Five Ways People Will Misread Your Body Language
by Carol Kinsey Goman
Your nonverbal signals don’t always convey what you intended them to. In fact, when people read your body language, you can count on them making five major mistakes.
Body language was the basis for our earliest form of communication, when the split-second ability to recognize if a person or situation was benign or dangerous was often a matter of life or death.
Today, nonverbal signals play a key role in helping us form quick impressions. But, as innate as this ability may be, not all of our impressions are accurate. Although our brains are hardwired to respond instantly to certain nonverbal cues, that circuitry was put in place a long time ago—when our ancient ancestors faced threats and challenges very different from those we face in today’s modern society.
The problem is that the world has changed, but our body-reading processes are still based on a primitive emotional reaction that hasn’t changed much since humans began interacting with one another.
For example: In our prehistory, it may have been vitally important to see an approaching person’s hands in order to evaluate that person’s intent. If hands were concealed, they could very well be holding a rock, a club, or something else that would do harm. In business interactions today, with no logical reason to do so, we still instinctively mistrust people who keep their hands out of sight—in their pockets, below the table, or behind their backs.
What Warps Your Nonverbal Messages
Here are the five mistakes people are likely to make when they read body language:
1. They don’t consider the context. When it comes to body language, context is king. You can’t really make sense of someone’s nonverbal message unless you understand the circumstances behind it. Context is a weave of variables including location, relationships, time of day, past experience, and even room temperature. Depending on the context, the same nonverbal signals can take on totally different meanings.
Your colleagues and customers won’t always have access to the relevant variables. So if you yawn in a meeting because you were up early for an international business call, let people know why you’re tired. Without this context, they’ll think you’re just bored.
2. They find meaning in one gesture. People constantly try to evaluate other people’s state of mind by monitoring their body language. But all too often they assign meaning to a single (and sometimes irrelevant) nonverbal cue. And, since the human brain pays more attention to negative messages than it does to positive ones, people are mainly on the alert for any sign that indicates you’re in a bad mood and not to be approached.
You may be more comfortable standing with your arms folded across your chest (or you may be cold), but remember that others are likely to judge that gesture to mean you’re feeling resistant and unapproachable.
3. They don’t know the baseline. One of the keys to reading body language accurately is comparing someone’s current nonverbal response to their baseline, or normal behavior. But anyone who hasn’t observed you over time has little basis for that comparison.
Remember this when you’re introduced to anybody. That person won’t know that you habitually frown when you are concentrating (you may not realize it either unless you ask a friend or coach for feedback). And people who do know you may still think the frown is a reaction to something they said or did.
4. They evaluate others through an array of personal biases. A woman in my yoga class liked me from the moment we met. I’d prefer to believe that this was a result of my charismatic personality, but I know for a fact that it’s because I resemble her favorite aunt.
Sometimes biases work in your favor—an example of the so-called “halo effect.” But of course biases can also work against you. What if you remind people of someone they despise instead of someone they like? You might overcome the bias with time, but you can bet that the initial response to you won’t be a good one.
5. They evaluate others through a filter of cultural biases. When it comes to nonverbal communication and cultural differences, you can expect to be judged by behaviors that include how close you stand to a colleague in conversation, how much or how little you touch others, the degree of emotion in your voice, the amount of eye contact you display, and the kinds of hand gestures you use.
And what feels so right in one culture may be seen as highly insulting in another. So before you attend that international business meeting, do a little research on the nonverbal business practices that you’re most likely to encounter.
Understanding these five common mistakes—and trying not to make them yourself—will help you be a more effective nonverbal communicator.
Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach, an international keynote speaker, and a seminar leader. This article is adapted from her new book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead. To reach her: CGoman@CKG.com; 510/526-1727; SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com; or CKG.com.