What is Appropriate Workplace Body Language?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
While a firm handshake may be appropriate at work, other methods of touching may not.
While a firm handshake may be appropriate at work, other methods of touching may not.

Workplace body language can change how you are perceived at work. How you non-verbally communicate says differs depending upon where you live and work. For example, although smiling is considered a form of welcome in many cultures, it may also be perceived as a form of embarrassment in certain Asian cultures. If you work with people of different nationalities, understanding cultural body language is valuable.

Non-verbal gestures communicate subtle messages to co-workers.
Non-verbal gestures communicate subtle messages to co-workers.

For US workers, certain kinds of appropriate workplace body language helps others perceive you as honest, open to ideas, flexible, and engaged in what you do. Sitting in a straight but relaxed position in a chair during an office meeting says you are open and attentive. This quickly changes if you place your hands behind your head or cross your arms in front of your chest. Suddenly you are either expressing boredom or superiority with the former, or in a defensive position with the latter.

Crossed arms may demonstrate a defensive approach to others.
Crossed arms may demonstrate a defensive approach to others.

Rolling the eyes, checking your watch, not focusing on a speaker or not making eye contact can all be viewed as body language that says “I’d rather be doing something else.” Clenching the fists communicates anxiety or tension, and scratching your nose or forming a steeple with your hands expresses disinterest. Leaning back from another speaker says you’re either uncomfortable with the person’s ideas or are not interested.

Giving the thumbs up sign is acceptable in the workplace.
Giving the thumbs up sign is acceptable in the workplace.

Whether sitting, standing, or making eye contact, you are always communicating non-verbally. As mentioned above, straight but relaxed positions while sitting denote professionalism and engagement. Keeping the palms open and facing toward a person represent openness. Maintaining eye contact translates to honesty, but you should occasionally look slightly elsewhere otherwise you may be perceived as staring or as too intense.

A firm handshake is generally an acceptable workplace gesture.
A firm handshake is generally an acceptable workplace gesture.

Smiling and nodding are appropriate workplace body language when talking with others. They are a form of active listening that say, “I get you, and I agree with you.” When you don’t agree with someone it’s usually not appropriate body language to smile and nod, since your behavior after a conversation will seem like a contradiction of your body language. Leaning in more closely, but not too close, to a speaker also shows interest.

It is appropriate to clap after a presentation or exciting announcement.
It is appropriate to clap after a presentation or exciting announcement.

If you are standing and talking with someone, certain positions can be viewed as aggressive. Arms crossed over chest may be viewed as defensive, and hands on hips translate to “You can’t tell ME what to do.” Stand in a comfortable body position that is not slouching in order to convey attentiveness and openness. Using slight hand gestures while speaking suggests you are animated is an example of appropriate workplace body language.

A positive stance is important when giving presentations in the workplace.
A positive stance is important when giving presentations in the workplace.

Much is written about “personal space,” and respect for the personal space of others is a way of expressing good workplace non-verbal communication. Unfortunately, personal space tends to vary in individuals and in races. In the US, you should grant your co-workers about one to two feet (30.48- 60.96cm) of personal space. No part of your body should venture into this field, but do observe a person’s reactions. If a person backs away while you’re observing the two-foot rule, they may need a bigger space. If the person leans in, it can be appropriate workplace body language to have a smaller field. If the person stands or sits comfortably, you’ve probably got the personal space ratio right for that individual.

It is generally a good idea to try and minimize yawning at work.
It is generally a good idea to try and minimize yawning at work.

Determining appropriate workplace body language in regards to touching other people is a very “touchy” subject. While a firm handshake is welcome, touching another person on the arm, slapping them of the back or clapping them on the shoulder may not be. It helps to get to know people before you venture, if ever, into any touching beyond a handshake. Some people will perceive this as fine while others may feel uncomfortable with it.

Holding one's head is considered to be a sign of frustration and can cause issues in the workplace.
Holding one's head is considered to be a sign of frustration and can cause issues in the workplace.

If you must touch someone to get his/her attention, a light tap on the shoulder is usually the best approach. Use one or two fingers rather than the whole hand. Observe other’s reactions to see how contact affects them. Also be sure to read your company’s literature on sexual harassment and appropriate workplace conduct, as these will give you guides to appropriate workplace body language.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent SmartCapitalMind contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent SmartCapitalMind contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments

anon958303

Is it ever appropriate for an employee to clench their fists, trap another co worker, and verbally threaten another employee? Male to female? Should management support this? Should I call the police and blow the whistle?

anon117406

We have to respect other cultures in their understanding and use of wide-ranging body languages.

They have many different meanings. Relationships can be affected by the misunderstanding of certain body languages. For example, some people use their finger to ask someone to come over. While in other cultures, like ours, it is unacceptable. Instead the entire hand is used.

Armas1313

@BigBloom - I would not be so quick to apply our own cultural standards of what makes for a "better" culture to cultures besides our own. It could be that another culture would view ours as backward, and if so, I think that we should take the initiative in giving the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming that a culture is "bad" because it doesn't hold to our own standards. The culture of Cambodia has found it necessary to lie in order to survive, especially under the Khmer rouge of Pol Pot. This is in no way a bad thing, and I'm sure America would be a culture of "liars" if we came under such dictatorship, and rightly so.

BigBloom

@Armas1313 - "Varying degrees of integrity?" Are you suggesting that certain cultures are more honest than others? I would have to say that this is a bit of a bold claim to make. If one culture is more honest than the next culture, you are essentially saying that it is better.

Armas1313

Varying degrees of integrity in certain cultures may make it permissible to agree and nod at a proposition or statement that you are inclined to disagree with. This is often because gainsaying someone can have dire consequences and/or it is recognized that being disagreeable is more dangerous, especially when relating to those in authority. Recognizing that people under you may not actually be on the same page as you even when they seem to be is important.

SilentBlue

All this may seem so difficult to remember and memorize, but in reality, we have been practicing and implementing these techniques from infancy, whether we fully recognize it or not. The way a child learns a language includes learning non-verbal communication and what is appropriate/ inappropriate in their culture. In crossing cultural boundaries, it is necessary not only to learn a new language, but also to recognize that patterns exist in every area of interpersonal communication.

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register:
    • While a firm handshake may be appropriate at work, other methods of touching may not.
      By: tsyhun
      While a firm handshake may be appropriate at work, other methods of touching may not.
    • Non-verbal gestures communicate subtle messages to co-workers.
      By: Alexander Raths
      Non-verbal gestures communicate subtle messages to co-workers.
    • Crossed arms may demonstrate a defensive approach to others.
      By: sharpshutter22
      Crossed arms may demonstrate a defensive approach to others.
    • Giving the thumbs up sign is acceptable in the workplace.
      By: prudkov
      Giving the thumbs up sign is acceptable in the workplace.
    • A firm handshake is generally an acceptable workplace gesture.
      By: Adam Gregor
      A firm handshake is generally an acceptable workplace gesture.
    • It is appropriate to clap after a presentation or exciting announcement.
      By: Rawpixel
      It is appropriate to clap after a presentation or exciting announcement.
    • A positive stance is important when giving presentations in the workplace.
      By: Africa Studio
      A positive stance is important when giving presentations in the workplace.
    • It is generally a good idea to try and minimize yawning at work.
      By: oporkka
      It is generally a good idea to try and minimize yawning at work.
    • Holding one's head is considered to be a sign of frustration and can cause issues in the workplace.
      By: gpointstudio
      Holding one's head is considered to be a sign of frustration and can cause issues in the workplace.