Work a few simple gestures into your repertoire, and you could write your own slow jam—or at least make the right kind of first impression.
Draw Them In
A smile is the quickest way to put someone at ease. “It is the expression that the human brain prefers,” says Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders (Jossey-Bass). “We look for smiles, and we can spot them a football field away.” People instinctively mimic a smile when they see one, and that in turn affects their emotional state. “Smile at someone, and when they smile back, they actually start to feel better about themselves—and about you,” says Goman. One catch: This only works with a “real” smile. “The difference between a fake and a genuine one is that crow’s-feet crinkle,” says Goman. If you’re having trouble faking it, she suggests biting on a pencil with your back teeth to practice.
“When you need people to notice what you’re saying, use a height advantage,” says Goman. Try perching higher than the other person—on the arm of a couch, for example. Or if you’re in a conference room, stand up when you want to make your point. The best way to project confidence while seated? Try what Janine Driver, author of You Say More Than You Think (Crown Publishers), calls an elbow pop: Rest your elbow on the back of your chair. “You take up more space, which projects confidence, but the gesture is likable—not arrogant—because your hands are relaxed.”
Hit Your Mark
Punctuate your most important point in an argument with a slight eyebrow lift. “It magnifies eye contact,” says David Givens, an anthropologist and the director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Washington. “It’s something you see mothers do when disciplining children.”
Cross It Off
Faced with a tricky problem? Try crossing your arms. “One study showed that you’ll be more likely to come up with a solution when you cross your arms,” says Driver. “The action engages both sides of the brain and helps you focus.” This is one of the most frequently misinterpreted pieces of body language: It’s widely considered a sign of defensiveness, but Goman points out that it’s also something people do when they’re cold or sitting in a chair without armrests.
Women often make themselves look (and feel) smaller by slouching, contracting their elbows, and crossing their ankles. But height and self-confidence may be related: A recent study at Cornell University revealed that people actually felt taller when they were in a position of power. If you need an extra shot of confidence for a first date, a job interview, or a party, Goman suggests doing your best Wonder Woman pose before you enter the room: “Stand with your legs apart and your hands on your hips, and hold that pose for two minutes. Your testosterone level increases, and your level of cortisol, a stress hormone, decreases.” A stance that’s a complete 180 from a superhero’s is called “tibial torsion,” a.k.a. the pigeon-toe stance. “It’s what a little kid does,” says Givens.
One gesture you’re likely to see a lot of during election season is the fist with a thumb on top. It adds emphasis without making the speaker look angry or insistent. John F. Kennedy was probably the first to do it, says Givens, and public figures are now coached on how to use it during speeches
Feet. “If you want to learn the truth, look at someone’s feet,” says Goman. “If I’m talking to you but my feet are pointing somewhere else, it’s a big signal that I’m finished with this conversation. We point our legs where we want to be.”
How has body language helped you in your own life? Tell us in the comments below.
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Editor's note: We will now be publishing Miss Manners articles twice weekly, but you will only see one question and answer per article. You can expect to see these articles appear on Tuesdays and Thursdays going forward.
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