Sitting around the table for the first time with a new client, Jane Snell found herself getting more and more frustrated. Although she owns her Coconut Creek construction company, JS-1 Construction, the half-dozen men seated around the table were addressing their questions and comments to her male assistant. It wasn't until days later that she discovered where she had gone wrong: her smile.
"The way I was grinning said, 'administrative assistant,' not 'owner,' " Ms. Snell said.
Our posture, our facial expressions, even the placement of our legs can speak volumes about what we're conveying in the workplace. We can put in hours networking or working late and then blow our image as confident experts by sending a different message with something as simple as a smile.
Sharon Sayler, body language expert and owner of Competitive Edge Communications, educates women and men about the hidden nonverbal statements in business that can ruin a deal, diminish credibility, even create doubt about capability.
In workplaces with increasing diversity, age differences and cultural peculiarities, what you're saying with your eyes, feet and hands could be as game-changing as what comes out of your mouth.
"There are a lot of nuances to what's being sent unintentionally," Ms. Sayler said. "We need to understand messages we're sending and be strategic. When you're not getting the response you want, you need to think about why."
For example, women are too quick to smile, she said. "Executives rarely smile, so if a male executive sees you smiling like a joker, he will think you must be the assistant." Instead, she advises being strategic. "When someone introduces himself and says his name, that's when you smile and say, 'Happy to meet you.' "
Ms. Sayler says the worst gaffes usually involve our chin and feet. In workplace situations where there are height differences, keep your chin parallel to the ground, she advises. It may require taking a step back. Tilting your chin up or down could cause you to come across as snooty or timid, she says: "Either way, it does not say leadership." Also, a head tilt, even to make eye contact, creates a shrill voice pattern, which could make someone come across as a whiner and diminishes authority.
Anything other than a stance with both feet firmly on the floor could send the message you're off balance, personally or professionally, she says. And, if you want someone to know you're interested and listening, make sure feet are pointed toward them. If you're the speaker and someone's feet are pointed toward the door, it's a message they're ready to make an exit, she says.
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.