Single Women and Body Language at Work
By Paula Santonocito
Whether you realize it or not, your body language sends a message—and it can greatly influence career success.
Understanding Your Objective
“I always start, when I coach a client, with their end goal in mind. The first thing I’d ask a single woman is ‘what is your career goal,’” says Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., author of the acclaimed book “The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.”
If a single woman is there to build a career in the industry, build a reputation in the industry, and advance in the industry, she has to pay attention to her body language, Goman says.
Think it doesn’t matter that much?
Goman shares a new piece of research from the University of California Berkeley. Professors conducting a study had women and men take on the roles of sellers of a fictitious biotech business. Half of the participants were told to flirt using non-verbal behavior, which included smiling too much, leaning forward, and tossing their hair; the other half were told to remain non-flirtatious.
The outcome? The buyers offered the flirts 20 percent less, on average, than the non-flirtatious group.
According to Goman, the message for women—and single women especially—is that if you’re in a business situation it’s to your advantage to understand those behaviors are not going to help advance your career.
Watch Your Language
What kind of non-verbal behavior should you avoid?
“Things like invading other people’s territory; getting too close, especially to a male counterpart,” says Goman.
She also advises women to avoid a “social gaze.” When a woman focuses on the mouth, it’s viewed as social or even flirtatious, and in business it sends the wrong signal. Instead, Goman recommends creating an imaginary triangle, the base of which is the eyes and the apex is mid forehead. By keeping your eyes on the triangle, you’ll convey that you mean business.
It’s not always easy, and, in fact, there may be exceptions. Goman tells of a woman who, as part of an international business group, finds herself looking at colleagues’ mouths in order to understand what they’re saying. In certain situations, like this one, it’s alright to linger a little longer on an area outside the triangle, but Goman still recommends returning the focus to the person’s eye area.
“Body language is not so much your intent; it’s really how the receiver interprets your signals,” she says.
Even if you don’t mean to be flirtatious, you can come across that way.
Another signal is the head tilt gesture. “When a woman tilts her head, it comes across as kind of coy and cutesy. It doesn’t come across as I’m here to conduct a business dealing with you,” Goman says.
Handshakes, likewise, send a message. “A firm handshake is particularly important as a single woman, particularly if you’re young and feminine,” Goman tells SMW. “If a woman has a good handshake it’s a very positive signal, that you’re professional and that you’re confident and that you’re competent.”
The way you walk into a room also matters. Erect posture, looking directly into a person’s eyes for the right amount of time, which Goman defines as long enough to note eye color, are recommended.
Goman finds women generally have an innate sense when it comes to reading body language. However, single women who are accustomed to focusing on likeability, flirtatiousness, and cuteness in social settings may not realize that their behavior doesn’t play well in a business arena.
“Most young single women haven’t a clue about it, quite frankly,” says Goman.
Women returning to the workforce may also be uninformed about the difference between social and professional interaction.
For many women, the emphasis tends to be on likeability. But, by relying on social body language, women miss sending signals that can propel their careers forward.
One of those signals is conveyed by clothing. “I know that clothes still make the person,” Gorman says.
What’s more, she advises: “Dress for the role that you want, not the one that you have.”
She recommends looking at the way successful female managers dress and emulating their styles. “I see so many young women wearing things that are way too revealing, way too tight, and way too short,” Goman says.
They look great, she tells SMW, but they don’t look professional because this kind of clothing has worked in a social setting, women believe it will be effective at work.
The truth, however, is that it doesn’t send the right message.
Similarly, how a woman stands conveys a message. Here too Goman recommends observing successful women in your company. As with clothing, posture and gestures contribute to appearance.
With regard to standing, Goman cites a difference between men and women. “When women interact, we tend to square off, face-to-face, heart-to-heart,” she explains. “Men tend to stand in a more oblique angle.”
As a result, men prefer to be approached from the side, where women like to be approached straight on. Although most interaction is universal, this is one of the gender differences that come into play with regard to body language.
Obviously, understanding the subtleties of non-verbal language can help you avoid workplace miscommunication. But there’s an even more important reason to take note.
Goman points out that for single women especially body language is a very powerful skill to be able to use when applying for jobs and striving for promotions.
“Then you choose what signals you want to send,” she says.
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