7 Body Language Myths Leaders Can’t Believe


Based on body language alone, that guy in the background is undoubtedly pondering the deeper things of life. Who am I? Why am I here? I wonder if anyone’s ever been able to open a Capris Sun without some of it coming out the top?

Human behavior is always on leaders’ minds, not to mention it being ridiculously interesting. Personalities, body language, word choice, inflection, tone of voice, phrases people use, eye movements, posture, style, introversion, extroversion, etc — all of them mean something, but it’s not nearly as simple as some might have you believe.

You know the ones. The ones that say something like If you see a person with their arms crossed, they’re disengaged at best and defiant at worst or something along those lines. Or, If someone is fidgety or they speak rapidly, they’re likely nervous or possibly being disingenuous.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not some ill-intentioned thing. It’s just that while those things may be true about some people some of the time, they’re such broad generalizations that they’re almost useless if applied universally to all people in all situations all the time. In fact, they may even be counterproductive in many instances because we’re attributing attitudes to people that they may or may not actually have based on the opinions of some folks with a particularly broad brush.

The thing is that all of those things you’re told to look for as signs of deception or whatever else, may have nothing to do with deception at all.

elviskissingfanSo is body language meaningless then? Should we ignore it altogether? Am I saying we should all just slouch in meetings, roll our eyes when people we don’t like are speaking, and so on? Oh gosh no. Sometimes body language tells you an awful lot (I’m looking at you, Elvis.)

Here are some things to keep in mind though in regards to body language and other non-verbal cues.

1. You can determine someone’s mindset based on a piece of non-verbal communication.

Be careful about isolating one piece of non-verbal communication and using it construct a person’s entire mindset or attitude. Body language cues have to be read in concert with other cues. They also have to be place in their appropriate emotional contexts, and must be interpreted in the context of the person, place, situation, etc.

For example, people sitting with their arms crossed could mean they’re resistant to what’s being said, or it could mean they’re cold, or it could simply mean that’s a comfortable position for them at the moment. That’s why we’d be looking at that along with a number of other things to give us insight into how someone might actually be thinking and/or feeling. It’s not fair to rubber stamp everyone based on the body language template.

2. If someone doesn’t look you in the eye as often as you think they should (how often do they have to, by the way?), they’re likely being dishonest. Or something.

Lack of eye contact doesn’t always mean something negative. For example, the INTP often breaks eye contact, but it’s not because of anything related to dishonesty or lack of confidence. It’s because they often think through things quite differently than other folks, and so they’re locked away in their own heads thinking about the inane interview question you just asked them. 🙂

Seriously though, some studies have even showed that the truly dishonest (see what I did there?) folks actually engage in greater eye contact. Why in the world would that be the case? Because they know those are behaviors that people use to determine the veracity of what they’re saying. A truthful person can wander off with their eyes because there is no need to convince, only to convey their thoughts.

And really, how weird would it be if someone did not break eye contact with you during the entire course of an interview or meeting? That’d be equal parts awkward and creepy, yes? (Quit looking at me like that.)

3. People who cross their arms are generally in opposition to what is being said or to the person saying it.

Their arms being crossed doesn’t necessarily mean they’re hostile. They might be cold. They might just be comfortable that way. Heck, it could be that whole psychological reciprocity thing. Someone saw someone else cross their arms and so he or she imitated the action almost subconsciously at times.

4. People who are fidgety are probably hiding something.

Or…we can understand them as possible signs of nervousness. You know, like the kind of nervous someone might get in important discussions like interviews, disciplinary actions, and so on. It doesn’t always mean what you think it means.

5. Someone who is speaking at a rapid pace is probably lying.

And for the love peanut butter and pick-up-stix, if you believe that, do not — I repeat, do not — give yourself a sticker for today; because you’re wrong. It will sound like I’m being a smarty pants and don’t actually mean to this time, but sometimes people talk fast because…well…they talk fast.

6. Nose touching and mouth covering are universal signs of deception.

Or, they’re often normal human reactions in what they perceive to be stressful situations. It has a sort of pacifying effect on some. Or maybe their allergies are bothering them. And heck, if they’re about to sneeze, let’s not penalize them for covering their mouths and not spraying their nastiness all over the place.

7. People who are smiling while speaking are generally happy and truthful.

That may be the case, but it also may not be. People smile for many reasons, including from nervousness, fear, or contempt. But again, whatever you do, don’t isolate just this piece of body language to construct what you believe the entirety of a person’s mindset.

Why does it matter? Because, well, we know what happens when we assume things. This stuff is fascinating; there’s no doubt about it. (OK, fine, maybe I just like talking nerdy.) But understanding people — human beings — is at the very heart of our roles as servants and leaders on our teams and within our organizations. Consequently, we need to be so careful that we’re not attributing attitudes and mindsets to people that may not actually be there.

11 thoughts on “7 Body Language Myths Leaders Can’t Believe

    • Yeah, I know a lot of folks who do that (myself included sometimes).

      Oh, and thanks for sending me your pic for that photo.

    • Thanks a lot, Mike. I appreciate the kind words. I’m no “body language expert,” but understanding human dynamics, behavior, psychology, etc can inform our understanding of this stuff to at least some degree.

  • Matt –

    You can’t image how many times I’ve come out of a meeting and/or an interview and have had these types of comments made to me – especially no. 3. I tell people that you have to look at the entire person – their arms might be folded, but they have a smile on their face. Thanks for putting this together – I have send your post to all those individuals you think they are body language “mavens”.

  • Great article, Matt!

    My approach to body language is to read it to inform follow-up questions. I also explain my own body language if it could be misconstrued saying something like, “I have my arms crossed because I am not pleased with what I am hearing.” or “it is cold in here, and that is why I have my arms crossed.”

    • Thanks, Sylvia.

      How do people respond when you say something like “I have my arms crossed because I am not pleased with what I am hearing.”?

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