Go to a bar or a coffee shop, put on headphones, and play some music. Now, look at the people there. Even though you cannot hear a single word anyone says, you can easily differentiate people who are sad, angry, or ambivalent. You can see who is comfortable in their own skin and who is feeling anxious. Why is that?
There is an infamous study which concluded that the words we actually say make up only 7% of our communication. The other 93% is a combination of our body language and tone of voice. While these numbers have been debunked as, of course, what we actually say is important, it’s undoubtedly true that nonverbal signals play a much larger role in the way we communicate. Much larger than we usually think.
In my book, The Social Gladiator, one of the biggest chapters is dedicated to improving social skills. While I often flaunt the fact that my book is different than other books on socializing precisely because it doesn’t focus on tactics such as “do this” or “don’t do this”, there’s no way around developing good social skills.
And what do you know, one of the most important elements of having good social skills is having good body language.
As the name suggests, it refers to the way you communicate with your body. This includes your posture, facial expressions, hand gestures, and other physical movements. If you think reading body language is something an FBI agent might use to profile serial killers, you are correct. However, it’s also the same thing used to flirt with someone in a crowded nightclub or display competence during a job interview.
You can’t not communicate with your body.
You are always sending signals, whether you are aware of it or not. Every action, or a lack of action, communicates something. Or, as my old college professor would put it: “No matter what you say, your body is always going to give you away.” So since you’re communicating either way, it’s much better to be good at it and know what your body is saying, right?
Here is a list of six simple things you can do today to improve your body language. While all of these tips can be applied instantly, it takes time and practice for them to become natural.
Buy hey, you have to start somewhere. So let’s dig in.
Body Language Tip #1: Walk slower
People who rush are either later or they can’t stand still.
If you’re always late, it shows that you’re disorganized. Not to mention it pisses people off as they waste time waiting for you. If you can’t stand still, it shows a lack of self-control. You know who can never stand still? Babies and small children.
Is that who you want to model your behavior after? No? Didn’t think so.
So walk slower than you usually do. Not slow, just slower. Make every step count. Physically slowing down your pace will force your mind to slow down as well. If you’re tardy, this will force you to leave earlier and organize your time better. If your mind is always running and you’re impatient standing still, this will cause you to practice functioning at a slow pace (with the added benefit of reducing anxiety).
- When walking, move your shoulders and swing your arms casually; otherwise, you will seem like a machine and not a human being.
- Be relaxed, but look ahead and keep your posture straight. Do not slouch, do not look down, and do not keep your hands in your pockets.
- Walk with a purpose. Do not wander around as if you’re lost. This not only makes you seem less credible, it makes you an easy target for criminals. Even if you are lost, walk as if you know where you are going.
Body Language Tip #2: Keep good posture
When standing or walking, keep your back and neck straight with your shoulders pushed back. Keep your buttocks pushed in, not sticking out so it curves your spine, and keep your legs about shoulder-width apart.
Why is this important?
There is a big connection between your posture and your mood. A good posture not only makes you look better, it makes you feel better. It releases serotonin, often known as the “feel good” chemical. Serotonin is, coincidentally, also responsible for making you appear more dominant.
Likewise, slouching and being hunched over achieves the opposite; you will feel sadder, depressed, and inferior. A wide, open stance embraces the world and all challenges that come your way; closing your body off makes you feel like a victim, as if you’re weak and trying to hide.
Bonus tip: Use the same posture both when walking and when sitting down.
Body Language Tip #3: Keep eye-contact
When communicating with someone, keep a good level of eye contact. This shows engagement in the conversation, which makes you come across better.
By “good eye contact” I mean this:
- Don’t stare and be creepy; direct your focus to one of the eyes.
- Relax and be natural. Don’t forget to blink and don’t be afraid to nod or look away at times.
- If you’re in a less-casual situation, like a job interview or on a date, don’t be the first to break eye contact. In such situations, there is always a certain level of competition and assertion of dominance and power. The person who breaks eye contact is shown as being less comfortable, giving the other person more power.
Here is a simple way to practice this: Every time you walk pass someone in the street, look them in the eye. Some people will avoid making eye contact, some will look back. No matter what, do not break eye contact until they completely pass you by.
Doing this will feel uncomfortable, especially if you’re not used to it. But the more you do this, the easier and more natural it will feel and you will be able to keep long gazes without being creepy or weird. Looking people in the eye not only shows them respect, but also shows that you are unafraid and determined.
And guess what? Acting as if you are unafraid and determined will make you actually feel this way.
Body Language Tip #4: Control hand gestures
Each of us uses our limbs differently when we communicate.
Your hand gestures may be subtle or you may wave your arms around uncontrollably. Neither is good. Being too stiff makes you look like a robot, and being too excessive makes you seem as if you lack self-control. Naturally, the optimal gestures fall somewhere in-between those two extremes.
The best way to learn this is by imitation. Look at other people and their hand gestures; you will easily recognize those who are too stiff and those who are too excessive. Avoid both of these extremes.
Instead, look at people who are powerful storytellers. They will usually keep their gestures moderate, but will go to an extreme to emphasize a point. This means that they are using their hand gestures as a tool for better communication. Pay close attention to people like this and try to copy what they do.
Body Language Tip #5: Take up more space
Taking up space is similar to posture. Using less physical space makes you blend in and hide within groups, making you feel insecure and closed off. On the other hand, taking up more space opens you up to the world, which not only makes you more noticeable, it also makes you feel more confident.
- An easy way to achieve this is to keep a wider stance and your arms by your side.
- When sitting down, spread your legs and arms a bit wider. If you’re a lady and want to keep your legs crossed, point them diagonally.
- If you’re holding a presentation, walk up and down the platform and spread your arms to own that environment and show that you’re in control.
- When you’re explaining something, move your arms and body openly, rather than being closed off.
A natural caveat to this is that you shouldn’t be a bully. But honestly, do I even need to tell you this?
Like with anything, moderation is the key. Don’t invade people’s personal space, make them uncomfortable, or force yourself onto others. This will make you seem like a show-off and a jerk, rather than a dominant, but a likable force of nature.
Body Language Tip #6: Be determined
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you start walking, then stop and have to think about which route is faster. Or you start going one way, then change your mind, and go another way. Or you go to a bar or a restaurant, sit down at the table, but then realize you don’t like it for some reason. So you switch tables, maybe even multiple times, until you’re satisfied enough to stay there.
I doubt I have to tell you this doesn’t make you look good. From now on, no matter what you do, be determined in your decisions. Learn to make quick decisions and live with them, even if you’re not 100% sure about them. For most of your daily choices, make a snap choice and live with it. Not happy with it? Be happy with it or use it as a learning experience for next time.
Either way, there’s no going back. You’ve made your choice. If you fucked up, try to make a better choice next time.
Perfecting any of these elements takes time. Trying to change all of them at once will likely leave you confused, as you will be trying to keep track of a hundred different things, which will achieve the opposite effect. Instead of looking dominant and relaxed, you will seem wound up and anxious.
Practice is the key. Focus on one thing at a time and, after a while, all of them will become second-nature. Over time, these small changes will accumulate and these skills will become second-nature. Good luck!
P.S. This is an excerpt from my book The Social Gladiator, a guide to overcoming your insecurities and building social skills.