So play the part. Nonverbal signals can have a profound impact on your interactions with others, indicating your level of engagement — or distraction/boredom. What might your body being saying to others?:
Facial expressions: Simple gestures such as smiling convey interpersonal warmth, empathy and friendliness. A genuine smile expresses interest and happiness. But a nervous smile or one that lacks authenticity can undermine your interactions with potential employers. (If you’re interested in more about genuine vs. fake smiles, take the “Spot a Fake Smile” assessment, developed by psychologist Paul Ekman and colleagues, http://www.bbc.co.uk /science/humanbody/mind/surveys/smiles/index.shtml.)
Stoic facial expressions can also convey disinterest. Flushed cheeks could convey nervousness or limited self-confidence. Keep in mind that smiling may have different meanings across cultures. For example, research suggests that Koreans rarely smile, while Japanese use smiles to convey a wide range of emotions — from happiness to sadness to disagreement.
Eye contact: Maintaining good eye contact helps you connect with people and is important during interviews or when networking with recruiters. Limited eye contact, shifting eyes, smirks, rapid blinking and squinting might convey that you’re being dishonest or phony. And squinting accompanied with a furrowed brow conveys distress or discomfort.
Hand gestures: You can accentuate your speech and emphasize your key points with hand gestures. According to Joe Navarro, author, ex-FBI agent and expert in nonverbal behavior, some gestures — such as touching your fingertips together like a steeple — can convey confidence, thoughtfulness and focus. Former President Bill Clinton often used this hand movement. Interlaced hands with thumbs up also says confidence. However, too many gestures can be distracting and will definitely turn off recruiters. Rubbing your hands together, cracking your knuckles or fiddling with your pen or jewelry can convey insecurity or discomfort. Job seekers should not stand with their thumbs hooked in their pockets because that can signal insecurity.
Your body posture can also enhance or undermine your words. Sitting and standing upright and in a relaxed manner projects self-confidence, and leaning toward a person shows interest. Job seekers should try to put their hands in their lap or on the armrest of a chair. Try to stay in close proximity to the interviewer without getting so close that you’re seen as aggressive. Don’t be too rigid in your posture — that can project nervousness. But slouching or leaning backwards can indicate disinterest or lack of confidence, and folding your arms can be interpreted as a sign of defensiveness.
Like talented actors, leaders with strong emotional intelligence are acutely aware of the nonverbal messages being expressed by every part of their body. They leverage behaviors that enhance their words and convey confidence. They are also sensitive to the cues being communicated by their audiences, and they realize that the meaning of gestures can vary across cultures.
Whether you’re participating in interviews or career fairs, remember that first impressions are lasting ones. Think about those messages you’re saying just through your body language.
Jeffrey Kudisch is managing director of the Office of Career Services at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology and he co-founded Personnel Assessment Systems Inc., a human resource consulting firm specializing in executive assessment and leadership development.