Body Language Etiquette

Your Posture and Gestures Speak More Than Words Will Ever Say

Man and woman on a bench
Most people read the body language of others, even when they don't realize they're doing it. Compassionate Eye Foundation/Steve Smith/Getty

Back in the days when children attended charm school, they learned how to walk with a stack of books on their heads to make sure they had good posture. They endured endless lessons on how to introduce themselves and others and shake hands properly. Before graduating, they had to know the proper way to pour tea without spilling a drop.

These probably seemed like insignificant exercises at the time, but think about it.

When you see someone slouching, offering a limp hand for a handshake, and forgetting to introduce you to the stranger he is with, you probably don't think very highly of him. 

Knowing how to do these things is nice. However, there is quite a bit more to body language than posture and shaking hands.

First Impressions

It isn't necessary to strike up a conversation to make a first impression on others because you'll be judged by the way you look, your posture, your expression, and how you gesture. That's why you need to pay close attention to the way you carry yourself and your body language. People notice and will judge you by even the subtlest movements. This is true in both social and professional situations, including job interviews.

Retired FBI agent Joe Navarro states that most of what we communicate is nonverbal, and we send a message to the other person about who we are and what we think of ourselves.

Navarro also claims that people have four to eight seconds to make a first impression. That's not much time, so do what you can to make it count.

When you first enter a room or approach a group of people, make sure your shoulders are squared and your head is lifted. Slouching sends the message that you aren't engaged or interested in what the others think.

Whether you are tall or short, standing erect with your head held high lets others know you are confident and happy to be there. A lowered head, on the other hand, gives the impression that you are shy, ashamed of something, or unsure.

While it's nice to have great posture (purpose of walking with the book on your head), there are other equally important things to consider. People will determine right away what type of person you are based on how often you smile, make eye contact, nod during conversation, offer a firm handshake, or have an open stance showing acceptance and engagement. If you're not comfortable with any of these things, practice in front of a mirror before you go out in public.

Sitting Down

After you shake hands, give hugs, or verbally greet the person or group, you're likely to want to take a seat. Look for a chair that provides support for your spine, but if the only seat you can find is a slouchy chair, sit on the edge of it so your feet touch the floor, and you can hold your spine erect. Unless the people you are with are extremely close friends, curling up in the chair is inappropriate and may send the signal that you're more into personal comfort than your surroundings.

It's okay to cross your legs but try not to twist or contort your legs like pretzels. That's an awkward position that can make others uncomfortable. Ladies, make sure your skirt is long enough to cover the majority of your thigh and doesn't ride up, showing something that needs to stay in hiding. Don't wiggle your foot halfway out of your shoe and dangle it from your toe. That's inappropriate for all but the most intimate setting.

Eye Contact

When speaking to someone in the United States and most other western countries, you should make eye contact. However, make sure you blink occasionally and periodically glance away, or you'll appear to be staring.

Gesturing

When you gesture, you're saying more than the words coming out of your mouth. Never make obscene hand motions in a business setting or with a group of people who don't know you well enough to accept you in spite of rudeness.

Remember that every culture has a list of acceptable and unacceptable gestures, so if you are in an unfamiliar situation, keep hand movements to a minimum. You don't want to unwittingly offend someone else. Before you go to another country, learn what gestures are considered offensive.

Keep a Comfortable Distance

Unless you are married, engaged, or in a tight relationship with someone, make sure you provide plenty of personal space during a social situation. Most people become very uncomfortable when you get right up in their face. If you see the other person taking a step back or leaning away, you'll know that you have invaded her space.