Beware of Interpreting Body Language

When I teach interviewing skills, I ask the workshop participants what they want to learn in the workshop. I’m always amazed at how many people say “interpret body language.” I expected people to focus on listening for behavior-description answers to questions, not body language.

Interpreting body language is difficult. Imagine you’re sitting across a table from someone who leans back and crosses his arms over his chest, tucking his hands underneath. What do you think his body language means? Many people think that person is withdrawing from the conversation. But what if I tell you this person is a woman? Does that change your interpretation?

I’m one of the get-cold-quickly people. I can be comfortable in a room, and suddenly the A/C will switch on, and I’ll get cold in a matter of seconds. I cross my arms, and tuck my hands underneath. And, if there’s a chair back behind me, I’ll lean back against it. I’m not withdrawing from the conversation. I’m conserving body heat.

This is exactly the kind of problem we run into when we attempt to interpret body language. People frown, shrug, pull back, pull forward, do all kinds of things that are open to interpretation. And inevitably, it’s better to not interpret, but to ask questions such as “What’s happening for you?” I’ll tell you I’m cold. And some other person may say something else.

Interpretation of other people’s expressions or body language is tricky. And it’s not usually necessary. It’s better to ask a question that helps people explain what’s going on for them than it is to assume you can “read” a person and know.

4 Replies to “Beware of Interpreting Body Language”

  1. I’ve got to agree with you… I’ve got back problems, so if a seat is not fitting my back just right, i’ll be switching positions every few minutes, which makes it looks like i’m jittery, but it’s really just my back hurting.

  2. I came across your blog by accident, and simply ate up what you said! One of the reasons I left employeedom and struck out on my own is the increasingly inhuman(e) treatment meted out to people by corporations. Trying to quantify people’s behavior by running through a checklist of “acceptable” traits, whether by interpreting body language or interrogating one on one’s “years of experience”, devalues the person.
    The audition notion is something we XPers like to do, but in a more structured and formal setting. As you know, one of the tenets of Extreme Programming is pairing – working side-by-side with another developer at the same computer. What better way to understand a “fit” than by asking a candidate to jump in and pair? There are 2 roles when pairing, know as driver and navigator. Not everyone excels at both, but in XP we need to do both. (I’m a better navigator than driver, especially on Windows, mostly because I’m a lousy typist.) If someone can come into an “interview” or “audition” and demostrate that their committment to the process of XP and to the kind of communication required of the process, then they’re halfway there.
    So what of body language in a pairing “audition?” Since it’s more intimate, I think that one is likely to get a clearer sense of a person’s behavior. Both people are focused on the code – the design – and not peering at each other trying not to look uncomfortable, as in an interview.
    The more I ramble on about this, the more I like the idea of “auditioning” for a job. Maybe it’s just my theatre background.

  3. The Verizon Super Pages interview in Glen Allen, Virginia I had last week was a whopper of a fine example. I had all the skills and experience as an expert in training and technical writing, but the folks who were doing the interview were from NEW YORK !!!
    The lady doing the interview was all dressed up for a party, and she didn’t exactly like the cut and paste black pro slacks with a white shirt and tie approach. I think she was looking for someone classy, stylish, prudish — atleast that’s my impression…
    That would have discounted about 99% of the population — but, I guess when you want someone like you in the position… 😛
    The point is that on the way in I noticed there were ONLY women working there and one or two token men here at there…I guess to get hired, you have to be a lot like THEM…

  4. Stereotyping is what’s happening in the world today to the point we all became robotic, thinking like machines, walking like robots and acting like marionnettes, with people trying to use body language interpretations to learn about each other, while in reality 90 % of the time we as human beings do not know ourselves, as we do not know what we want, how we want it, and why…nor what mood we are or will be in after a very short while. For this reason, people should start learning about themselves, and relying about their instinct more than interpreting, or judging others and their body movements.
    After all we are people born with motions and emotions, with trial and error running in our blood.

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