10 Body Language Mistakes That Sabotage Most Interviews

by Paul Michael on 6 March 2012 (27 comments)

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Question — how much of what you “say” is actually interpreted through body language and tone of voice? Well, if we are to believe Albert Mehrabian, almost all of it.

Professor Albert Mehrabian has stated that only 7% of a message is conveyed verbally, through words. The other 93% is split between tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%). In fact, it’s widely known as the 7-38-55 rule.

Now, you may take or leave that kind of statistic, as it clearly cannot be true in all cases. And furthermore, it cannot include the written word. If it did, authors would not sell books, and we would never sign contracts!

But even so, it’s true that tone of voice and body language can betray our real feelings. And in a job interview, it’s important to take control of your body language as much as possible. After all, even though you may say all the right things, your body can be telling the interviewer a completely different story.

Here then are 10 body language mistakes to avoid. Keep them in mind before your next interview, and keep them under control when you’re in the hot seat. (See also: 16 Ways to Improve Your Body Language)

1. Don’t Make a Feeble First Impression

It’s been said that employers can spot the right candidate within 30 seconds, and that’s all about body language. Be confident, but not arrogant. Walk in with a smile, without fiddling with anything you’re wearing, and give a firm handshake. Firm, by the way, means just that; enough pressure to say you mean business, but not the Vulcan death grip that so many men (and some women) try and impose. Also, a floppy “dead fish” handshake is just as bad, if not worse. And if you’re sweating from nerves (or something else), wipe your hands before entering the room. That sweaty palm will not do you any favors.

2. Stop Touching Your Face!

Did you see the movie Contagion by Steven Soderbergh? A doctor played by Kate Winslet states that the average person touches their face between 2,000 and 3,000 times every day! You’ve probably touched it a few times while reading this article. Now, while you can’t stop yourself from doing this all the time, you must stop during the interview. We’re all guilty of touching our nose, our lips, and our forehead, but these all imply that we’re either nervous or dishonest. Perhaps we associate nose touching and dishonesty with Pinocchio. Also, you’re then going to shake hands again at the end of the interview. Any germophobics (think Donald Trump or Howie Mandell) will not be pleased that you’ve had your hands on your mouth and nose for the last half hour. 

3. Don’t Do the Leg Wobble

Look around you today and see how often you spot the leg wobble. It comes in many forms. Some people will be seated at a table and will jiggle one leg up and down beneath it. Some will cross their legs and jiggle one foot. And some will have both legs going at once. It can be due to nervous energy, restless leg syndrome, or just bad habit. But whether you do it a little or a lot, do not do it in an interview. The message you’re sending is loud and clear — I’m anxious, and I can’t wait to get out of here. And a potential employer does not want to know that you can’t wait to be out of his or her presence. 

4. It’s a Cliché Because It’s True: Don’t Cross Your Arms

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again — and there’s a good reason. When you cross your arms, you are saying that you are closed off, closed minded, defensive, or just plain bored. It doesn’t matter if you find it the most comfortable way to hold your arms; this is an interview, and it’s not a good idea to practice the most widely known negative piece of body language in front of a potential employer.

5. Don’t Sit Up Too Straight, but Don’t Slouch Either

Have you ever been sat opposite someone who sat up so straight that you just couldn’t relax around them? It’s a strange feeling. They’re not really doing anything wrong; in fact, they’re displaying good posture, but at the same time it just seems like they’re being stiff and prudish. You don’t want to seem this way in front of the interviewer, and you also don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable around you, either. After all, who wants to work with someone who makes them feel awkward? So relax. Sit up straight, but not so straight it looks like you’re craning your neck to the ceiling. And of course, don’t be so relaxed that you slouch. This looks messy, disrespectful, and lazy.

6. Props Are for Magicians and Comedians

You may very well have your hands full when you enter the room. This can be unavoidable, especially when going from one interview to another. If you can, go to the interview with everything you need in one suitcase or bag. When you’re called to the interview, rise gracefully and pick it up from the side of your chair, then sit it down beside you when you sit for the interview. If you’re playing a balancing act with pens, organizers, your cell phone, resumes, and other paraphernalia, you look ill-at-ease, clumsy, and unprepared. And if you start dropping things, you make it even worse.

7. Eye Contact Is Good; Staring Is Not

It can be difficult to remember every point in a list, and some people will jot down memory aids and take them literally. One such point is “maintain eye contact.” Before you know it, you’re staring down the interviewer with a gaze that could put a statue to shame. As with all things in life, do this in moderation. You don’t want to have your eyes wandering the room looking for an exit, but you also don’t want to fix a laser-like stare into the interviewer's soul. Janine Driver, a body language expert with the nickname “the lyin’ tamer,” suggests that 60% eye contact is ideal, looking at the upper triangle of the other person’s face (this goes from the left to right eyebrow, crossing the bridge of the nose). If there’s more than one person in the room, make eye contact with each person. And don’t stare at the mouth or forehead. In fact, don’t stare, period. Remember to blink, please! 

8. Watch Those Hands

If you’re following rule number four and rule number two, you may be wondering what on earth to do with your hands. This can be especially true if you’re someone who uses his or her hands a lot when talking, to express enthusiasm or to convey a point. Well, that’s fine. After all, if it helps you elaborate upon what you’re saying, and it’s also a part of who you actually are, then don’t mess with a good thing. But be careful. Mark Bowden, author of the book Winning Body Language, suggests keeping your hands and arms in the “truth plane.” Ideally, this is an area that fans out 180 degrees from your navel, stopping below the collarbone. Keeping gestures within this place keeps your hands away from your face, as noted earlier, and shows that you are calm, centered, and controlled. So, by all means use your hands, but don’t go mad.

9. Don’t Be a Nodding Dog

People often believe that nodding in agreement at everything the interviewer says will stand them in good stead. That’s not actually the case. While it’s all well and good to nod in agreement when you do genuinely agree with something, you need to avoid the “nodding dog syndrome.” Nodding in agreement with everything, regardless of the message, makes you look somewhat sycophantic, perhaps even spineless. Even worse, if you’re not paying attention and then get asked a question related to the issue you were nodding about, you could look like a real idiot. “Why on earth were you agreeing with something that you had no idea about?” Keep the nodding under control. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, shaking your head should be kept to a bare minimum. No one wants to be sat opposite someone so disagreeable, and it’s also a sign of trying to dominate others.  

10. Don’t Keep Your Distance or Get in Their Faces

In most interviews, you’ll be sat on one side of a desk with the interviewer sat on the other. This is standard practice, but with body language you can change this dynamic with both good and bad outcomes. For a start, if you purposefully shift your chair away from the desk, perhaps crossing your legs, then you're putting more distance between you and your potential employer. This is a suggestion of distrust or nervousness. Similarly, if you bring the chair up too close to the desk and start leaning over, you are being intimidating and also showing that you have something to hide. So stay at a comfortable distance from the desk, showing enough of your upper body to indicate that you have nothing to hide. If there’s no desk, follow the same rules. Don’t get so close that your breath is in their face, but don’t back off so far that you’re clearly trying to avoid them.

Of course, as with all lists, remember not to be so focused on this advice that you forget the main reason you’re in the room. Practice before the interview; don’t jot this down on the palm of your hand and become a body language robot. Be relaxed, be natural, and for the most part, be yourself.

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27 discussions

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Guest's picture
Carl Lassegue

Great article! My favorite point was #2. I did not realize I touched my face so much. Thanks for the tips

Guest's picture

Great points on the handshake!

Guest's picture

Gosh, now it will be hard not to be overly self conscious.
Question regarding handshakes. What if you miss; you know you end up holding the finger tips of the other person or some awkward variation thereof. Acknowledge and redo or just be more careful with the ending handshake?

Guest's picture

I would suggest going for an instant re-do with a smile. It can be a nice ice-breaker by converting an awkward moment that could potentially sabotage the meeting into a a moment that shows you're down to earth and comfortable enough to get it in the open, laugh about it, and move past it. It can make everyone in the room more comfortable than if the handshake had been correct initially by breaking down a little of the formality.

Guest's picture

Agreed with guest.

Some sales pros actually engineer foibles and mistakes, to provide an opportunity to make fun of themselves - it's a great way of building trust and rapport.

I admit it-I sometimes look for opportunities to "screw up" in these ways, because I'm so good at handling them, they make me look good.

Guest's picture

I agree with the guest above. Adding a sense of humaness, and the ability to show confidence in a ritualized event like the handshake makes you memorable - not for a bad handshake, but for the ability to make everyone feel at ease. A simple "Whoa, we missed on that one. Let's try that again" will make a great lasting impression.

Guest's picture

This is nothing but archaic corporate cookie-cutter crap. If an interviewer is more concerned with the position of your elbows or is keeping a tally of every minor tic you have, they need to be replaced with someone who is actually listening to what you're saying and is able to discern whether you have the skills they are looking for in a candidate. An interview should be a dialogue, not an exam.

Guest's picture

While what you say *should* be the case, the sad truth is, that *isn't* how it is - partly because of how people are hired and placed, and partly because of human nature which will never go away.

Interviewers get a "sense" for you...and you *will* be chosen based (at least partially) on this fact. I've been on hiring teams enough to have candidates chosen at the end on the subtlety of how they came across.

These are all just pointers to the subtle social cues that we all interpret a thousand times a day - isn't it better to *consciously* utilize this aspect of our humanity, rather than be a victim of it?

Guest's picture

Unfortunately it is crap, but the vast majority of speakers and public officials havew mastered this technique, just watch the presidents speaches, addresses or whatever, He is more in tune with how he is representing himself than he is with anything else when it comes to the media and public....bamboozled comes to mind.

Guest's picture

Point number 9 is clearly questionable.
In Far East Asian countries, nodding is pretty much a culture staple.

Nodding, followed by "Mmm",(or "Hai" in Japanese) usually conveys the message that says "I hear you, yes".

Some people take body language too seriously and needs to examine not only all the variables at hand, but also the background of such variables.

I love the list. I really did, but number 9 really gave me the impression that a lot of the studies are solely conducted in the western world.
This would mean the list is moot for someone such as myself.
As a last admonition, you might want to research more into the culture behind body languages as well. One book I've read that contained such information is "The Definitive Book of Body Language", by someone whose name I forgot. Forgive me!

Guest's picture

how much of this ( the arm crossing above all) becomes self fulfilling? I cross my arms because it is comfortable, but now i will feel uncomfortable doing so because I don't want to show negativity, even though I am not feeling any.

Guest's picture

Warning -- being overly self-conscious about your body language will also make you look uncomfortable and take your mind off the discussion.

How about this: try to RELAX and focus your attention on the interview questions.

Guest's picture
i am I

3 years of recruiting as a consultant to international and tough companies in the third world plus 16 years recruiting for a big international Swiss company:

1. If you have to play a role to get a job, cr*p company, cr*p attitude.
2. If the company wants your skills and its a serious business company, they want the right person for the job and don't want bs interviews. They know all the tricks people apply to look good in an interview. Serious recruiters and companies want someone that can do the job very well. You are not there to show how skilled you are to handle an interview. There is a job, an important cog in the company wheel that needs to run smoothly asap.
3. If you 'act' your way into a job you will be unhappy = stressed = less productive etc.

You got to the interview your CV has dissected and you have been checked out on the internet and more places than you will know about.

Listen to, clarify questions and answer honestly.

Ask questions that you really need to clarify, even if its something like ' the company showed a loss last year, why?'

If anything you hear is a key point for you in a job, clarify, say thanks, give a card for contact for another job and say goodbye. The professional companies appreciate this and you will be called if something else comes up.

Sure , read the tips, then go be yourself. You are what you are and professional company recruiters will fill know you pretty well before they appoint.

Guest's picture
i am I

Apologies for some of the sentence structures, I multitask a lot and make comments on blogs as a filler so:

Correction and addendum

When you go to an interview your CV has been dissected and you have been checked out on the internet and many more places than you would know.

If anything you hear is NOT a key factor for your career plan or it was not stated in the advert, clarify, and if its non negotiable, walk out. Leave a calling card or strong message that the company interest you and normally the recruiter will file you under the 'potential' label as companies also gather a database of CV's to avoid costs and recruit fast.

i am I - its a concept I teach that the i (small ID) can turn into the real, big I (big ID)

So my handle came out wrong

Bon Week End

i am I

Guest's picture

> i am I - its a concept I teach that the i (small ID) can turn
> into the real, big I (big ID)

More consultant baloney. I'm pretty sure that if someone dropped that in an interview for a position other than consultanting or academia, you'd be laughed out the door.

Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Guest's picture

I am i; Regarding your reply to your own post:

"I multitask a lot and make comments on blogs as a filler so:"

Umm . . . No. You don't "multitask". No one does and you just proved the point.

If what you produce during "multitasking" is garbage, then of what value was multitasking? If you have to redo your flawed product then you didn't accomplish anything. And if you've made a poor first impression, then your "multitasking" worked against you in spite of the credential claims made at the beginning (ie. worked for big international company, et al)

People never MULTITASK well. Humans only can focus on one task at a time. Attempts to do otherwise are achieved not by conducting multiple tasks simultaneously, but rather by doing one thing and interrupting it to do another. Therefore the product will always reflect this interrupted nature and lack of focus.

So, if I were trying to impress possible employers I'd never claim to multitask, rather, I would claim to manage my time and prioritize well.

Guest's picture

Just so you're aware RLS is not something you can always control, and the more you think about keeping your legs, toes, or feet still, the worse it gets. Implying that someone with RLS should just not do it in an interview is a bit insensitive. RLS also does not typically manifest itself as constantly jiggling legs.

Guest's picture
Drew Custer

A big help is to ask someone that knows you WELL and to see if you have any weird tendencies that you should probably change. If you can ask your spouse what you always seem to do when you're nervous, then you can use that to change what you do at your next interview.

Guest's picture

This is a great idea. I was in Future Business Leaders of America and when preparing for scholarship interviews or DLC interviews, we would schedule "mock" interviews with qualified teachers or administrators for them to give us honest opinions and feedback on what to keep and what to change. We found it very successful, we even got members to Nationals with this method.

Guest's picture

and don't be 55 or over!

Guest's picture

Giving the finger to the interviewer is one more body language sign to avoid.

Guest's picture

Really? as a hearing impaired professional telling me to not stare or watch mouths is idiocy. Actually, if more people did look at other people's faces while they spoke there would be much less communication misunderstood.

Guest's picture

Good point, but you sound offended. There are plenty of exceptions to each tip. These are just generally good guidelines. When an interviewer is seeing many candidates, first impressions are critical. I am sure they will understand when you are hearing impaired and you are staring at them. Also, if you don't have any arms you can disregard at least #1, #2, #4, and #8.

Guest's picture

#6 explains why Gob had a hard time at Sitwell Industries.

Guest's picture

I have always disagreed with the crossing your arms part. I am often cold and crossing my arms is about warming myself up.

Guest's picture
chris hanshaw

hand shakes tell alot about person a limp hand is frighting

Guest's picture

I would strongly suggest how you phrase eye contact and suggest do use eye contact. I have gone to interviews where people don't use eye contact! I'm deaf, seriously, eye-contact is all I know. But in order for me to get a feel for the place and understand what to expect from my employees in the future, I look around too. But don't suggest 60 percent without a reason. Especially for people like me who walk in deaf and rely on lip reading in the hearing world without an interpreter.
I'm not trying get get offensive, but think about what you're saying here.