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Inappropriate Ways of Nonverbal Communication

Updated July 20, 2017

As the saying goes, body language makes up 98 per cent of the conversation; studies show it's true. Good or even neutral body language signals help you achieve your communication goals. But inappropriate signals --- such as clenching your fists, finger-pointing, a hard stare or lack of eye contact, invasion of personal space and crossing your arms --- all give off negative vibes.

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Fists Clenched, Leaning Forward

Clutching your fists and leaning forward in the seated position displays that you are angry and ready to engage in physical battle. This position is also meant to intimidate others by threatening impending violence against them. If you find yourself in an argument, or feel defensive of someone who is criticising you, take note of this type of body-language signal --- especially if you are communicating with women. If you feel yourself losing control internally and your body is expressing this frustration, excuse yourself from the situation until you have the chance to cool down.


Pointing the finger at people with whom you are quarrelling will usually get them defensive. Useless you're speaking to a two-year-old child, pointing your index finger while speaking gives you an authoritarian posture and forces the other person to respond in kind --- or shut down completely. Instead of forming your finger like a gun barrel to make your point, open your hands, palms up, to show you're not a threat and encourage the person with whom you're speaking to stay open to your position.

Lack of Eye Contact or the Hard Stare

Failing to acknowledge others with eye contact communicates one of two things: You are ignoring the person with whom you are in conflict, or you are shutting down in an attempt to disengage. Diverting your eyes can also diminish your stature and give the other person the upper hand. Either way, you lose. Others will perceive disrespect or cowardice. Conversely, a hard, cold stare is meant to intimidate and won't go over well if you're talking to your superiors.

Invasion of Personal Space

Getting in too close to someone with whom you don't have an intimate relationship is presumptive and can communicate a lack of respect. Generally speaking, you should give about 18 to 48 inches --- called the "personal zone," according to body language expert Allan Pease. "This is the distance that we stand from others at cocktail parties, office parties, social functions and friendly gatherings," he says. Any attempt to enter personal space closer than 18 inches to people with whom you are not familiar will usually cause them to step backward and away from you.

Crossing your Arms

Crossing your arms across your chest is a natural self-protective and defensive move. People automatically pick up on this pose and reflexively respond --- but perhaps not in the way you might like. Crossing your arms also communicates boredom, so it's best to keep your arms to your side or intertwine your hands and fingers in your lap or the table during business meetings.

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