post written by: Marc Chernoff

25 Acts of Body Language to Avoid


Body Language

Our body language exhibits far more information about how we feel than it is possible to articulate verbally.  All of the physical gestures we make are subconsciously interpreted by others.  This can work for or against us depending on the kind of body language we use.  Some gestures project a very positive message, while others do nothing but set a negative tone.

Most people are totally oblivious to their own body language, so the discipline of controlling these gestures can be quite challenging.  Most of them are reflexive in nature, automatically matching up to what our minds are thinking at any given moment.  Nevertheless, with the right information and a little practice, we can train ourselves to overcome most of our negative body language habits.

Practice avoiding these 25 negative gestures:

I speak two languages, Body and English.
- Mae West

  1. Holding Objects in Front of Your Body – a coffee cup, notebook, hand bag, etc.  Holding objects in front of your body indicates shyness and resistance, such that you’re hiding behind the objects in an effort to separate yourself from others.  Instead of carrying objects in front of you, carry them at your side whenever possible.
  2. Checking the Time or Inspecting Your Fingernails – a strong sign of boredom.  Never glance at the time when you’re speaking with someone.  Likewise, completely avoid the act of inspecting your fingernails.
  3. Picking Lint Off of Your Clothes – If you pick lint off of your clothes during a conversation, especially in conjunction with looking downwards, most people will assume that you disapprove of their ideas and/or feel uneasy about giving them an honest opinion.  Leave the lint alone!
  4. Stroking Your Chin While Looking at Someone – “I’m judging you!”  People frequently stroke their chin during the decision-making process.  If you look at someone while you’re stroking your chin, they may assume that you’re making a judgmental decision about them.
  5. Narrowing Your Eyes – If you want to give someone the impression that you don’t like them (or their ideas), narrow your eyes while looking at them.  It immediately places a scowling expression on your face.  A slight narrowing of the eyes is an instinctual, universal expression of anger across various species in the animal kingdom (think about the angry expressions of tigers, dogs, etc.).  Some people make the mistake of narrowing their eyes during a conversation as a reflex of thinking.  Don’t send people the wrong message… don’t narrow your eyes.
  6. Standing Too Close – This just makes people feel uncomfortable.  Most people consider the 4 square feet of space immediately surrounding their body to be personal space.  Cross this invisible boundary with good friends and intimate mates only.
  7. Looking Down While in the Presence of Others – usually indicates disinterest.  Sometimes it’s even interpreted as a casual sign of arrogance.  Always look straight ahead and make eye contact when you see someone you know.
  8. Touching Your Face During a Conversation – Face touching, especially on the nose, is commonly interpreted as an indication of deception.  Also, covering up the mouth is a common gesture people make when they’re lying.  Always keep your hands away from your face when you’re speaking.
  9. Faking a Smile – another sign of deception commonly seen on the face of a fraud.  A genuine smile wrinkles the corners of the eyes and changes the expression of the entire face.  Fake smiles only involve the mouth and lips.  It’s easy to distinguish between the two.  Don’t force yourself to smile… unless it’s for the camera.
  10. Leaning Away From Someone You Like – a sign of being bored and disinterested.  Some people may also interpret it to mean: “I don’t like you.”  People typically lean towards people they like and away from people they dislike.  This is especially true when they are sitting around a table.  If you lean away from someone you like, you’re sending them the wrong message.
  11. Resting Hands Behind the Head or on the Hips – usually interpreted as a sign of superiority or bigheadedness.  Only use these gestures when you’re in the presence of close friends.
  12. Not Directly Facing the Person You’re Speaking To – This indicates a certain level of discomfort or a lack of interest.  When we’re happily engaged in a conversation we face the person we’re speaking to with our feet and torso facing directly forward.  When we’re unsure of the other person, or not completely committed to the conversation, we tend to angle our feet and torso to the side.  Face directly forward during a conversation to give off the impression that you’re truly interested in what the other person is saying.
  13. Crossing Your Arms – a sign of defensive resistance.  Some people may also interpret it as a sign of egotism.  Always try to keep your arms open and at your sides.
  14. Displaying a Sluggish Posture – When you’re in an environment bustling with people your posture becomes an immediate telltale sign of your confidence and composure.  Your stance literally makes a stand for you, delivering a clear message about how you should be treated.  It can make a huge difference in the way strangers respond to you.  Place your feet a comfortable distance apart, keep your shoulders pulled back, head up and greet people with direct eye contact and a firm handshake.
  15. Scratching at the Backside of Your Head and Neck – a typical sign of doubt and uncertainty.  It can also be interpreted as an indication of lying.  Try to keep your hands away from your head when you’re communicating with others.
  16. Messing With the Collar of Your Shirt – It screams: “I feel horribly uncomfortable and/or nervous!”  Once again, keep track of your hands.  Don’t fidget.
  17. Increasing Your Rate of Blinking – a clear sign of anxiety.  Some people start blinking their eyes really fast (in conjunction with an increased heart rate) when they get nervous.  Since most people try to make eye contact, it becomes immediately obvious to others.  Be cognizant of your blinking habits when you’re nervous, especially if someone is looking at you from a close proximity.
  18. Slouching Your Shoulders – indicates low self-esteem.  People associate perked-up shoulders with strong self-confidence.  Always pull your shoulders back.  Not only will you look more confident, you’ll feel more confident as well.
  19. Standing with Your Hands Crossed Over Your Genitals – This casual posture almost guarantees that you’ll lose a little respect before you even have the chance to speak a single word.  People feeling nervous or unsure of themselves will unconsciously take a guarded stance.  Quite frequently they adopt a posture that guards one of their most vulnerable areas, their genitals.  This stance pushes your shoulders forward and makes your entire body look smaller and weaker.  Again, try to keep your hands at your sides and your shoulders back.
  20. Propping Up Your Head with Your Hands – “I’m getting bored!”  Never prop up your head with your elbows and hands during a conversation.  Place your hands on the table in front of you and keep them at rest.
  21. Wiping Sweaty Hands onto Your Clothes – a sign of frantic nervousness.  If your hands are sweating, just let them sweat.  Take a few deep breaths and try to relax.
  22. Sitting on the Edge of Your Chair – a clear indication of being mentally and physically uncomfortable.  It’s an apprehensive stance that will make others around you feel uncomfortable as well.  Keep your rear end firmly planted on the surface of the seat.  When you lean forward, use your back without moving your bottom.
  23. Foot and Finger Tapping – usually indicates stress, impatience or boredom.  Monitor your habits and practice keeping your limbs at rest.
  24. Using Your Hands to Fidget with Small Objects – a pen, paper ball, etc.  This is another sign of anxiety.  It can also be interpreted as a lack of preparedness.  It’s always best to keep your hands comfortably at rest when you’re in the presence of others.
  25. Repeatedly Shifting Body Weight from Foot to Foot – This is another gesture that usually indicates mental and physical discomfort.  People may also see this and assume that you’re ready to abandon the conversation, especially if you’re not directly facing them.  Don’t shift your feet around more than once every 2 to 3 minutes.

Additional Reading and Sources:

Photo by: Tony Blay

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46 Comments

  • This list really has made me think about what I am “not” saying when I speak. Powerful. And, it’s easy to not realize we’re doing this sometimes - and that can really be a negative.

  • Re: the first item, “Holding Objects in Front of Your Body” - I used to work for a boss that walked around all day with a coffee mug in front of her, about chest level. It didn’t take long to recognize she was painfully insecure and some used to joke that she was trying to hide behind her coffee cup.

    I see #11 at my current job - lots of egos around here. I don’t think people consciously do this, but now that I know what they’re thinking, it looks pretty bad.

    Great list - thanks for putting this one together!

  • @Lance:
    Some psychologists suggest that nearly 90 percent of our emotional feelings are communicated strictly through body language.

    @Frugal Dad:
    That’s funny; I actually had an old boss that did the same exact thing with his coffee mug. It was actually one of the primary reasons I did some research on body language a few years ago. ;-)

  • A good list, many I’d heard before, but some were completely new to me.

    I’d love to see the opposite of this list. A few things you list are things I do for comfort… whether or not I’m in the presence of others at all (Resting hands behind head or on hips, Shifting Weight, Propping up Head).

  • I think number 8 can also mean, “I have one of those pesky man hairs on my chin and I wish I had a pair of tweezers to yank that baby out of there!” ;-)

  • @Alex:
    Creating the opposite body language list is an interesting idea. I may just follow through with it at some point.

    @Laurie:
    Oh, you got that right. There’s little doubt that these gestures can mean more than one thing, which is exactly why you should avoid them whenever feasible.

  • I have to add “biting toenails.” This indicates that you are not only BORED but you can care less what others think!

  • Marc offers some interesting suggestions here, but I could wish he had cited the basis for his suggestions. I don’t know if Marc is a kinesiologist or a psychologist. Maybe he teaches communication, but this is a fairly lengthy list and I can’t imagine anyone being so comprehensive or confident without some research.

    It is important to note that kinesiologists agree that that there are no universal meanings for nonverbal behaviors. Their meanings change from culture to culture, and person to person. Holding a notebook over my chest may mean “you’re invading my space,” or it could mean “I’m embarrassed about the coffee I just spilled on my shirt.” Crossing my arms could be a signal of egotism, anger, pain, or coldness.

    For me the real lesson is to observe other’s nonverbal communication, but NOT to read too much into it. When it comes to my own….? I say be open and be honest. The popular sentiment is “never let ‘em see you sweat.” I disagree. :::I’m scratching my nose as I write this::: If you’re nervous about something, say so. Let people know what, and let them know why. It may be the only way you’ll get past it.

  • This is body language 101 for average frustrated chumps.

    PS: Learn to take positive criticism and do not delete this comment.

  • I agree with some of these points, but it would be easier if he instead of making a purely negative list, you made a positive one. With the things you should do. And the worst don’ts reduced to a paragraph afterwards. This is just plain confusing for someone who really do want to improve.

  • @Kari:
    LOL!

    @Mark:
    You’re right, I probably should have cross-referenced some of my sources. Some were hardcopy and some soft… I got lazy. Maybe I’ll add them to the bottom of the post when I get some time. As for your comment on honesty, I completely agree. ;-)

    @Eric:
    I’m not quite sure how you think your criticism is positive.

    @jug:
    It is true. I may have gone a bit overboard on the length of this post… and writing an article on the topic of positive body language is a great idea I may look into in the future.

  • […] 25 Acts of Body Language to Avoid I think I’d add crossing arms to the list. I do this all the time, and I think it sends the wrong vibe to people. […]

  • Nice list Marc. As you say, many people are oblivious to their actions. Heck, I’m sure I do a number of negative gestures that I’m not aware of. The key is awareness, and this post does a good job of highlighting some often forgotten actions.

  • “Scratching at the Backside of Your Head and Neck”–that is so me! Except I do it when I’m driving and I’m trying to find an opening to pull out. I thought I was the only one who did this…

  • @Peter:
    You’re absolutley right. Awareness is the key. Without it, all language is lost in translation.

    @Sara:
    Oh, you’re not the only one. ;-) You’re probably never the only one.

  • […] 25 Acts of Body Language to Avoid.  It’s true that the large majority of communication is non-verbal.  This is a great list of messages to avoid sending through your body language. @marc and angel […]

  • […] 25 Acts of Body Language to Avoid :: Marc and Angel Hack Life […]

  • Over analyze much?

  • Interesting. I do a lot of these things, but it’s because I’ve had numerous major injuries and surgeries and I suffer from chronic illness ~ all of which leaves me in pain 24/7. Don’t be so quick to judge. The person you think is lying / insecure / egotistic / angry may just be suffering and trying to do their best to function well in a “normal” environment with the limitations they have.

  • Thanks for the interesting information, good photo from Tony.

  • This is a great list, Marc. There were some points I wasn’t familiar with so I appreciate having read your post. I liked that you stayed with the “don’t-do’s” because it’s just as important to understand what not to do as to understand what to do.

    The only thing I’d add is not to play with your hair - twirl it around your finger or comb your fingers through it. Doing so can be read as boredom or impatience.

  • @Joe:
    Always! ;-)

    @AKK:
    I think most people understand the difference. But you do make a great point.

    @Laurie:
    Twirling your hair is a body language I certainly overlooked. Thanks for the insightful addition.

  • […] help to ensure your message is received warmly and as intended.  In addition, you should read 25 Acts of Body Language to Avoid to prevent communicating the wrong […]

  • The topic strikes me hard. I work with my husband in a diesel shop outside our home and we do have alot of problems, especially with raising our children (his and mine) and Finances amongst many others. I know he loves me but I can honestly say, he just walked away from me after me telling him something important and he probably displayed 20 of the most common gestures of negativeness. Im not sure if this is the place but timing was good for me. All advice welcome…
    and p.s. slow blinking with a grin is sweet thinking or flirting…lol…

  • Pretty N' Yellow
    July 28th, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    This really helps me out….Thanks for posting….

  • […] He had lousy nonverbal communication and demonstrated zero confidence. First impressions make the difference. When he enter the […]

  • With that in mind, what parts of a face most influence first impressions?
    http://sayitbetter.typepad.com/say_it_better/2008/08/what-make-us-wa.html

  • It’s amazing how often we do things and half the time, we don’t even realize how certain actions or inactions are being interpreted by others!

  • It’s great to be conscious of the non-verbal signals that we give out but controlling this is like trying to put on an poor false accent for oral communication.

    If you are true to the message your are trying to communicate, you wont make any mistakes and if you think you did, all you need do is ask the receiver.

    We should also be very aware of an individuals bias such that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, nothing is getting through to them, even with all the open body language to sullicit trust.

    If you want to look honest, be honest in my view.

  • A very interesting post. Sometimes we do not realize these body language is also a way for others to see us. Thus creating a bad perception for us.

  • When I stand with my arms at my sides, all I can think about is my arms being at my sides. Does anybody else get that? What about standing with your hands in your pockets. Isn’t that just as bad?

  • I am with Sara. Sometimes I just do not know what to do with my hands. It feels uncomfortable for me to have my hands on my sides. I usually end up putting it behind my back or in my pockets.

  • I basically agree with this list. But when dealing with people from other cultures, this list doesn’t always work. People from other cultures have their own list.. And when you’re dealing with them you may misinterpret their body language. European vs Asian cultures.. very different in such body language interpretations.

  • I deal with people all day and was aware of most of these, but still some great insight here…great post!

  • Marc’s List of 25 Body Language Acts to Avoid…

    I just recently stumbled upon a pretty detailed article on things to avoid in regards to body language. Marc over at marcandangel.com compiled a list of 25 things you should be aware of; I’m going to offer some additional insight on several of h…

  • Oh, I really hate it when people do no 12: “Not Directly Facing the Person You’re Speaking To”. This reminds me of what my mum said about “look at the person you are talking to if you don’t want to be rude”.

  • With regard to posture, I find that I slump around short people trying to gain eye contact with them. Sometimes it’s very hard to have good posture when you’re tall trying to communicate with others who are several inches shorter than yourself.

  • […] Smile and make eye contact.  When you meet someone, be sure to smile and make eye contact with them.  The person you meet is reading your body language and these two gestures will have a significant positive impact.  Smiling will put them at ease and making eye contact will convey confidence.  For more on effective body language read 25 Acts of Body Language to Avoid. […]

  • I can’t 100% agree with this article. My mother and father have worked with special needs children for most of my life, and I’m not necessarily talking about children who can’t function on their own, and I have my own disabilities as well. Things like playing with an object, or not making eye contact are not necessarily signs of boredom or rudeness, etc. I won’t go into the technicalities, but I think that this list, like most of the humans it involves, is subjective and shouldn’t be a guide-all to every single human you meet.

  • oops. I think I’ve violated everything on this list. lol

  • You don’t mention the language of the body position shown in your illustration to this post. I often see men sitting this way, typically on public transportation. Other than their taking more seat space than they are entitled to, does it mean anything? Seems vaguely aggressive.

  • Most of the times we just ignore these factors and didn’t focus on what we are transferring through body language , body language are more effective than spoken words…

  • Smiling is always affective, especially at first impression. You can built open communication with others in this way…Smiling may be seen a simple gesture, but its subliminal signals are significantly powerful.

  • Thanks for wonderful articles, good content and tips.

  • These points are really very helpful and informative. We do many thing from the list without knowing that this gives negative impact of our personality while doing it. So it is good to aware and keep things in mind before meeting anybody.

    Thanks!!!

  • Very nice examples. A few pictures would help a lot. For instance, if someone is standing, not sitting, and has his hands holding each other in front of their genitals, does that mean the same as if they were sitting?

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