Our first but often neglected language

Some time ago, in a moment of madness, I committed myself to a 3km swim in the BT Swimathon. Only afterwards, and when I got into a pool for the first time in probably 10 years, did I realise how much training I had to do. The target was 200 lengths and on my first plunge I was exhausted after just 10. After that I tried to do a few lengths each day so that when the day came I will was able to complete the course.
After training  and completing an exhausting 50 lengths, I sat in the sauna for a few moments before getting changed. At the poolside sat a young Mum with her child on her knee. The child was a few months old, certainly too young to either talk or walk. The exchange between them was fascinating.Mum was using a vast array of body language to communicate with her youngster. She laughed,  smiled, raised her eyebrows, opened her mouth wide, raised her eyebrows, shrugged her shoulders, and many other variations. The child responded with amusement: giggling, smacking of hands on stomach with excitement, and many other variations.
At one point the child did something which was mildly disapproved of by Mum. A sterner look crossed Mum’s face with furrowed eyebrows and a barely noticeable tucking in of the chin, and thereby a lowering of the forehead. This was an undoubtedly more aggressive demeanour. The child immediately recognised the body language of disapproval and looked down to avert Mum’s gaze. The rest of the child’s body language became very still, almost as if trying to avoid attracting attention. The moment soon passed and, once again, everything was joy and laughter.
Perhaps, because I have been spending a lot of time talking about body language with potential interviewees, I took a greater interest in this interaction than I normally would have done. What was evident was that mother and child were enjoying a significant level of communication without any words being spoken. I witnessed a language being used that we learn before we can speak, but we rarely use consciously.
Our main language is not verbal.

37774635 - mother with baby in swimming pool training

As we get older we do tend to assume that communication is via the spoken or written word, especially in these days when we use a vast array of communication channels. Nonetheless it is claimed that the words we use represent only a small part of the total message; the remainder is made up of non-verbal signals that include tone and pace and, perhaps most importantly of all, body language. All of us recognise it to a greater or lesser extent most obviously when our personal space is invaded.

What impact does our own body language have on others, particularly when under pressure?
Perhaps we should consider this question. If the verbal message and the associated non-verbal behaviour are inconsistent then it is the non-verbal that will be believed. Think about the spouse or partner who will say, “I’m fine,” when the pitch of their voice and slumped body language tell you something completely different.
In an interview situation this can have devastating effects. Many times have I seen people claim (note the word seen) to have an open, honest and confident personality as they fold their arms and maybe even clench their fists. Wandering eyes and fidgeting hands may tell me that, when I’m speaking, the person I’m talking to is not listening to me but rather thinking about what it is they’re going to say next. How many times have you come away from meeting somebody for the first time, either professionally or socially, and thought to yourself, ‘I can’t quite put my finger on it but there’s something about that character I’m not sure about’? Perhaps subconsciously you have recognised a discrepancy between what they have said and their body language.
Do you consider what your body will be saying at interview?
Naturally, before an interview, most people will run through in their mind what they are likely to say if asked particular questions. But do we ever think about what our body language should be in order for that to be a consistent message?
Perhaps it is worth spending time with somebody before a meeting and asking them to give you feedback on how your body language is coming across. I’m sure this will take a little practice, and you should also be aware that with a lot of people their body language diminishes if they are nervous, yet I believe that for many of us it will pay dividends in the longer term.
Undoubtedly this is a difficult challenge to overcome. Yet to be aware of the situation means that you are more likely to find a solution. If you’re practising your answers before you go into an interview, try to practice your body language as well – and perhaps a full-size mirror is a useful tool for this. You will probably be aware that folded arms and closed gestures can be seen as defensive, and that open hands and open gestures suggest honesty and sincerity. These are, however, only the very obvious points of observable body language; there are a vast array of other signals that may be given subconsciously.
I have particularly enjoyed the book by Joe Navarro entitled ‘What Every Body Is Saying‘; I believe that he has also released another entitled ‘Louder Than Words‘. These I would recommend reading. I would also recommend that in spare moments, such as when standing in queues at the bank or airport terminal, taking the time to try and interpret other people’s body language is also very good practice. Becoming more aware of the body language of others may help you to use your own body language to good effect.



Who am I? A chap living in Nottingham, United Kingdom who perhaps has a much higher level of enthusiasm than ability leading to an interest in many things but mastery of none. A father of three no longer dependent children, or so they tell me, and husband to a one-time nurse who now works with me (or rather I work for). I attempt to take photographs and occasionally fluke half decent shots though thank goodness I no longer have to buy film. I endeavour to practice karate but with advancing years spend more time instructing them participating but actively participate in the more gentle tai chi. Professionally I have spent the last twenty years in recruitment – not always the most highly regarded ‘industry’. For my part I take great pleasure in helping companies to find the right people and a lot of satisfaction out of seeing them thrive and succeed. More recently I have spent a lot of time helping people who have, or fear they may, lose their jobs. For many putting a CV together is so difficult and then finding opportuniteis can be a major challenge. Interviews can be a different problem altogether but with a little help most people can perform a lot better than they otherwise would.

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