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Body Language While Interviewing: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Why is body language important? Quite simply, body language is the way we speak truthfully.

Why is body language important? Quite simply, body language is the way we speak truthfully. Unless you are a fantastic actor or an accomplished hustler, your body language will betray your true sentiments.

If you speak “sweet” words to someone you in fact dislike, the tension in your shoulders and your stiff smile (among other things!) will tell the person you really don’t mean what you say. In short, while it may possible for some of us to lie easily with our words, only very few of us can lie effectively with our bodies, as well.

So, Interview Rule #1:  Never lie because chances are that the interviewer will pick up tell-tale signs – and they will do so unconsciously – that you are not being completely truthful.

There are 3 fundamental elements of your non-verbal communication in an interview situation:

1. Your eyes

Making eye contact comes across as a mark of honesty.  So, while you speak to an interviewer, as well as when you listen, maintain eye contact. This does not mean staring.  It means looking at the person, showing genuine interest in what they are asking or sharing, and paying close attention to their reaction when you speak.  In short, this means making an “eye connection” — creating a rapport — with the interviewer. In a panel interview situation, move your head slowly, making eye contact with each of the panel members – forget one and they won’t forget you!  A last word about eye contact…A friend of mine has a “difficult” habit.  He frowns when he concentrates. Can you imagine the impression he makes in interviews (or in meetings for that matter?)   What is this relevant?  Keep in mind — it’s not just your eyes, but your entire facial expression you need to control. While it starts with your eyes, it certainly doesn’t end there!

2. Your smile

 Your smile is your most powerful piece of body language. Whereas eye contact and the third element addressed below are subject to cultural variations, no such constraints apply to a smile. A genuine smile is a universal sign of warmth that you can send, knowing it will be understood and welcomed by all. I recently experimented by consciously smiling at complete strangers.  Every person responded with a smile of their own. What was going on there? Think about it.  What goes through your mind when someone smiles at you? How about, “I feel comfortable with that person!”  Or,  “That person seems nice.”  Or even, “Our meeting will go well because that person is on the same wavelength as me.”  A smile elicits all sorts of positive thoughts.  It puts us at ease, even with complete strangers.  It creates the first thread of trust. So keep smiling and develop that rapport —  that trust — during an interview.  If you don’t smile in an interview, you will, in fact, have to work twice as hard to be credible

3. Your handshake

You might be surprised that I am addressing the handshake last, but — think about it — during those few seconds before you shake hands, you will be making eye contact and smiling at your interviewer. However, if you do well at making eye contact and smiling, but deliver a poor handshake, the negative impression from the handshake will be the lasting impression.  A solid handshake — mano a mano — will  project both strength of character and openness of mind!

To get your interview off to a brilliant start, and in fact win over your interviewer before you have even uttered a single word, just gaze into their eyes, smile and shake their hand confidently!  Before your interview, you may want to practice with someone who can  give you constructive feedback, rather than simply practicing in front of a mirror. You really do need to know about any facial mannerisms you have that may be off-putting to a stranger. I remain a firm believer that preparation is a key success factor in interviews, and this applies to body language, as well. Once that door opens and the interview begins, be sincere and share yourself authentically, channeling the warm person you know you are, and the wonderful professional you know they desperately need!

So , what happens when we don’t make eye contact, and/or don’t smile, and/or don’t shake hands appropriately?

1. Coming across as dishonest

When you avoid making eye contact with someone, you can come across as insincere. This is because eye contact is viewed as a mark of honesty. Consider the implications of coming across as dishonest as you share your work achievements.  But it’s not just the eyes that can sabotage your image… imagine talking to someone who is covering their mouth while they speak. Or, rubbing their nose. Or, fiddling their ear lobes. Or, crossing their arms. All of the above are universal signs of dishonesty which others note and understand subconsciously. We tend to believe what we see, more than what we hear.

Your takeaways?  Maintain eye contact and make sure your arms remain uncrossed for the duration of the interview. Keep your hands visible and apart – don’t steeple or intertwine your fingers. Use gestures to make your points, but keep them small and limited to a few.

2. Coming across as unfriendly

When you don’t smile, you come across as unfriendly. So, while appearing dishonest will hurt your credibility, not smiling will damage your personal image. While work is not about making friends, it is about collaborating.  When you don’t smile, you come across as cold, disengaged, and even arrogant – in short?… not a team player. Many people hesitate to smile because they are concerned about appearing too nice, and they equate a serious demeanor with looking professional and exuding gravitas. This is an inaccurate and unhelpful misconception. A smile is that first step towards developing rapport.  When you don’t smile, you appear aloof.

3. Coming across as disrespectful

A weak or over-firm handshake can make you appear disrespectful. Historically, men shook hands when they came to meet other men, unarmed, ready to negotiate and collaborate. From that context, the handshake evolved to project both strength of character and an openness of mind. Bearing this in mind, a weak handshake can come across as submissive, while an over-firm handshake can seem over-bearing. In both cases a lack of respect — either for oneself or for the other person — is conveyed.

When you shake hands, you should show both your hands, though only one is offered to shake. And applying the right amount of pressure to display consideration is critical.

When you disregard these 3 top elements of body language in interviews, you can come across as either dishonest, unfriendly, disrespectful, or some combination of all 3.  

And more can go wrong on the body language front….

4. Coming across as anxious

Have you ever sat across from someone who was touching their face frequently? Or, adjusting their clothes? Or, removing invisible specks from their jacket? Or, fiddling with their hair? Or, fiddling with jewelry? This “fidgeting” conveys anxiety.  Most of us will feel nervous in an interview, so showing some nerves is not uncommon.  The majority of interviewers will understand this and be forgiving. That being said, however, appearing extremely anxious is problematic because it may cause concern over how you will conduct yourself in meetings or handle presentations if you are hired.

There are numerous techniques to quell interview nerves.  My personal favorites involve breathing and managing your inner dialogue.  So,  find the right one(s) for you so your nerves don’t cripple your performance during an interview.

5. Coming across as lazy

At the other end of the spectrum, imagine someone  slouching in their chair, leaning back just a little bit too much in their seat, or resting their ankle on their opposite knee. What impression would you form if you saw such behavior? An impression of someone who is lazy? Or, bored? Or, even arrogant? Some candidates are so keen to appear relaxed during an interview they behave in a way that’s better suited for meeting with friends. When you slouch, you appear neither relaxed, nor self-confident, but inappropriate. Depending on the interviewer, “inappropriate” could mean — lazy, disengaged, unreliable, bored, untrustworthy or arrogant.

What should you do to create a positive impression? You should plant both feet firmly on the floor – even if it means lowering the chair!   You should sit up straight, and to show interest, you can even lean slightly forward – don’t draw back.

6. Coming across as needy

Last, but not least, of the body language pitfalls is jiggling your foot. This one makes you look more than anxious — it makes you look needy. The same holds true if you lean too close to the interviewer, or you lean too far forward across the table.  This body language conveys that you are desperate for the job and you lack self-confidence.

I am mindful that this long list of body language pitfalls can be rather intimidating. You should practice with someone before your interview, asking them to be rather hard on you in the role play session so the experience feels more “real.” When you are reasonably and realistically uncomfortable, your interview foibles will surface. “Forewarned is forearmed,” so some practice under pressure will help you be mindful of your body language while interviewing and  better able to master them in a real interview situation.

About the Author

Alexandra Sleator is an Ivy Exec  Career Coach who helps ambitious, high-performing professionals tackle their frustrations at work, resolve complex problems, find ways out of difficult situations, and achieve personally meaningful objectives.