Body Language: Cross my Arms and Hope to (Make a Bad Impression)

You decide to swipe right for the first time on the infamous Tinder. Upon arrival, your date begins to look less like the charming dog-loving, rugby player in his profile and more like the creepy sophomore who sat behind you in Bio your senior year. Without realizing it, you look down and realize your nose is squished like you’ve smelled something rotten, and your arms are crossed tightly across your chest like a straight jacket. Before uttering a word, mystery man already knows that you’re not as happy as he had hoped.

Body language is the most powerful, universal language across humankind. For better or worse, the majority of our thoughts and emotions are conducted not through the mouth but through the body. 93 percent of our communication is entirely nonverbal, which means that less than 10 percent of the way in which you communicate with others is attributed to the actual words that leave your mouth.

Humans are constantly conveying subliminal messages through the way in which they move, the facial expressions they adapt, the tone of their voice, and even the volume of which they speak. Experts believe that 55 percent of that 60 to 90 percent of nonverbal communication is attributed to body language. It is both a blessing and a curse. On the bright side, your words won’t break as many bones. On the down side, your involuntary body language might do more harm than good. While it may feel like 93 percent of communication is out of your control, there are a few tricks and differentiations to help you create a better lasting impression with no words involved.

The Worst of Body Language

Crossing Your Arms: Our body is constantly both consciously and unconsciously working to protect itself from potential threats. We desire comfort and avoid vulnerability at all costs. Crossing our arms serves as both a psychological and physical barrier. Crossing our arms provides both universal protection and specific uses for different demographics. For all genders and ages, on a cold day, crossing our arms retains warmth. Women, however, also cross their arms during times of insecurity to feel less exposed, while men cross their arms for the opposite reason – to make themselves appear larger and more powerful (think bouncers or security guards). And children cross their arms to convey frustration (picture the arms crossed, stomping three-year-old throwing a tantrum in the grocery store).

Regardless of your age or gender, crossed arms is not a welcoming posture. Communications expert, Karen Friedman, says that “arms crossed over your chest signal defensiveness and resistance… when they’re open at your sides, you seem more approachable.” Experts, however, seem to agree that most of the meaning depends on the relationship between the individual’s interaction. Strangers might feel closed-off or unwelcomed, while for close friends or colleagues, crossed arms rarely even register. Keep it in the friend group and outside of the job interview.

No Eye Contact: Eyes are the window to the soul, or so the saying goes. It makes sense that looking into someone’s soul can get pretty intense pretty quickly. Eye contact, however, can make or break a first impression. Too little implies disengagement or dishonesty, while too much is just creepy. Communications and body language expert, Dr. Lillian Glass, told Business Insider that the trick to finding the balance between too much and too little is to soften your gaze. Glass suggests moving your gaze around the person’s face – from their forehead, to their eyes, to their nose, and to their mouth while intermittently glancing away.

Slouching: (Almost) nobody likes to hold the most overwhelming presence in the room. Women especially are inclined to curve their back and dip their shoulds inward slightly so as not to appear too aggressive. Slouching and bad posture, while making you appear smaller, also conveys a lack of confidence and energy. By maximizing your space through your posture, you appear more dominant and assertive. Allegedly, it can also help promote weight loss and make you appear thinner. Sounds like a win-win.

The Best

Smile: This one goes without saying. Smiling is proven to have countless benefits: it makes you seem more approachable and trustworthy, alleviates your stress levels, regulates your heart rate, releases endorphins, increases productivity, and can even trick your brain into feeling happy.  There is a great TED talk by Ron Gutman, founder, and CEO of health info app HealthTap, regarding the “hidden power of smiling.”

Posture: Just as much as a bad posture can result in a poor first impression, strong posture says more than you think. Keep your shoulders relaxed, your back straight, your body aligned with and leaning slightly forward to the person whom which you are engaging, and keeping your legs slightly apart rather than crossed conveys higher levels of interest and energy.

Handshake: A handshake speaks a thousand words. It has the power to convey confidence or timidity in the first few seconds of meeting someone. A proper handshake is conducted as follows:

  • Maintain eye contact throughout the entirety of the handshake
  • Outstretch your arm with your thumb up
  • Grasp firmly but not TOO firmly. Too loose makes you look passive or intimidated while too tight comes off as confrontational and aggressive
  • Pump twice – no more, no less (the average handshake should last 1 to 3 seconds)
  • Separate your hand AFTER the other person does so

Speaking of Professionalism… There are several other minor adjustments besides eye contact that go a long way in a professional setting. Slowing your speech and movements makes you come across as more introspective; using engaging body language, such as mirroring the person you are conversing with or using exaggerated hand gestures while talking both gives you more internal confidence and sends a message to the individual you are talking to. Taking notes and avoiding fidgeting doesn’t hurt either.

So are you totally screwed if you cross your arms during a lecture or fail to maintain eye contact during a job interview? Not necessarily, but it does a hell of a lot more harm than good. The way we carry ourselves determines how approachable we are to others in a split second. No matter how kind and welcoming you are, if your arms are crossed and you’re pouting, chances are you’re not going to attract as many people as the exuberant, smiling person next to you.

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