme).

It’s okay to do these things once in a while but letting your hands reflect your inner turmoil signals a lack of control and confidence.

The fix: It’s okay to move your hands. But it’s important to know how to control them. If you’re making an important point, simply point to one side with an open hand, palms facing the audience. Lifehacker has a handy (hah) list of gestures you can use while speaking in public to convey authority.

9. Failing to mirror others

Our lizard brains feel happy when we see other people mirroring our body language. It helps establish rapport and capture attention.

Plus, mirroring helps establish trust, which in turn leads the way for deeper conversations.

Failing to mirror others can cause us to seem distant, aloof, and standoffish. When your body fails to react, it can make the other party wonder, “Are they really listening to me?”

The fix: Acting like a robot and copying your audience’s every move is actually pretty scary–don’t do that. Instead, imitate them in simple ways. If they smile and nod, feel free to smile and nod. Mirroring says, “I am like you, and I feel the same,” and establishes a feeling of security.

10. Turning away

When we hear news that we don’t like, we often create barriers with our body that separate us from the messenger.

In some cases, if we can’t place an object (such as a desk calendar) between the person speaking, we turn away from them. Though our head might still be tilted towards them, our body often betrays us.

The fix: Unless the person you’re speaking to is someone you really dislike, it’s best to maintain your relationship. Keep an open, friendly stance and an upright posture. Try not to cross your arms or hide behind a fence of office supplies.

11. Touching your face too often

Well all touch our faces. A lot. We were forced to confront this universal habit during the coronavirus pandemic, given that health experts all advised us against it. And yet it seems hard to stop.

Beyond health-related risks, face touching conveys discomfort. If you’re trying to close a business deal but aren’t sure about it, your partner might pick up on these cues and push ahead before you’re ready.

The fix: There are plenty of hand-to-face gestures, and they all convey slightly different feelings. It’s best to brush up on these before an important meeting or negotiation.

There are plenty of interesting, informative books that guide you through the complex science of body language, and alert you to possible mistakes you’re making.

I personally recommend What Every BODY is Saying by Joe Navarro, a former FBI counterintelligence officer. The Definitive Book of Body Language by Barbara and Allan Pease is another great resource.

As you grow more familiar with nonverbal communication, you’ll soon recognize the body language mistakes you make.

Using body language is a pretty intuitive process–you don’t technically need to take a class to master it. But reading up on different ways body language can be interpreted is a great way to boost your understanding and improve your relationships.

November 25, 2020