We may think that speech is our most impactful form of expression, but research shows that body language might play a bigger role than you may expect—one that could be a hidden source of tension or misunderstanding in relationships, both at home and at work.
One popular study found that when it comes to expressing your likes and dislikes, 55 percent of what you communicate is conveyed through body language; the words you choose and the tone of your voice account for 7 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Other research notes that non-verbal behaviors may account for as much as 70 percent of what we communicate. When you are aware of the way you move, body language can help you get your point across, like when you give a warm smile or open your arms to make someone feel welcome. But when you’re not aware, you may send signals that don’t match what you’re feeling or thinking.
The next time you’re speaking with someone, take a moment to be conscious about whether or not you’re engaging in any of the body language below. While there are exceptions to all of these cases—why you’re moving your body a certain way, what others are thinking when you do so—you may find some of the possibilities interesting and helpful during your interactions.
Furrowing Your Brow, Tightening Your Jaw
Others May Think…you are confused or angry.
It may be your body’s response to processing information, but these signals can make it seem like you are upset or unclear about what someone is telling you.
Try This: First, look in the mirror while you consciously relax your forehead and jaw. See the difference and note how it feels. Then, the next time you’re out, take the time to check in with yourself to make sure your face is not tensed. And if you do find yourself confused or angered about something, talk about it. Explaining what you’re feeling rather than making a face is the best way to get on the road to reconciliation.
Crossing Your Arms
Others May Think…you’re anxious and lacking confidence.
Keeping your arms wrapped in this way is reminiscent of a hug, and it may give the impression that you feel the need to be comforted, or that you don’t want to talk.
Try This: Let your arms fall to your side, or cross them behind your back. This sends a message that you are calm and open to communication with others. (If you are in fact in a situation that makes you feel apprehensive, changing your arm position can also help give you a boost of confidence.)
Overusing Your Hands When You Speak
Others May Think…you are out of control and not worth being taken seriously.
Gesturing when you talk is natural and generally seen as a sign that you’re a warm and agreeable person. The problem arises when your hand and arm movements become wild, or when you rely too much on gestures that can be viewed as accusatory, such as finger pointing.
Try this: Keep your hands low and use one gesture per thought. If you’re in a social setting, try holding a drink in one hand to help you limit your gestures.
Sitting Slumped at a Table
Others May Think…you are not important.
While you may think you appear polite, a shrinking-violet stance—with arms and legs crossed and shoulders pulled in—may convey that you don’t have much to contribute to the conversation, or that you are unsure of yourself.
Try This: Open up your shoulders and put a hand on the table, or lean forward. Taking up a bit more space shows that you are present and ready to participate.
Tapping Your Feet, Bouncing Your Leg
Others May Think…you’re bored or losing patience.
Fidgeting in this way can give the impression that you are restless and can’t wait to be done with a conversation. This can make others uncomfortable—think of how you feel when you are trying to engage with someone whose mind seems to be elsewhere.
Try this: Before you enter a situation where you’re likely to bounce your feet, silently remind yourself of your habit. Having it top-of-mind will help thwart your fidgeting. (Crossing your ankles helps, too.) If you feel like these repetitive movements are beyond your control, speak with your doctor about other possible conditions associated with these symptoms, like Restless Legs Syndrome.