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4 body language cues that don’t mean what you think

Published: Thursday 4th February 2021

Man sitting in a chair with pointed fingers

There’s no shortage of articles on the internet telling you everything you need to know about a candidate’s body language cues and what they mean. A lot of this advice is based on the assumption that body language is the royal road to the truth, and communicates what the candidate’s words would conceal.

There’s something wrong with this, though: it may not be true.

There’s lot of evidence out there that suggests that the things we think we know about body language are simply based on misinformation and stereotypes. Even the term ‘body language’ implies tha physical action can be interpreted in the same way that language can.

Vincent Denault, lecturer at the University of Montreal, writes that ‘Unfortunately, although thousands of peer-reviewed publications provide very important insights on the impact of nonverbal communication in social interactions, the general public as well as professionals whose work require sorting the truth from the lies are exposed to a plethora of false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques to ‘read’ nonverbal behaviours.

‘Science has shown that specific nonverbal behaviors with similar unequivocal meanings or interpretations across situations are very rare.’

While body language can often communicate something, it’s not always clear what. Therefore, it’s easy to see one thing – a cleared throat, a shaking hand – and jump to the wrong conclusion, especially in an interview.

Here are 6 body language cues that don’t mean what you think.

Crossing arms

Man standing in front of an orange background with his arms crossed

Imagine you’re sitting down with a candidate and they immediately start crossing their arms. They’re all scrunched up in their chair, shielding themselves from whatever high-stakes question you’re going to throw their way. 

Most people think that when someone crosses their arms, it means they’re in a defensive state. They’re afraid of the situation they’re in and they’re literally shielding themselves from harm.

While this may be true in some cases, it may not be for all. Former FBI agent Joe Navarro suggests that, rather than trying to ‘block’, crossing arms is better understood as a way to self-soothe in stressful situations. Rather than communicating belligerence or defensiveness, it may simply communicate that the person in question is uncomfortable in some way.

A lack of eye contact

Woman looking across a desk from her interviewer displaying good body langugae

There’s a piece of common wisdom out there that says people who lie find it difficult to maintain eye contact. As a result, many people assume that if an interviewer doesn’t maintain consistent eye contact, it means they aren’t telling the truth.

This wisdom may not be very useful. Many people who are trying to deceive will actively maintain prolonged eye contact to ‘prove’ to the other person that they aren’t lying. 

Most people don’t actually maintain eye contact when talking in the first place. While it is common to maintain eye contact while listening, people are far more likely to look around while speaking, with occasional eye contact. This is because eye movement is systematically related to internal thought processes like memory recall. 

There are also a host of behavioral and psychological conditions that make sustained eye contact for some people difficult.

Handshakes

Two men shaking hands

It used to be common knowledge that you could tell the character of a person by the firmness of his handshake. Someone with a firm handshake was reliable, straightforward, confident. Someone with a weak handshake was spineless, slippery, and not to be trusted.

It may sound silly, but this is still a firmly held belief by a lot of people. The problem is that the handshake is practiced differently around the world. 

In North America, it is customary to have a handshake with a firm grip. In the UK, on the other hand, it is far more common for people to keep their hands limp and barely grip at all. And of course in Japan, people don’t shake hands at all.

Hand gestures

Woman speaking using hand gestures and other body language cues

It’s very common for people to ‘speak with their hands’. This means moving your hands around a lot in the air while speaking. Or it could mean pointing at something you’re talking about in an instructional way. People do this because it is an unconscious way of trying to to express themselves. Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders, states that “Gesturing can help people form clearer thoughts, speak in tighter sentences and use more declarative language.”

Talking with your hands is generally considered a sign of confidence and engagement. However, certain hand gestures might be problematic. 

Lots of chopping and pointing gestures may indicate rigid and or overly controlling behavioral tendencies in your candidate (or at least, they may appear to have these traits). If you’re interviewing someone with these body language cues, think hard about whether you want someone with that image on your team.  

 

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