14 Body Language Mistakes You Didn’t Know You Were Making
Actions speak louder than words. Here's how to make sure you're sending the right message.
More than words
Body language is an essential part of how we communicate with others, and in some situations, it can be even more important than our words. Understanding this unspoken language is largely an automatic and unconscious process, and it’s often the thing that gives people a “gut feeling” about you before you’ve even uttered a word. And it can either build trust and bolster your relationships or do the exact opposite. That’s why it’s so important to get right.
Most body language problems stem from one basic issue: incongruity. When your body language is out of alignment with what you’re saying, it sends mixed messages about your genuine feeling, according to body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD. This can make you look weak, insincere, or even devious. To help you avoid these kinds of misunderstandings, we asked experts to share the most common body language mistakes they see and how to fix them. Making these simple tweaks can go a long way toward changing how people perceive you and how you feel about your interactions at work and in social settings. But first, see just how good you are at reading body language by figuring out what’s really going on in these iconic pictures.
“Shrinking” your body
Standing with rounded shoulders, contracting your chest, and keeping your elbows tucked in close to your side may be your effort to look smaller or less intimidating, or it may just be poor posture. However, this stance makes you look weak and vulnerable, Goman says. How can you fix this? Don’t be afraid to take up space! “Keeping your posture erect, your shoulders back, and your head held high makes you look confident and powerful,” she explains. Here are more body language secrets that will make you more successful.
Shifting your weight from foot to foot
No one expects you to stand like a statue, but if you’re constantly shifting your weight or dancing around, it makes you appear as if you’re anxious to leave, says Cassandra LeClair, PhD, professor of communication studies at Texas State University. The first step to fixing this problem is to realize you’re doing it in the first place, since it can sometimes happen unconsciously. When you find yourself engaging in this shifty behavior, LeClair advises taking a moment to center yourself and be more present in all of your interactions. If you are doing it to relieve some physical discomfort, either adjust your position (say, take a seat) or explain to the other person what’s happening, she adds.
Looking up and to the left
Casting your eyes up and to the left when you are recalling a story or an event is a common body language “tell” that you might be lying, making you look suspicious or dishonest, says body language and relationship expert Nicole Moore. However, sometimes people unintentionally do this when they’re actually telling the truth, especially when they may be “searching” their brain for a response.
To fix this, “make sure you look people in the eye when you’re recounting a story that’s truthful, and resist the temptation to roll your eyes back into your head,” Moore says. “Alternatively, you can take a deep breath, close your eyes as if you’re gaining composure, and then tell the story. This body language indicates depth and that you’re taking your time to recount the story, not that you’re lying.” Here are more body language mistakes you should never make during a job interview.
Constantly glancing at your phone
When someone is speaking to you, resist technological temptations and give them your full and undivided attention, says Tara Ackaway, CEO and founder of Social Wise Communications. Constantly looking around the room or glancing at your phone every time it alerts (even if you don’t actually read it!) communicates that you’re not interested in what the other person is saying and can make them feel uncomfortable opening up to you. Rather than holding your phone in your hand, put it in a pocket or purse, where you won’t be tempted to look at it. Learn the important things all good listeners do during daily conversations.
Crossing your arms
“Regardless of how comfortable you may be with your arms crossed, it is almost always perceived as a closed sign of resistance,” Goman says, adding that it can make you look like you are in a bad mood, nervous, or don’t want to be approached. Instead, keep your arms open, your hands loose, and your movements relaxed. “It’s the ultimate ‘see, I have nothing to hide’ gesture and sends silent signals of credibility and candor,” she explains. Use these 9 body language tips to get what you want.
Speaking with a higher-pitched voice
Some people unconsciously speak with a higher voice. It may be because they are nervous or think it looks “cute,” or it may just be an old habit. However, the quality of your voice can be a deciding factor in how you are perceived, and speakers with higher-pitched voices are deemed less empathetic, less powerful, and more nervous than speakers with lower-pitched voices, Goman says.
So, make a conscious effort to lower your vocal pitch. “One easy technique is to put your lips together and say, ‘Um hum, um hum, um hum.’ Doing so relaxes your voice into its optimal lower pitch,” Goman says. “This is especially helpful before you get on an important phone call—where the sound of your voice is critical.” While we’re on the subject, find out the sneaky things your voice can predict about your personality and your health.
Avoiding eye contact
You may be an introvert, you may be shy, or your cultural background may have taught you that extended eye contact is not appropriate. But avoiding eye contact can make you appear uneasy, unprepared, insecure, insincere, and dishonest, Goman says. This is such a reliable indicator of how someone is feeling that the eyes are generally the first thing security experts notice about you.
If looking people directly in the eye makes you uncomfortable, focus instead on their eye color, Goman suggests. “Whenever you meet someone, look into his or her eyes long enough to notice what color they are,” she says. “That will help create a strong personal connection.”
You may not be familiar with this term, but you’ve definitely heard people use this vocal technique. Upspeak is when you end every sentence by raising the pitch of your voice, making it sound almost like a question. “There’s nothing that kills credibility faster than upspeak,” Goman says. “It makes it sound as if you are asking a question instead of telling someone [something] or seeking approval.”
Instead, speak authoritatively. How, exactly, can you do that? “When making a statement, start speaking on one note, raise the pitch slightly through the sentence, and then drop it back down at the end,” Goman advises. Did you know that someone’s voice can reveal whether or not they’re attracted to you?
Never smiling makes you look depressed or intimidating, but smiling too much can also be problematic. “Excessive or inappropriate smiling can be confusing and undermines your credibility,” Goman says. The key is knowing when to smile. Pay attention to the conversation to make sure you’re smiling at appropriate times—such as when you first meet someone—and keeping a serious face when the conversation is serious. If you get stuck, these magic phrases can save you during an awkward conversation.
Standing in the “fig leaf pose”
Holding your hands tightly in front of your groin is often referred to as “the fig leaf pose,” and while it might feel comfortable, you still want to avoid it. “This gesture almost always indicates to other people that we’re afraid, closed off, or angry,” Moore explains. And when you really take a closer look at how you’re feeling, that may actually be what’s going on. So, remind yourself before you communicate with anyone that you are safe and that you don’t need to defend yourself, Moore says. Then relax and let your arms and hands hang by your sides. If you gesture with your hands, keep them open.
Giving a fake smile
Some people smile awkwardly to mask discomfort, but instead of making you look relaxed, this sends a mixed message to others. “Your face is doing the opposite of what you actually feel, and people can sense that,” Moore says. “Many people learned in childhood to laugh at discomfort or make a joke when feeling bad as a way to protect themselves, but this isn’t a good coping technique.” This is just one of the things your smile reveals about you.
To remedy this mistake, you first need to be aware of what you’re doing. Then you can work to become more comfortable with your discomfort and express your feelings in a more genuine and appropriate way. “Practice moving your face into the way it’s meant to be to properly display the emotion you’re actually feeling,” Moore suggests.
Playing with your hair
One of the most distracting things you can do during a conversation is touch your face and/or hair. “In many cases, people do this as a nervous habit and may not even realize they are doing it,” Ackaway says. “However, it can make you look anxious, ill-prepared, disinterested in the topic of discussion, or even intimidated.” So, hands off! Resist the urge to fiddle with your hair, face, clothing, purse, or anything else. Keep your hands relaxed at your sides. If that isn’t enough, keep your hands distracted by holding a drink. That said, did you know you should never do these things with your left hand?
Staying silent and still
Interrupting or talking over others is the peak of rudeness, but some people go too far in the other direction and try to stay perfectly quiet while others are talking. However, natural listeners will make some gestures and noises to show they are paying attention, LeClair says. Nodding, smiling, leaning in, and making small verbal responses (“Mmm-hmm” or “Oh, I see”) all show genuine interest and enhance the connection with the person you’re speaking with, she adds.
Not communicating enough
Everyone makes mistakes with their body language, and the goal isn’t to be a perfect robot. Rather, it’s to help you become aware of what and how you’re communicating, LeClair says. Talking with others can clarify your intentions and clear up any misunderstandings. LeClair gives this real-life example: “If you don’t want to change your posture, try explaining to your conversational partner why you stand this way. For example, my hands are always cold. I tell my students that I stand with my arms crossed a lot to keep my hands warm. I let them know this information [so they don’t] assume I am frustrated or angry as we are talking. I am aware of how my nonverbals can come across, which allows me to discuss them with others if there is a misperception.” Avoid other social snafus by learning which common hand gestures are rude in other countries.
- Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, body language expert and creator of the course Body Language for Leaders
- Cassandra LeClair, PhD, professor of communication studies at Texas State University
- Nicole Moore, body language and relationship expert and life coach
- Tara Ackaway, CEO and founder of Social Wise Communications