It’s natural to experience nervousness when meeting new people. So much hangs in the balance of that delicate first impression. Act the wrong way and you might be perceived as stupid, weird, or worst of all, the dreaded creepy.
To prevent this from happening, its important to understand body language and the way it affects perception. By reading the body language of others and managing your own, you can create the first impression that represents you best.
The Basics of Body Language
The idea of reading body language can seem like voodoo, but the truth is you’re already doing it. The mind subconsciously interprets body language and uses it to form impressions.
Do you ever have impressions of people that don’t seem justified? Maybe they strike you as strange or untrustworthy, but for no particular reason? Chances are, their body language is giving off bad signals that your brain is reacting to subconsciously.
Once you start paying attention, these signal are easy to spot. It’s a language you already speak and it’s extremely intuitive, you just need to become consciously receptive to it. This post is intended to be an overview of the basics, but there is more good info here and here.
The key to appearing friendly and approachable is projecting openness. Fortunately, it looks just like it sounds. Examples of open body language are:
- Arms at sides (as opposed to crossed).
- Outward facing palms
- Legs stretched out and uncrossed
- Elbows away from the body
- Leaning forward (like you’re interested)
- Standing straight (no slouching)
If you are in a good mood and open to meeting people, you’ll naturally have open body language. We run into problems when we’re in a sour or reclusive mood but still need to be sociable.
Maybe you’re tired, nervous, or a person who doesn’t enjoy big crowds. In these cases, you can actually put yourself into a more likable mood by assuming more likable body language. It sounds crazy, but it works. Force yourself to smile a giant smile and you will instantly feel (at least a little bit) happier. Try it you don’t believe me.
If you are in a social situation and feel things aren’t going well, your natural tendency will be to hide behind closed body language. This will only make things worse. You need to fight your first instinct and focus on projecting the open signals listed above.
Making eye contact is crucial. Have you ever met someone who couldn’t look you in the eye? What was your perception of them?
Refusal to make eye contact conveys a lack of self confidence and trustworthiness. It makes other people suspicious and unlikely to respect you. Make a concerted effort to look every person you speak with directly in the eye. If that’s too much to ask, an old trick is picking a spot on the lower forehead to stare at.
Eye contact is also a great way to start conversations. The eyes are the window to the soul, so making eye contact creates a powerful connection. Be careful not to stare, but if you see someone you’d like speak with, try to make eye contact as you walk by. If successful, try to open up a conversation.
Adjusting to the Signals of Others
Managing your own body language is only half of the equation. The other half is recognizing and reacting to the body language of others.
If you notice a person has closed body language, it’s a sign you should give them space and proceed with caution. Some people just don’t want to be talked to. Forcing the issue will likely exacerbate their negative feelings.
That’s not to say that closed people should always be avoided, but it’s more effective to warm them up slowly. It’s likely they’re just shy or nervous. When they see your friendliness and open signals they might open up. If not, just move on. It probably has nothing to do with you personally.
Engaging in Conversation
The purpose of open body language is to encourage people to converse with you. This is where you become the life of the party, the person everyone wants to talk to.
Conversation is a subtle art, and this deserves an entire post, but the most important thing I’ve learned can be conveyed in a paragraph:
Ask people about themselves. Find what they’re passionate about and what they’re trying to achieve in life. The answers are often fascinating and different than you’d expect. Your sincere interest will endear you to them and you’ll learn a lot as well. Naturally, they will ask you them same questions about yourself, and in only a few minutes you have made a lasting connection.
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