In the previous Manners: A Lost Art article, we touched on The Basics of Good Manners. Today we are going to briefly discuss the nuances of body language. Yes, you read correctly: body language. Some may be surprised how important body language is to good manners.
Before we begin, it is important to mention that different cultures have different ideas and concepts surrounding appropriate body language. I will be approaching the subject from a North American, particularly an American, point-of-view. If you are residing outside of the United States, I highly recommend that you learn what body language is deemed appropriate for the culture that you are living in.
In North American culture, eye contact is a significant aspect of body language and what a person does with his or her eyes can tell a lot about his or her attitude and mindset. Unless the situation is confrontational, steady eye contact is a sign of respect, attention, interest, and self-confidence. It is acceptable for adults and children of both sexes to make eye contact with other people.
To show respect and interest during an introduction, conversation, lecture, or professional meeting, you should keep your eyes on the speaker for the majority of the time he or she is speaking. If you are having a one-on-one conversation, it is recommended to look at the person speaking for 5 or so seconds at a time. It is not necessary to make direct eye contact—which many people are uncomfortable with and, depending on the situation, is a common flirting method—focus instead on the triangle made by the nose and mouth.
Do not confuse steady eye contact with staring, glaring, or ogling. A rule of thumb to ensure you are making the right type of eye contact is to mimic the facial expressions of the speaker, such as showing concern, smiling, etc., and nod or shift your head from time to time. Feel free to blink and even look away momentarily, such as when taking notes during a lecture. Blinking too fast, however, is often taken as nervousness or discomfort.
We should be aware of the message that our eyes send to those around us. Eyes can show interest or disinterest, respect or disrespect, happiness or anger, enjoyment or irritation. When I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it became very popular among the kids and teenagers to roll their eyes whenever they were irritated or not interested in what the other person (usually a parent, teacher, or authority figure) was saying. This type of gesture is rude and should be avoided. In the United States, avoiding eye contact is often interpreted as timidness, weakness, or disrespect.
When traveling outside of North America, be sure to investigate the meaning of eye contact in whatever culture(s) you will be visiting. In some places, such as Europe, eye contact may imply romantic interest and making eye contact with the wrong person might land you into an uncomfortable situation. In many Asian cultures, avoiding eye contact with a superior or the opposite sex is considered a sign of respect; therefore, making eye contact with a superior or someone of the opposite sex is disrespectful, rude, or arrogant.
You may be thinking: “What does posture have to do with manners?” Very simple: good posture not only is important to your physical wellbeing but will also improve your self-confidence, which in turn effects how you interact with others and how others perceive you.
When standing, remember to keep your back straight, shoulders back, and stomach in. (For those unsure how to keep your “stomach in”, keep your abdominal muscles tightened. Be careful, though, you do not want have to have your muscles so tight that you cannot move naturally or breathe.) If you are not used to this proper posture, it may feel uncomfortable or unnatural at first. However, as you continually remind yourself to stand up straight, shoulders pulled back, and stomach tight, you will find it will become natural and you will feel better physically and emotionally.
When sitting, do not slouch your shoulders or slump over but keep your torso straight. Ladies, though we are often taught it is lady-like to cross our legs, always be mindful of your attire. If you are wearing pants, then you may cross the legs at the knees. This is also appropriate for men, though the majority of men these days choose to rest an ankle on their opposite knee instead. Ladies, if you are wearing a skirt or dress, keep your legs and knees together so you do not inadvertently flash those around you; if keeping your legs together is uncomfortable, you may opt for crossing your feet at the ankles and tucking your feet a little under the chair or to one side.
Posture goes even farther than simply proper standing or sitting positions. Posture is a non-verbal indicator of your current attitude. When you are interested, you may lean forward towards the speaker. If you are uncomfortable, you may lean backwards away from whatever or whomever is causing the discomfort and cross your arms. Keeping hands in pockets often comes across as a casual, comfortable behavior but could also be misinterpreted by others as a sign of timidness or discomfort. Depending upon the situation, you may decide to having only one hand in your pocket and use the other hand to do simple gestures while you speak.
Arms can be awkward. If you are not prone to gesturing, you may wonder what you should do with your arms and hands, especially in one-on-one conversations. Letting both of your arms hang at your sides may or may not be comfortable for some people so you could try tucking one arm loosely behind your back (your wrist would lay right either in the small of your back or over your bottom). There are many more options for when you are seated. Practice various arm and hand positions and determine which is the most comfortable for you while still presenting a professional image.
One aspect of good manners is the ability to keep still, which basically means not fidgeting. This includes bouncing a foot or rocking while seated; playing with hair, chair, or other object; continually touching one’s face or itchy/scratching; blowing bubbles with your gum or chewing very loudly; biting or picking at fingernails; etc. These types of fidgeting imply restlessness, nervousness, discomfort, or indifference and should be avoided in public and/or formal settings.
I should mention an exception to this guideline: sometimes fidgeting is an unconscious symptom of a larger condition. I had an acquaintance that was in a terrible car accident, it was truly a miracle she even survived, but her right arm would occasionally spasm. She had no control of it, and while some might find it distracting, it is good manners to overlook instances where such a thing is uncontrollable. However, if you are perfectly capable of keeping still and fidget simply out of habit, you should be aware that such behavior is often interpreted by those around you as rude and the result of poor self-discipline and low self-respect.
Perhaps one of the most important, yet often overlooked, aspect of good manners is the issue of personal space. In the United States, personal space is tremendously important and violating someone’s personal space, even accidentally, can create negative impressions towards you. Most people are comfortable with two to three feet of space between them and another person, especially someone holding a conversation with them. You may notice, when someone begins to encroach upon another’s personal space, the victim may lean backwards to create more space, cross their arms over their chest to form a visual barrier, or actually take a step backwards. When opposite genders are involved, violating personal space could be misinterpreted as unwanted sexual attention or even sexual harassment, even more so if the perpetrator touches the victim without permission.
Touching is a very delicate issue. When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake should be the only form of touching. Through multiple face-to-face meetings, an acquaintanceship is formed and you begin to discover what types of physical interaction is welcomed or not by the other individual. Some individuals open up to new people very quickly and are more lenient towards physical (non-sexual) contact such as clapping someone on the shoulder, friendly hug, etc. Other individuals are more guarded and find physical contact very personal, only to be done among very good friends and family. The only way to know what degree of contact is appropriate is to build a relationship with that person and over time, you will learn. When in doubt, keep your hands to yourself and stand at least two feet away from the other person.
On a more humorous note, keeping a distance of two to three feet allow those individuals who are prone to wild gesticulation space so not to accidentally hit those he or she is speaking to. Receiving an unintended whack to the nose by someone’s hand is not an altogether pleasant experience, even if you end up laughing about it later on.
And that, my friends, is a brief run down on body language. Again, please remember that the meanings and appropriate behaviors addressed in this article are specifically for the North American culture and applicable especially to the United States. If you are residing elsewhere, it is important to look into the appropriate behaviors and meanings of body language within your culture. If you take away nothing else from this article, ask yourself this simple question: What does my body language say about me?