Does Body Language Matter?

body-language

In a recent article entitled “Ten workplace body language mistakes”, author Jacquelyn Smith claims that if you don’t follow certain body language rules, you’re less likely to be successful at the office.  Despite feeling good that I don’t make any of the mistakes listed, I finished the article with a sour taste in my mouth.  It seems like Smith realized there might be people who’d feel like I did: seemingly in self-defense she quotes Tonya Reiman, who’s written a book on the subject: “’Is [judging people by their body language] 100 per cent fair? Not necessarily. But it is how humans are programmed.’”

The thing is, though, not all humans are programmed that way; some of us have trouble not only judging body language, but making the “right” physical signals in the first place. I started to wonder if there were any guides out there for understanding standard body language.  Luckily, there are – and I was surprised by how many.  On the internet alone, you have countless videos, articles, and webpages devoted to explaining and instructing people in movements and facial expressions.

It also turns out that the article I read isn’t the only one to bring up the subject of body language in business; apparently, there’s a whole niche devoted to it.  How to succeed in business without really trying? According to these sources, move your body parts the right way. You could say it’s common sense.   After all, most experts agree that nonverbal cues make up a majority of human communication. But in a work environment, does it really matter that much? Like many people, I’d imagine, I’ve met some eccentric bosses and high-ranking employees who likely don’t always make the right gestures or hide twitches and quirks.  I feel like you could say talent trumps conventional communication skills – though of course, having both helps.

But there was another thing that bothered me: The article doesn’t take into account the fact that body language can differ immensely across countries and cultures.  For example, according to Smith, it’s important to have a firm handshake.  But many cultures don’t use the handshake at all.  Another thing Smith advises is not to make expansive gestures with your hands and arms.  But I can imagine that in some places, like in my family’s native Italy, talking with your hands is pretty de rigueur.

Body language doesn’t just have implications in the business world, of course.  For example, this article discusses how doctors in the United States are learning to become more attuned to their patients. Some use translators or interpreters to help when treating patients who don’t speak their language.  It’s a smart choice, the article asserts, not only because it could help prevent potential lawsuits, but also and above all, because it’s a way for doctors to truly make a connection; translators and interpreters who know their clients’ culture as well as their language can help both parties understand each other’s unfamiliar nonverbal communication.

Of course, there are some universal gestures – including that of understanding.  With all of the different interpretations of body language worldwide, errors obviously happen.  Luckily, most of us know that every culture is different, and we can forgive any gaffes that might arise.

Interestingly, though, there may come a point when miscommunication is no longer an issue: according to this article, because of the popularity of American movies and TV shows, people across the globe have started to recognize and even adopt American body language.  So I guess boning up on your body language skills could be very useful if you’re from the U.S.; not only could it apparently help you get respect at the office – one day, it could also help you communicate better wherever you are in the world.

Alysa Salzberg

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