In addition to the knowledge built inside of her profession, a Black woman in the American workforce needs three things: an expressionless blank stare, an invisible suit of armor that deflects stupid comments and even stupider questions and covert ninja body language skills. She should be conscious of the signals she’s throwing off and, just as importantly, have the basic ability to pick up on and decode others’, too. If you haven’t been able to do it before, read on. You will.
The nuances of nonverbal communication aren’t necessarily built into Black folks’ way of getting our point across. Outside of eye rolls and a certain hand gesticulation, we don’t really do the reading body language thing. We haven’t had to. Characteristically, we’re very frank, very honest, and very tell-it-like-it-is. We don’t drop hints that it would be nice if someone did something—we tell them to do it. Because we culturally dish out that brand of honesty, we anticipate it in return.
But that’s not how communication is doled out in business dealings. What works at home with the family and them isn’t fit for conversation with coworkers, colleagues and clients, so we conform to the norms of corporate America, like not interrupting or talking over top of someone, even in a heated or harmlessly excited moment. While we work to master that skill, which is easier for some than others, learning universal body language cues can disarm confrontational situations and get to the truth of sometimes-shady dealings. In short, pay just as much attention to the non-verbals as you do the verbals.
• Don’t rush through a public speaking experience, no matter how much you want to get it over with and sit the heck down. “When you’re nervous, anxious and stressed out, a lot of times you’ll start talking too fast and you might gesture too much. When you do that, you lose your sense of credibility and authority,” says body language expert Patti Wood. Instead, she suggests a brief but effective trifecta of power moves: stand still, take a step forward and pause. Then start talking. It centers you as a speaker and subtly shows your audience that you’re not afraid.
• Smile. Seems like a no-brainer, especially since some of us are as warm and kind as we can be, but it doesn’t always show in our demeanor. People want to hire or do business with folks who are happy and upbeat, though, so learn to let that shine through. “If you’re not feeling like it,” says Dr. Lillian Glass, communication and body language expert, “think about somebody you love and that ought to make you feel pleasant.” Hence, you trick your brain into making your face play the part of the happy colleague. Ta-da.
• If you’re wondering how your audience is responding while you’re in a public speaking moment, take a look down. Their gazes may be locked on you, bright-eyed and alert. But after two hours and no coffee break—or worse, an hour with two coffee breaks—gauge their level of interest by their hands. When people are intently listening, they’ll keep their hands open, says Wood. Things are taking a nasty turn, however, if their palms disappear. “They’ll rest them below the table. They might hold a glass. They might hold a pen,” she adds. “But the hands close when we don’t agree or we’re not persuaded.”
• Resist the temptation to grab at your neck, which is an area of vulnerability, particularly for women. We cover it when we’re anxious. If you notice yourself doing it excessively, grab your chin instead. “This is what I call a seven-second quick fix,” advises Janine Driver, president of the Body Language Institute. “Practice right now—put your thumb under your chin and put your pointy finger right across the front of it. You look smart, confident and controlled, but you still get to touch a piece of that area, which will decrease your anxiety.”
• Don’t be flustered by age-old body language myths. Did your boss’ crossed-arm stance indicate that she wasn’t impressed? Did an interviewer’s refusal to make eye contact mean you won’t be getting the job? “There are more than 60 different motivations for someone to cross their arms and just because somebody looks you in the eye doesn’t mean they’re saying the truth,” says Wood, adding that other body language cues are far more telling.
• Though crossing your arms doesn’t send one concrete message, it’s still a good idea to have that area free. “Keep that heart window open and gesture away from your body as you’re talking to people. Open that part of your body up and expand upward with your gestures,” Wood suggests. “It automatically creates an illusion of authority and makes you look more powerful and confident.”
• Shake hands firmly, with a palm-to-palm touch so the colleague on the other end can get the feel of you as a solid person, says Glass. But, she warns, “Don’t be putting your arm or shoulder on someone to show that you like them. Not in this day and age. We live in too weird of a society where every little thing has to be scrutinized.” Just like everything else, too much body language can be too much of a good thing.