My body language bad habit is standing with my arms crossed, especially when I am in an uncomfortable or new situation (which networking events and job interviews almost always are).
The message I convey with that body language: I’m closed off. Not a very nice person.
So now I make a concerted effort not to stand with my arms crossed. And that always makes me self conscious: do I look stiff? I feel like robot with my arms locked at my side? Should I stick one hip out and hook my thumb in my pocket? It’s important to work through the uncomfortable phase to arrive at a newer, better habit.
And those of us who have studied foreign languages and cultures–maybe traveled internationally–are at an advantage.
Here are some of the things we know that others might have missed:
1) We know what it’s like to thrive in very different contexts and have an explicit awareness of how to greet people, take leave, and interact differently in different situations (waving while passing vs. stopping to formally greet someone, greeting with a handshake vs. a hug, fixed expressions that depend on the time of day: buenos días vs. buenas tardes).
2) We use what we know from our experiences with other languages and cultures to get the right body language for every situation. We know to observe others, then adjust our behavior accordingly. How do handshakes work? When are standing and sitting appropriate? What phrases do we have to know to function appropriately?
3) We know how to survive the embarrassment of a mistake and get it right the next time. Here’s an example: leaving work one evening in Mexico, I gave a friendly wave, smiled, and said “buenas noches” to the security guard because in most of the U.S. saying “good night” in that context would be appropriate (and indeed in some parts of the Spanish-speaking world it would be okay). His reaction? “What? Am I going to bed now? Are you tucking me in?” Lesson learned. I had a good chuckle on the cab ride home and never made that mistake again.
4) We make sure our body language connects to whatever else we are doing–the words we say, the environment we are in, the people we are interacting with (for example, a loud voice and wild hand gestures are great in a noisy club, but not great in an office setting).
5) A smile is pretty universal. It is warm and friendly. A smile will almost always make a good first impression and a good last impression.
Darcy Lear is a Chicago-based career coach specializing in training students to highlight their language studies so they standout in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one coaching or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy: firstname.lastname@example.org