The office: watch your body language!

There’s more to getting ahead in the office than looking sharp and mastering phrases like “maximising our synergies going forward”.

body language 2By Noel O'Hare


Body language, the non-verbal signals we all constantly transmit, can make all the difference in whether you’re  regarded by colleagues as a plonker or a player.

In their latest book Body Language in the Workplace, body language experts Allan and Barbara Pease analyse the work situations where we need to pay attention to the non- verbal messages we’re sending.

Meetings, the staple of any working day, can be events that enhance or lower status. Pay attention to seating. Sitting beside someone suggests cooperation, while sitting opposite means possible confrontation. Sit next to the boss on the right for “extra perceived power”.

If you want to know how a meeting‘s going, watch the coat buttons, the authors advise. “Analysis of videotaped confrontations, for example, between unions and corporations, show a higher frequency of agreement is reached when people have their coats unbuttoned… When a person suddenly unbuttons their jacket in a meeting, you can reasonably assume that they have also just opened their mind. ”Or it could be time to turn the aircon down.

Some men feel the need the need to assert themselves with their body language.  There’s the seat “Straddler” who wants to dominate and uses the back of the chair to protect his front. One of the best ways to deal with this is to conduct the conversation standing up, looking down on him and moving into his personal space. “This is unnerving for him and he can even fall backwards off his chair in an attempt to move away”.

Another classic dominance position is the “Catapult” where a man conducts the conversation with his hands behind his head. This is commonly used by chimpanzees, lawyers and accountants and managers who feel superior. A good way to counter this if you are male is to mirror it. This tactic, however, doesn’t work for women: their best option is to stand up.

Another typical male gesture is the “Legs-Spread”, a favourite of apes who want to establish their authority. In office males, it’s sometimes unconscious but has the effect of putting women on the defensive, leading them to cross their arms and legs. The best response, the authors say, is to try talking to his crotch, making a remark such as “I can see where you’re coming from”.

The handshake is another gesture to be alert to. A handshake with your palm up gives you authority; with the palm down you’re signalling submission.  The best handshake for establishing rapport and mutual respect is making sure that your hand and the other person’s is in the vertical position and you are applying the same pressure that you receive. The best way to deal with someone who wants to dominate with a handshake is the double-hander – put your left hand over their right and straighten the handshake. “This is particularly good for a woman to use on an aggressive man, as it switches the power from him to her.” The handshake to avoid if you want to make a good impression is the limp “wet fish”.

The authors have some general hints about making a good impression in the office. If you work in an open-plan office, you should keep your cubicle uncluttered and free of personal effects. Regardless of what HR says, ignore “dress down Friday”: shorts and t-shirts will do nothing for your professional image.”

And one last thing: “the number one workplace rule. Remember the boss’s jokes are always funny.”


This article is from the September 2011 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.