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Body Language and Business Etiquette

Body language can make or break a deal. How you carry yourself when engaged in conversation is often as important as what you say. Body language is nonverbal, but it communicates volumes about you nonetheless.

With almost infinite symbolic interpretations for body language, no wonder people are nervous about it! Your best bet is to know about some of the body-language pits you can fall into and how to avoid them.

Standing

When you stand, keep your back straight, middle section in alignment with your back, shoulders back, and head up. This posture connotes comfort with yourself and ease in the situation.

Slouching, sticking your belly out, stuffing your hands in your pockets, and folding your arms defensively all suggest aggressive unease.

Sitting

Take care in the way you sit, for no other position connotes so much on its own. Think of the diversity of sitting positions that you've seen in business meetings, from practically horizontal to alert and upright. Sit with a straight back and with your legs together in front of you or crossed, either at the knee or at the ankle. Normally, women don't cross their legs, but men are allowed. Avoid jiggling your knee, which is a sign of nervousness (and can be pretty annoying to people sitting near you).

Hands

Some people talk with their hands; others stand with their hands glued to their sides. Most people haven't the foggiest notion what their hands are doing when they talk.

Using your hands can be effective sometimes, aggressive sometimes, and irrelevant most of the time. Controlling your hands takes effort and willpower. Monitor your hand movements. Avoid making sweeping, cappuccino-clearing gestures during meetings. If you have to, sit on your hands.

Head movements

Head movements communicate important information. Nodding in agreement can be immensely helpful to others, but too much nodding makes you look like a bobble-head doll. Shaking your head can signal disagreement or disapproval, but avoid shaking your head too much.

Facial expressions

Facial expressions are crucial in your repertoire of body language. No other part of your body can convey the immense richness of nonverbal communication that your face does. For example:

  • Smiles are important signals of generosity and nonaggression. But forced smiles signal that you can barely tolerate the other person.
  • Likewise, frowns signal disagreement, disapproval, and sometimes anger. But they can also suggest hard thinking and focused concentration.

These facial expressions are the most obvious ones, but hundreds of others exist: an arched eyebrow, flared nostrils, a bitten lip, a grimace . . . and on and on. Every one of them has a culturally agreed-on set of meanings.

Take a day to monitor your most frequently used facial expressions and assess their appropriateness and their effectiveness. You'll probably be surprised by the types of messages your expressions transmit!

Eyes

Maintain eye contact when talking with others. Do not study your hands or clean your fingernails while others are talking. When talking in a group, make eye contact with everyone; don't focus on only one person.

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