A bad handshake is such a turnoff because… we’re primates and that’s why we shake hands to begin with. All primates approach each other by reaching out with their fingers. However, our brains have evolved to help us retain negativity “so that we don’t have to learn every morning not to touch a hot stove,” former FBI agent and body language expert Joe Navarro tells his audience for Wired. Thus, when we shake a hand that is wet or grabbing us in a strange way, it registers with us “potentially for years,” he adds.
We feel irked when someone rolls their eyes at us because… an eye roll is a show of contempt and disdain, and while disdain is “tolerable”, contempt isn’t because it is “always hierarchical”. “[When someone rolls their eyes, they are] putting somebody ahead and somebody down, and that’s just not acceptable,” Navarro explains.
We can't stop tapping due to… a need to pacify. whether it’s finger tapping, pencil tapping or leg bouncing, these actions “help us pass time” and “deal with a situation where things have slowed down”. Why? These repetitive movements facilitate self-soothing. Our brains always need to be pacified, and in compressing and releasing muscle, we send signals to our brains to calm down.
We pace up and down because as… babies, we loved getting rocked to sleep, and as adults, we replicate this rocking motion to subdue stress through “walking behaviours”. One of the things that happens when we pace up and down is that we compel the feet to touch a surface over and over again, and that in of itself “creates a form of novelty”. Moreover, the gastrocnemius muscle of the legs is known as the second heart, because it forces blood up whenever it contracts. “This is beneficial for thinking because you now have both the real heart and the secondary heart working together. A lot of creative people find themselves pacing because it contributes to a process,” Navarro says.
Some people are so touchy as… they take comfort in just connecting through touch—it’s how they emphasise a point or make sure that someone is paying attention to them.
Manspreading is a thing because… human beings naturally want to ‘spread out’ when they feel strong or confident. A lot of times, the person isn’t even aware they’re doing it! So the dude next to you might just be feeling really relaxed, not trying to infringe on your space.
True or false: crossing our arms means we're trying to 'block' someone off? Apparently, this is nonsense. Instead, we cross our arms when we need to self-soothe because it’s like giving ourselves a hug. As Navarro points out, we cross our arms a lot even when we’re alone, like when watching a movie or waiting for someone.
True or false: someone is lying if they cover their mouth? No—scientifically and empirically, this action has no Pinocchio Effect (any single behaviour indicative of deception). Navarro also calls this assumption “sheer nonsense” and states that we humans are generally lousy at detecting deception.
How to optimise your body language when…
Negotiating a raise
Don’t ask for a raise—negotiate it. This means going into the discussion with an egalitarian attitude, instead of thinking that you are asking your boss for a favour (which, hey, you’re not since you’re offering something in exchange). And according to Jonathan O’Brien, author of Negotiation for Procurement and Supply Chain Professionals, body language is a “key component” in any negotiation. In fact, 95 percent of the teams he’s worked with “give away their position with body language”.
To use body language when negotiating (and to figure out if you can push for a higher sum), O’Brien says it is most important that you “calibrate” the person you’re speaking with—this involves observing cues, whether eye movement or them shifting in their seat, to look for signs of discomfort. “The sign that something has changed is vital intelligence. If they’re feeling uncomfortable, you’ve got them to a point where they’re up against their best deal. This helps you know if you’re making progress in the negotiation or if you still have some way to go,” he asserts.
He is also a firm believer in the 7-38- 55 rule, which states that seven percent of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38 percent through tone of voice and 55 percent through body language. Developed by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, the concept was first mentioned in Mehrabian’s 1971 book Silent Messages and has since been applied by many body language experts. So if you are to follow this rule, it’s not so much about what your boss is saying, as it is how they are acting.
Trying to win over a date
It’s no secret that we like people who seem to like us, even platonically. And if you’re trying to show your date that you like them so that they may, well, like you too, you can give yourself a leg up by exhibiting signs of interest.
According to dating and relationship coach Mat Boggs, this includes raising your eyebrows when you see them approaching (in addition to shining light off your eyes, this makes it appear as if there is a connection), having your mouth open a bit (again another sign of connection; plus, they don’t say “jaw drop” for nothing), and standing or sitting up straighter (which helps you appear larger and, in turn, more attractive).
Also, don’t be afraid to stare—you’ll not only let them know that they have your full attention, but clearly indicate your interest too. Perfect.
This story was first published in the November 2022 issue of Esquire Singapore.