I’d describe my own body language as “erratic.” I’m naturally hyperactive, and on top of that, I drink a more-than-decent amount of coffee, which results in the kind of composure that includes flailing arms and beard scratching.
And while I’m apparently not concerned with any of this, perhaps I should be. Body language plays an enormous role in the way humans communicate with one another. It’s complicated business, so naturally, there are a lot of misconceptions.
It doesn’t take a study in nonverbal human interaction to know how important body language is, especially in professional situations. If you don’t believe me, try and negotiate a raise with your arms tightly crossed across your chest.
So what does your body language say about you in the workplace? To find out, I reached out to Pasquale Bolognese, a behaviorist who has been practicing for over 12 years. To translate some of the complexities of human behavior into a more digestible form, we’ve paired our observations with handy GIFs.
Folding Your Arms in Front of You
Let’s start with the scenario I mentioned earlier — the one where you thought you brought your A-game to the big meeting. “Folding your arms in front of you means you are guarded, discerning,” says Bolognese. “It says ‘don’t mess with me.’” This makes sense, but consider that some believe it can also convey that you’re trying to mask insecurities. Either way, it’s probably something to keep in mind when you’re trying to have a free-flowing conversation with someone on the job.
Avoiding Eye Contact
“Avoiding eye contact can be a sign that someone’s being shifty, potentially fabricating a lie,” says Bolognese. “There are lots of reasons why people don’t look at you when they’re speaking to you. And that’s not to say that everyone who does look at you in the eyes has it all together. But the one commonality is that someone who really knows who they are and are comfortable in their perception of themselves will look at you.”
So yeah, it’s probably best to not glance away from your coworker when they ask if know who took the last cupcake.
It’s worth noting this is a Western attitude. There are certain cultures in which making good old-fashioned USA-style direct eye contact is avoided as it can be seen as a sign of disrespect, so it’s worth it to do some research. In American business culture it’s a celebrated sign of being a stand-up individual, and avoiding eye contact can be alarming to some people.
Making Too Much Eye Contact
I’ll just come out and say that this arguably freaks me out more than its converse. True, you don’t want to look like you’re covering up a crime by darting your eyes around, but you also don’t want to come off as an aspiring cult leader. Like all things, it’s best to strike a balance between a piercing gaze and a look of utter suspicion.
“Making too much eye contact might indicate someone potentially being self-centered or having a sense of being more important than others,” says Bolognese. “They could possibly have ulterior motives. But like all these behaviors, they are subtle; there is a thin line so look for them being used in conjunction with other behaviors.”
Shaking Hands Too Long
The Commander-In-Chief kind of blew the lid off this one last year with some truly surreal handshaking behavior. But the handshake-linger is undoubtedly something you’ve experienced at some point in your professional life, so you already know it’s creepy. If an abrupt arm-pull is tossed in there, you should probably just cut your losses and bounce.
“Wanting to shake hands for too long is a sign of wanting to be in the more powerful position. It’s hard to let go when someone won’t stop even if you’ve given a subtle hint that you’re ready,” says Bolognese.
Don’t be a jerk. Just give a regular handshake, but of course, avoid the classic “dead fish” at all costs. That’s just common sense.