Body language and appearance – the secret messages

Posted by on June 10, 2014

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Non-verbal communication

A reminder:  Before we even speak a word, both our body language and our appearance are ‘broadcasting’ messages to anyone who cares to take notice.  This is known as ‘non-verbal’ communication.

Body language is mainly about posture, gestures, and facial expressions; it can reveal clues to our mental attitude (i.e. feelings*, emotions* and intentions).  Displays of body language are a natural and largely subconscious part of who we are.

* Feelings are our external demonstration of our emotions; emotions are our internal reactions to things that happen to us.

Our appearance is about what we wear and how we groom ourselves.  This can be influenced by cultural factors, such as acceptable and traditional garments and colours.  However, more often than not, our appearance is most strongly influenced by our self-image**.

** Self-image is the cornerstone of our personality, it is the mental picture we have of ourselves in terms of our abilities and our appearance; our self-image comprises a combination of self-esteem, self-confidence, and body-image (For more, see:  Building the New You – it’s about personal development).

Whenever we meet with someone, within seconds they will have formed an opinion about us – all from our body language and appearance.  How we carry ourselves, our gestures and expressions, our clothing, jewellery and other accessories, and also our grooming, all have a tale to tell.

At the same time, we will have done exactly the same thing to the other person.  This is often referred to as the ‘first impression’.

First impressions count

There is a saying: “first impressions count”. Many behavioural experts suggest that a first impression is formed in less than 10 seconds (Body language exponent Carol Kinsey Goman advises that we have as few as 7 seconds to make a ‘first’ impression).  By and large, this is a completely subconscious reaction – influenced by our experiences and/or our biases.

Here are four different images of people to illustrate the first impression: consider each image briefly (3-4 seconds), and then respond to the question below it:

Four different images of people to illustrate the first impression: TV host charlie Rose; Maori activist Tama Iti; A 'Lady of the night'; SIA Singapore Girl

Non-verbal communication – body language and appearance influence our ‘first impression’ of someone

For the record, my responses were: (1) closed, (2) no, (3) rebellious, (4) yes

More about first impressions

In a workplace scenario, first impressions are usually about whether we will (a) like someone, and (b) trust them.  At the same time, based on our first impression, we may also ‘rank’ a newcomer against ourselves, especially if we will both be operating in the same area, i.e. ‘are you as good as me’?  This is about ‘pecking order’ – the social hierarchy within a group.

For both first impressions and pecking order, body language and appearance have a big part to play in forming our opinion – before even a word is spoken.  Note that first impressions and pecking order ranking not only happen when people meet for the first time – they can also happen when both parties know each other.

An illustration – and a missed opportunity

Recently a work colleague related how she had been on the receiving end of a rather trying experience while making a presentation to a business project steering committee.  Her task was to explain some ‘not so good’ news, and to propose how to remedy this.

She felt that the (mainly male) committee played ‘shoot the messenger’, and also gave her proposals little consideration.  Because my colleague is no slouch, I found this quite intriguing.  After we had dissected the event, including her preparation, two things were apparent:

  1. she did not ‘dress’ specifically for the occasion (i.e. her attire was professional, but not exceptional)
  2. she chose to sit, rather than stand, while making her pitch (i.e. she was at the same ‘level’ as the committee).

This in turn meant that:

  1. the initial impact of her presence was nothing out of the usual
  2. she was not able to establish her ‘authority’ during the presentation.

By not dressing for the occasion, it is also likely that she would not have felt especially powerful or authoritative in herself.  By sitting, she was largely static and passive in her posture.  Had she stood, she may have felt more ‘in charge’ of the presentation; she would also have been able to move about, which increases blood flow (and oxygen) to the brain (important for memory, concentration, and other higher-brain functions).

My colleague’s task of having to explain some ‘not so good’ news was already quite a challenge.  I do believe that by not taking the options of dressing for the occasion, or standing while making her presentation, she allowed herself to be under an even greater handicap from the outset.

Taking charge of our body language

In this Post, my focus is on our own body language, rather than reading the body language of those around us (For more on reading body language, see:  Body Language – non-verbal communication).

While it not easy to consciously override our instincts, some people (e.g. politicians and business leaders) receive specific training to help them maintain control of their body language.  However, for most of us, unless we are consciously thinking about our body language, nature will usually prevail and our body will reflect our ‘real’ feelings, etc.

If we are giving voice to something that is not consistent with our feelings (etc.), our body may well send a message that is different to the one coming from our mouth.  Should this happen, those observing us are likely to begin to doubt our credibility.

Keeping up appearances

Our appearance is usually most strongly influenced by our self-image.  At the same time, our self-image can also be affected by our appearance.  When we are ‘dressed for the occasion’, we know that we look the part, and that we will be noticed by others.  This leads to a positive self-image.

When dressing for a particular occasion, we need to consider the ‘culture’ involved, who will be present, their roles, their dress preferences, and also any prejudices they may have.  For a man, ‘copy-catting’ their dress can be a form of flattery, however ‘copy-catting’ is not likely to be well received by a woman.

Body language and appearance – working together

One of the key factors behind having positive body language and also a confident (or powerful) appearance is our self-image.  However, not everyone naturally has a positive self-image.  For those of us who may experience moments of self-doubt, there are some actions that we can take to help ourselves.

While our body language tends to be a reflection our feelings/emotions/intentions, paradoxically we can also use body language to improve our self-image.  As psychologist Amy Cuddy discovered, it is possible to use our body to influence our brain chemistry, making us more confident and assertive, and also less reactive to stress (See:  Body language – power poses).

Also from Amy Cuddy, the very act of ‘keeping up appearances’ in itself can lead to a positive result.  In a TED Talk, she described her personal experience of overcoming self-doubt by ‘faking it’ until she ‘became it’.  Her advice is “… don’t fake it ‘til you make it – fake it ‘til you become it”.

Animated GIF image illustrating the influences between self-image, body language, and appearance

By understanding the influences between self-image, body language, and appearance, we give ourselves the best possible chance to impress those around us

Body language – what to do?

Although our body language is mainly about subconscious reactions, we can easily learn some basic techniques to help project ‘positive’ messages.  The following eight tips are all easy to learn – with practice they can become almost automatic:

  • maintain eye contact (but don’t stare)
  • smile genuinely (use your eyes)
  • nod your head (show you agree)
  • give a positive handshake (but don’t crush)
  • use open gestures (show your palms)
  • lean in slightly when listening (but don’t invade space)
  • keep an upright posture (but don’t be rigid)
  • mirror body positions (but don’t mimic)

To remember these tips, think ‘Head – Hands – Body’ – the first three are about our head, the next two are about hands, and the final three are about body.

Appearance is about … personality

How we choose to dress and groom ourselves is most strongly influenced by our self-image and our budget.  Just as we can learn how to project positive body language, we can also chose to use our appearance to create a strong, positive impression (even if this means over-riding or ignoring a low self-image).

While there are many dress and grooming tips available on the internet, it really all comes down to ‘plain old common sense’:  cleanliness, neatness, and freshness.  For many of us, the real challenge will come from being able to let our personality show through while also following our organisation’s ‘code’ of acceptable practices for dress and grooming.

We should not forget that when we know that we look good, our self-image will be positive, this can influence our body language, which will then reinforce our self-image.  This inter-relationship is important – by understanding the influences between our self-image, our appearance, and our body language, we are in a position to give ourselves the best possible chance to impress those around us.

Coming next:  Power presentations that create WOW!

Worth a look

Fake it ’til you become it: Amy Cuddy’s power poses, visualized – posted by Helen Walters, December 13, 2013

12 Body Language Tips For Career Success – by Carol Kinsey Goman (August 21, 2013) – approx 5 minute read

Ten workplace body language mistakes – by Jacquelyn Smith (April 23, 2014) – approx 3½ minute read

I also find that a person’s dress and grooming can often give me a very good indication of their ‘people style’, i.e. their normal manner of thinking or behaving (For more on people styles, see:  People Styles – what are they and how do they work?; while dress and grooming are not specifically mentioned in the People Styles Post, I will explain the linkage in a future post).


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