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Five ways your body language is inadvertently offending people

You probably don’t even realize you are doing most of these.

Five ways your body language is inadvertently offending people
[Photo: maxime caron/Unsplash]

There’s been a lot of talk these days about the importance of emotional intelligence and the need to be sensitive to others. But few people take this concept and apply it to body language. Yet the physical cues we provide to those around us tell whether we will engage them or turn them off. If you’re not careful, your body language may well result in unintentionally offending a friend, a boss, or a colleague.

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To ensure that you do not inadvertently slight people with your body language, avoid the following physical behaviors.

1. Glancing away

Not looking at the other person–either when they’re talking or you are–is understandably seen as rude.

You may think that a speaker in a meeting won’t notice that you’ve turned away. But speakers see everything, particularly in a small group. According to Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses, our eyes are extremely powerful—70% of our body’s sense receptors are in the eyes. When you avert your gaze, a speaker notices.


Related: Five body language mistakes you’re making in interviews


Our cell phones are a particular distraction–and are frequently the reason individuals look away from the speaker. According to some estimates, we check our messages 150 times a day, often furtively at meetings. Resist that temptation and keep your eyes on the speaker.

Similarly, be careful not to look down too much when you are speaking. That too can offend–and distract. It undercuts the point you’re making. Some individuals look down to collect their thoughts. Try to minimize such behavior, and if you must look down (to collect your thoughts or check notes), be sure to make eye contact with your listeners at the end of each thought.

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2. Folding your arms

Crossing your arms also can unknowingly offend. This stance signals that you’ve put on your “body armor,” and are resisting the speaker’s ideas. While you may be folding your arms because you are cold or tired, this is not the message you’re conveying. Just think of the times you’ve been speaking and someone crosses his or her arms. Wasn’t that a sign that you needed to work harder to bring that person around?

When you’re seated, keep your arms open on the table. If you’re standing, let them remain at your side. When you unfold your arms, you’re saying, “I’m open to your ideas.” And with your arms open, you can respond more easily with your own gestures.

3. Leaning back (or leaning over someone)

Leaning back creates the impression that you’re not being attentive. When we slouch or lean back at a meeting, we convey the impression that we are bored. Lean back far enough, and you signal that you’ve checked out of the meeting.

Equally offensive is leaning over someone. If a supervisor comes and leans over you while you’re sitting at your desk, that can be a gesture of intimidation. Avoid it. Instead of leaning forward or backward, assume the upright posture of a leader who is confident, fully present, and intent on influencing.


Related: 10 unexpected body-language adjustments that will boost your career


4. Turning your body away

Turning away from someone, even slightly, can also convey disrespect. Suppose your supervisor comes toward you in the hall, and you both decide to stop and have a conversation. As she raises a difficult issue with you, you unconsciously turn away from her. Even a slight rotation says, “I’m not sure I want to talk to you.”

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To send a positive message, align your body with that of the person you’re talking to. That way, you’re saying, “I’m listening and I care about what you’re saying.”

5. An Expressionless Face

We may give little thought to our own facial expression, but it can offend others if we do not react in an empathetic way.

Suppose someone tells you something that’s funny and you show no emotion in your face because you’re processing what that person just told you; the other person will feel let down. Or you’re at a meeting and several people (including you) are stone-faced when someone is presenting. Understandably, the speaker will be offended. Or, you see a colleague in the elevator, you both look at each other, but you’re thinking about something else so you don’t smile.

In all these situations you have disappointed someone with your non-response. Sure, there may be excellent reasons for you to show no expression. Even in the situation where someone is presenting, you may be the next presenter and mentally rehearsing your talk. But the speaker doesn’t know that. The answer? When someone speaks to you, or simply looks your way, let your face and features show you’re listening and respect that individual.

In these five situations, body language makes a huge difference in how you are perceived. It’s an important aspect of emotional intelligence. If you want to develop strong relationships, think about what your body is saying. When you show you’re fully present physically, your listeners will find you more likeable and engaging.

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About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders

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