The betrayal of body language – A non-verbal affair

The betrayal of body language – A non-verbal affair

Post by Ruby Celine, Country Director, Malaysia

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about the importance of crafting a strong personal brand (Personal branding: What’s your story?). Being able to articulate what makes us unique puts us in better control of our career and the opportunities we want to attract. But the storytelling is just one aspect of personal branding. There’s a whole other dimension that runs much deeper than words and that’s body language.

It takes consistency to build a brand, and both our words and behaviours play a role. How often do we pause to think about what our body may be saying to others? Is it speaking the same language? Or could it possibly be betraying our spoken words? 

Now I’m aware that there’s a plethora out there on this subject and I’m not about to tell you anything earth-shattering, just a stream of thoughts on something that I feel isn’t talked about as much or paid enough attention to. It really is what it is, a non-verbal affair… just one of those tacit things of the norm that we tend to assume awareness of.

Going into a meeting or interview, for example, we’re usually hung up over what we’re going to say, what questions to ask and how we want to position ourselves. Maybe we’ll rehearse a few standout lines to impress in conversation – and the rest are just left to happen naturally.

But studies have shown that our words only account for a teensy-weensy portion of our communications. The majority of it is non-verbal (tone of voice considered), and it’s the unspoken cues that could support or easily derail our performance as we speak. 

As humans, we’re hard-wired to read others. It can take just seconds for us to pick up on vibes and form an opinion of someone. And while some of us may be great at masking our emotions or hiding behind words, the tell-tale signs of our body may hint at what’s really going on. Especially in an interview-type situation, it’s daunting enough to think that we may only get the one shot to nail that first impression. Admittedly though, it isn’t always easy – not with body language in the equation – and I’ll explain why.

It’s a mental thing

A lot of our non-verbal communication such as gestures, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. are intimately bonded to our state of mind and may not always occur at a conscious level, making it tricky to manage and unpredictable when put in action. Every part of our body talks (at times inadvertently), which means that we’re constantly sending out messages even when we’re not speaking, and these can strongly influence how we’re perceived.

Imagine going into a meeting, dragging our feet into the boardroom, extending a limp handshake, and then – like that isn’t already emanating an air of apathy – we languidly slump down into the chair and slouch as we say our piece (a tad extreme but bear with me here). No one’s going to buy into our story for sure. But what if we walked in like we’re ready to dominate? Upright, electrified, spring in our step (and this only happens when I’m well-caffeinated)…the energy can be contagious!

It’s no wonder my grandmamma used to repeatedly tell me to sit up straight! Apparently, our posture has a powerful link to our mood and confidence.

It’s YOUR body

…and you can cry if you want to! Yes, all that said, we’re only human. We’re allowed to feel hungry, burnt out, cold and upset all at the same time. Maybe we’ve had a frenzied week at work, we could be ticked off at a colleague for leaving us in a lurch, dog-tired from burning the midnight oil on a campaign proposal, or perhaps things at home aren’t going so well – there’s a bucketload of reasons that could distract us from putting our best foot forward.

Having been an anxious job seeker myself as well as in high-stress client meetings, I try to empathise with people and not jump too quickly to conclusions based on the little things. Just because they have their arms folded or they aren’t leaning in, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bored, disconnected and defensive. Body language is a totally ambiguous and subjective thing.

Closing thoughts

Honestly, I don’t believe there’re any secret methods to perfecting our body language. We know that perfection doesn’t exist anyway. But if you ask me what I think the next best thing is, I would have to say self-awareness (in this context at least).

It’s the little time we take each day to listen to ourselves, observe our thoughts and reflect on our behaviours. Though we may never be perfect, we can make it our mission to be better; to keep finding ways to empower ourselves. That to me is the closest we can get to perfection.

So, next time we’re in the moment, let’s assess how we’re seated or what our body’s doing as we speak…our posture against our tone of voice? They all add up to the energy that we exude and can really transform the entire feel of a conversation in our favour.

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