The Job Seeker’s Guide to Nonverbal Cues

nonverbal signals in the wild

The search for an employment opportunity that offers both rewarding work and fair compensation is undoubtedly one of the biggest journeys a human being may embark on over the course of his lifetime.

He may spend far more than a decade and a half in school, thousands of dollars in education costs, and countless hours of what would otherwise be free time completing assignments or studying for exams – just to be able to get the opportunity to have his skills evaluated and considered by a potential employer who might possibly pay for his work.

In fact, employment is such a crucial component of human life, the brain and its vastly developed prefrontal cortex is powerful enough to conjure up such intense emotions that a person may very well interpret something as simple as a 25-minute job interview to be the equivalent of a life or death situation, where failure is indeed considered to be a direct threat to survival.

Despite the fact that most of the interaction between an interviewer and interviewee takes place via a typical question-and-answer conversation, the role of body language interpretation is arguably more important than what’s being said aloud, given body language’s tendency to reveal more of the truth about how a person is feeling or what he’s thinking.

In his 1971 book Silent Messages, UCLA Professor Emeritus of Psychology Dr. Albert Mehabrian concluded that body language and tone of voice may be of better use to decode the real emotions behind a person’s inconsistent or contradictory signals when trying to communicate. He found that people would assign a weight of around 55 percent to a communicator’s body language and another 38 percent to tonality for evaluating their credibility. Only a 7-percent weight was assigned to the actual words they spoke.

To demonstrate, consider the way a female in her mid twenties named Linda will react during a job interview for an office administration position, going through a series of physical facial and body movements.

As a starting point, she practices her “first impression” smile just prior to meeting her interviewer.

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Smiling Like It Matters

The tight-lipped smile that Linda tries to maintain as she waits in the lobby is one of the most common ways of smiling adopted when people are in situations where they feel the need to impress others. Easy to fake, the smile involves pressing both upper and lower lips against each other so that they’re slightly hidden.

To Linda, using her cheek muscles to elongate her mouth makes her feel like she’s putting enough effort into maintaining a genuine smile. In reality, a tight-lipped smile that doesn’t have a distinct concave curve makes her appear to be overly shy, and even suggests that she could be trying to hide something.

As Linda is approached by Steve, the manager who will interview her, she notices that he exhibits a smile similar to hers – a subtle one characterized mostly by the corners of the mouth turned just slightly upward, but with no real engagement in the eyes.

It’s the type of low-grade smile anyone would give to a stranger.

“A sincere smile stems directly from the emotions, and can use up to 53 muscles in the face.”

Researchers at UC San Francisco identified 19 different types of smiles that humans generally display, and placed them into two major categories: polite and sincere.

A sincere smile stems directly from the emotions, and can use up to 53 muscles in the face. This smile type is always made distinct by its effect on the eyes, which appear to be smiling right along with the mouth.

A simply polite smile, on the other hand, may only use as few as five facial muscles, which explains why it’s so much more commonly seen in comparison to a sincere smile.

It’s been estimated that 30 percent of employees smile between five and 20 times at work every day, while 28 percent smile more than 20 times a day, and only 13 percent smile less than five times a day.

Standing to Impress

Just before Linda and Steve introduce themselves to each another, Linda decides to change her standing position by shifting her weight from her left leg back to her right leg.

She had been switching her supporting leg back and forth subconsciously in the lobby the whole time she was waiting, mostly as a result of what was going on in her head.

Carol Goman, author of The Nonverbal Advantage, explains that a person who constantly transfers her weight from one leg to the other, or who rocks back and forth, does so to comfort herself as she experiences anxiety or upsetting thoughts.

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The way a person moves her body says a lot about her attitude, so when an endless stream of thoughts are flowing through a person’s head, they’re often accompanied by regular body movement or fidgeting.

Steve’s stance, which is firmly rooted to the ground by legs spread about shoulder-width apart, is quite the opposite of Linda’s, and reflects a stronger sign of dominance and determination.

It’s the standard position people use to assert power, only made stronger by placing the hands on the hips.

Decoding the Handshake

When it comes to making introductions in a professional setting, a handshake is the most common way to greet someone – particularly in Western culture.

The handshake has been around for thousands of years, dating as far back as the fifth century BC. Today, it’s influential enough that both Steve and Linda do it out of social instinct.

In the business world, it’s common to judge a person by the strength of her handshake. A strong one obviously implies confidence, while a weak one suggests insecurity.

The strength of a handshake is certainly one way to gain a feel for another person’s attitude toward the current situation, but it’s really only one of countless variables that all work together to produce a resulting impression.

“Sweaty palms, are considered to be the top handshake turn-off.”

In 2010, Chevrolet developed a detailed formula for making the perfect handshake for its sales staff, taking into account everything from a smile that reaches the eyes and facial symmetry, to hand dryness and temperature.

Despite being thought to be one of the most important components of a good handshake, only five percent of people involved in a scientific study said that they were turned off by others who didn’t make eye contact with them during a handshake. Sweaty palms, on the other hand, were considered to be the top handshake turn-off, cited by 38 percent of participants.

Remember, relax, wipe your hands, and don't be creepy.
Remember, relax, wipe your hands, and don’t be creepy.

 

Interestingly enough, Steve may not be just deciding what she’s like by sensing that Linda’s grip is loose. And Linda could be looking for some other signal stemming from Steve’s hot hand.

According to research conducted by neurobiologists at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, the handshake may have evolved from a desire to judge other humans by their unique scents.

The team’s study involved observation of 271 people, who either did or didn’t shake hands, to see how they’d react after they were left alone.

It turns out that those who did engage in a handshake ended up sniffing their hands more than twice as often as those who didn’t shake hands. This hinted at a possible evolutionary habit that involves gathering and analyzing information about another person from the chemicals they pass through their hands.

If it’s true that the common handshake – used all over the world to professionally greet coworkers, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers – is indeed a ritual that is the result of a biological instinct to judge others based on scent, Chevy’s detailed formula based on all senses except smell would be completely debunked.

An Eyeful of Insight

Eye-contact
Maintain eye contact
It’s been estimated that almost 67 percent of people fail to make or maintain eye contact during job interviews.

Linda made strong eye contact with Steve initially, but throughout the rest of the interview, she fell back into some of her old habits: glancing away frequently or looking up toward the ceiling.

Humans’ dominant sense is sight, so it’s quite normal for Linda to find herself looking up toward the ceiling, as if trying to remember a past event by visualizing it in her mind, rather than turning her gaze toward her ears, which would indicate that she’s trying to remember something she once heard.

“Raised eyebrows are a clear sign of piqued interest and curiosity.”

Darting eyes that shift quickly from side to side may occur as Linda works to get the “bigger picture” of what she’s trying to remember – examining it in her mind, as if she were reliving the experience or seeing it unfold in front of her all over again.

If Linda’s lateral eye movement continues beyond an attempt to recall something from the past by visualizing it, Steve may interpret it as an indication of dishonesty. The side-to-side eye movement gives the impression that she wants to escape or fears rejection.

Regardless of which direction a person is looking, or how their eye movement can be tracked, eyebrows can say a great deal about what a person might be thinking, as well.

Raised eyebrows are a clear sign of piqued interest and curiosity.

Furrowed eyebrows, on the other hand, reflect negative feelings of frustration, anger, confusion, and sometimes even fear or uncertainty.

Lowered eyebrows and a shifty gaze are already suggestive enough, but when paired with excessive blinking (anything more frequent than the average 10 to 12 blinks per minute), it’s a good indicator of the presence of stress.

Long stares that involve infrequent blinking might convey a person’s strong interest in something or someone else, unless, of course, her gaze becomes unfocused, as if she were lost in thought.

The eyes say a lot about a person, and tracking eye movement may be just what you need to get a deeper sense of what she’s really thinking.

Dealing with Silence

Even with Steve asking more than 20 different questions, and Linda taking several minutes to voice her long-winded answers, there are bound to be breaks between sentences, hesitations as each stops to think, misunderstandings about what’s being asked or said, and conclusions drawn from the information being taken in.

This means that there will be several instances of silence, which makes way for nonverbal signals to become more noticeable.

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For example, during a momentary silence, there may be a greater chance that Steve takes note as Linda brushes her hair off her face, as opposed to when she’s speaking. This is a common movement made by women, and suggests both nervousness and flirtatiousness.

When outside noise ceases to be heard, even for the briefest moment, the brain can focus more of the senses on deconstructing what that tilted head, those pursed lips, that pair of darting eyes, or that long sigh really means, without being distracted.

Humans tend to view silence as just a lack of sound, but the brain is structured to tune in to sharp sound breaks. This enables it to give more attention to the inner voice that’s trying to process all of the impressions coming in from the senses, which seem stronger than they would if it were still dealing with sounds from the external environment.

In other words, there really is no such thing as silence, at least not inside the human mind.

The limbic system is the part of the brain that’s responsible for emotion and drive, created through a complex arrangement of nerves and networks. Sometimes, a brief period of silence allows it to enter a state of excessive inward attention.

This is exactly why so many people have difficulty when left alone, without any distractions, to deal with their internal thoughts.

Subtle Movements

Throughout the interview, both Steve and Linda unknowingly send vague signals to each other about what they’re really thinking, shifting their seated positions and using their hands to express themselves.

Linda predominantly remains seated with one leg crossed over the other, a common female preference that often becomes a strong habit, regardless of what it might suggest in terms of what she’s thinking.

In some situations, when there are more than two people in the room, a person sitting with her legs crossed may point the toes of her top leg in the direction of the person she finds most approachable.

If those pointed toes are flexed up and down several times while still pointed in the direction of someone specific, it indicates feelings of intense interest and positivity toward that person.

Toes pointed toward a door, on the other hand, suggest insecurity and a possible desire to escape from the other person or the situation.

With one leg crossed over the other, there is a greater opportunity to fidget without even realizing it, by tapping the hanging foot repeatedly against a hard surface, swinging it back and forth, or shaking it vigorously.

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Fidgeting is a subconscious reaction, an attempt to avoid and relieve tension, although for many people, it often just makes it worse.

Some people will fidget with their hands, picking at their cuticles or rubbing their hands up and down their thighs, which is a clear sign of shyness or lack of confidence.

In contrast to Linda’s reserved attitude, Steve tends to use his hands in a way that allows for greater expressiveness as he speaks. For example, he frequently flails his arms and opens his palms in Linda’s direction.

In general, a person who uses his arms and hands to create large movements or gestures appears more energetic and warm, unless, of course, it’s a bit over the top.

The individual who comes across as overly animated can seem fraudulent, not quite believable as he’s communicating.

People who rarely use gestures in conversation tend to give off the impression that they operate according to logic and are more analytically minded.

Open hands usually mean that a person is welcome to new ideas and input, while hands that are facing down or clenched into fists indicate a strong position or opinion.

Wordless Intuition

Linda may never know whether Steve made his decision about her early on in the interview process, based on his analysis of just a few initial body movements, facial expressions, physical reactions, and other nonverbal signals she displayed.

Research estimates that sight accounts for about 82 percent of how humans take in information about the world around them, with hearing only accounting for 11 percent. Taste, touch, and smell make up the last seven percent.

In addition to that, several studies have shown that 90 percent of the decisions humans make are based solely on emotion; they only turn to logic to justify their actions.

The conclusion is that when it comes to making a positive impression during a job interview, the candidate who spends more time perfecting her body language and practicing her tone of voice, rather than figuring out exactly what she’s going to say about herself and how she will answer common interview questions, may significantly increase her chances of getting hired.

Despite a list of impressive qualifications and great verbal communication skills, a person may truly only be as good as what’s conveyed through appearance and actions, rather than by the actual words spoken.

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