Body Language For Dummies
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Want to find out more about how to be the person you’ve always wanted to be? This Cheat Sheet tells you how to act "as if." Explore how to behave without giving the game away. Try a few easy exercises that will strengthen your body.

Acting 'as if' to become who you want to be

You don’t have to be an actor to act “as if.” Like children playing mommies and daddies or the young at heart playing Dungeons & Dragons, you act as if you are the person you want to be.

The more you think and behave like that individual, the more like them you become. Below are a few tips for getting you started on the path to being your ideal self.

  1. Pick a role model. It can be anyone – younger, older, richer, or poorer – as long as they’re someone you admire.
  2. Ask yourself some questions, including: What do I admire about this person? What are their values, beliefs, and attitudes? How do they demonstrate those qualities in their behavior? Observe their movements. Are their gestures deliberate and contained, or are they spontaneous and flamboyant? What would I have to do to act like that?
  3. If you were acting as if you were the person you want to be, what would you do differently from what you do now? What might you notice if you could see a film of yourself and your ideal character?
  4. If a good friend were to see you several months from now and you were more like the person you want to be, what would you want them to say?

Managing your body language when the stakes are high

An unconscious movement, an inadvertent gesture, or an unwitting facial expression can give your game away faster than a speeding bullet. Below are a few tips for containing and controlling your body’s movements.

  • Breathe with consciousness. Notice the air entering and leaving your body. Breathe slowly and deeply, allowing the oxygen to calm your nervous energy. Inhale through your nose. Exhale through your mouth.
  • Drop your shoulders. Gently release your shoulder blades, letting them meet at your spinal cord. Allow any tension to melt downwards, escaping through your feet.
  • Expand your upper body. Feel your ribcage swell forwards, backward, and around your sides. Experience the sensation of your body increasing in size as you claim your space.
  • Hold your head in a neutral position. Keep your chin horizontal to the floor when you’re standing or sitting. Jutting your chin upward or letting it sink into your chest sends signals of aggression or submission. Holding your head horizontally demonstrates strength, focus, and direction.
  • Keep your face and body still. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are experts at maintaining an impenetrable façade. Their limited facial expressions reveal little of their internal states, leaving the rest of us wondering what they’re up to. Avoid lip chewing, nostril-flaring, and eyeball-rolling if you want to demonstrate a calm demeanor.
  • Contain your hand gestures. Flapping hands and fidgeting fingers are signs of stress. Loosely interlock your fingers and let them sit quietly in your lap or on the desk in front of you. You may also find that resting one hand rest on top of the other prevents them from leaking information you’d rather not reveal.

Building a fit, firm, and flexible body for communication

A fit, firm, and flexible body enhances your ability to communicate with confidence and control. Below are a few exercises to help you improve your body’s ability to communicate your thoughts, feelings, and intentions. (Before undertaking any form of exercise, check with your doctor.)

  • Once you have the go-ahead, lightly stretch your muscles to prevent injury. Gently roll your head and shoulders, slowly twist your torso from side to side, and stretch your limbs out wide.
  • Strengthening your lips. Firm lips are a thing of beauty and have caused many sleepless nights. To develop your mouth muscles, pucker your lips slightly. From this position, bring the corners of your mouth as close together as possible by actively engaging the muscle. Hold your lips in this position for a count of five. Relax and repeat ten times. Don’t be surprised if your lips are trembling by the time you’re finished.
  • Squeezing your buttocks. A well-toned bottom is a sign of strength and fitness. To build your posterior’s upward lift, start by squeezing your glutes tightly for a count of five. Relax and repeat ten times. Because no one can see you performing this exercise, you can do it anytime, anyplace, without being detected.
  • Stretching your hands. Your hands get a steady workout during the day, whether tapping the keyboard, lifting and carrying, or just stroking the dog. To give your fingers a bit of a respite, put them together in the prayer position, fingertips pointing upwards, heels of the palms together. Push your fingertips tightly together, allowing the heels of your palms to separate. Relax and repeat ten times.

How to use body language to impress during job interviews

Body language reveals a lot about your internal state. Before you’ve uttered a word, interviewers will have formed judgments based on your posture, gestures, and facial expressions. You can use several techniques to make a positive impression and project confidence, commitment, and credibility.

What you should do before the job interview

Send out a clear message that you belong in the organization by projecting assured and confident behavior. Here are some tips:

  • Relieve yourself of clutter, and carry only what you need.
  • Remain standing while you are waiting in reception. Chairs, especially low or soft ones, can be awkward to get out of when the time comes to rise.
  • Make a positive entrance: move confidently, smoothly, and purposefully. Hesitations and shuffles make you appear unsure of yourself
  • Instead of shaking hands across a desk, move around it, so there are no barriers between you and the other person. Return the same amount of pressure as the interviewer and let them decide when the handshake should end.

During the interview

  • When you’re invited to sit, ensure that your body is at a 45-degree angle to the other person. Facing the interviewer directly, especially if your chair is lower than theirs, can make you look like a child. Even if you’re sitting at the same height, looking at someone directly across a desk can feel more confrontational than collaborative. Sit upright, and maintain eye contact.
  • Demonstrate a positive and serious attitude through your body language. Close your mouth and breathe through your nose. Hold your head horizontally as if an invisible brace supported your chin. Place your knees directly over your ankles with your feet planted firmly beneath you. This position makes you appear grounded and secure, which is what you want.
  • Avoid the telltale signs of nervousness, including fidgeting, picking at your fingernails, and scratching your face, head, neck, or chest. These behaviors give the impression that you’re uncomfortable and make it difficult for interviewers to believe in your abilities.

If you notice a nervous gesture creeping in, replace it with another action. For example, rather than picking at your fingers, consciously rest your hands on the desk or table. If there isn’t a surface, rest them in your lap.

As you leave the room, make sure that the last image your interviewer has is of your smiling face and not your backside.

Connecting the mind and body

What you think about yourself becomes your reality. Whether intentional or not, your body language reflects your self-beliefs. Your subtle and not-so-subtle facial expressions, gestures, and postures reveal your opinion of yourself and influence other people’s opinions of you.

Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy’s seminal research into the impact of body language on communication demonstrates the power of the mind/body connection and validates the connection between hormone levels and behavior.

For a simple example, notice how your body expands when you’re feeling powerful and dominant and how it folds into itself when you’re feeling negative and full of doubt.

Professor Cuddy’s research confirms that powerful people tend to be assertive, confident, and optimistic. Abstract thinkers and risk takers show high levels of testosterone, the hormone of strength and power, and low levels of cortisol, which regulates stress levels.

People who are stress-reactive and feel shut down experience the opposite, showing higher levels of cortisol and lower levels of testosterone.

The great news from Professor Cuddy’s research is that you don’t have to feel assertive, comfortable, and confident to convince others that you are. You just have to act “as if” you are. And then, Bingo!
Stand for 2 minutes in the superwoman/superman pose with your feet firmly planted in a wide-legged position, your hands on your hips, and your elbows pointed outward. Notice how you feel filled with a sense of purpose and power as your testosterone levels rise. Placing a pencil in a horizontal position between your teeth, which forces you to smile, also leads to positive feelings.

So, before you venture forth into an evaluative situation, whether it’s pitching a product, meeting the prospective in-laws, or interviewing for your dream job, slip into a quiet room, lock the door, and adopt the superperson pose – hands on hips, legs spread wide, toes and elbows pointing out, head held high – for two minutes.

You’ll end up feeling and looking like someone who means business. And if you really want to feel good and make others feel good, too, stick a pencil between your teeth and smile. Just remember to take it out before leaving the room!

Muscles and your mouth

Whether you’re pursing, pinching, pouting, sneering, snarling, or snapping, your mouth’s muscles are hard at work conveying myriad messages without you uttering a word.

If in doubt, consider the actresses Dame Maggie Smith and Scarlett Johansson. Dame Maggie puckers her lips into the shape of a dried-out prune when she’s demonstrating disapproval, while Johansson’s pillow-like pout conveys the promise of pleasurable possibilities.

Unless you are physically incapable of moving your mouth muscles, use them. Not only do loose, slack lips resemble a piece of uncooked liver – yuck – they make communication difficult.

If you don’t have a powerful base from which to bounce vowels and consonants, project passion and pain, and articulate your thoughts, feelings, and intentions, your listener struggles to understand what you’re trying to express.

The orbicularis oris is the main muscle that controls mouth movements. Originating in the maxilla and mandible bones — your jaw — this big muscle, made up of lawyers of thin muscles, encircles the mouth and inserts directly into the lips.

Recent research shows that the orbicularis oris — originally conceived as a sphincter (circular muscle) — is instead made up of four independent quadrants that meet, creating a circular appearance. Because this muscle is used for puckering the lips, it’s sometimes called the kissing muscle.

Because kissing is an important part of healthy relationships and feels good, make a point of exercising your mouth muscles daily. In addition to making you a better kisser, facial exercises improve your looks by toning your lips and cheeks plus firming your jawline.

Facial exercises also help reduce the appearance and slow the onset of wrinkles around the upper lip. They decrease the depth of the nasolabial folds, which are creases extending from the bottom of your nose, down the side of your mouth, and toward your chin.

Fewer lines and wrinkles and better-toned lips and cheeks make you look and feel on top of your game.

Communicating across cultures

In a diversified world where you frequently communicate with people from countries and cultures different from your own, having a working knowledge of their traditions and customs is as vital a skill as reading, writing, and simple arithmetic.

When engaging with people whose culture differs from yours, watch how they behave and follow their lead. Mirroring and matching the natives’ body language is one way to build rapport.

When engaging with people different from yourself, keep your mind open and judgment-free. Your beliefs and attitude impact your behavior, and your behavior impacts the quality of your relationships. Negativity can lead to disappointing — if not downright disastrous — consequences, while a positive attitude can make magic.

Start slow and keep it simple. For example, if you’re in conversation with someone from Japan, contain your gestures and keep your face calm. Demonstrate quiet respect in your demeanor, and you’re on the right path.

The same applies when engaging with Russians. Too much overt body language, such as ingratiating smiles, expansive gestures, and quick movements, is viewed with suspicion, whereas in America and Australia, a bit of back-slapping, pinching, punching, and raucous laughter is the norm.

In Latin countries, you’re expected to let your body do the talking. Thoughts, feelings, and intentions reveal themselves through gestures, movements, and facial expressions. Anger, love, passion, and pain are clearly conveyed through the flick of a finger, the whip of a wrist, and the wink of an eye.

In Nordic countries, you could cause your hostess to choke if you demonstrated the same behaviors as your southern cousins. If you find yourself in Scandinavia and wonder how best to behave,  think, “cool and contained.”

To be safe, keep your gestures to yourself unless you’re familiar with the culture and its expectations. What is a sign of endearment at home can be rude and insulting somewhere else.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Elizabeth Kuhnke is a Positive Impact Coach and the Managing Director and founder of Kuhnke Communication, a company that tailors communication coaching programmes and workshops to individuals and teams across the UK, Europe and the Far East. Elizabeth is the author of Body Language For Dummies and Persuasion & Influence For Dummies.

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