Monday, May 27, 2024

Interview Body Language: It’s Not What You Said

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In all likelihood, a recruiter won’t browbeat you, torture you, or threaten you with jail time, but that doesn’t mean the on-campus interview won’t feel a bit like an interrogation. The room is usually cramped and spartan. Every word echoes, every movement is accentuated. It’s enough to make a candidate forget about a job and start thinking about an alibi.

In such an environment, an interviewee’s body language–how he crosses his legs or sits in the chair–can actually make more of an impression on the interviewer than whatever well-rehearsed words might spill from his lips. Reams of psychological research suggest that while most facial expressions, body postures, and movements don’t communicate information per se, they do advertise an attitude. And the wrong attitude can mean the difference between a fat signing bonus and a trip back to school–for a law degree.

A Hands-On Attitude

The most vexing question that many interviewees ask themselves isn’t “Should I hold out for a company Lexus?” but rather, “What should I do with my hands?” Does folding them on the lap seem controlled, or passive? Does gesticulating make someone look energetic, or like an irate cabdriver? The answer depends on the interviewer, according to psychologist Laurence Stybel, president of Stybel, Peabody and Lincolnshire, a Boston-based career management service that prepares senior executives for job interviews. Before deciding what to do with your hands, Stybel suggests that you analyze the language the company uses in its job description. If it tosses around energetic adjectives like fast and rapid, then sawing the air with your hands sends the right message because it indicates a willingness to be aggressive. If the company prefers consistency and reliability, place your hands quietly on your lap.

Lip Service

Touching your lips can be an indicator of deception, says Mike Caro, known throughout the high-stakes gambling world as the Mad Genius of Poker. “If a speaker touches or obscures her face, especially her lips, there’s a better-than-usual chance that you have just heard something that was uncomfortable to say, and that the speaker may have been lying or exaggerating,” explains Caro. And he should know: He makes a living reading the subtle cues of his opponents. Two tips for appearing on the level: Show the palms of your hands during an interview, or touch your chest with your palm.

Armed and Dangerous

Like the word aloha, crossing one’s arms can communicate many things. Sadly, defensiveness, insecurity, inflexibility, and closed-mindedness aren’t going to earn anybody a company trip to the Big Island. “It’s almost like you’re saying, ‘What more do you people want from me?'” says Jody Swartzwelder, assistant director of campus recruiting for Arthur Andersen in Dallas.

The Handshake

A recruiter’s first impression of you is often formed when you shake hands — which is why you should never, ever extend a hand that is even slightly moist. Sweaty palms say one of three things: “I’m out of shape and frightened,” “I am vaguely reptilian and therefore wholly untrustworthy,” or “I am perhaps just a little bit too happy to meet you.”

Angling for Position

Tipping back in the chair is a sure indicator of an interviewee’s overconfidence, and projects a subtle air of disdain. It’s far better, recruiters say, to seem eager than arrogant. But leaning too far forward makes job candidates look as if they might pounce on their interviewers at any moment and demand to know “where the money’s hidden.” “You want to choose a moderate position that isn’t too cocky but definitely lets the interviewer know that you are awake and aware,” says Lauren Shapiro, who, as regional campus manager for Connecticut-based Deloitte Consulting, has supervised more than a thousand interviews.


Which makes a stronger statement: legs crossed or feet planted on the floor? “It’s hard to get comfortable in an interview, so choose whichever position puts you at ease,” says Deloitte’s Shapiro. She does caution, however, that if you cross your legs, they should be crossed all the way. “Resting your ankle on your knee conveys an overly casual attitude,” she says. The most important thing, though, is to find a position and stick with it. Constant shifting can make an interviewee look, well, shifty.

Don’t Touch Your Nose

Studies conducted at Chicago’s Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation show that touching the outside of the nose can be a prime indicator of lying. Guilt associated with deceptiveness triggers a rise in blood pressure, which then causes tissues in the nose to stretch and release histamine. The histamine causes itching, which in turn induces scratching. Recruiters may or may not be up on this research, but why find out the hard way?

Nice Gesture

Job candidates should definitely convey enthusiasm for the position they’re after. According to Andersen’s Swartzwelder, pressing your fingers together to form a steeple not only shows interest but also suggests assertiveness and determination. Steepling can be overdone, however, especially when accompanied by a malevolent grin and the words “Your petty enterprise is no match for my cruel ambitions.”

Eye Contact

Make it. Avoiding eye contact is unnerving for the interviewer and creates the impression that you’re hiding something.

Show You Care

If you get past the interview stage, you may have the pleasure of receiving a salary offer. Most candidates are savvy enough not to break into a rendition of “We Are the Champions” at this point. “The natural tendency would be to look away and act indifferent if an offer is more than a person expected,” explains Caro. It’s the equivalent, he says, of a poker player with a strong hand acting nonchalant when he wants an opponent to bet. If you want to up your own ante, it might be better to take a direct approach. After all, you’re up against a pro.

For more in-depth, technical articles, subscribe to MBA Jungle. Copyright 2000, Jungle Interactive Media, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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