In our daily interactions, we use body language to communicate or to supplement our speech. Body language is how humans communicate with others using all parts of their bodies.
A mime artist is an actor who acts out a story through body motions without the use of speech. This art form was polished to near perfection by Sir Charlie Chaplin, Mr Harold Lloyd, and Mr Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton during the days of silent films.
In our daily interactions, we use body language to communicate or to supplement our speech. Body language is how humans communicate with others using all parts of their bodies. It complements the spoken words to add more meaning to the message the speaker wants to impart.
Animals cannot speak like humans. If you own a dog that can speak English, you will be a millionaire by making this animal into a show dog. As a dog cannot speak, it uses body language to get attention. When it sees the owner coming home, it will wag its tail in joy. Unlike humans, it has no facial muscles to smile or grin so it has to communicate using body language such as baring its teeth to warn someone that it will bite.
Body language is part of non-verbal communication. Besides hand gestures, and facial expressions, body language is also influenced by the clothes that we wear, the jewellery we display, how we greet people, and how we walk.
Our dressing tells a lot about our behaviour and preferences. I would expect a creative art director to wear a diamond earring on one ear and dress in clothing of unusual colours and design. Managers wear a tie to differentiate themselves from the operatives.
When dealing with the Japanese, it is good to know the status of someone before negotiations begin. Because of their feudalistic society and the influence of Confucianism, the Japanese are very rank-conscious as rank determines the “pecking order” used in western societies.
At the initial meeting, the Japanese expects to get your business card as they present you with theirs. They will spend time examining your designation and company’s name. After that, they will know how to greet you and how low to bow. The company is important as a section chief in a large, powerful company “outranks” a department head from a small- and medium-enterprise. When I was working for a Japanese company, I noticed how my boss treated rank and status. He received a sales inquiry from the administrative assistant of a multinational corporation. After reading the contents, he handed it to his company’s administrative assistant saying: “Please reply to her.” It was below his status to communicate in writing with the inquirer of a lower rank.
With status in mind, companies tend to call their sales representatives “sales managers” although they do not necessarily hold the rank of manager in the company’s hierarchy. The designation makes it easier to obtain appointments with higher ranking officers outside the firm.
The way people stand or sit can reveal a lot about how they feel. A nervous person will fidget with their hands, tap their feet like a dancer, or drum the table top with their fingers.
Someone seated on a chair with legs crossed at the ankle may show that he or she is relaxed and confident. A depressed person will have drooped shoulders and eyes focussed on the ground as if looking for lost coins. A person can show great interest in what the speaker is saying by leaning forward in the chair and looking intently at the speaker.
When seated with the legs uncrossed, it indicates an open attitude, both in males and females.
A smiling face will win friends. Have a smile for everyone. To establish rapport with others, a friendly expression will go a long way. It will encourage them to come to your side. A smile invites friendship. When a boss scolds a subordinate, and she smiles back at him, he will stop the chiding.
When a person tilts the head to one side and smiles at someone of the opposite sex, it means that he/she is flirting. When a woman touches or plays with her hair, it is a flirtatious gesture. It might also indicate a lack of self-confidence.
Biting ones nails often shows insecurity or nervousness. Another sign of nervousness is when the person keeps on adjusting his tie or watchstrap.
Raised eyebrows denote questioning or surprise and disbelief. A frown shows that the person is worried or upset by what he/she sees. When someone covers the mouth, they want to hide an emotional reaction. This gesture is also used to express surprise or amazement. Alternatively, it could be that the person is stifling a yawn as the discussion is becoming very boring.
When we first look at a person, we are usually attracted by their eyes. Those with big eyes are considered attractive that is why many women try to make their eyes appear larger with mascara. There is a saying: “The eyes are windows to the soul”. The eyes act like a door to the inner mind and reveal if a person is truthful or is trying to evade an issue. But confidence tricksters have learnt the art of sending out a different message through their eyes.
Learn how to maintain eye contact with the other party. Looking someone directly in the eye suggests openness, honesty, and confidence. Looking away shows disinterest, displays that you are uncomfortable with the suggestion, or shows that you are conniving. When in a group do not gaze on one or two persons only. Let your eyes roam to those present in turn and all will feel that they are involved in the discussions.
However, when someone is not looking at you in the eye; do not jump to the conclusion he is not telling the truth; he could be distracted by a beautiful person passing by. But if his voice changes in volume and pitch, he could be avoiding the truth. If he begins to perspire or if he blinks more often, then you need to probe further. I have a colleague who cannot hide his facial expressions. There will be furrows on his brow when he is told something that he dislikes. His lips will droop when there is bad news. I advise him to learn how to show a poker face and keep people guessing about his feelings. It is fine to show positive expressions but keep the displeasure to yourself otherwise you will become very unpopular with superiors. When negotiating, Westerners often complain that they cannot fathom the poker faces of Asians.
Some racial groups are more animated than others when they speak. The gestures help to enhance the meaning they want to impart. For example, shaking a fist denotes anger, and sweeping the arms will grab attention. Nodding in agreement shows listening, shaking your head shows disapproval, putting your hand to your chin shows that you are thinking about a matter, and folding your arms shows boredom.
Most people think that folding arms is a sign of defensiveness. They want you to impress them. Folded arms and leaning back in the chair, or tapping the foot could mean that you are not getting your point across with the listener. Generally, those who fold their arms close themselves to social influence. They tend to be reserved. When shaking hands with someone, grip hard to display your confidence and trustworthiness.
When a person pinches the bridge of the nose, it indicates that he/she is contemplating or trying to reach a decision. It may also indicate frustration.
Some managers like to touch their own hands behind their backs to display an air of confidence or authority.
To look assertive, make yourself as visible as possible. To be assertive, you have to look calm and confident. Try to stand tall. If you are born short, consider wearing high heels. We do not like our boss to talk to us standing while we are seated. That is why some people buy sports utility vehicles so they can look down on others when waiting for the traffic lights to change.
Another form of body language is mirroring. The person presents a mirror image to the other party. When the speaker leans forward, you lean forward. If you nod, the other person follows. Mirroring is effective when you want to establish rapport with someone.
As international trade increases, today there are more opportunities to interact with people from various cultures. Non-verbal communication is reliable when determining meaning, but the reliability is valid only if both parties belong to the same culture. To fully understand the gestures of each culture, one must live with people of that culture for many years.
Take a look at personal space. Business people from North America usually stand about three chairs apart during a conversation. However, the Chinese, Indians, and Arabs prefer to stand closer to the other party.
Westerners frown on guests who belch during dinner. The Chinese belch to show the host that they have enjoyed the good food.
There is also a difference in eye contact. Many westerners assume that if a person will not meet their gaze, they are evasive or not telling the truth. One the other hand, Asians keep their eyes lowered as a sign of respect.
To get the attention of another person, one may raise the hand and wiggle the index finger backwards. This is considered to be very rude in places such as China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.
During colonial times in Singapore, many of the waiters in the restaurants were Hainanese. The British used to call them “boy” which is a translation of the French word “garçon”. Today, the term “boy” is considered derogatory and the word “waiter” is preferred.
Hiding your body language is one way not to reveal your feelings to others. Learn how to control your facial expressions like a television star and you will get along better with others at the workplace and outside the company.
Copyright © 2014 Singapore Institute of Management