How you carry yourself makes as much of an impression as the words you say. Before a job interview, think about how you'll appear to the person across the table — plus more advice on how to control your nonverbal cues.
You’ve researched the company that’s interviewing you, tailored your résumé to fit the job description and rehearsed your responses to likely questions. Now, what are you going to do with your hands?
How you carry yourself makes as much of an impression as the words you say. Interviewers seek cues that tip them off that you’re a fit for the particular company. We call this body language, though experts such as Valerie Manusov, a communications professor at the University of Washington, prefer to call it “nonverbal cues” or “behavior.”
Our behavior is more subjective and less rule-bound than actual language, says Manusov. For example, if a person avoids eye contact, it could be due to many reasons: fear, shyness, embarrassment or deceptiveness.
An interviewee needs to be adept at reading a workplace culture, as there isn’t a one-size-fits-all “nonverbal cues” playbook to consult before facing a hiring manager. Is the company friendly or formal, flat-structured or hierarchical? Adapt your performance to match, Manusov says, but be sure it comes from your authentic self — don’t fake it, or you won’t make it, after you get the job.
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Think about how you appear to the person across the table. To practice, tape yourself talking, or talk in front of a mirror or to a friend sworn to give honest feedback, Manusov says. Are you avoiding eye contact? Slouching? Do you have an unusual physical tic that might be distracting?
For a confidence boost en route to the interview, touch fingertips together in a steeple, perhaps in the elevator, so you can start off with strength, suggests Traci Brown, a body-language and persuasion expert, author and professional speaker who often gives talks in the Seattle area.
“It works wonders,” Brown says. “Where the body goes, the mind will follow. You create a confident state.”
When you’re waiting in the lobby for your interview, don’t hunch over and read your phone or a magazine, Brown says. “You’re making yourself small,” she says, and the first impression made upon the employer won’t be positive. “It’s subtle, but it adds up.”
Instead, stand up, and wait while standing. If asked if you’d like to sit, decline and say you appreciate the chance to stretch your legs.
“Deep breathing beforehand can alter one’s physiology enough to make a difference,” Manusov says, along with thinking about the interview as a relaxed conversation rather than a test.
“The more people feel comfortable in their own skin, the more they can show up in an engaged way,” Manusov says.
In the interview
“If we pay enough attention, we can get a lot of information from a handshake,” Brown says, although once again, much is subjective. The best way to respond overall is to reciprocate: Meet a handshake pressure with equal pressure, for example.
“If your interviewers stare with unwavering eye contact, that’s what they want from you,” Brown says. “Be flexible in your behavior and give them what they want. You can do that while still being yourself.”
Try not to point at anything, as most people do interpret that gesture in an aggressive, threatening way, Brown suggests.
“Having a moderately high level of eye contact, a strong — but not too strong — handshake, a warm expression and the ability to listen as well as to speak will work well in most cases,” Manusov says.
It’s not me, it’s you
Interviews are the proverbial two-way street: Will you want to show up on Monday mornings if you get the job? Try to deduce whether your interviewer’s nonverbal cues match his or her words — for example, after asking whether it’s a good place to work, you may catch a reflexive head shake no, while your interviewer says “yes” out loud.
“Even if you want the job, pay attention to subtle signs they’re sending you,” Brown says. “When the tone or body language shifts significantly, that’s when you know something’s up.”