A council in Western Australia recently prohibited negative body language such as shrugging, eye-rolling and sighing in the workplace, but a blanket ban on certain gestures is destined to fail. Body language, beyond the myths, is extremely complex and difficult to analyse. It's also easy to misinterpret, with one gesture carrying myriad possible meanings; but there are some basic rules to follow when it comes to sending the right non-verbal messages at work.
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The good, the bad and the ugly
Body language can provide positive reinforcement. Lovers, for instance, typically display behaviours that are in sequence and a reflection of each other. Psychologists call this "mirroring" or "rapport".
There are several well-known non-verbal signs, such as eye contact or gaze, body posture, and position, which indicate the health of a couple's relationship. Something as small as a smile or a nod can have large effects on our emotional reactions.
To a lesser extreme, leaders may use body language to encourage or support those they supervise. Furthermore, a leader's body language may show others they are approachable.
We've all experienced the person sitting back, arms open, and smiling at us invitingly. Contrast this with someone who is hunched over and non-responsive (a typical "closed" posture). Which person would you rather work with?
Most bosses rarely mock or demean their employees overtly. Covertly, however, many employees feel negativity on a daily basis.
This is where body language and non-verbal communication are of prime importance. While an employer may not explicitly ridicule an employee, they may certainly act in a way that makes the employee feel inferior; they may refuse to nod, adopt a hostile facial expression or position their body in a way that suggests they are not interested in what their employee is saying.
Context is everything
Context speaks volumes, much louder than body language. Attempting to interpret body language by analysing a single gesture is like trying to understand a sentence through one word.
This is typically where individuals attempting lie detection fall short. We've all heard that truth-benders instinctively touch their face. In fact, the body language of lying is more likely to include a cluster of subtle signs involving the entire body, such as sudden twitching of the feet, or stopping a movement in order to concentrate — so don't jump to conclusions just because someone covered their mouth once, or looked away, while speaking.
The signs of disbelief (averting the eyes, covering the mouth), may also be a typical response to embarrassment. There are also numerous examples of body language that in one country conveys something very different to another country.
Westerners may unconsciously stand arms akimbo (hands on hips) because they are thinking or because they simply want to rest their arms. In Indonesia, however, this gesture is routinely interpreted as a sign of aggression and anger.
By its very nature, body language may be impossible to control but may also be unintended or a result of an unrelated association the individual makes.
You may see someone you normally like in a shirt that reminds you of a recently deceased relative, leading you to become upset and avoid that person. You can begin to see the difficulty of a policy that aims to ban negative body language at work.
Ideas that move us
Essentially, ideas can prime movements without conscious awareness. You can be manipulated into acting by the mere suggestion of an idea, a concept routinely exploited in magic tricks that appear to demonstrate mind-reading ability.
A further example of the ideomotor effect: when we agree with someone, we nod. If I can make you nod, I am more likely to make you agree. One way to do this, is by simply nodding at you, as we often return a nod with a nod. The famous British entertainer Derren Brown has employed this technique so frequently that it has become a tic he cannot inhibit.
Perhaps more unsettling is when those processes are used to manipulate our emotions. As outlined, lovers who are naturally attracted to each other show increased mirroring of behaviour. Car salesmen refer to this as pacing and seduction coaches incorporate it into their training programs, to varying degrees of success.
Don't overthink it
It is clear that body language can have a large impact on our thoughts and feelings, and that includes how we feel at work.
The council that banned "negative body language" is right to highlight the importance of body language in daily communication but the importance of context cannot be underestimated in understanding body language.
We can all adopt a few simple habits to make our body language more friendly at work: smile, don't stand over people, don't adopt gestures of disinterest when your co-workers are talking to you and feel free to nod to show you're receiving information in a positive manner.
But don't overdo it.
For anyone wishing to decode body language with any level of accuracy, focusing on isolated behaviours is destined to fail.
The attention needed to understand the reason and meaning of a gesture could probably be better spent doing your actual work, which would make all your co-workers and bosses happier anyway.
David Keatley is a Lecturer in Psychology at Curtin University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.