Are You Keeping People Away with Your Body Language? 10 Tips to Improve Your Body Language

This is part of a series on interpersonal communication.

Bored body language

Are you aware of your body language when communicating with others? Are you conscious of your body posture, gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements? Are you aware of the vibes you exude to others as a result of your body language?

Research has suggested that between 60 and 70 percent of meaning in human communication is derived from nonverbal behavior. This means that only 30 to 40 percent of meaning is derived from the words themselves, which is arguably low, given that words is the very medium people use in communication!

Some would even go as far as to claim that body language makes up 90 percent of meaning in human communication (James Borg, Body Language). Now, that’s a REALLY high figure if that is indeed true!

My Past Body Language

I have never given much thought to my body language until lately, when I started my Lunch Actually journey. I began to put more thought into understanding my body language and verifying if the vibes I give to others (from my body language) are congruent with my intentions and my real self. My interest in body language mainly stems from my desire to further my connecting ability and ensure people are perceiving me correctly, true to my real intentions.

This exploration has made me realize that I might have been sending vibes of aloofness and solitude to others in the past (truer for the people I’ve just met, since people who already know me would know that I’m not like that—in fact, far from it).

First, let’s take a look at my body language when conversing in the past:

  1. Whenever I conversed, I would maintain a fairly serious expression.
  2. My head would be poised in a perfectly upright and still position throughout the conversation, as opposed to some people who would tilt their heads. I wasn’t even aware that I was doing this until my date coach pointed it out.
  3. I would abstain from giggling or smiling unless there was a reason to (e.g., a joke was being cast, there was happy stuff being discussed, and positive news was being shared). This is largely due to my past belief that to giggle incessantly was to be rude, bimbotic, and simply not take the other person seriously. (I no longer think this way now, as long as the person doesn’t giggle like, at EVERY comment!)
  4. Half the time, my arms would be folded and my legs, crossed. Occasionally I would switch to locking my fingers together and cupping my knee caps with my interlocked hands. Like how I was like in the first ten seconds of my 2010 CNA interview.
  5. I tended to recluse when contemplating. I would do things like look away from the person (or look down or to my side), fold my arms, cross my legs, become 100% quiet, wear a super serious expression, and carry a slightly firm brow line. All subconscious in nature. These actions would not last long, just a split second or two, long enough for me to think. Once I was done, I would return to looking at the person and share what was on my mind.
  6. I would be pretty still, with minimal movements, because I felt movements would be distracting, both to myself and to the other party.
  7. Other than speaking, I would be fairly quiet. I would try not to use filler words or filler sounds like “umm” or “ahh”, I would not think out loud nor do anything which would create noise (e.g., drum fingers and scratch surface area of stuff), because I felt these would detract away from the conversation, which is about connecting and knowing the other party.
  8. Throughout the conversation, I would maintain a state of neutrality. It didn’t matter even if the person said something which shocked, surprised, repelled, or agitated me—I would process the feelings internally and appear neutral on the outside. This was especially so for negative emotions.

    Why? Firstly, to maintain control. By looking calm, the other party would not be aware of what was going on in my mind. This meant I wouldn’t be vulnerable.

    Secondly, I always want to hear unadulterated versions of people’s thoughts. Outwardly displaying emotion, while the person talks, might bias the person in sharing things which he/she thinks I want to hear, rather than what he/she really wants to share. This is especially true in Asia I feel, because the heart of Asia’s culture is about gaining acceptance vs. asserting individuality.

The above actions applied to most of my past interactions. I would behave differently if I was with a very, very close friend or if I was talking about a topic that I was very excited about; in such cases I would become crazy animated and hyperactive to the point of infinity.

Getting Feedback (and Revelations) on My Body Language

Since I’m currently working on bettering myself in the area of body language, I decided to ask my godsister, Rita, for feedback on my body language. I believe feedback (from choice sources) is one of the best and fastest ways to learn. (I’m currently conducting the Sep run for Be a Better Me in 30 Days Program now, and the upcoming task on Day 17 is on getting feedback from others.)

My godsister is one of my dearest friends; she is young (22) yet highly intelligent, and I love conversing with her. I believed she would be able to offer me excellent advice in this area.

So even though Rita and I are quite close, we have not had much face time with each other, as she lives in Hong Kong and me, Singapore. We were acquainted two years ago while I was in Hong Kong to speak at a conference, and we have been keeping in touch through online chat (now Whatsapp) ever since. Three weeks ago, she came over to Singapore to visit me, which made it the first time we met since two years ago. 

So after reacquainting and hanging out for about two hours, I asked her for feedback on my body language. Here’s the gist of what was exchanged:

  • Me: Meimei (i.e. “younger sister” in Mandarin), my date coach mentioned that I might come across as “intense” in person. I know that I can be perceived as quite intense sometimes. What do you think?
  • Rita: Hmm. I think the people who don’t know you might think that you are aloof and disinterested when first talking to you.

    However, after chatting for a few minutes, it becomes obvious that you are not being standoffish and are simply very focused on the conversation. You actually put a lot of thought into what is being discussed and the responses you give are very well thought out. You also have a genuine interest in the other person and what he/she thinks.

  • Me (zooming down to her first statement): You mentioned that people might think that I’m aloof and disinterested. What makes you say that?
  • Rita: Well, earlier when we started talking, I was a little worried as I thought you were not engaged in the conversation. You looked very stern and you were really quiet. I thought maybe you were bored or something. However, I later realized that I was wrong, because you began to ask some very deep questions relating to our topic, deeper than things which other people would ask. It was evident from the exchange that you were genuinely interested in what I had to say.
  • Me: Besides looking serious and being silent, were there any other things (I did) that made you feel that I was not engaged?
  • Rita: For example, looking away or looking down while we are talking (Celes: she was referring to the times when I was thinking).

    Folding of arms. (Celes: Which ironically, I began doing right after she said that! I frowned a little, then changed to cupping my kneecaps with my interlocked hands, after which R said…)

    Even cupping your hands over your knee caps also feels a little enclosed. It’s like a self-protective, defensive, stance. (Celes: *facepalms*)

    Having an overall neutral expression.

    These make me feel a bit worried because I don’t know what’s going on in your mind and what’s happening in the conversation.

  • Me: But these are subconscious actions. They come across as normal to me and they are just my usual behavioral stances whenever I think. What would you recommend me to do?
  • Rita: Maybe smile more? Include the person in your thinking process. For example, you can do some body gestures (e.g., some movement), make some facial expressions (e.g., pursuing your lips, having a thoughtful look, and carrying a light smile), make some sounds (e.g., “hmm”), and have some eye contact, all of which would be signals that you are thinking. Doing them would make me feel like I’m part of your inner world and I know what’s going on in your mind. Even if it’s just thinking, at least I would know that you are thinking.

    I feel doing this will also include an element of vulnerability in you too, which is a good thing. (Celes: As being vulnerable means being more approachable.)

  • Me: Hmm. *starts practicing what R shared by making a thoughtful look, slightly puffing my cheeks, and putting my index finger to my cheek*
*after a couple of seconds*
  • Me: Oh, and how about my speech? Sometimes people say that I speak quite fast. What do you think?
  • Rita: I don’t really think it’s a speed thing. Maybe some fluctuation in tone (varying between high and low) and fluctuation in speed (varying between fast and slow).  It will make you feel more alive and engaged. Your current voice adds to the seriousness of the conversation because you are speaking in just one tone and at a constant speed.

Rita’s feedback was an eyeopener for me.

You see, I have always suspected that certain aspects of my body language were a little “enclosed” (such as arm folding), but I had never ever thought that my body language would zone me as being “aloof”, “disinterested”, or even “reclusive”.

After hearing Rita and digesting her words, it made perfect sense though. All my body language (while conversing, especially while thinking) were indeed indicative of reclusiveness.

Why I Exhibited Such Body Language in the Past

After realizing the perceived aloofness of my body language, the next step was for me to understand “why” I was behaving this way.

I don’t believe in blindly changing the exterior without creating internal change. I believe permanent change comes from working through the issue inside out, by addressing the roots of the “issue”. My qualm with most people studying body language is that they focus only on changing their external actions, which may create their desired impression to others, but only covers up the original problem (whatever had created the problematic body language in the first place).

Read: How To Create Real Change In Life: Address Root Cause vs. Effects

Tracing my body language to its roots, I realized that I had exhibited said body language because firstly, I was afraid of letting others disrupt my thoughts. Secondly, I didn’t want people to “trample” on my personal space. But most important of all…

I was afraid of letting people in onto my inner world.

As a result, I had subconsciously enforced a “safe zone” for myself through reclusive body language patterns. By erecting a barrier around myself (by folding arms, crossing legs, looking away when thinking since thinking is when I’m in my vulnerable state, etc.), no one would be able to “intrude” into my personal space. No one would be able to enter my inner space. No one would be able to hurt me.

Upon realizing this, it was clear what I had to do—to let go of my subconscious, separation beliefs, and to convert them into oneness beliefs. While I had already embraced the oneness mindset at the conscious level, apparently I still had subconscious separation beliefs, which gave rise to my reclusive body language.

For more about the separation mindset and why it’s detrimental to forming meaningful social connections, read: The Secret To Meaningful, Fulfilling Social Relationships (How To Remove Social Anxiety)

Embodying a More Open Body Language

Hearing Rita’s comments, and realizing that my body language had possibly held me back from connecting with others, made me feel a little heartbroken, actually. Heartbroken, not because of the criticism (far from it—I see criticism as a good thing), but because of the realization that I might have been self-sabotaging my efforts at connecting with others all this while.

Connecting with others is essentially a life passion of mine. How could I have been stepping on my own toes this whole while? I was more annoyed at the lack of self-awareness of my body language than anything else.

Since then, I’ve been working to address this potential reclusive vibe I give others, from inside out. On the inside, I’ve been reworking my inner beliefs. On the exterior, I’ve been working on embodying a more open body language, via the following steps:

  1. Loosen the boundary over my personal space. Stop trying to exert a barrier between me and the world. While it is fair to want some personal space, the way I had demarcated and exerted this space in the past was quite rigid and forceful. It’s now time for me to remove this boundary I had exerted and blur the separation between my personal space and the external world.
  2. Include the other party in my thinking process (i.e. open myself up; allow myself to be vulnerable). Give indicators when I’m thinking, such as filler sounds (e.g., “hmm”), giving a thoughtful look, and thinking out loud. Continue to maintain eye contact even when thinking.
  3. Soften my gaze. How? By smiling, maintaining eye contact without bordering into staring, grinning where appropriate (not like a cheshire cat of course), and softening my facial muscles.
  4. Introduce some movement for a more dynamic interaction. For example, occasional movements like brushing my hair, gently moving my hands to express myself, and touching my face. All done as slow, fluid movements to be weaved into the conversation, not quick, rapid movements as they can be disruptive (unless the speed is necessary to illustrate a point).
  5. Be more open and receiving in my body language. For example, when someone is talking to me, wear a gentle smile while receiving the message, vs. staring while mentally analyzing what the person is saying (the latter being something I used to do in the past). In my idle state, keep the space in front of my upper torso open vs. closing it off (e.g., don’t fold my arms and put my bag at my side rather than hugging it to my chest or putting it on my lap).

I’ve only been doing the five action steps in the past week, but I feel I have been making some good progress. 😀 It almost feels like they are a part of me now and I have been doing them forever! I look forward to applying them on a deeper level.

10 Tips To Improve Your Connection Through Body Language

If you would like to improve your connection ability with others, here are my 10 body language tips for you:

  1. Smile. 😀 
  2. Keep the space open before your upper torso. Meaning, try not to fold your arms, put your bag on your lap, hug your bag, or do anything that covers up the upper front part of your body. Closing the space in front of you sends the invisible signal of “Don’t talk to me; I’m not interested in engaging with anyone.” On the other hand, keeping the area open will make you more approachable.
  3. Have eye contact. Very important in making a connection. Eye contact helps to establish connection and let the other person know you are listening. …However, don’t stare. Look away from time to time to give the person some space. Then re-establish contact after a split second. Some people might feel uncomfortable under a constant, unwavering gaze.
  4. Be comfortable in your space. Don’t fidget, squirm, or lose yourself in your body. Own your space. Your body may take up physical space by default, but do you actually own that space? This is where self-confidence comes into play. Read: How To Be The Most Confident Person In The World
  5. [Specifically for ladies] If you have to rest your head on your hand, keep the inner side of your hand (with the palm) faced outwards, toward the person (as opposed to resting on your knuckles, with the outside part of your arm facing the other person). The former makes yourself appear more open than the latter.
  6. Minimize movement that distracts, such as finger drumming, nail biting, skin peeling, scab picking, etc. Some of these are pretty bad habits anyway, so it serves to quit them. Read: Cultivate Life Transforming Habits in 21 Days
  7. Slow down your pace. If you speak fast, consider slowing down, especially if you keep having to repeat yourself. It usually means the other person can’t catch you. If you have to brush your hair, cross your legs, or make any movement, do them at an adjustable pace. Sudden, fast movements like suddenly swinging your leg from one side to another, flicking your hair, and wildly waving your hands, can take the other person by surprise and detract from the conversation.
  8. Be inclusive in your actions. Do movements that include, rather than exclude, the person into your space. (Of course, if you feel the person is shady, like he/she might be a molester or something, then keep your distance.)

    Actions that separate and demarcate boundaries include arm folding, legs crossing, putting items between you and the person, and increasing the physical distance between you and the other party. Actions that are inclusive include reducing the physical distance between you and the other party (not to the point of being inappropriate), smiling, shaking hands, linking arms (for close friends), hand holding, maintaining eye contact, occasional gestures toward the other person, and keeping space in upper front part of you open (see point #2).

  9. Be open with your emotions (but not in a cathartic manner). Allow yourself to be vulnerable by wearing your emotions on your face. If you feel sad, then express sadness. If you feel surprise, then express surprise. If you feel happy, then express happiness. Don’t keep your emotions inside yourself. Wear your heart on your sleeve. ♥
  10. Pace yourself to match the other person. At the end of the day, everyone is different. Tips #1 to #9 I have shared above are gold standard ideals to work toward. However, not everyone may be ready for them.  Some people might take a v-e-r-y long time to warm up and might be intimidated by any upfront display of emotion in the first meeting (see point #9). Some people might be immensely shy and feel intimidated by any eye contact (see point #3). Some people might be very defensive and be taken off guard when you adopt an open posture (see point #2).

    It’s important that you assess each person individually, adopt the body language that will help you to best connect with him/her, and work your way to opening him/her up through gradual shifts. Embrace Tips #1 to #9 as ideals to execute, but also give yourself leeway to improvise where needed. Some people may be in lower developmental stages which require you to adopt more “defensive”, “enclosed” type body language to connect with them in the beginning, before moving to more open, connective forms of body language. Remember there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

I hope you have found this piece on body language useful. Be sure to share it with others on your Twitter and Facebook; let’s help others to gain more awareness about their body language and work towards a more connective, inclusive, society.

Be sure to check out: Benefits Of a Good Posture (And 13 Tips To Get One)

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] 10 Tips To Improve Your Body Language

This is part of a series on interpersonal communication. Check out the other articles in the series:

Image: Bored body language