8 Body Language Cues That Can Get You Into Trouble

The wrong nonverbal cue might even get you killed.

Posted Dec 22, 2017

Unlike spoken or written communication, nonverbal communication is not a true language. Specific nonverbal cues are often open to interpretation (or misinterpretation) by others. So, be careful with these potentially dangerous body language cues:

1. Gaze: “Be careful where you look."

This seems obvious, but we are sometimes oblivious to where our eyes are focused. A female colleague once pointed this out to me, saying, "The boss never looks me in the eye – he’s always making eye-to-breast contact.”

2. Touch: “Don’t touch me there.”

Touching another person can indicate closeness and intimacy, or signal sympathy or concern (e.g., a pat on the hand or shoulder). But an innocent touch can also be misinterpreted by others as crossing the line, sexually, or as a put-down or show of dominance. Touch others with care and forethought.

Pressmaster/Shutterstock
Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

3. Yawning: “Didn't you get enough sleep?”

This happened to me while talking with a colleague. I let out a suppressed yawn — in my defense, I hadn’t been getting enough sleep — and her immediate response was, “Am I boring you?” My apology was awkward.

4. Handshake: “Limp and clammy.”

Your handshake is especially important in a job interview or when meeting new people. Handshakes should be firm, but not too firm. A limp handshake can signal disinterest. Coupled with sweaty palms, it can lead to a truly bad first impression.

5. Personal Space: “Stay out of my bubble.”

We all carry a “bubble” of personal space round us – a comfort zone that others should stay out of, unless we give them permission to enter. Getting too close to someone can make them uncomfortable, and even angry (“Get out of my space!”).

6. Smiling: “What are you smiling at?”

Smiles are tricky, and are often open to interpretation by others. A smile at the wrong time might be interpreted as ridiculing someone. Research also shows that men often misinterpret women’s innocent smiles as flirtatious. Again, when it comes to smiling, like gaze, be aware of the nonverbal cues you send to others, and the context.

7. Self-touching: “Don’t keep your hands to yourself”

Rubbing or “wringing” your hands, and other forms of self-touching can be interpreted by others as signs of discomfort or nervousness. And be careful about self-grooming. A famous Seinfeld episode has Jerry scratching his nose as his girlfriend views him from the side. “No pick! No pick!” Jerry yells, when he realizes what it looked like from her angle.

8. Gestures: “What did you just say to me?”

Some gestures, like words, have meaning, such as giving someone the finger. Be aware, however, that seemingly innocent gestures in one culture may have a totally different meaning in another culture. Our "thumbs up" or “OK” gestures may be obscene in another culture and even constitute “fighting words.”

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