6 Jun 2024

Silent Signals

The UK election campaign is in full swing, and we are all being subjected to a 24-hour news cycle where much of the reporting is focused on politicians. We see them meeting the public, discussing issues, announcing new policies and initiatives and being grilled by seasoned interviewers.

While some of us can remain focused on the torrents of words and information, many of us are reduced to a semi-comatose state where we are picking up on body language rather than words. These silent signals speak volumes and can undermine or reinforce political messages in myriad ways. At times like this, we are reminded of the power of silent signals, and it is worth thinking about how other people’s body language affects us and how we can improve our own physical demeanour.

Positive Body Language

We are told time and again that projecting positive physical signals is straightforward. We should stand or sit up straight, with our hands by our side. We should engage in eye contact and smile readily. We should avoid fiddling with our face or hands. But maintaining this positive stance is never as easy as it sounds because our bodies are effective communicators and, on many occasions, they are transmitting feelings of nervousness, defensiveness and boredom. They may even be giving away our own feelings of superiority and condescenscion.

Negative Body Language

Unfortunately, there are many ways in which your body can convey negative signals and speak volumes about the ways you are feeling


If you’re feeling disengaged, dissatisfied or unhappy you may well sit or stand with your arms folded, which is a defensive gesture. Sitting or standing at a slightly oblique angle is an eloquent way of conveying that you are not fully engaged, that you are cold shouldering the person with whom you are conversing. Frequently this stance is accompanied by a fixed or tense expression. Alternatively, you might unconsciously convey your dissatisfaction by grimaces or eye rolling.


Feeling bored often seems to take the stuffing out of you; an upright posture rapidly becomes a slouch, and the head is downcast or propped up on an elbow. Eye contact is lost and frequently a bored person gazes fixedly at something or someone other than the offending speaker.

Most eloquent of all, there is a tendency to fidget: this could be fiddling with objects such as pens, keys or phones; or the person who is overcome by ennui begins to pick at clothing (removing fluff, examining stains, adjusting the collar and cuff). Feelings of frustration are clearly displayed by tapping or drumming fingers or eye rubbing.


Unfortunately, there are myriad ways in which nervousness can be conveyed, including adopting a defensive posture and fidgeting. Lack of eye contact or frequent blinking can convey anxiety. But by far the most obvious nervous gestures are associated with the hands. Try to avoid touching your own body (eg rubbing your face or neck, or fingering your earlobe), which are self-comforting gestures that clearly convey that you are suffering from anxiety. Picking at your nails or, worse still, biting them, is a nervous cliché, whilst compulsively fiddling with long hair or a beard (or collar, tie or cuffs) conveys insecurity.


Negative body language is not all about insecurity; coming across as overbearing and arrogant can be equally damaging. Standing or sitting with an aggressively legs apart stance (think portraits of Henry VIII) looks domineering. Insouciantly putting your hands in your pockets can look offensively casual and condescending. Leaning backwards, with the chin tilted upwards, can look over-confident and conveys a sense of superiority. Over-expansive lordly gestures, especially if they involve emphatic pointing, will make people feel belittled. A supercilious smile is the final straw…

Interview Techniques

It is clear from the above that positive body language is focused on two main areas: facial expressions and hands. Some of us are exceedingly transparent: emotions flit across our faces and we find it difficult to conceal irritation, anger, amusement. If you are one of these easily readable people you will need to consciously focus on your face, aiming for a default expression of bland and benevolent neutrality. This can be a difficult skill to acquire.

If you are being interviewed, whether it is for a job or a broadcast, you will be scrutinised when you are listening to your interlocutor so you will need to be extra vigilant about your facial expression. Slightly nodding the head to show you understand or agree is a good way of conveying engagement with the matter in the hand but be careful not to overdo it. Leaning forwards as you listen to questions is another good way of showing that you are interested and involved.

Hands are a problem for many of us and we don’t know what we should do with them. The recommendation, especially when speaking to a group of people, is to keep them by your side, but if you find this too constrained, remember that bringing them in front of you (but not above chest level), with the palms facing outwards, is a good way of emphasising your speech whilst conveying an openness and willingness to communicate and share your ideas. Interlacing your fingers and holding your hands in front of your stomach, or in front of you on the desk/table when seated, will control wayward gestures. Steepling your fingers can convey thoughtfulness and deliberation.

Never point your finger for emphasis, avoid over expansive gestures and try to keep your upper arms close to your body, which will constrain over-exuberant hand gestures – you don’t want people’s focus on your semaphoring hands to distract them from what you are trying to communicate.


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