Nine Bad Body Language Habits You Need To Stop, Yesterday
Good, open body language explained — with science. Get rid of these bad habits to increase your perceived social status.
Note: after this started trending, I filmed a 2-hour, in-depth masterclass on body language techniques. It goes into substantially more depth, includes dozens of practical examples, and is now one of the top-rated courses on Skillshare (Body Language Science). Watch it (and all my other content) for free with this link.
Want to know how to have good body language? In this article, I run you through nine scientifically proven body language habits you can eliminate today to buff up your social status.
Unfortunately, most people go in to learning open body language the wrong way — they click a few blog posts, memorize a list of 5–10 bad behaviors, and then promptly forget about them all next time they’re in the spotlight.
I propose a different method.
Instead of just memorizing body language basics, let’s learn the psychology & physiology behind why people care about confident, open body language in the first place, and then use concepts to guide our behaviors rather than a bunch of discrete facts.
It’s like school. Sure, you could read and reread each of the 5,000 steps involved in a biochemical pathway. But you’re better off understanding the theme that brings each of those steps together — the flow of information between a-z.
Don’t worry, the science isn’t hard. I’ll walk you through every step, and we’ll focus only on the important stuff.
And the coolest part is, it really only takes four or five minutes of learning to completely change how other people perceive you.
Ready? Let’s begin.
Sensory Receptors & You
Newsflash: human beings like being touched. It’s why we shake hands, hug, cuddle, kiss, and… you know. That other thing.
Touch is one of the main ways we explore our environment, and the power of touch as a sensory modality is deeply intertwined with our evolutionary history.
Want proof? Children that go without being touched for long periods of time suffer from impaired growth and cognitive development, as well as an increased incidence of serious infections and attachment disorders.
This is because touch stimulates neural proliferation, especially during critical periods of growth like childhood. And decreased neural proliferation leads to the litany of problems mentioned above (I promise I’ll get back to good body language in a second).
So it’s clear that touch is a good thing.
Onto the next point: our bodies are like thermostats. We all have a certain “set point” for various things.
If the amount of “heat” goes significantly under the set point, then physiological processes start kicking in to increase the amount of “heat” in our system.
Likewise, if the amount of “heat” goes significantly over the set point, then different processes begin in an effort to decrease the amount of “heat” in our system.
“Heat” can range from important chemicals and molecules, like our extracellular fluid sodium concentration (~140nM).
But we can also take it to mean more qualitative substances, like our emotions— happiness, sadness, or anxiety.
I think you’d agree with me when I say this: some people are generally happier than others. Ever wonder why?
It’s because their happiness set point happens to be higher than the general population. Their thermostat is set higher. And as a result, these people bounce back much faster than the average Joe.
The Anxiety-Touch Mechanism
Now let’s talk a tiny bit about social anxiety.
Most people would consider anxiety a negative emotional experience. And I tend to agree. I mean, I’m not a big fan of feeling really anxious all the time — are you?
Let’s think of social anxiety something that “increases” our stress meter.
Touch, on the other hand, is usually a positive emotional experience. When somebody runs their hands through your hair or gently strokes your neck, you typically feel pretty dang good. So let’s think of touch as something that “decreases” our stress meter.
This puts stress & touch at odds with one another. And you’ll see why in a second.
Most people’s stress set points are somewhere between “calm” and “worried”. Deviations outside of this range — because of social pressures like presentations, dates, conversations, and so on — cause a physiological process to “kick in” and try and bring us back down to an acceptable level.
So what is this physiological process…?
Simply put, touch.
Your body loves being touched. And it really doesn’t love feeling stressed. So whenever you feel stressed, it starts touching itself to balance out the equation.
Yes, I know. “We touch ourselves when we’re stressed out” isn’t exactly the most poignant choice of words. But it’s absolutely true.
Self-stimulation is the way your body mediates its own stress levels. Your body responds to an internal increase in stress with an external increase in self stimulation.
And you see this everywhere. When people are anxious, they move around more. If you’ve ever been in a classroom full of kids getting ready to make a class presentation (yourself included) you already know this instinctively — and it’s actually kind of entertaining to watch.
They’ll brush their thighs, rub their necks, bite their nails — literally anything to activate those sensory receptors and help alleviate their sense of impending doom. And their fidgeting is a direct result of their body encouraging self stimulation. Ergo, bad body language.
Next time you find yourself biting your nails or absent-mindedly massaging your neck, ask yourself why. The answer might surprise you.
Avoid These Behaviors At All Costs
Phew. Now that we’re done with all the physiology, we can get into actually learning some real behaviors.
The name of the game in getting good body language is social status. Status is the marriage of perceived power & influence — the more power somebody thinks you have, the higher status they’re likely to ascribe to you.
A surgeon, for example, has very high social status. When you meet one, you often find yourself respecting them, just out of position. This is because they hold the power of life or death in their hands, and this subtext permeates all of your interactions with them.
Whereas a homeless person living on the street usually doesn’t inspire the same level of respect, due to their lack of social status.
Now, status is kind of like high-school math. Which I was never really good at, by the way.
Subtracting a negative is actually a positive. So subtracting low-status body language behaviors ultimately results in you looking higher status.
But it’s easier said than done.
This is because, for most of us, low-status body language behaviors will have been learned & internalized through years of daily use. Some of you are probably engaging in them right now, and you don’t even know it.
Actors and actresses will know what I’m talking about — it usually takes them months of arduous training to rid themselves of bad body language habits so that they can adopt fresh characters on screen.
Luckily, most of you aren’t actors or actresses. So instead of trying to completely rid yourselves of bad body language (which many actually think is impossible) we can focus instead on decreasing their frequency. Because even a minor decrease in these behaviors is typically more than enough to make you stand out, social-status wise.
Like we mentioned, the human body craves stimulation, whether it’s cognitive or sensory. The acts of fidgeting and touching various areas of your body activate a built-in stress pacification system: your body is attempting to cancel out the negative (social stress) with a positive (sensory stimulation). Human brains are trained to pick up on this — therefore, the more you fidget, the more you imply nervousness or stress.
When you find yourself getting stressed, take a moment and think consciously about what your hands and feet are doing. Then take a deep breath and stop. It will feel weird at first, almost like your body should be doing something that it isn’t, but you’ll get used to it over time.
Slouching makes you appear small and weak. These are two adjectives that most definitely do not represent power or influence, so avoid them. It also places pressure onto your lumbar spine, stretching the muscles in your lower back. This often feels good in the short term, but can lead to spinal damage and muscular problems if made into a habit.
Keep your back as straight as possible at all times. This serves two purposes — one, it subcommunicates health, since a straight back is a healthy back. Two, it increases your height and size (which also communicates health for similar nutritionally-derived reasons).
Leaning forward demonstrates investment. You don’t typically lean forward unless you’re interested in what the other person has to say. In romance, for example, having your date lean forward at the dinner table is often construed to be positive.
However, leaning forward too much implies relatively low-status; powerful people are rarely “taken” easily, and often only invest when the other person is really valuable.
Instead, lean slightly back as often as you can. By doing so, you allow the other person to come to you — this subcommunicates value and influence, since the other person looks like the one pining for your attention.
Handshakes are more of a cultural phenomenon than a biological one — nevertheless, receiving a bad one significantly negatively impacts the rest of a social interaction.
There are rigorous standards for what constitutes a good handshake. Generally, keep your hand firm (but not so strong as to crush your acquaintance) and pump 2–3 times maximum, while maintaining eye contact with the shakee. Anything else is considered a poor gesture, and should be avoided like the plague.
Rubbing Your Neck
Your neck is very densely innervated, and permits the passage of a number of blood vessels, nerves, and (often very tight) muscles. Rubbing or massaging it is thus a stress-relieving exercise that you usually only engage in when you’re feeling sub-100%.
Whether it be because you’re tired, cold, or nervous, neck rubbing generally subcommunicates discomfort and anxiety, and thus should be avoided as much as possible. Next time your hands go to your neck, ask yourself why. Then take a deep breath and peel them away.
Brushing Your Thighs
Ever wonder why nervous people rub their thighs vigorously?
Though not particularly densely innervated, your thighs are a huge swath of skin surface area. Multiply out the number of sensory receptors per square inch times the area of both of your thighs, and it’s clear why this is such a common pacifying behavior before a stressful event.
Most people engage in this behavior while sitting, so you’ll see this most often in boardrooms, meetings, or right before nerve-wracking conversations & public speaking events. It’s a hard behavior to break out of, but avoid it at all costs.
Rolling Your Eyes
Generally considered rude & off-putting, rolling your eyes is a big social faux-pas.
Evolutionarily, the darks of the eyes (your irises) functioned as an intention-signalling mechanism for other members of the tribe: prolonged staring at something meant you were likely going to interact with it. This allowed simple action-oriented communication, and ultimately grew into the eye contact standards we have today.
Eye rolling takes that notion and throws it in the dumpster. It’s passive-aggressive, it hides your line or action from the other person, and it’s also been culturally reinforced to mean “whatever”. Stay away from this behavior at all costs.
The act of nail biting (or onycophagia, as it’s referred to as in the literature) negatively impacts perceived status for several reasons.
First, it implies anxiety or nervousness. On top of giving you something to do, your nail beds and the tips of your fingers are chock full of sensory receptors. Placing pressure on them, biting them, and pinching them helps relieve stress. And I don’t have to tell you that signalling stress is a bad thing.
Second, it screws with your fingernails. Having torn or otherwise damaged nails subcommunicates poor health or disease, decreasing the likelihood of finding a successful mate; this is one of the root causes behind why the nail care industry exists, and manicures are a common procedure among women.
Postural readjustment is a personal favorite to talk about because it’s so prevalent on in media and television, and almost nobody picks up on it.
If you want an example, check this short clip out. It’s a Conan interview with Charlie Hunnam, one of the main actors on Sons of Anarchy.
Notice how, at the beginning of his first answer, Charlie leans forward, brushes his thighs, and posturally re-adjusts. You see this several times throughout the interview, particularly after harder hitting (or longer) questions. It’s clear as day that he’s stressed out, but before learning the physiology behind it, most people can’t quite put their fingers on why. Now you know — next time you feel the urge to change how you’re sitting (and thus receive a big hit of self-stimulation) take a deep breath and remain still. You’ll thank yourself for it later.
The Body Language Advantage
In summary, letting other people see you touching yourself is bad.
I know… bad choice of words again. But it’s true. Avoid revealing your self-stimulatory behaviors, and people will always think you’re more confident than they would otherwise.
There has never been a better time to improve your communication skills. With technological development and proliferation accelerating, more than 42% of the average American’s day is now spent looking at a screen.
This has reeked havoc on basic social acuity. People today are likely worse at talking face-to-face than they ever have been before, and it’s for the sole reason that nobody practices it anymore.
But it also means that you have a fantastic opportunity right now to boost your perceived status immeasurably. By learning even basic social literacy, you can easily sweep up the lions share of interviews, promotions, relationships, and more.
The bulk of our days might be spent looking at screens, but the few key moments that can make or break the rest of your life are usually spent in conversation.
So take advantage of it, and quit fidgeting!
Here’s hoping this post helped you learn how to have better body language! If you found the article helpful, here are some more you’ll probably get value out of:
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- Why most people should take a step back from listening to music
- One simple phrase that I’ve used to speak to thousands of people