Using words is only a small part of how we communicate to others. Non-verbal behaviors make up most human communication and the non-verbal impressions we make on other people are instantaneous!
Every culture has specific unwritten non-verbal codes of conduct and what is described below are “rule-of-thumb” behaviors for American/Western cultures. Keep in mind that a wide-range of behaviors can be acceptable in any culture and that you do not need to adhere to specific behaviors as if they were rigid rules that must be followed exactly. This can lead to a sense of over-monitoring of one’s body and such an internal preoccupation can lead to more social problems than they help. Part of being a likable human-being is a certain amount of fallibility and self-deprecation. Social perfection, ultimately, is a social flaw.
That said, here are the rules-of-thumb:
Squarely face other people. Talking to people “head on” makes a better impression than being turned away. If you are sitting side-by-side, pivot your hips so that you are approximately facing the person you are speaking with.
Maintain an open body posture. Crossing your arms may send the signal that you are not open to what another person has to say—closed body, closed mind. Maintaining an open body posture, demonstrates an interest in the other person. Of course, crossing one’s arms could mean that someone is cold, deeply thinking, or nervous, so keep in mind that these are simply rules-of-thumb.
Lean forward slightly. If someone is telling you something and you want to show that you are interested in what they have to say, lean forward slightly.
Eye contact should be used appropriately. Avoiding eye contact will give someone the impression that you are not interested in what they have to say or that you are nervous. Staring at someone might give the impression of aggression or physical attraction.
Keep your body relaxed. Squirming in your seat gives the impression that you are nervous or otherwise uncomfortable.
Smile when it is appropriate. Smiling can be contagious and is an excellent tool for building and maintaining relationships.
Be aware of personal space boundaries. Personal space preferences can vary. Too close can feel like an invasion and can make people uncomfortable. Standing too far away can send the signal that you are not interested in the other person. As your level of intimacy with another person increases, the physical distance between you will decrease. If you move closer to someone and they appear uncomfortable or move back—you’re too close!
Speak loudly, but not too loud. People who are nervous in social situations might speak quietly, so as not to attract attention, but this might signal lack of interest or nervousness. Other people might overcompensate for feeling uncomfortable and speak too loudly, which might be off-putting.
Tone of voice may say more than the words themselves. Speaking in a clear, smooth tone indicates confidence. Varying the inflection can make your speaking style more interesting, rather than monotone.
Return the “word volley.” Ideally, small talk is like a tennis match, with both parties lobbing the verbal ball back and forth in an approximately equal volley. “Hi, how are you?” “I’m doing well. How are you?” “I had a rough weekend.” “I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?” If you drop the ball (“Hi, John. How are you?” Response—“Fine…”), it might give the impression that you are not interested in having a conversation. Even if the person you are speaking with is giving most of the new information (e.g. telling a story) you can still keep up your end of the conversation by being an active listener.
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.