Julie Tucker
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Body language in the workplace

As a means of communication, body language is important in the workplace, enabling colleagues to convey their feelings: they can show enthusiasm, interest or respect without interrupting anyone.

Employees interested in improving their interpersonal skills can do so by learning the art of body language – and in particular, hand gestures. The use of certain movements sends a particular message in the form of physical signals.

How important is body language?

Body language is an important tool, not only in the workplace but in social situations in our day-to-day lives. Research reveals around 70% of all communication is non-verbal. Experts agree it can be hard to quantify an exact figure, but their findings are based on a number of studies.

Hand gestures are often the key to understanding the spoken word. They offer useful context about the speaker and how they really feel emotionally. If a colleague’s hands are trembling, for example, but they say they’re okay, it can mean they are secretly feeling anxious: when a person is excited about a new project, their hand gestures are likely to become more animated as they feel so passionate about what they are discussing.

At other times, hand gestures provide literal meaning to what a person is saying. For example, if a colleague is telling you the location of stationery, files or some other object in the office, rather than vaguely saying, “Over there,” they can point you in the right direction.

Shaking hands

Although not strictly a gesture, shaking hands is a ritual that is usually the first step towards a new business relationship. When you first interact with someone new, a professional handshake can pave the way: it’s a formal acknowledgement that you’re interested in speaking to them and forging a working relationship.

It is therefore important how you shake someone’s hand. The best way is to have a firm and confident handshake. If you have a loose, weak handshake, clasping the other person’s hand momentarily with no pressure, the non-verbal message may be that you’re not really interested in them.

However, if you grip their hand too tightly and shake it very vigorously, this can appear unprofessional and can seem you’re a little desperate. The best way is to simply clasp their hand with a moderate firmness and shake it purposefully, but not so hard that you’re shaking their arm about.

Using hand gestures

When we speak, hand gestures are a natural part of communicating for many of us. As an additional means of engaging listeners, the hand gestures you use will communicate different meanings.

For example, when you’re facing someone and chatting with them, leaving your palms open and partially facing the other person indicates openness and honesty. If your palms are open, but with the backs of your hands facing the other person, it can indicate you’re discussing something that is rather more important to you personally.

It’s best to avoid pointing in the workplace unless you’re actually pointing out where something is in the building. Generally, you should never point a finger at an individual person.

Even if you’re trying to introduce someone else to a colleague by showing them the relevant person’s desk, it’s more friendly to indicate towards them with an open hand, rather than a pointing finger. Remember your mother’s warning when you were a child, “It’s rude to point”? She was right.

When giving a speech to a large meeting, a clasped hand gesture can indicate determination and firmness. This can be a good gesture if you’re describing a new project or moving forward successfully with company goals, to get colleagues on board.

Generally speaking, it’s usually a good idea in the office if you remain firm, but somewhat restrained, with hand gestures. Anything excessive can distract the people you’re speaking to.

It’s also best not to cross your arms when speaking to someone. It can give the impression you’re not open to suggestions and that you’re possibly being secretive.

Do hand gestures vary between cultures?

Hand gestures can mean different things in different cultures. If you have a culturally diverse workforce, ensure you never inadvertently insult a colleague with a hand gesture that may mean something completely different to them.

The thumbs-up sign is perhaps the most confusing hand gesture. In the UK and many other parts of the world, it is a widely-recognised sign of agreement and approval. However, in Bangladesh, it is an insult, and it is also highly offensive in parts of the Middle East.

The “okay” gesture of pressing the forefinger and thumb together into a circular shape is recognised as a positive signal in the UK, US and in many parts of the world. It means “everything is fine”. However, in Brazil, it is considered rude: in the 1950s, when the future US President, Richard Nixon, visited Brazil, on arrival, he gave the “okay” gesture to the waiting crowds in Rio de Janeiro. He was immediately greeted with loud boos!

Body language and hand gestures are a part of everyday life, both in the workplace and socially, but try not to make any that may be inappropriate because you don’t fully understand their meaning.


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