When I started my first teaching job, in China, I soon realized that my students were very amused by me. I didn’t think much of it, I was sure it was due to my accent when speaking their language, Mandarin. As our relationship grew closer and more informal, and the amused, though never disrespectful, laughter continued, I asked them what they were finding so entertaining. The answer “The way you always move your hands when you speak” was really surprising to me. Prior to that moment, I had never thought that my hand gesture was so animated, lively, let alone funny. I then started to be much more conscious of my movements, not because I was offended by what they’d told me or because I’d offended anyone, but simply because I wanted to be more in control of how I used that tool, body language.
Body language is a mirror of our personality and state of mind, it captures our audience’s attention way sooner than verbal language does, it’s a powerful instrument that everyone should learn to use to their own advantage. Just as we strive for an ever-higher proficiency in our native language, or in a foreign one, trying to become more and more refined, accurate, and well-spoken, we should do the same with body language.
In different situations we may want convey different meanings and be perceived in different ways. If we’re interviewing for a job, it is safe to assume that we aim to express confidence. In order to appear confident, let’s take up space: if we stand, we should stand tall and move around, own the “stage”, and don’t let it intimidate us. If we sit, we should sit tall with good posture: this will help us look taller because others will be seeing more of us/our body. Whether we’re standing or sitting, the use of expansive hand gestures is another way we have to convey confidence, assurance, and dependability. As in all life matters, we should pay attention not to exceed or overdo it: our display of confidence should never be perceived as arrogance. Let’s never forget to look around, read the room, and be ready to adapt, if needed.
Body language is subject to cross-cultural variation, an important point to keep in mind especially when we are dealing with foreign partners, employers, employees, and even clients. In these cases, prior to a meeting, we should do some research, particularly targeted at finding out what gestures and facial expressions may not be well-received or convey different meanings in our conversers’ culture. For instance, direct eye contact is not equally appreciated and perceived by all cultures and peoples. The use of certain moves should also be gauged based on our role, e.g., interviewee vs. interviewer.
No matter where we are or who we’re talking to, there are gestures we should most definitely avoid, as they uncontroversially express discomfort, anxiety, lack of self-control, and even weakness. Playing with our hair, touching our face (or head), biting nails or cuticles, and playing with a pen are all big NO-NO’s. Not only do they damage our image, but they may well terribly annoy the person we’re speaking with. They could also be perceived as symptoms of boredom, and this is the last impression we want to convey, both as interviewers or interviewees. Showing interest, involvement, showing that we’re in fact listening are all crucial signals to send. A smile, a nod, a look could really make the difference.
Practicing and mastering “good” body language habits is definitely an asset, but ultimately, we must feel comfortable with our body gesture. If ample hand gestures, that are supposed to express confidence, are not our thing, let’s not force ourselves: it’d be perceived as unnatural and it’d perhaps have an opposite effect from what that gesture is meant for.
Conversely, if you, like me, are a person who accompanies their words with generous and expressive hand gestures, don’t start all at sudden to act as if you were trapped in a straitjacket. You’d appear and feel awkward! Be conscious of how you carry yourself, be strategic if you can, but don’t penalize authenticity. Just like you wouldn’t abruptly start to speak a language you have never studied, don’t adopt gestures, modes, and demeanors that don’t belong to you without practicing them first and making them yours!