Privacy has become a hot issue on social media. People fear giving up too much information in their profiles, posts, pins, or tweets to strangers who might want to harm them or to advertisers who might want to nag them. But those things aside, your body language and actions may give away much more to your clients, coworkers, and friends than they’d ever discover on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
Do you really want them to know these things?
I like you; I’m interested: Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has been studying facial expressions and emotions for several decades, says that when we see someone we like, our eyebrow arch upward, our eyes widen with the pupils dilated, and our facial muscles relax. To a client, that might be a positive message. To your best friend’s date or spouse, well, … not so much.
- I dislike you or disagree with you: Pursed lips provides the other party with an obvious signal that you don’t agree with what they’re saying. But in more subtle, unintentional ways you may be communicating the same message: squinting your eyes, fluttering your eyelids while they’re talking, closing and opening your eyelids slowly while they’re talking. It’s as if you’re saying, “I’m trying to shut you out.”
- I’m disorganized and undependable: Routinely digging in your wallet or pocket to find a lost cell phone, making a habit of walking into meetings late, leaving piles of paper stacked or scattered in your workspace, repeatedly asking to borrow a pen or calendar from coworkers—all of these speak volumes about how you handle your work in general and how reliable you might be on a project.
- I’m lying: Inexperienced liars avoid eye contact. Their guilt makes them glance away often. But a practiced liar (or someone unsure of what they saying—like someone promising wonderful outcomes after a sale) may try to overdo the eye contact. Carol Kinsey Goman, a psychologist specializing in the field of body language, says that when someone really intends to cover up deception or feels unsure about what they’re saying, they tend to give stronger, prolonged the eye contact. But the lying shows up in other ways: Unconsciously touching the nose and mouth. Shoulders slowly inching upward. Those red flags wave to warn others that they’re either unsure or untruthful.
- I need your approval: In my more than three decades of coaching business presenters, I warn young professionals of this message routinely: Head tilted to the side, chin dipped, with eyes peeping upward. Do you really want to plead with the audience or meeting group to approve of you—that you’re so very timid? If you adopt this pose in a one-on-one conversation, the other person often reads it as flirting.
- I’m taking charge here: Your walk, your handshake, your posture—they all communicate the message before you say a word. A smooth brisk entrance into a room says, “I came with a purpose.” A crushing handshake says, “I can take you on.” But even a firm handshake in which you manage to turn your locked hands slightly so that your hand remains on top says, “I’m in control of this situation.” Assuming what several psychologists call the “power pose” or what presentation coaches call the “ready position” says, “I’m powerful and ready to take on this situation.”
Granted, you can’t control how well others read your body language, or if their judgments about you are valid or invalid. And you don’t know how they’ll label what they see. Your intentions may be completely misunderstood.
But whether intentional or not, at least you’ll know what you’re communicating––without saying a word.