Content and Context

Posted: November 3, 2011 by Alison in Office Politics
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Environment plays a huge role in how body language is expressed and interpreted. When people feel free to express themselves without reserve, you can get a great read on their nonverbal gestures. For the most part, when those same people are forced into a more conservative setting, their behavior adapts to the surroundings. But this isn’t always the case. (Picture the coworker who takes his frat-party behavior into the conference room, for example.) What are you supposed to make of people who don’t adjust their behavior to their surroundings?

Letting Loose

When you head out for a night on the town with your friends, it’s a good bet that your body language is as relaxed and as uninhibited as it’s ever going to be. You’re touching people, invading their personal space, smiling, angling your head to look coy, batting your eyelashes, and puckering up—in a friendly way, of course.

When you head back to the office on Monday, most of these behaviors won’t be coming with you. There’s simply a time and a place for wild displays of giddiness and enthusiasm, and then there are settings that are far more reserved. Granted, some workplaces are more relaxed than others, but for the most part, there’s an expectation for employees to behave in a professional manner. That pretty much nixes the cuddling and the friendly touches you enjoy doling out over the weekend.

Rein It In

But let’s say you’re one of those people who doesn’t believe in toning yourself down for anyone. What other people see is what they get, and you’re not ashamed to be loud, brash, and very expressive, no matter where you are. There’s certainly something to be celebrated about having a free spirit, and if your lack of inhibition has served you well, then more power to you. However, many people who refuse to adjust their body language to their environment find themselves on the outside looking in.

Bosses expect employees to conform to a certain standard. Coworkers want to know that the people they’re in the trenches with are professional enough to get the job done. Everyone in the office wants to avoid offending clients. These types of relationships rely on successful verbal and nonverbal behavior.

When it comes time for promotions and raises, everything about you is up for evaluation, including your body language. If you’re making people uncomfortable with your nonverbal cues or if your behavior is a huge distraction to the staff, then you’re a liability to the company.

Some examples of distracting or offensive body language in the workplace:

  • Ogling potential mates, which is just plain lecherous
  • Standing too close to coworkers or clients invades their personal space and makes them uncomfortable. Give people at least 18 inches, up to 3 feet if possible.
  • Constantly touching other people is also an invasion of personal space.
  • Continuous yawning or sighing makes you appear bored. These are also “contagious” behaviors. (Before you know it, everyone in the office is half-asleep.)
  • Foot tapping or finger drumming can be very distracting to others around you.
  • Lots of self-touches—to the nose, to the eyes, to the mouth—make people queasy. No one wants to touch your hand when it’s been all over your mucous membranes.
  • Constant throat clearing or loud, booming laughter can also be highly irritating, especially in close quarters.

So should you sell your soul to the corporation and become an unmoving, unfeeling zombie? Not necessarily; just consider toning down any inappropriate behaviors—and then note if others are responding to you in a more positive manner. A small change in your nonverbal cues may be all it takes to move the spotlight off of your behavior and onto your work, where it rightly belongs.



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