Do you wish you could read the body language of your boss, colleagues, or clients? Although body language is not mind reading, it can give us an interesting glimpse into the hidden emotions of the people we work with.

Research has found that the majority of our communication is nonverbal—between 65 and 90% comes through our body language, facial expressions, and voice tone.

There are many universal body language expressions, but in this post, I will talk about the most common body language moves seen in work environments and that come up at the office, including:

  • how to tell if your boss or coworkers are confrontational or fearful
  • how to deal with know-it-alls at work
  • the best way to shake hands
  • why standing near the water cooler makes you powerful
  • bonus: how to win over anyone at work

Let’s dive in!

Infographic showing 7 body language cues at work

Confrontation

Body Language Cue #1: The Lip Purse

Lip pursing is when the lips push or mash together in a hard line.

What it Means: People subconsciously do this when they are holding something back. We purse our lips when we want to say something but are either being interrupted or think we shouldn’t say what’s really on our minds. You might see this in the office environment when someone is holding something back, sees or hears something they don’t approve of, or are afraid of stating their true thoughts.

Tip: Be sure to allow the person a safe space to share their thoughts. Take note that you might not be getting all of the information available and keep pursuing the truth.

When I was at a speaking event for a big company, I was chatting with a front desk lady. Her name was Savannah. I noticed her posture was upright, and she had a bright, cheerful smile on her face, gesturing openly—she was very receptive and open to conversation.

Suddenly, she had a phone call. I kept my observation radar going as she took 30 seconds to answer the call.

During the call, I noticed her head dropped immediately, her shoulders drooped down, and her eyebrows tensed up, while her lips became pursed.

After the short call, I chimed in, “That must have been a rough call—are you OK?”

Right away, her eyebrows shot up in a surprised microexpression, and her mouth opened wide for a beat in a dumbfounded expression. “How did you know!?” she exclaimed.

I later found out that the person calling Savannah was her boss, and she was needed at a meeting she dreaded.

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Body Language Cue #2: Anger

Inevitably, there is usually some kind of confrontation that happens in the workplace, especially under tight deadlines or with big projects. There are two nonverbal clues to know when confrontation is coming and to block it from erupting into a fight:

  • a chin jut
  • battle stance with hands on your hips and feet widely planted

What it Means: Both of these cues signal anger. Chin jutting is when someone sticks out their chin. Boxers instinctively protect their chins to avoid a potential knockout—in the office, people might jut their chin when they have high confidence, as if saying, “Come at me!”

The battle stance is done to take up space and is a high-territorial move. People use the battle stance to show superiority. I heard a story where someone was in the battle stance over a silly water cooler argument. They kept this stance up until the boss came over—then their arms dropped immediately!

Tip: If a tense subject comes up and you see a chin jut or someone goes into battle stance, it is time to change the subject, go into reassurance mode, or take a break.

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Body Language Cue #3: How to Know When Someone Is Lying

Lie detection is a complex science with 7 steps, but a classic clue that should raise a red flag is when someone says something negative (“no”) but nods their head up and down (a “yes” response). Keep an eye out for these physical inconsistencies and be sure to verify the information. For example, if you ask a colleague if she likes working with a new client, she might say, “Yes, I love it,” while unconsciously shaking her head side to side—a “no” response.

Tip: If this happens, keep asking questions until you learn more.

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Building Rapport

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Body Language Cue #4: Mimicry

Mimicry is when you subtly mimic or copy the body language of the person you are speaking with. Mimicry goes back to the ancient world—body language expert Mark Bowden studied and practiced the use of masks by ancient shamans and how they and other tribe members would dance to represent the movements of an animal. The purpose of using these masks was to contact and commune with the animal’s spirit1.

The shamans would learn how to move like the animal, and more importantly, think like the animal. Because they would tap into the animal’s mind, the shamans would gain a distinct advantage when hunting the animal or learning to defend from it.

What it Means: In the same way, shamanic mask rituals are still here—but just transferred to the business world. Anytime you want something to go more smoothly, you can use mimicry to build rapport. You can also notice if someone is mirroring you—subconsciously, we do this with people we like, and it is a good indicator of how someone feels about you.

Tip: If you need to calm someone down, show respect, or get on the same page, subtly mirror their posture or speaking speed. If you want to know how someone feels about you, pay attention to if they copy your seating behavior or hand gestures.

Pro Tip: How to Deal With Know-It-Alls At Work2

When dealing with a know-it-all, mirror their body language, stance, and head position when they’re feeling superior. Acknowledge their point of view and praise them and then say you’re going to do something else. This is an effective way to deflect a know-it-all’s opinion without confrontation and gives you an excuse to bounce out of there as fast as possible.

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Body Language Cue #5: Touch

What it Means: A light touch on the arm is a great way to get someone to help you. In one study, students who received a supportive touch on the back of their arm from a teacher were nearly 2 times as likely to volunteer in class3.

Similarly, if you have an upcoming project and would like to recruit a volunteer, make sure to add a little touch before you ask.

And if you’re curious exactly where to touch, Oxford University has the answer. In their study:

  • More than 1,300 men and women from Britain, Finland, France, Italy and Russia were told to create a “touchability map” for the places they would allow people to touch.
  • They mapped out different areas for 13 different members of their social network, including their lover, parents, cousins, and acquaintances.

The end result? Researchers mapped out appropriate touch zones from their findings in a chart:

Image showing what women and men consider appropriate touch, in work and personal situations

Special Note: Please do not take the above chart as definitive advice. Please consult your workplace guidelines on appropriate touch.

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Body Language Cue #6: Saying “Yes”

What it Means: Got a difficult-to-persuade audience coming up? Or showcasing a new idea and want support? Try reviewing as much positive verbal vocabulary as possible:

  • “Yes.”
  • “OK.”
  • “Good.”
  • “You are right.”
  • “Of course.”
  • “Absolutely.”

Being open and positive compels the audience to open up more. You may find it easier to win over clients or gain support and potentially even build a greater level of intimacy1.

So how do we emphasize a nonverbal yes? Try using nonverbal cues such as nodding, leaning towards the person (but not overly leaning), using open body language, showing your palms facing up rather than downwards, and smiling.

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Body Language Cue #7: Torso Turning

Torso turning is when you turn your body toward someone.

What it Means: Torso turning is a way to signal attraction. It can also be used in the office to make people feel included. When you’re in a group, make sure to turn your torso to the person talking or the person you want to connect with the most.

Pro Tip: When you walk into the office and greet your boss or manager, don’t just hurry off to your desk. Turn your torso fully toward them and greet them to signal interest and build rapport.

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Power & Submission

Japan’s Department of Cerebral Research has shown that any increase in one’s own perceived status produces a good feeling similar to winning a truck full of money. Losing status or perceiving it to fall, however, can also produce a strong threat response1.

Utilizing power is critical in business. Use your body language in the workplace to gain or lose power tactfully.

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Body Language Cue #8: The Business Handshake

In business, you have to know how to shake hands. The best handshakes are firm but not domineering. An aggressive handshake is when a dominant person has their hand “on top” of the clasp. The weaker person will often take the bottom part of the handshake by exposing the underside of their wrist—which is a physically weaker position. You often see politicians jockey for the dominant handshake position when meeting in front of cameras.

Image of President Bush shaking hands with baseball legend Hank Aaron, in a dominant way
Former US President George Bush shaking hands with baseball legend Hank Aaron

Two equals should just shake hands up and down, completely vertically, with no one on the top or bottom.

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Body Language Cue #9: Steepling

Steepling is when someone brings their hands up toward their chest or face and presses the tips of their fingers together.

What it Means: This is a gesture of confidence, self-assuredness, and even superiority. This can easily be done to inspire confidence in yourself and others during a meeting or interview. This is an easy one for females, in particular, since it is seen as assertive, not aggressive. You might also notice your boss steepling without even realizing its power!

Tip: Not sure where to rest your hands during the meeting? Try the steeple!

On the other hand, be careful of the handgun steeple. This looks similar to a steeple but with both hands clasped together and the thumb and index finger sticking out (like a handgun ready to shoot), but it means something totally different.

The handgun steeple demonstrates aggressive feelings and can be seen all over the news during political season2. It emphasizes what you’re saying and can also be used to shoot down someone’s ideas. Use it to say you mean business; never to establish a team environment. And be aware that it is a nonverbal “screw you!” to a boss or manager that is condescending.

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Body Language Cue #10: Smiling

What it Means: Contrary to popular belief, smiling is actually seen as a sign of submission. Submissive people tend to smile more at leaders to show they are agreeable and nonthreatening to their power. However, alphas or leaders (think Clint Eastwood) smile much less because their power is enough to keep people in line. Females, in particular, need to be careful not to oversmile, as it puts them in a submissive position. Dr. Nancy Henley found that women smile in 87 percent of social encounters, while men smile only 67 percent of the time.

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Body Language Cue #11: Eye gaze

The definition of an eye gaze is when someone stares at you and keeps looking.

What it Means: Giving someone an eye gaze can show active aggression and fear. Coupled with an intense look like furrowed brows from your overpowering boss, it can mean he’s trying to show you who’s boss. You might notice this one if a coworker (or hopefully not you) messes up big time.

Fun Fact: People also avoid eye gazing when they feel unconfident or submissive. In one study, people avoided the eyes of an interviewer and disliked him, after he commented unfavorably on their performance4.

In another study, Japan’s Osaka University used a robot called Robovie to test eye gaze. It played the role of a travel agent booking a negotiation and looked at two different people. When the two people were looked at equally, they took turns speaking. But when Robovie only glanced at one person, the other spoke less. And when Robovie completely ignored one person, the ignored person spoke the least. It was consistent about 97% of the time, which goes to show how powerful eye gaze can be!3

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Body Language Cue #12: Territorial Claiming

Messages that indicate you are taking over territory in the office include:

  1. leaning on, touching, standing close to other people’s objects
  2. leaning against an exit or entry point (“I own this exit!”)
  3. hanging out at the water cooler (dominating the social area of the office)

What it Means: Whoever takes control of the donuts and coffee is the commander of the office. They may have great status and the attention of your coworkers. Even great leaders serve coffee or pour drinks to welcome guests or subordinates. Controlling these prime areas emphasizes service to others1.

Claiming space in other people’s office space is a pretty obvious one:

And if someone stands near the entry and exit points, they control the “flow” of who enters, similar to how a bouncer would control who gains entry into a popular club.

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Body Language Cue #13: Laughing

What it Means: Did you know laughing can give away power and signal submission? Subordinates may laugh to appease supervisors. It might not even be that “fake” kind of laugh, but a genuine laugh that nonverbally says, “Every joke you say is funny! I’m acknowledging you!”

On the other hand, bosses might crack a funny joke and make subordinates laugh. But if they don’t laugh at their subordinates’ jokes, this conveys high status. So to maintain a degree of superiority, managers and bosses might make others laugh but not laugh themselves.

Oh, and people DO laugh differently. Get acquainted with the different types of laughs:

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Body Language Cue #14: Arm Folding

The definition of arm folding is when someone crosses their arms in front of their body, forming a barrier. The person may even use one arm or objects to form a barrier, instead of both arms.

What it Means: Bosses usually reinforce dominance by not folding their arms5. This shows they are open and relaxed, not stiff and closed.

New employees, on the other hand, might cross with both arms or one, especially if they hang around top company executives. They might do this because they’re new and feeling apprehensive around these higher-status C-levels.

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Body Language Cue #15: Subtle Displays

The big bosses of the world might not be the flashiest—they might restrain their status displays to more subtle ones6. You might be able to find their ways of showcasing power by:

  • The shoe display: polished and top-brand shoes that are beautifully crafted
  • The telephone display: having more phones on their desk than necessary
  • The briefcase display: carrying slimmer briefcases with only vital papers, or carrying nothing at all
  • The awards display: doctors’ offices and big CEO offices might have plaques or medals signaling their recognition

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Bonus: Virtual or In Person?

In the workplace, there are so many ways to communicate:

  • by messenger chat
  • on a phone call
  • over email
  • with a video call
  • in person

But which one is the best??

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, speakers, compared to email senders, were almost 40% better at communicating enthusiasm, skepticism, empathy, sympathy, irony, doubt, belief, encouragement, caution, and humor3.

So for those important meetings and one-on-ones, it’s best to avoid email or text, where your voice can’t be heard.

But for the most important calls, try to keep it in person. Even on video calls, people can experience Zoom fatigue or video awkwardness.

I hope this guide on body language in the workplace helps you! The workplace can be hard and challenging, but knowing these body language cues might make your office life a bit easier. I know it has worked for me and many of my students as well!

What do you think? Are there any other office body language cues that I missed? Let me know below in the comments!


Sources:

1 Bowden, M. (2010). Winning body language: Control the conversation, command attention, and convey the right message, without saying a word. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2 Driver, J. & van Aalst, M (2011): You Say More Than You Think: The 7-day Plan for Using the New Body Language to Get what You Want. New York 3 Goman, C. K. (2011). The silent language of leaders: How body language can help or hurt how you lead. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 4 Knapp, M. L., & Hall, J. A. (2014). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 5 Pease, A. (2017). The definitive book of body language: How to read others’ attitudes by their gestures. London: Orion. 6 Morris, D. (2012). Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language. London: Vintage Digital.

Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!

About Science of People

Our mission is to help you achieve your social and professional goals faster using science-backed, practical advice. Our team curates the best communication, relationship, and social skills research; turning into actionable and relatable life skills. Science of People was founded by Vanessa Van Edwards, bestselling author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma.

7 replies on “Body Language In The Workplace: 15 Cues You Must Know”

  1. Anne K

    Hi I loved the study with the acceptable touching. I find that very interesting! But it looks like the two graphics – the one for men and the one for women – are exactly the same. Is this an error? If not, why not just say that men and women had the same acceptable levels of touching? Thank you. PS I watch the Behavior Panel with Mark Bowden and I think you should join them on their show.

  2. Violeta

    I have some maybe silly question 🙂 in a 5-10 days I have some job interview but I have little problem.
    I have pain in my right hand for a few weeks because of some nerve in my neck (I have to do some exercise for that).. My right hand is a little disabled and when I handshake with someone it cause me pain and I make a face…
    I don’t know how to handshake on my interview, maybe I can pretend that handshake not cause me any pain but still I think I can’t hide my micro expressions…
    on the other hand telling my future employer that I’m somehow disabled on my introduction doesn’t seem like a a good idea.. i
    Vanessa what you think, any advice?
    p.s. sorry for my English is not my native language :))))

    1. anthony123456

      Violeta, take this for what its worth from a non-expert. Perhaps you could wear a wrist brace to prevent a temporary awkwardness.

  3. Alexander Peraza

    hey vanessa, i saw an image of you sitting in a chair while steepling and it felt prickly and cold. I dont think you should steeple with a serious face, it feels much more friendly if you are smiling.
    then i saw another one with your arms to your sides sitting in the same chair and it seemed much more inviting.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hey Alexander, thank you for your comment. The steeple (without smiling) can often be used when you want your audience to take you seriously. For example, if you’re an investor and listening to a pitch, using the steeple helps you to come across as intelligent and competent.

      For women especially, smiling can make us appear less dominant, so in certain circumstances not smiling is necessary. Definitely see where you are coming from though! -Danielle and the Science of People Team

      1. Alexander Peraza

        Just say shark tank (we all know Kevin).

        Smiling makes EVERYONE appear less dominant, but I smile CONSTANTLY and ITS MAKES far more POWERFUL than when I WORRYING ABOUT being “DOMINANT”. In fact, acting ALL DOMINANT made me COLD and “SCARY”.

        Be CONFIDENT and KIND and YOU WIN!

        A women who’s worrying about her “dominance” is like a man who worries about his “lipstick”. Men don’t care about a women’s dominance, just like women don’t care about a guy’s lipstick. We can SAY we care, but we don’t. At least not on an evolutionary level.

        You’re a smart women Danielle, I hope you keep smiling. 🙂

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