It’s strange, then, that we don’t think about body language more often. Before a presentation, job interview, or big meeting with a boss, it’s common to practice and rehearse answers to questions. But we rarely ponder—let alone practice—postures and gestures to complement what we’re trying to communicate, says Carol Kinsey Goman, a body language expert and author of The Silent Language of Leaders.
“There’s no right or wrong body language,” Goman says. “But it is important to think about how people are going to read your gestures and motions.”
To set the record straight (and unfold those crossed arms), we’ve scoured the latest scientific research and talked with experts to pinpoint the messages we might not even know we’re sending, from crossed legs to subconscious head nods.
1. Posture: Sit Up Straight
Mom was right when she said, “Sit up straight!” Sitting (or standing) with a relatively straight spine helps draw the shoulders back and down to make you look less tense or anxious The representation of self reported affect in body posture and body posture simulation. Grammer K, Fink B, Oberzaucher E, et al. Collegium Anthropologicum. 2004;28 Suppl 2:159-73.. When sitting, your back and legs don’t have to make a right angle to maintain perfect posture. Studies have found that leaning back slightly (110-130 degrees for the mathematically inclined) is a happy medium that doesn’t put too much stress of the spine Sitting biomechanics part I: review of the literature. Harrison DD, Harrison SO, Croft AC, et al. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 1999 Nov-Dec;22(9):594-609..
Good posture doesn’t just impact people’s perceptions of you. It can also impact your own mood (and confidence). So why not pose with purpose? Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language popularized the idea of power posing. Cuddy and her colleagues at Harvard and Columbia found that practicing these poses—standing with hands on the hips like Wonder Woman and sitting reclined in a chair with hands interlaced behind the head—for just two minutes increased feelings of dominance and lowered levels of stress among test subjects Power posing: brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Carney DR, Cuddy AJ, Yap AJ. Psychological Science. 2010 Oct;21(10):1363-8..
If you’re not in a situation that requires psyching yourself up or lowering stress levels, good posture can also be a quick lifehack to happiness. One study found that individuals recalled positive thoughts more readily with good posture The effects of upright and slumped postures on the recall of positive and negative thoughts. Wilson VE, Peper E. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 2004 Sep;29(3):189-95.. So sit tall—you may just find yourself cracking a smile.
2. Head: Nod in Agreement
Nodding along in agreement during a conversation can seem automatic. Charles Darwin observed head nodding in infants and the blind, suggesting the gesture might be innate.
Nodding is an easy nonverbal cue to suggest agreement and encourage others to keep talking. But, as with anything, there can be too much of a good thing. Excessive nodding can start to seem inauthentic, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at UMass Amherst. There’s also a gendered aspect to nodding: Women tend to nod more than men, which can give the perception that they’re in a constant state of agreement, Goman says.
3. Mouth: Crack a Smile
Smiling is a universal sign of friendliness, dating back to when our ancestors had to quickly suss out: friend or foe? And with all of those generations of practice, we’ve gotten good at detecting authentic smiles. Rather than look at the mouth, we should focus on the eyes. So, yes, Tyra Banks was right all along when she told us to smize (smile with our eyes). But it might be best to steer clear of Tyra’s subtle-sexy modeling eyes and opt for something friendlier. “When someone genuinely smiles, the cheek muscles rise and crows feet appear at the side of the eyes,” Goman says.
Smiling has the added benefit of making us feel happier, regardless of our mood Botulinum toxin cosmetic therapy correlates with a more positive mood. Lewis MB, Bowler PJ. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2009 Mar;8(1):24-6.. So don’t just smile for others, do it for you!
4. Eyes: Connect, Don’t Stare
A lot can be communicated in a fleeting moment of locked eyes. And then, of course, hours spent trying to understand: Was that romantic? Friendly? Am I going crazy? The eyes are powerful tools for connection, and the first place to look for everything from empathy to sarcasm Love, eye contact and the developmental origins of empathy v. psychopathy. Dadds MR, Allen JL, Oliver BR, et al. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science. 2012 Mar;200(3):191-6. Insincere utterances and gaze: eye contact during sarcastic statements. Williams JA, Burns EL, Harmon EA. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 2009 Apr;108(2):565-72.. But elongated stares make us uncomfortable.
“You don’t want to be shooting arrows out of your eyes,” Whitbourne says. “Blank stares are just as bad. With eye contact, don’t be afraid to occasionally look away, especially if you need to be able to think about what you’re going to say.”
Averted eye contact is also a problem. Many think liars can't look you in the eyes, despite research that shows otherwise The eyes don't have it: lie detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Wiseman R, Watt C, ten Brinke L, et al. PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e40259.. Since this myth is so pervasive, it’s important to maintain eye contact if you want someone to think what you’re saying is truthful.
Another thing to keep in mind with eye contact is blinking. “Excessive blinking is a stress reaction,” Goman says. “Some people tend to blink faster than others, but that doesn’t stop us from subconsciously judging people we think blink more than the norm.”
5. Arms: Keep Them Relaxed by Your Side
As any movie about high school life teaches, crossed arms send the message that you’re closed off—and no one new is welcome to join the clique. “It’s a terrible impression to give,” Whitbourne says. “You might not be trying to, but crossed arms can communicate an air of arrogance.”
But despite the standoffish message, research has found that the simple act of crossing your arms can help people remember things Reversal of subjective temporal order due to arm crossing. Yamamoto S, Kitazawa S. Nature Neuroscience. 2001 Jul;4(7):759-65.. So what should you do?
Goman says to be careful that you’re not “fig leafing”—clasping your hands just below your waist in the same area that you’d find Adam and Eve’s fig leaves. “It’s a kind of protective measure we take when we’re uncertain,” Goman says.
Instead, let arms fall by your side. Just make sure you're relaxed and not stick straight and solider-like. That’s equally off-putting, Whitbourne says.
6. Hands: Use ‘Em for Emphasis
Luckily, you don’t have to sit on your hands. (Phew!) People actually see talking with your hands as a sign of power. Think of all of the politicians who use a point-meets-pound-it gesture to emphasize their remarks.
When you start to talk with your hands, keep the gesturing between your waist and your shoulders. “That shows you’re articulate and in control,” Gorman says. “Anything above the shoulders looks erratic. You’ve immediately lost control.”
And while you start moving your hands around, make sure you don’t fall into what is clinically termed “self touch”—pulling on the collar, touching the neck, playing with the hair. That kind of gesture suggests weakness and uncertainty.
7. Handshake: Firm But Not Bone Crushing
Ah, the fated handshake—a literal embodiment of mano a mano. Historically, handshakes were a way to show that both sides came in peace and more literally to show that people weren’t holding weapons behind their backs. Today, handshakes still hold a significant power in society. People shake on everything from agreements to bets.
“Touch is the most powerful primitive nonverbal signal,” Goman says. “And shaking hands says a lot for a society that is very touch-phobic.”
Goman’s advice for a successful handshake: Offer your hand sideways, meet palm to palm, and clasp on the webbing between the thumb and the first finger. The handshake should be firm but not bone crushing. Make eye contact when shaking hands and say something (It’s nice to meet you!) before letting go.
8. Legs: Don’t Cross, Just Keep Them Comfortable
We spend so much time putting on a good face that we often forget all about our lower body. But our legs can be sending just as strong a message as a wincing face. “Tightly crossing them while you’re sitting in a chair presents a closed view of yourself to others, as if you’re trying to build a mini-fortress around yourself," Whitbourne says. “Splaying them out carelessly in front of you sends just the opposite message.”
The best tactic is to keep both feet planted comfortably on the ground with your legs an inch or two apart. Any sort of movement—from tapping the foot to bouncing the leg—can suggest boredom and restlessness.
9. Feet: Welcome Others by Forming a “V”
Just like legs, feet don’t get much love when it comes to talking about body language. “Feet are the least rehearsed part of the body,” Goman says. “That means that our thoughts and actions can ooze right out of them.”
There are many little things our feet can signal to others. First, feet point in to places we’d rather be. If you’re talking to someone who seems to be engaging (head nodding, cracking a smile), look at their feet. If they’re pointed toward the door, the conversation is over. Similarly, if you’re approaching two people and you don’t know if they want you to join, just watch their feet. If the outer foot of each person turns toward you making a “V” formation, then they’re inviting you to the conversation, Goman says.
A bouncing foot—called “happy feet” in poker—can suggest you’re excited and even that you think you’re getting away with something, Goman says. And perhaps the most interesting aspect of sublimnal foot messages is toe pointing with couples. “If they have crossed legs and each are pointing their toes toward the other, then they’re in agreement,” Goman says. “If they’re pointing in the opposite direction, they’re not getting along.”