Don’t let subconscious behaviour damage your brand

Posted by on August 4, 2015

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Alternate Title:
Subconscious behaviour can hurt your personal brand

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Subconscious behaviour

Have you ever found yourself doing something without even realising it was happening?

We all do many things without any conscious input. Some of these are just part of being alive (breathing, maintaining our balance as we move, scratching an itch). And some come from habits that we have developed (biting our finger nails, rolling our eyes when someone says something we don’t agree with, sniffing repeatedly, tapping or drumming our fingers, talking to ourselves).

Whether it is about ‘body functions’, or about habits, according to some research, up to 95% of our behaviour is controlled by our subconscious mind. While none of the above habits are likely to be life-threatening, any or all of them can become irritating to others around us. And that is the catch here – we can be doing something without even realising it. But while we are completely oblivious to what we are doing, we may well be damaging our reputation, i.e. our brand.

Graphic image titled “The Human Mind”, showing a human brain outline, overlaid with “Self-conscious” [upper 20%] and “Subconscious” [lower 80%]: Self-conscious area shows the following labels – Thoughts, planning, judgement, reasoning, problem solving, will power, and decision making; Subconscious area shows labels – Memory, emotions, beliefs, feelings, learned abilities, behaviours, perceptions, instincts, habits, reflexes, addictions, and body functions.

The human mind consists of a self-conscious part and a subconscious part. Research shows that the vast majority of our behaviour is controlled by the subconscious mind (up to 95% according to some sources). While learning to control certain body functions may not be possible, taking control of habits and behaviour can be achieved.

Our personal brand

In everything we do, our personal brand governs our success, especially amongst our connections and our colleagues.   In this highly connected world, our personal brand can be the key that gives someone a reason to connect with us, to buy from us, to hire or employ us, to promote us. At best our subconscious habits can be a handicap that has an impact on our potential – at worst our habits can have serious consequences for our prospects. Fair competition is one thing, but we may actually be giving our competitors a flying head start through our subconscious behaviour.

Although our subconscious behaviour comes in many forms, there are three key areas where we can cause ‘self-carnage’:

  • our body language – i.e. the silent signals that we all transmit to those who might be observing us
  • our speech – i.e. the impression we create when we are speaking, whether one-on-one or in a group
  • our ‘social decorum’ – this is about how we conduct ourselves in an informal setting (such as at a café)

Any one of these areas can cause us considerable grief if we are not careful – let’s examine each in turn.

Body language

Displays of body language are a natural and largely subconscious part of who we are. Before we even speak a word, our body language is ‘broadcasting’ messages to anyone who cares to take notice. This is known as ‘non-verbal’ communication. For most of us, unless we are consciously thinking about our body language, nature will prevail and our body will reflect clues to our mental attitude (i.e. feelings*, emotions* and intentions).

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

Three aspects of body language to consider are (a) our personal confidence; (b) our connection to someone; and (c) possible cultural faux pas.

Graphic image titled “Cultural faux pas”, showing photographs of three common hand gestures: the “OK” sign, the “Thumbs up” sign, and the reversed “Peace” sing; each of these gestures may cause offence to some cultures – the OK sign is apparently offensive in Brazil, Iran, Iraq, and possibly Turkey, Spain, Greece; the Thumbs up is apparently offensive in Iran and possibly Greece; the reversed Peace mat be offensive in the UK, especially for older Baby Boomers.

Certain hand gestures that are commonly used in many parts of the world can be offensive for some cultures. Do you know where each of these three examples can cause offence if you happen to use them?
OK – apparently Brazil, Iran, Iraq, possibly Turkey, Spain, Greece
Thumb – apparently Iran, possibly Greece
Reversed Peace – possibly UK, especially for older Baby Boomers
The internet is littered with countless articles and posts about offensive hand gestures – however much of it is unsubstantiated and also contradictory. Travellers beware!

Personal confidence: body language that quickly reveals our state of personal confidence includes our posture, and our eye contact:

As a rule, an upright posture indicates personal confidence, whereas a hunched or slouched posture suggests a lack of self confidence – this applies whether standing, walking, or sitting

Readiness to make eye contact is usually an indication of personal confidence, whereas a bowed head or downward gaze suggests a lack of self confidence – strong eye contact can imply hostility or a challenge, and staring may be a sign of intense concentration or personal affection

Connection: body language that reflects our willingness to connect, or otherwise, with someone includes the positioning of our feet, and body mirroring:

Feet pointed towards someone usually suggests a willingness to connect, while feet pointed away from someone indicates a desire to leave – this is most obvious when standing, but can also apply when sitting

Mirroring of someone else’s body position is a definite indicator of a willingness to connect

Cultural faux pas: body language that can lead to a cultural faux pas in this era of globalisation and multicultural workforces includes certain hand gestures, and invasion of personal space:

For certain cultures, a number of commonly accepted hand gestures can cause offence – even things like the traditional ‘thumbs up’ and ‘ok’ signs; note also that for some cultures, the left hand is considered to be unclean

The need for personal space is something that varies across cultures, and also within cultures – people who are used to public areas where crowding is common will generally accept a smaller amount of personal space; note that personal space also includes touching


When we are speaking, there is a message in what we say, and there is also a message in how we say it. In particular, our speech can reveal something about our emotions and about our level of personal confidence (or lack of self confidence); it can also reveal something about our nationality (i.e. our accent/dialect) and possibly about our education (e.g. our vocabulary).

Three aspects of speech to consider are (a) our rate of speech; (b) our use of ‘filler’ words; and (c) echoing words.

Graphic image titled “Rate of Speech”, showing two heads in silhouette; the head on the left has the thought bubble “I’ve just got so much to say”, while speaking at “180 + words per minute”; the right head, receiving the words, has the thought bubble “WOW! This is so hurting my brain!”.

Many people speak at a fast rate, especially when they are excited. No matter how much we have to say, and how important it might be, if the ‘message’ cannot be fully understood by the audience, our words will be wasted. Anything over 180 words per minute is likely to cause problems, no matter how clearly we speak. Important points can be emphasised by speaking more slowly, and making use of pauses to allow the audience to absorb what we are saying.

Rate of speech: our rate of speech (words per minute – wpm) can be affected by our emotions, particularly if we are nervous or excited about something. While some people do naturally speak at a fast rate (+180 wpm), when we are nervous or excited, as our rate increases, we are likely to mispronounce or clip words, use filler words, and become monotone. The result is not good for our audience, who have to work hard to understand what is being said.

Filler words: we all use them – umm, err, ahh, okay, right, you know, so, like (and more) – they give us time to think while we are speaking, such as when we are answering a question. The problem with filler words is that they can make us appear to lack self confidence, and even to be unprofessional.

Echoing words: we can sometimes fall into the habit of echoing someone else’s words – in much that same way as our body language ‘mirrors’ that of someone we are talking with. Echoing will usually involve us repeating the same filler words the other person is using – we may also repeat phrases.

Social decorum

I am using the term ‘social decorum’ to cover how we conduct ourselves in an informal setting (such as at a café). In many parts of the world a lot of business is transacted over a cup of coffee/tea. However, while the setting may be relatively informal, this can be quite hazardous if we do not observe some of the conventions of social decorum.

Three aspects of social decorum to consider are (a) our use of cutlery; (b) our mouth; and (c) seating guidelines.

Photograph, titled “Social decorum – Use of cutlery”, of Australian celebrity chef George Calombaris tasting a dish, holding a knife and fork – the fork and the tip of the knife blade both appear to be inside his mouth. Photo credit – The Vine.

A good example of a BAD example! Australian celebrity chef George Calombaris, snapped while tasting a dish. If you want to impress someone with your table manners, don’t follow George’s lead – rather, keep your knife well away from your mouth. Absolutely no excuse for this sort of display George!
[Photo sourced from The Vine]

Use of cutlery: when using western utensils (knife, fork, spoon) there are two different established styles for how to use cutlery – North American and Continental (European); in an informal setting, either should be acceptable. Some commonly observed practices that we should avoid, as they may make us look uncultured and will hurt us professionally, include:

Licking the blade of the knife – I was stunned recently to see an Australian MasterChef host (George Calombaris) licking his knife while tasting a dish, but it turns out that he is a ‘serial knife-licker’ – NOT a good example to follow if we are trying to impress someone (like a manager or employer)

Loading the fork like a shovel – the act of pushing a large amount of the food into our mouth can be quite ungainly – the result is our mouth is overfilled, making it harder to chew properly

Using the teaspoon to collect every bubble of froth from the cup – given the price for a cup of coffee or chocolate, this is almost understandable – but it is such a bad look, as if we are desperate to collect and consume every drop and bubble; it is also not likely to impress

Our mouth: when we have food in our mouth, two of the most inelegant acts possible are:

Chewing with our mouth open – this is very common, and it is certainly not a good look

Speaking while our mouth is full – also very common, and also not a good look (plus – it is usually very difficult to understand what is being said)

Seating guidelines: if we are meeting with someone important, and we want to make a good impression, three tips to follow:

Consider allowing them to choose which seat they want to take – this is about thoughtfulness rather than dominance

Wait for them to sit down before we do – this is a simple gesture of courtesy (guys, it’s OK to hold a seat for a lady)

Avoid slouching in our seat – rather, keep an upright posture, and ‘lean in’ a little; this conveys our attentiveness

Worth a look
Our first free nugget for this Post is the June 2015 Post “How To Stop Saying Um (And Other, Like, You Know, Filler Words)” [approx 4-5 min read] by Carol Lynn Rivera at Web Search Social – Carol Lynn’s solution can be adapted to help break many habits, not just speech.

Our second free nugget is the recent Post “Stop touching me!”” [approx 3min read] by James Adonis – James notes how touch can be influential, on either side of the ledger.

Coming next
Voice AND Vocabulary – keys to Your success

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