Have you ever thought about what you're saying to your colleagues when you're not speaking or typing an email to them? Your body language can nonverbally communicate your feelings, whether that is positive or negative, and can affect how your co-workers perceive you.
Psychology Today reports that people's needs, feelings, thoughts and intentions are processed by the limbic brain and expressed in our body language. For example, whether a baby lives in Boston or Borneo, she'll purse or pucker her lips if she doesn't like a certain food, and her eyes will dilate when she sees her mother. These expressions are very simple and binary, displaying either comfort or discomfort. From the time we are born, we show through our facial and body gestures whether we are warm or cold, contented or displeased, happy or sad — even if we don't say it in words.
"Through our body language, we alter the perception of a word," said body language expert and author Greg Williams. "For instance, we can say the same thing multiple ways and project a different meaning with each of those pronouncements based on the body language gestures that accompany our sentiments."
Examples of body language in action
Most people are oblivious to the subtle signals they send and receive via nonverbal cues, Williams said.
"It's unfortunate because if they were more aware of such signals, they'd uncover undisclosed meanings that they might use to benefit their plight in life," he added.
Williams gave examples of simple everyday signals that affect how people perceive what we say:
- Forehead. When someone wrinkles their forehead, it's a sign of stress. Thus, the absence of wrinkles is a sign of calm and easygoingness.
- Eyes (wide open versus closed and narrow). Wide-eyes indicate someone’s attentiveness, interest and open-mindedness. A narrowing of the eyes signals a higher degree of focus on the subject, which is usually accompanied with a furled brow/forehead.
- Smile. A genuine smile is denoted by turned up corners of the lips.
- Hand placement. When hands are held close to the body, they tend to convey a need to protect the body. When hands are held away from the body, they convey more of a sense of openness, trust and approachability.
- Foot placement. When the feet of two people engaged in a conversation are facing one another, the individuals are mentally engaged in their conversation. When one person turns a foot away, that usually means that individual has mentally begun to disengage in the conversation and soon he or she will exit in that direction.
Body language in the workplace
The above examples can also be found in an office setting, though there are certain cues to keep in mind when in the workplace.
"When you're in a business environment … there tends to be a more serious mindset that one has about him or herself, along with a heightened sense of body language gestures," Williams said.
He added that co-workers are often "looking for certain things" to denote what hidden meaning might be associated with the way something is stated. A person's inflection might disclose a different meaning than the word conveyed, or there may be a sense of trepidation that is perceived based on a body language gesture.
According to Psych Central, these body language gestures can be detrimental at work:
- Seeming uninterested. When we're feeling friendly and comfortable with the people we're interacting with, we tend to angle our bodies toward them and subtly match their movements. Be cognizant of where your body is positioned and that you're not angled toward the door when engaged in conversation with people. This shows a lack of interest and distraction. Instead, subtly mirror or mimic their gestures. For example, without being too obvious, place your hands on the table if theirs are, or lean slightly back in your chair if they are doing the same. This expresses harmoniousness and alignment.
- Nervous gestures. Leg jiggling, hair twirling, face touching — any motion you do when nervous or bored — indicates insecurity. These gestures can cost you the trust you've built with your supervisors. If you're prone to hand movements, find a place for them to rest instead.
- Eye contact. Your boss can tell a lot about your emotional intelligence just by the way you look at people, including how much you respect, appreciate and are interested in them and your work. A good formula for maintaining eye contact that's confident and certain (read: not creepy) is to hold a person's gaze for approximately 50 to 60 percent of the time you're interacting with him or her.
Williams reminded workers to take the time to recognize what your body is doing in day-to-day interactions in the office. It may change the way you perceive what others are saying to you and vice versa.