Angel Rose, 34, an assistant vice president at a bank in upstate New York, was interviewing candidates for a teller position, which required that a person have good people and communication skills, a professional presentation, and a strong focus on customer service, among other abilities.
One candidate in particular stood out, but not in a good way. While she could have been very intelligent, her nonverbal communication and body language were way off. Her handshake was more of a finger shake, her eye contact was nonexistent, and her slouched posture exuded insecurity. For Rose, what the candidate said didn't matter because her body language spoke volumes: she wasn't a good fit for the position.
"Most communication experts now believe that almost 90% of what we say comes from nonverbal cues, which includes our body language," says Patti Wood, author of Success Signals: A Guide to Reading Body Language.
Body language, she explains, is everything from our facial expressions, to eye contact, to our gestures, stance, and posture. While the nuances of body language are complicated, there are some common body language signs worth a thousand words.
Body Language ABCs
Flipping your hair, shaking hands, making eye contact, and smiling are more than just movements -- they're a part of your nonverbal communication, adding emphasis and emotion.
"Body language represents a separate communication process beyond words," says Ross Buck, PhD, a professor of communication sciences and psychology at the University of Connecticut. "It exists simultaneously with language, but it is emotional and largely happening at the subconscious level."
What are some of the basic body language cues that we display and what kind of effect can they have on the impression we make on other people? Here's a beginner's guide to understanding what our bodies are saying:
Handshakes. A handshake can say so much more than hello, nice to meet you. "The most important part of a handshake is palm-to-palm contact," says Wood. "It's even more significant than the grip."
The palm-to-palm contact expresses an intention of honesty and openness, and that your interaction will be sincere and nonthreatening.
The "limp fish" handshake, Wood explains, seems so uncomfortable because it usually means that the palms don't touch, as Rose experienced in her interview.
Here are other handshake types:
- Bone crusher: A person may be insecure and trying to overcompensate with an over-the-top hello.
- Palm-down handshake: A person may be trying to express his dominance.
- A left-handed wrap of the handshake from the top: A person may be trying to express his dominance.
- A left-handed wrap of the handshake from underneath: A person may be trying to support and comfort you.
Synchrony. Synchrony happens when two people who are interacting mirror body language cues, explains Buck. What can it mean?
"Synchrony is a signal that both people are on the same page," says Buck. "When you see someone copying your body language, or you notice that you are copying his, it's a clue that you are probably sharing a similar mind-set at the time."
Posture. "Posture can be sign of dominance or submissiveness," says Buck.
Shoulders back with an erect posture can be a sign of dominance, he explains, while being slumped can mean insecurity, guilt, or a feeling of shame.
Eye contact. "While the rules of eye-contact engagement vary from culture to culture, in the U.S., it can mean honesty and forthrightness," says Buck.
The eyes are a powerful part of our body language cues and can express everything from sexual interest, to annoyance, to happiness and pain, he explains.
Playing with your hair. When a woman cups her hand, palm out, and tucks her hair behind her ear, it can be an expression of flirting, and can mean openness and interest, explains Wood. But be careful: It can also mean her hair is in her eyes.
Using Body Language to Your Advantage
"If you want to better manage your own body language, you need to think about every aspect of your day and how you behave," says Wood.
While you might think you are friendly person, if you go straight to your office and avoid eye contact with anyone, it can send the wrong signals to your co-workers, she explains.
Go through your morning routine -- what you do at lunch, how you spend your afternoon and evening -- and ask yourself questions like: Do I smile? Do I make appropriate eye contact with people? Once you better recognize your body language, you can start to manage it in a more meaningful way.
On the flip side, how can you use the body language of others to your advantage? Most important is to trust your gut.
"Body language says so much, that you can use it to gauge the sincerity of what a person is saying," says Wood.
If a person is telling you something, and he's covering his mouth, he might be lying, she explains. If a person's hands rub from his forehead down across his face, he could be wiping away an emotion, like stress or anxiety. Either way, if what a person is saying contradicts his body language, your intuition might be picking up on something that is not quite right.
Still, whether you are trying to manage your body language better, or understand that of others, remember the value of words.
"If you become too attentive to body language, instead of what you are saying or someone is saying to you, you miss out on the larger process of communication," says Buck.
Body Language Put to the Test
A basic understanding of body language, combined with verbal communication, can come in handy in almost every situation in your daily life. Here are some common scenarios in which body language can have a big impact, plus tips for putting your best foot forward while you watch what others around you are saying with their silent signs.
First dates. First dates are laden with body language signs that can help you gauge whether or not a person is interested.
"Men tend to talk a lot on first dates when they're interested in a woman," says Wood. "If you're interested back, make eye contact and listen."
If either person isn't interested, and looks around the room and avoids eye contact, that's a sign that a second date isn't likely.
Other first-date tips?
"When men touch a woman on the small of her back to walk her through a door, that's a sign of confidence and interest," says Wood.
For women, it's the length of their touch that measures their interest. While short, less-than-a-second touches are appropriate, touches that are too long could convey an intimate meaning.
Job interviews. First and foremost, don't sit down while you wait for your interviewer to come and greet you; it puts you in an awkward position where you have to stand and gather yourself and your belongings in an odd sort of shuffle.
"Instead, stand and wait, or sit on the arm of a chair," says Wood. "And when your interviewer arrives, make eye contact, raise your eyebrows slightly in acknowledgement, smile, and then shake hands."
During the interview, she suggests you make eye contact when listening to show your interest, but don't stare. Sit up in your chair instead of slouching, and when you're done, leave strong by giving a good, palm-to-palm handshake.
Dinner with the in-laws. "One of the most important body language signs you should convey during your first encounter with your partner's parents is eye contact with your partner," says Wood.
Your partner's parents want to know that you are interested in and care for their child. The best way you can tell them that you are "the one" is to look at your partner with love and affection.