Nonverbal Dictionary
Amphibian Brain
Nonverbal Brain
Nonverbal World
Zygomatic Smile


Ch. 10, Your Body at Work: A Guide to Sight-reading the Body Language of Business, Bosses, and Boardrooms (by David Givens, 2010; New York: St. Martin's Press, pp. 141-53)

A meeting is typically held at a conference table. Attendees usually adopt the preferred resting posture of primates, sitting down, and remain comfortably seated for hours at a time. Since torso stature is more uniform than standing height (the latter varies with leg length), there is no height advantage around the table. When seated, human beings appear to be more or less all the same size.

Beneath the tabletop, bodies below the waist are hidden and visual attention shifts upward to face, shoulders, and hands. These three bodily areas--along with the star attraction, the verbal voice box or larynx--play leading roles. To learn how they work together as an ensemble, consider "The Natural History of a Meeting," a play conducted in three acts:



3:50 P.M.

The conference room sits dark and empty. It is spacious, with beige walls, no distracting artwork, and a thin gray carpet. Resting heavily on the carpet is the dominant prop in the room, an imposing, solid conference table with chromium legs and a thick tabletop of brown wood. Upon its well-worn surface, the stage is set for a weekly staff meeting scheduled to begin promptly at 4:00 P.M. You are cordially invited to sit in on the meeting to follow its drama and sight-read its nonverbal cues.*

Act I: An Offhand Commandment

3:55 P.M.

A stooped, white-haired gentleman in a light gray suit enters the conference room. Al is the company's CEO. In his midfifties, he has a noticeably labored gait. He bends forward stiffly at the waist from chronic back pain. His face shows the classic signs of pain: narrowed eye openings, slightly raised cheeks (as his orbital muscles contract in a wince), pulled-down eyebrows, barely noticeable wrinkles at the bridge of his nose, and a mildly raised upper lip. Since Al's pain level is higher than normal this afternoon, he appears to be in a foul mood. He flips on the overhead neon lights and stoop-walks another thirty feet, the length of the board table, to his place at its head. Uncharacteristically early, Al takes his seat.

3:59 P.M.

Members of the management team begin to arrive. CFO Franz, Al's right-hand man, along with comptroller, Margaret, walk through the door. Next to arrive are the "like-minded three" (so called because they almost always agree with one another, and not with the boss), Sheri, Bev, and Raymond. The last to arrive--soft-spoken Julia, laconic Lucy, and mercurial Charles--join colleagues at the table. All ten actors, including Al's secretary, Sharon, are now seated at the conference table. An uncomfortable meeting is about to begin.

4:00 P.M.

The conference room is unusually quiet on this November day. There's none of the smiling, chatting, joking, and convivial laughter of meetings past. The somber mood is in response to Al's tightly compressed lips, formal suit jacket (which he usually leaves in his office), and narrowed, unwelcoming eyes. He avoids the group's eyes, and his own stay glued to his folded hands, which are resting on papers spread in a semicircle before him. Taking their clue from Al's sullen look, team members dart anxious glances at each other and remain silent, as if waiting for the proverbial "other shoe" to drop.

4:01 P.M.

"Please close the door," Al says in an icy tone. From where he was sitting, on Al's immediate right, Franz walks the length of the table to close the door. Ordinarily left open, the door shuts with a thud. In the conference room's silence, the thud sounds an ominous warning of bad news to come. As if looking for the fabled other shoe, all eyes but Al's gaze up and around, and look uneasily at each other. The meeting has scarcely begun yet is already filled with fear and loathing.

4:02 P.M.

After another sixty-second pause, Al brings the meeting to order. His calculated hesitation makes what he says more dramatic. As anthropologist Edward T. Hall notes in his book The Silent Language, "Time speaks." As a nonverbal message, according to Hall, waiting time in the United States has eight levels of duration: immediate, very short, short, neutral, long, very long, and forever (Hall 1959). For those in the meeting room today, the boss's short pause takes forever.

Abruptly, Al's larynx begins buzzing and his mouth fills with words. He nods his head forward to give emphasis to the words. A head nod is a vertical, up-and-down movement of the skull used to emphasize an idea, an assertion, or a key speaking point. Emphatic nods while speaking indicate powerful feelings of conviction and certainty. The human head nod originates from the reptilian head-bobbing display, used aggressively by lizards to proclaim their physical presence in a group--as if to say "Notice me, I am here!"

As Al nods his head, his right hand unclasps and releases the left, rises above the scattered papers on the table, and flips over so the palm lies parallel to the tabletop. The hand's palm-down position reveals an adamant state of mind, as if to say, "I am serious!" Al's hand now moves forward, as if reaching for the opposite end of the table. It seems to hang there, stiffly outstretched for all to see. Five fingers fully extend, and his palm hovers four inches above the table's surface. As he dramatically holds the gesture outward, Al says, "Starting today, I will no longer accept late reports."

All eyes focus on Al's palm-down hand splay as it takes center stage. Without actually touching the tabletop, he moves the gesture up and down, like a judge's gavel, to drive the point home. "Starting today . . ."

Judging from his gesture--there are definitely no shoulder shrugs here--and lower tone of voice, Al clearly means what he says. Three seats down the table, on Al's right, Sheri lifts her shoulders. The movement is slight but perceptible. Her shrug suggests a diffident or submissive stance vis-a-vis Al. In the context of his vocal pronouncement, Sheri's shoulders defer to Al's authoritative hand.

Meanwhile, Charles, who sits next to Sheri on his left, leans back in response to Al's edict. He reacts by folding both arms high upon his chest. Charles's sudden backward lean and crossed arms suggest feelings of defensiveness and dissention. Before the boss reached out his palm-down gauntlet, Charles had been leaning forward with both arms on the table. "Starting today . . ." clearly registers in Charles's brain, and his body shares the news.

Sheri and Charles respond to Al's words with defensive body movements. Both are guilty of late reports, while their co-workers are consistently on time. Bodies of the latter staff members stay as they were before Al's decree, leaning forward with elbows, forearms, and hands on the table. Innocent of late charges, their bodies relax. Elbows spread out, hands let go of each other, curled wrists extend and straighten. It sinks in among the guilt-free that in this meeting, at least, they're no longer at risk. Lips loosen, knitted brows unwrinkle, and the world is good again.

Lucy, who sits next to Al's secretary, Sharon, asks a question. As Lucy speaks, her right hand flips upward to reveal a fully opened palm. She reaches it forward and out to Al, as if offering him a coin to pluck from the palm of her hand. Like Sheri's lifted shoulders, Lucy's palm show makes a submissive appeal. Palm-up gestures like hers are commonly used in response when employers give palm-down signs. A palm-up hand appeals for amends to be made, as in, "Let's come together again."

A buzzing sound issues from Lucy's larynx, filling her mouth with words: "Can we turn in late reports," she asks with a rolled-up palm, "if we've been out of the office on the road?"

"Good question," Al answers. "I guess that's the one exception." He matches Lucy's palm-up with one of his own and adds a shrug of his shoulders. Seeing the two nonaggressive body movements, staffers sense a thaw. Al's demeanor now hints of deference and he seems to calm down. Seeing Al's open palm and lifted shoulders as signs of detente, Sheri and Charles rejoin colleagues by leaning their forearms, wrists, and hands back on the conference table. Congruence in sitting postures reflects congruence in the group's state of mind. Like-minded colleagues think, feel, and sit like each other. The staff meeting has shifted from fear and loathing to solidarity and goodwill. Even Al shows a smile.

Sharon's minutes summarize the meeting's first quarter hour in one sentence: Al directed that late reports will no longer be accepted, unless managers are out of town or on assignment. In contrast to the succinct minutes, you have watched bodies perform a longer, more dramatic one-act show. In fifteen minutes the meeting moved, like a morality play, from fear to salvation and then a semblance of normalcy. If all you had were Sharon's notes, you'd be at a loss to explain what happens next, in Act II, when a controversial agenda item threatens to wreck company morale. Using Act I's body language as a baseline, you will clearly see the strong emotions that threaten to fragment the team.

Act II: A Heated Debate

4:17 P.M.

Al stands, removes his gray suit jacket, and hangs it on the back of his chair. The formality of his appearance dissipates. He sits down again and introduces the next item on the meeting agenda.

"Franz," AL says, "would you please start us on this?" "This" is the second go-round on a most unpopular issue, that of "at-will" employment.

4:18 P.M.

Franz opens a black vinyl notebook, adjusts his glasses, and glances down at a type-filled page. He rubs his nose with a knuckle. Now Franz's larynx begins to buzz as words fill his mouth. He leans fully forward, out over the notebook, as if to get closer to colleagues across the way. His body lean is overdone and borderline aggressive. Al now leans forward as well, imitating Franz's overzealous body posture. Acting alike shows the two men are together and on the same page.

"As you know," Franz says, "our board has asked that we explore the at-will model for our company." He speaks slowly at first, softly and deliberately. His face is parked in neutral above the notebook, without expression, his lips in repose, and his eyes saccade (or rapidly shift) from listener to listener across the table. Fingertips resting calmly on his notebooks's open page, Franz's hands are motionless. "The board feels," he goes on, "that an at-will model could better serve our company. They asked us to look into it."

4:19 P.M.

The mood in the room shifts from one of solidarity and goodwill to guarded suspicion. Charles leans back. He scoots his chair out from under the table and crosses his legs, right ankle over left knee. Perhaps to show a bigger profile, he reveals more of his body to make a point, as in, "You don't scare me." He retakes the defensive, crossed-arms stance he adopted earlier in Act I, and shoots a fixed gaze at Franz's face. Now Sheri leans back and crosses her arms. Her lips tighten and her lip corners begin to droop as she gazes up the table at Franz. And now, following suit, Bev leans back. Her upper body angles away from both Franz and Al as she twists away to her left. Bev's eyes, though, remain locked onto Franz's.

Margaret leans back. Julia and Lucy lean back. Everyone in the room leans back now, except Franz and Al, who lean too far forward as Franz makes his case. Sharon leans forward, too, but only to take notes. Her forward lean is about function, not attitude. Nonverbally, the weekly meeting coalesces into opposing camps, those for at-will and those against, with Sharon abstaining. The vote shows clearly in the direction of body lean, and the nays seem to have it.

4:20 P.M.

"As you know," Franz continues, "our company may need to downsize or restructure at some point in time, and the at-will option gives us the flexibility to do this." As he makes his case for adding and at-will clause to the company handbook, his right leaves the black notebook and launches a preemptive salvo of palm-down strikes. In unison, all five fingertips adamantly tap the conference table. Franz senses resistance in his colleagues' leaning away, tense lips, and hostile eyes, and his mood turns prickly. His hand balls into a fist, and he stabs the tabletop with a stiffly extended index finger on its surface to make a point.

4:24 P.M.

Known for his angry outbursts, Charles reaches out a palm-down gesture of his own. "Our handbook says we can only be terminated for 'for cause.' It can't just be arbitrary," he argues. After the words leave his mouth, Charles's hand folds back into the arm-cross from whence it came.

Sheri's petite right hand reaches out its own flipped-down palm. There is no shoulder shrug this time as she says, with anger in her voice, "I don't know about this. We've always had due process in our jobs. That's a big section in our handbook." She ratchets her palm-down hand up and down to the assertive beat of her words.

Margaret's big hand now flips open and over, palm down, and reaches out as if to swat Franz's words as she would swat a mosquito. "At will means we can all be fired for no reason at all. That gives a boss just too much power," Margaret says, emotionally shaking her head from side to side. The head shake is a universal sign of negation and refusal. In Margaret's case, it means she truly feels at-will employment is wrong. One of the neck muscles that shakes the head--the sternocleidomastoid--is an emotional muscle that responds to gut feelings and moods. In tandem with her words, Margaret's head shake rings true. She has gut issues with this possibility.

Now Al's palm-down hand joins the fray. It reaches out with the weight of final authority. "We'll need to rewrite the handbook," he says. "You'll be asked to sign a statement acknowledging your at-will status. Al's voice sounds low and angry as he begins to lose his temper. He senses his side has already lost the public relations war. Judging from words and body language, he and Franz have not won the hearts and minds of staff.

Lucy gives an exasperated laugh and says, "You can't make us sign it! No way." Her right hand flips palm down to slap the tabletop. "Why would anybody sign it? That's just crazy." Human laughter is a rhythmic vocalization that greatly varies in form, duration, and loudness. In attack mode, laughter may be directed at enemies and persons one disagrees with or dislikes, as a form of aggression out. Mocking, aggressive laughter resembles the group-mobbing vocalizations of higher primates. Lucy's outburst of annoyed laughing reveals how heated the discussion has become. Colleagues haven't hit each other yet, but they've slapped the tabletop as if intending to.

The at-will discussion goes on for twenty minutes. Dueling hands fill the space above the table. Some land on the table's surface with audible thumps. Clear nonverbal lines have been drawn. Those for making the change lean forward, those opposed lean back. With all of their bodies frozen into frankly antagonistic poses, the meeting fragments--two against seven--along managerial lines.

Al finally has had enough. The pain in his face is now more from the meeting than from his aching back. "Okay, we'll take this up again next week," he concludes.

And, just as suddenly as the tension surrounding at-will employment arose, it is suddenly defused. Al raises his hands to quiet the meeting. A popping sound comes from the serving table in back, behind is chair. Franz had gotten up from the table as the discussion was winding down, and he has just uncorked two bottles of wine.

Act III: A Glad Announcement

4:38 P.M.

"We can deal with all this stuff next time. "I know it's a problem," Al says to placate. "No, though, I have a birthday to announce! Happy Birthday, Charles! Would you like red or white?"

4:39 P.M.

In a matter of moments, with Al's brief announcement the meeting's mood changes from "if looks could kill" glares to happy-birthday cheer. Business meetings can change directions at the drop of a hat, but this one is likely to cause a case of corporate whiplash. Suddenly, corn chips, chocolate cake, and ice cream come out. White paper plates, white plastic spoons and forks, and red, white, and blue napkins emerge. Coffee, fruit juice, and semivintage cabernet and Chardonnay beckon.

When you wield the same white plastic forks, eat the same foods off the same paper plates, drink the same beverages from identical cups, and use the same colored napkins as others to wipe your hands and mouth, you feel subliminally bonded to a team. The biological basis underlying this corporate feeling of togetherness is isopraxism, the reptilian principle of uniting by doing the "same thing."

Examples of isopraxism (the word means "same behavior" in Greek) include the simultaneous group gobbling of turkeys, and the synchronous preening of birds. Certainly head nodding and hair preening, and some might even say group gobbling, go on in staff meetings. Isopraxism among human beings, Anne H. Soukhanov writes in her book Word Watch, "is manifested in the hand-clapping of a theater audience, in mass rallies, violence, and hysteria, and in the sudden widespread adoption of fashions and fads" (1993, p. 135). Around the world in business, eating and drinking together is the universal formula to bring people together.

Eating and drinking elicit the relaxation response, a pleasant feeling of calmness and well-being experienced as the heart rate slows, smooth muscles contract, and glands secrete while the body digests. Physiologically, relaxation through food consumption--the rest-and-digest response--is a rudimentary model for the sensation of human happiness.

Many involuntary nonverbal signs--such as constricted pupils, glistening eyes (brought on by moisture from the tear glands), slowed breathing, warm and dry palms--are visible in visceral feelings of the rest-and-digest response.

4:41 P.M.

Rest-and-digest is plainly visible here in the conference room. Lips curve upward in smiles. Voices lighten as eyes make relaxed and more civil contact. Staffers lean forward over white paper plates. Open hands wave happy birthday to Charles. The office party ends at 5:00 P.M., but the wine drinkers often stay in the boardroom until 6:00 on special occasions such as these. In moderation, spirits infuse the body's relaxation response with greater good cheer.

4:45 P.M.

Nobody gives palm-dowm gestures above the board table now. Hands turn upward to show open palms instead. Shoulders shrug with light comments, polite laughter, and small talk. Colleagues open their minds and bodies, and face each other instead of cringing, turning away, or leaning back. The fight-or-flight response wanes with cake and ice cream as bodies shrug off the weight of another staff meeting.

5:01 P.M.

The conference room is once again empty. None chose to stay after 5:00 today. The air is filled with lingering aromas of chocolate, coffee, and cabernet. So have a final glass of wine if you'd like and then head for the train. And be thankful you don't work here. The pace is frenetic.

Though nowhere recorded in the official minutes, body language disclosed that in one hour's time a small group of human primates moved from a state of anxiety and loathing, to near corporate meltdown, to rest-and-digest. The bodies spoke clearly, revealing what words did not--unvoiced feelings and alliances along with unspoken attitudes and moods. Those who watched body language would no doubt agree: The company dramatized in this three-act play has challenges ahead. "A house divided against itself," Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) wrote, "cannot stand." As we've seen throughout Your Body at Work, bodies cannot lie.

In the context of a business meeting, there's a world of difference in a lifted or level shoulder, an upturned or downturned palm, a torso's forward or backward lean. As you witnessed, these body parts are central players in "The Natural History of a Meeting." By objectively observing them in your own workplace, as you would in a play, you'll be able to decode the dramaturgy of even the most tangled corporate plot.

Copyright © 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)