Job Seeker: What Does Your Body Language Say About You?
Body language: we all have one. It is how we present ourselves to the world. What is said non-verbally may be as important, or even more so, than what we say with our words. As an HR professional, I have gone to countless seminars on the subject of how to read non-verbal cues. Since HR is involved in many serious matters like investigations, being able to synthesize information from not only what is said but the body cues of the individuals is important. As an interviewer, I use these same principles to better understand the candidate. My job is to determine if the individual before me is the right fit for the role. There are three things that interviewers do consider: what is said, how it is said (tone) and body language. If any of the three seem “off,” it could cost the person the role. Be mindful about your body language; it is one thing you can eliminate as an obstacle in a successful job search.
How much does body language impact our perception of a person?
Many people have heard of the 7% rule. This came from a study by Professor Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s. In the study, he found that when the word “maybe “ was spoken in different manners to convey favorability, neutrality, and unfavorability, subjects were found to be more influenced by the tone of voice and other factors than the word itself. Thus came the often cited rule of 7%—7% of communication comes from the words said and 93% comes from the tone and body language. The 93% can further be divided into 55% body language and 38% tone. Many people have since said that this study’s results are misinterpreted.
Whether the number is 55% or something different, I think we all can agree that body language does play a significant role in how individuals give and receive information. Sometimes body language is unconscious (like a tick) and sometimes is it purposeful (the middle finger). I have heard many a hiring manager say to me after an interview, “I can’t put my finger on it, but something just seemed off in our interview. There was nothing said that I had an issue with, but I just did not get a good feeling about the person.” Now my job is always to ask more question to figure out why that “good feeling” was not there. Sometimes my probing can get to the bottom of it but sometimes it could be just the “vibe” the person was putting into the world. Consciously or unconsciously, that vibe may be from that person’s body language.
Some of you reading this might be thinking that companies should only judge a candidate by what they say. I think as humans that is unrealistic. We all are using all of our senses every day to make assessments about people and situations. Nonverbal communication is a different language but one that societies use to communicate. During the first OJ Simpson trial back in 1995, OJ sat at the defense table silent for most of the 10 months. Yet, many people analyzed his body language (was he smiling, attentive, mocking, etc.) to make judgments of his innocence or guilt, aside from the testimony of the many witnesses. To say you, personally, are immune to making judgments about someone based on non-verbal cues is probably unrealistic. What you should do is accept that judgments can be made and instead, understand what they can be and how to use this to your advantage.
Types of non-verbal body language important in a video interview
When you are doing a video interview, you have a camera on you so that the other person can see you. This may be live, where you are interacting with another individual, or it could be taped, where you are being prompted by a bot with questions (asynchronous video job interviews). Either way, you will be judged not only on what you say but also on your body language.
In the Western world, looking a person in the eye is considered good social etiquette. Those that do not may have judgments made against them that they appear bored or aloof. While looking people in the eye is often an issue with people on the autism spectrum (and society is becoming a bit more understanding of this), there still is often a bias against those that do not make eye contact. I have heard some experts advise those on the autism spectrum to let an interviewer know that they might not always be looking the person in the eye, but it is not a sign of disrespect and that the person is being attentive. I have never had someone say that to me, but I personally would respect someone for bringing this to my attention. That is certainly a judgment call for those in that situation.
Good eye contact is very important because it conveys confidence and trustworthiness. Video interviews can make this hard because it is often not clear where to look. Try to practice this ahead of time by getting on Skype, Google Hangouts or some other video messaging software to see where best to set up your camera and where to look. If having the playback of what the interviewer sees is distracting, see if you can eliminate that view from your screen. If looking straight at a person becomes uncomfortable and you feel like you are starting to stare, move your eyes to the person’s forehead or bridge of the nose. This change in view is subtle but people usually cannot detect this is what you are doing. Whatever you do, do not do an eye-roll or narrow your eyes. These are often considered either signs of disrespect or disbelief.
Your best friend in an interview is a genuine smile at the beginning. A judgment is being made of you in the first few seconds of an interview. What do you want that judgment to be? One of a friendly, nice to be around individual that is confident in his/her abilities or a sour puss? One of the best ways to convey that you are someone that the hiring manager would like to work with is a smile that is real and not forced. For some, this is easy; for others, not so much. I know for those that have imperfect teeth, this can be a tough one, as there is self-consciousness about your smile. A smile does not have to be big and toothy, it just has to feel real. Practice in front of a mirror to find a smile that makes you comfortable. Even if it is a closed mouth smile, if it is real, that will go a long way to building rapport.
Many of us had mothers that told us to sit-up and not slouch. It is important in a video interview (as well as in an in-person interview) to make sure you are sitting up straight. Why? Sitting up straight is a confidence move. Using your natural spinal alignment to stack the bones of your spine vertically will project confidence in yourself and a comfort level with the situation. Now, this does not mean you need to sit ram-rod straight where the posture looks unnatural. Slouching in your chair can make you come off as taking a too casual approach to this important interaction. I once had a person that I interviewed slouch in his chair and put his hands behind his head as if we were having a casual conversation on his sofa at home. It was not the situation where that would have been appropriate. And yes, he did not get the job.
Arms and hands
Depending on where you have your camera focused, you may only be seen from the neck up or the waist up. Even if it is just a neck up shot, you want to be conscious of the placement of your arms. Many people when nervous have a habit of touching their face. This can include touching the hair, chin or cheek. If you do it once, probably not a big deal. If it is done often enough, it can be distracting and give the impression that you are nervous. My suggestion is to interlace your hands on your lap. This leaves your arms straight down (a neutral position) and if you are nervous, you can squeeze your hands to get rid of your nervous energy without anyone seeing.
You may have heard that crossing your arms in front of your chest can come across as an angry gesture or one of discomfort. Having your chest visible is often a sign of openness and a willingness to speak truthfully and not defensively. If you are visible from the waist up, you can have your hands in your lap (either clasped or laying on top of one another) with your elbows by your side or your elbows on the armrests of a chair. If you want, another good place to put your hands is on the armrests of a chair.
What if you are a hand talker? I feel your pain since I am one myself. We are expressive and use our hands to make points. My feelings on this is anything in moderation is okay, anything in excess causes problems. If you are a hand talker the best thing to do is to watch a video of yourself and look at how you are using your hands. Is it occasionally or all of the time? Do you only use your hands to highlight a significant point or indiscriminately? Do you use your hands in a non-threatening way or do you point or make other aggressive gestures? This is something you can change with mindfulness and practice if it is a problem. If you think that you are using your hands in a distracting way, in a video interview you can probably get away with sitting on them without anyone noticing. Practice this, though, to get used to the feeling of wanting to use your hands and feeling them restrained. Can you learn to resist the urge to pull them out from under your legs?
What you wear is another form of nonverbal communication. Many people have a style that conveys a message—athletic, free spirit, and traditionalist to name a few. People do make assumptions, rightly or wrongly, about you based not only about what you wear but also how you wear a piece of clothing or your makeup/hairstyle. Being put together in clean clothes says you take pride in yourself and the assumption often is that you then will take pride in your work quality. I am not here to tell anyone to dress in a particular style. Whatever style you choose, make sure it is clean, pressed and appropriate for the occasion. For a video interview, make sure you treat this the same as an in-person interview. That means dressing up for the interview. Do not think that your clothing choice here does not matter, because it does. Now with any interview, the choice of clothing will depend on the type of position and the industry. More conservative industries, such as finance, tend to prefer more conservative and formal clothing; those in a creative field are fine with less structured and more informality. Whatever the case in your situation, make sure the clothing is laundered and in good repair. With a video interview, the person interviewing you may only see the top that you are wearing, so concentrate on that but don’t forget to make sure your pants or skirt are appropriate. You never know if it will be caught on camera (I see this with talking heads on TV where the person has a jacket and tie and they go to a shot of the person's legs under a table, and you see the rest of the outfit does not match).
Your hair, makeup, and jewelry should also be appropriate for the position and industry. Big pieces of jewelry, while lovely, can also be distracting, especially over video. Keep those pieces for another occasion. You want to be the center of attention, not your jewelry. Since the lighting may be less than optimal over video, make sure your makeup comes across appropriately. Make sure your makeup is not becoming the center of attention (unless the job is being a makeup artist). Same with extreme hairstyles or coloring. Make sure your hair is clean and styled. Where it as you would for most days. You want to project that you are confident and capable of doing the job and that you “get” what that means for the role and industry.
Types of non-verbal body language important in an in-person interview
Generally, everything above applies in an in-person interview as well. There are some other body language cues that you should be aware of, though.
I recently wrote a post on LinkedIn with a lot of comments around handshakes. The discussion centered on the “bone crushers” or the “limp fish” handshakes and the message they might send. Again, I am writing based on a Western perspective, since in other cultures the norm might be a bow instead. The consensus is that most people prefer a firm but not too hard handshake. This exudes confidence. You do not want a handshake that is so hard that it hurts the other person. This can come across as “alpha” behavior (which would be inappropriate in all but a limited set of circumstances). If you want to see “alpha behavior” in action with a handshake, take a look at the infamous handshake between Presidents Trump and Macron. Holding a person’s hand for a long time and putting one hand to cover the handshake are hallmarks of this. The “limp fish”, which is barely holding on to the other person’s hand, also conveys a lack of self-confidence. If you have clammy hands, please make sure to discreetly wipe them on your trousers before shaking hands with someone. It conveys you are nervous and is just unpleasant, not the impression you want to make.
Legs and feet
In an in-person interview, where you place your legs and feet are important. Having your legs at a 90-degree angle with your feet firmly planted on the floor, hips distance apart is a great power move. Ergonomically it is preferred for good body alignment and looks very confident. Instead of having the legs firmly planted on the floor, some people use the “Dutchess Slant” pose, where the legs are angled slightly to the side. Many women use this, especially when wearing a skirt or dress, and it considered a modesty position. It is not particularly a powerful look and not one often done by men, so women may want to consider the length of a dress or skirt to avoid this position. Another weaker position is when ankles are crossed. Since it is less open and makes the person appear smaller, it is a less dominant and more submissive pose. This variation may work well, though, for those that tend to have jittery legs with a pronounced bobbing of the feet. This will tend to keep the feet in check. The most open position, with legs open and feet far apart is called “manspreading.” Definitely not a good look in an interview, because it is too casual and some might consider it sending a sexual message, especially if the interviewer is of the opposite sex.
Many people are more comfortable with their legs crossed at the knees. This is considered a more open position, as you take up more space. The ankle over the knee is considered a power move, and one done mostly by men. Taking up even more space, the person sends out the vibe that they are really comfortable and confident in themselves.
Whatever you do, pick a leg position and try to stay with it. Some people are fidgety and move their legs from position to position, and this can be distracting.
What does this all mean?
It means that going into an interview, you need to not only practice what you will say but also be aware of what your body language is conveying as well. Most people have no issues in an interview and their body language is fine and appropriate. Some people, though, may need to work on one or more of the elements of body language. Knowledge is power. Once you are aware of areas that may not be conveying the message you wish, you can work to change it with focus and practice. Everyone can improve their interview effectiveness. Any changes you make will have an impact not only in your career but perhaps your personal life, a double win!