Are crossed arms OK? Body language myths and fixes for the office

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By Lisa Flam
Is he bored, defensive or does he want to be somewhere else? None of the above!Steve Cukrov / Today

In the comfy confines of home, our body movements often feel comfortable, and we don’t need to worry about them. But carry out those same postures at work, and they can backfire.

“One thing works at home, and it doesn’t always translate well into the office,” said Janine Driver, president of The Body Language Institute.

Check out Driver's tips to let your body language say all the right things at work: 

Face to Face

At home, we might face loved ones straight on when we ask about their day. That's not the best way to talk to somebody in a professional environment.

“In the office setting, [directly facing someone] is intimidating,” Driver said.

During a job interview, for example, she noted that the interviewer and interviewee are likely sitting directly across from each other, often with a desk in between.

“You have no visual way out, I have no visual way out,” she said. “It increases your stress and anxiety and mine.”

A better way is for the applicant to turn the chair slightly for a more natural position for a conversation.

“I want to move the chair 30 percent off-center,” Driver said. “I want to be at an angle.”

“This is how we talk to our friends,” she added. But then she stood directly in front of Roker and said: “This is a fighting pose.”

Still, Roker wondered if an applicant would risk ticking off a potential employer by rearranging a piece of office furniture. No, Driver said, as long as the chair is returned to its original position when the interview is over.

What about if you’re the boss or manager talking to an employee? You want to strike the same off-center pose, unless, that is, you have a reprimand to deliver.

Standing straight across from Roker again, Driver said: “If I’m coming up and saying to my employee, ‘Can I talk to you for a second?’ it’s increasing stress and anxiety. You do that when you’re letting them know that they’re in trouble.”

Popping a squat

While parents are encouraged to talk to their children at eye level or get down on the rug and play, don't sit on the floor in the office, unless you are one of "the creatives,” Driver said.

If you’re the suit-wearing type, if you are caught sitting cross-legged on the floor, "you’re never going to get that promotion,” Driver said. “They’re going to look at you as more right-brained, creative, than left-brained, facts and figures, and all about the numbers.”

Don’t Cross Me

It's one of the biggest myths in body language, that crossed arms mean we're feeling defensive or that we're holding something back. 

“It’s not true. It’s a myth, but it’s perceived that way in the office,” said Driver.

In fact, when you cross your arms, you're using both sides of your brain — the creative and numbers-driven parts. 

“Research shows you’re 30 percent more likely to stay on a difficult task with crossed arms, so during brainstorming, it’s actually a good idea to cross arms,” Driver said.

So don't misinterpret crossed arms, which really indicate someone is in a puzzle-solving mode. 

“It’s determination but it has a perceived value of bored, disinterested. Be careful.”

Hand talkers and fidgeters

If you’re a hand-talker or you can’t stay still, beware.

Constantly rubbing your leg or touching your cuticles is OK at home, but not at work.

“You’ll be seen as someone who cannot handle the difficult tasks,” Driver said, noting all that fidgeting looks like anxiety or apprehension at work.

Quick fix for fidgeting: With your shoes on, do 10 toe push-ups. You'll get the energy out and no one will see. 

As for using your hands to talk with co-workers, keep hand gestures within the frame of your body. And all those movements should not be random but should match the point you’re making.

“The hand gestures should talk with your story,” she said.

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.