The Power of Body Language in the Job Interview

Body Language

All too often PhDs pour all of their job search efforts into their application materials – CVs and resumes, cover letters, publications and portfolios, or recommendation letters. What happens in the actual job interview in many cases takes a back-seat to these documents. But, all of this hard work and careful preparation can be undone in a matter of minutes in the interview stage if the candidate makes a bad impression. One of the most common ways candidates give off negative vibes is through non-verbal communication, yet most people are wholly unaware of the kinds of signals they’re sending through simple things like facial expressions or how they sit or stand.

Kinesics, the study of how body language and non-verbal movement functions as a powerful form of communication, has widely established that certain gestures, habits, or postures can sabotage professional interactions like job interviews and actually undercut the substance being discussed. To put it another way… your ideas, experience, and academic achievements may be stellar on paper, but if your non-verbal cues are sending negative signals to a potential employer, you’re very likely not going to get the position. Body language is just that powerful.

Consider the following Dos and Don’ts when it comes to how you present yourself through non-verbal communication. And, if you’re not sure what your body language is saying (Are you a hair twirler? Do you have a resting angry face? Are you an incessant foot tapper?), ask your friends and family – if you have a nervous “tell” or habit, the people close to you will likely have noticed it over the years.


  • Open with a good handshake: No sweaty palms or hesitant, loose hands. Make eye contact and smile. If the interviewer doesn’t go in for a handshake, go ahead and initiate. This will show your openness, willingness to engage, and confidence. You don’t want to make a bad impression before you’ve even started the interview, so make sure this first point of contact will start things off in your favor.


  • Make eye contact: Poor eye contact (shifty eyes, looking at the floor or off to the side, a “dead” or non-expressive gaze, focusing on other elements in the room) can have a significant impact on how your are perceived in any professional situation, especially a job interview. At best, poor eye contact can signal to the interviewer that you’re insecure or unsure of yourself or your qualifications (not good), or, worse, that you’re lying. According to one site on body language, “avoiding eye contact is one of the first non-verbal cues people will interpret as being dishonest” (definitely not good).


  • Practice active listening: There are many non-verbal ways to indicate that you’re a good listener. Eye contact with the person who is talking, nodding your head, sitting still, avoiding looking at your watch or the clock … all good active listening techniques. The interview usually feels like a “me me me” situation, where all eyes and ears are on the job candidate. But the interviewer shouldn’t be ignored either, so let him or her know through your body language that you’re truly listening to them.    


  • Smile: While you don’t need to sit throughout the entire interview with a perma-grin plastered across your face (how natural is that?), smiling indicates that you’re trustworthy, engaged, passionate about the job, or confident in your ideas and qualifications. It gives off the sense that you’d be a pleasant colleague to work with (and oftentimes hiring committees are looking more for “colleagues,” not simply employees) and, in general, that you’re happy to be there.


  • Appear as relaxed as you can: Try first to actually calm your nerves before the interview with things like deep breathing, meditation, power posing, or visualization. But, if you’re still nervous (and with good reason, especially if it’s a position you’re really excited about), just “fake it ‘til you make it.” Even if you’re sweating bullets on the inside, try to appear as cool and calm as you can. In general, poor body language and negative non-verbal cues are distractions that can detract from your overall candidacy and the substance of your skills, ideas, and knowledge base, so try to present yourself as calmly, pleasantly, and confidently as you can.   


  • Make yourself small: Sometimes, fresh out of a brutal PhD program or new to the job market, candidates can feel a bit weatherbeaten. Surviving the long path to a PhD can often produce a unique kind of insecurity that has a tendency to manifest itself in subtle ways, including body language; it takes time to shift your mindset from subordinate “graduate student” to a “colleague” or “peer” of equal footing, and this process can cause a bit of anxiety for the candidate. Don’t let any potential insecurity or desire to make yourself “small” or humble in the face of intimidating committees define how you come across: this could look like slouching or closing your body inward when you sit or stand, casting your eyes downward, shrugging or making gestures that indicate uncertainty, or folding your arms and legs inward or across your body.   


  • Cross your arms: Crossing your arms is a big “no-no” in the study of non-verbal communication. It gives off two very negative vibes: defensiveness and hostility. One the one hand, crossing one’s arms (especially if you’re also crossing your legs) is a protective move that indicates insecurity and weakness (what are you protecting yourself from, the interviewer might wonder?). It’s a “closed” position, not at all open or welcoming. At worst, crossing your arms gives off a feeling of hostility and even aggression, certainly not the mood you want to establish in a job interview.


  • Look at your phone: According to a recent study, millennials check their phones over 150 times per day. Smartphones are ubiquitous, and we glance at them almost automatically now, without even thinking. Don’t make this mistake in the interview. Firstly, you shouldn’t even have your smartphone sitting out, either on your lap, in your hand, or certainly not on the interview table. It’s just disrespectful and, for most of us, too tempting. Secondly, if it does happen to be visible to you for some reason, certainly don’t keep glancing at it, and for goodness sake don’t touch it.


  • Fidget: Do you tap your foot incessantly? Twirl your hair? Touch your face frequently? Fidget with a pen? All these things make you seem jittery in the interview, and, remember, you want to come across as calm as possible. Also, they’re distracting to the interviewer who is more likely to remember you as the one who “twirled her ring” or who “tapped his foot” the entire time than for your qualifications.


  • Gesticulate wildly: Yes, you’re passionate about your research and your profession, and, yes, you want to convey that sense of passion and drive to a potential employer. Avoid doing this by getting over-excited and making movements that are too big or frantic-seeming. Instead, convey your passion in your description of your work and your plans for the future. Making good eye contact and smiling, using subtle hand gestures when appropriate, and appearing to be a relaxed, pleasant active listener is more than enough to communicate your interest in the position and in your field.


  • Be a close talker: It didn’t work for this character on Seinfeld, and it won’t work for you in job interview. Keep an appropriate distance; you don’t want to do anything that is going to make your hiring committee uncomfortable.

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