The Nonverbal Advantage: A Conversation with Carol Kinsey Goman

By Cheryl Mahoney

Did you know that people make initial judgments about each other in 7 seconds–or less?  Or that you can improve your mood by changing your posture?  Or that on some basic level, we all show emotion the same way?

These are just a few insights I gained from a conversation with Carol Kinsey Goman, the author of The Nonverbal Advantage.  Her book is all about body language, especially in a business setting.  I was curious about how body language relates to some of the topics we often discuss here and at UniversalGiving–like leadership, relationships across cultures, and happiness.  Carol kindly agreed to an interview, and I’m happy to share some of her wisdom with you!

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CM: I’ve read that people judge each other based on body language in only seven seconds.  Do you have any advice on how to make a positive impression in such a short time?

CKG: Seven seconds is probably the longest length of time estimated.  We can do it in a fraction of a second.  The first thing people pick up on is your attitude.  Project the attitude you want to—curious, friendly, happy, receptive, approachable…

Another thing is simply smiling.  We forget how powerful a smile is.  When you smile at someone, and it’s a genuine smile…it’s as if you’ve given them some kind of reward.  Make eye contact; that transmits energy, interest, openness.  Look in their eyes long enough to know what color they are.  It gives that extra connection. 

You can also lean in slightly, lean forward.  We lean towards things and people we like and are engaged in.  Just slightly!  Put out your hand to shake hands. Initiate it, it’s the quickest way to initiate rapport.  Even a touch that’s less than 1/40th of a second creates a human bond. 

CM: If body language actually changes our mood, any suggestions on how we can turn that to our advantage?

CKG: What does the body language look like of someone in your family who’s come back from a lousy day?  We know that your mood can affect your body, but interestingly enough, the way you carry yourself, even your facial expressions, send messages back to your brain.  You change your brain chemistry just by putting your face in that expression.

To use this for good, if you’ve had that bad day, understand that if you will take your shoulders out of the place they want to go, hold your shoulders back, hold your head high, change your body and that will change your brain.

Charles Garfield discovered that with weightlifters, if they would smile as they lifted, they could lift a heavier weight.  The brain is learning through the smile, this isn’t so bad, I can do it.

CM: Your new book is about body language and leadership.  Can you tell us a bit about body language and how it relates to leading?  What should leaders be aware of?

CKG: Most of the time, human behavior in the business world assumed that people were swayed by reason and logic.  What we’re finding now, from the human dynamics group at MIT and other research centers, is that people are more likely to be convinced not by what you say, but by the kinds of signals most leaders don’t pay attention to.  For example, the tone of your voice and your body language.  When in conflict, most people will believe the nonverbals, not your words. 

CM: Do you find that women have different challenges than men in the body language signals they send?

CKG: Let’s look at female leaders vs. male leaders.  The biggest mistakes that women make nonverbally are particularly related to projecting power and authority.  It’s a question of looking for warmth and likability signals, compared to looking for power, status, leadership signals.  Everyone is individual and has their own baseline behavior, but in general, women do better on the likability and warmth signals, and less well on power signals.

Status and power are projected two ways, basically—one is height, one is space.  Men have the advantage just walking in—they’re taller and broader.  But they also expand into that space.  Women tend to condense.  For instance, when men stand, they will have their feet wider.  Women will put their feet together—we’ve now contracted, condensed.  I would advise a woman to widen her stance slightly.  It will make her feel more powerful. 

When women pacify in girlish ways, play with their hair, bite a finger…it looks flirtatious and childish, and robs them of credibility.  Excessive head nodding can look like a bobble-head doll.  Women do a head tilt, which can be a very positive sign of listening, but also can give a submission signal.

There is no good or bad body language.  What is it that you want to get over?  What is your message?  It’s not bad body language to tilt your head, it simply sends a signal that you need to be aware of.

CM: Much of our focus at UniversalGiving is on building international connections and relationships.  Is body language the same across cultures?  Are there cultural differences to be aware of as we encounter people from another country?

CKG: If you take a look at the brain…the limbic system is the part that first gets information, before the conscious part gets any of it.  You have already decided if this is a friend or a foe.  That kicks in to the conscious mind.  Under stress, everyone’s heart will race, they’ll fight or flee…  If it’s a limbic-driven reaction, the body language will be the same.

What isn’t true are those culturally determined differences.  There are high context or low context cultures.  High context cultures look for meaning much more in body language, in how close someone is, in the use of pauses—examples are Japanese, Chinese, Arab, Greek, Spanish, Italian.  What occurred in the past, the relationship of people, the context has more meaning.

Low context cultures are more like us in the United States, or Scandinavians and Germans.  We’re more focused on the word; it’s the contract.  That, of course, isn’t at all what the relationship-building cultures are looking for.  We’re looking to close the deal and they’re looking to build the relationship.

There are differences in how close we stand to each other.  Women would stand a little bit closer than two men who were talking.  But because we’re American, we’d stand a little farther apart than if we were French or Spanish.  We think they’re in our face, they think we’re stand-offish.  We’re a very touch-phobic society.  In Venezuela, they hug, they touch all the time.  Many cultures are even more touch-averse than we are, like the Japanese.

Emblematic gestures are culturally determined—the culture has agreed upon their meaning.  The OK sign means great over here, in France it means worthless, in many cultures it’s an obscene gesture!

The place we’re the same is universal emotional expressions.  This was long ago thought to be true—Darwin said so, sociologists said so.  Paul Ekman did a study on this.  There are seven universal expressions: joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and contempt.

Anywhere you are, joy looks the same.  If you think of the Olympics, when people win the Olympics, it doesn’t matter where they’re from—it looks the same.

Learn more about Carol Kinsey Goman and The Nonverbal Advantage on her website.  Carol, thank you for the interview!