Gentlemen’s Body Language Etiquette: Polite Ways to Sit, Stand & Walk
Your everyday body language can send social signals and silently speaks about your attitudes and messages. Similar to the manner of dressing, body language is a form of communication, as well. So, how can you best comport yourself as a gentleman?
Why Is Body Language Important?
Just as important as verbal communication are the things you’re doing non-verbally to try to communicate your point and your mood to others. Though various different studies have tried to quantify just how much information in a conversation is communicated nonverbally, these numbers aren’t concrete. Even so, it’s well established that nonverbal communication, for example, the ways in which you sit, stand, gesture, walk, and more do play a role in how you’re perceived.
In other words, much is communicated through things like facial expressions, hand gestures, and overall body language. Altogether, these things form nonverbal communication. The study of these nonverbal communication techniques is known as kinesics, but long before this term was coined, an 1886 book by Francis Warner discussed physical expression modes including bodily movements, posture, hand, eye, and facial movements and what all of these mean.
Put simply, physical expression can communicate both attitude and message. And what’s more, these nonverbal cues can sometimes be more persuasive than what you’re actually saying. In fact, as Dr. Nick Morgan states in his book Power Cues, “Every communication is two conversations; the verbal and the nonverbal. When the two conversations are not aligned, people believe the nonverbal every time.”
So, while specific actions like gestures might be interpreted differently based on geography, being generally aware of your demeanor and comportment is essential in being understood; whether in social or business settings. The etiquette guidelines we’ll lay out today then will improve conversation, minimize misinterpretation and overall reflect more positively on you.
Eye Contact and Expression
The art of mastering eye contact is something that even socially confident people can struggle with and it does take practice. Never making eye contact will give the impression that you’re shy or disengaged in the conversation, but staring at someone continuously might make them feel scrutinized.
A simple guideline for casual conversation is to try to make more eye contact with someone when they’re speaking to you and then when it’s your turn to speak, you can break eye contact every so often to glance around at your surroundings. Also, do keep in mind that the amount of eye contact that a person expects to receive can vary on culture and where they were raised as well.
As far as your expression is concerned, try to appear open and friendly in most situations. A serious business conversation or a grieving loved one shouldn’t be met with a broad smile of course, but in general conversation, you won’t want to appear cold or distant. Observing your resting expression in a mirror might be helpful; and similarly, mirroring or trying to adopt the same general expression as your conversation partners can be a helpful technique to try.
The simplest question to answer here is, how much is too much? Overall, we’d say that as long as you’re not gesturing so wildly as to invade others’ personal space, or alternately if they’ve told you to tone things down, then you’re probably going to be fine.
Hand gestures are a natural part of human speech as evidenced by the fact that we tend to gesture even when we’re on the phone, and that people who have been blind since birth still gesture when they speak. Science suggests that gesturing helps us to form and express our thoughts more clearly. Also, science has found that people who talk with their hands tend to be seen as more warm, agreeable, and energetic while those who are less animated are often seen as logical, cold, or analytical.
As an example of this phenomenon, a 2015 study looking at different TED Talks found that the most popular viral speakers used an average of about 465 hand gestures during their talk. This was nearly twice as many as those used by the least popular speakers.
How A Man Should Sit
More often than not, sitting is probably the least of your concerns, so long as you’re on a chair or a couch that isn’t uncomfortable and therefore affecting the way you’re sitting. However, sitting positions can have different implications socially, such as overconfidence or feelings of superiority; and some people may be offended if you sit in different ways. Your sitting posture can also indicate interest in a conversation or lack of it.
Sitting With Your Legs Far Apart
This one’s going to fall into the don’t category, generally. In public, sitting with your legs wide apart or as it’s become known on the internet in recent years, manspreading has come under a lot of fire. In addition to physically taking up more of the space around you which might be inconvenient if seating is limited, it can also project that you’re smug or overconfident.
Also, the subconscious implications of the increased exposure of the crotch area probably aren’t lost on most people. Of course, it can be uncomfortable for a man if his two legs are clamped directly close together, and we’re not advocating that you should do this. However, just be mindful that you aren’t spreading your legs so far apart that you’re taking up more room than you need to or sending signals that you don’t want to.
Sitting this way at home, for example, might be fine but if you’re not careful about it it could be carried over into public settings, which would be undesirable.
Leg Over Leg Method
This one is acceptable. Crossing your legs with one knee directly on top of the other can sometimes signal that you are more reserved, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. This sitting position is often considered formal and overall inoffensive as there isn’t any chance for manspreading going on, and you also won’t be showing off the soles of your shoes. It’s presentable, communicates confidence, and can even help your posture as well, which is never a bad thing.
There is another way to cross your legs while sitting, of course, and this one can sometimes be referred to as the figure-four; where one ankle rests on top of the opposite knee. This is a popular sitting posture among men and it can be more comfortable than the leg on leg position we’ve just covered. Though it will expose a bit more of the soles of your shoes, it’s still seen as a formal sitting posture in most contexts; and because there is a bit more of a spread going on, it can subconsciously signal a bit more confidence as well.
Feet Flat on the Ground
The most basic sitting position would be to simply have both of your feet, flat on the ground. This is a neutral position and also formal, allowing you to focus on the conversation and others to not have to focus on the way you’re sitting. Of course, do be mindful of your degree of spread here as well, in other words, having both of your feet flat on the ground is basic but effective.
Finally, we have crossing your ankles while sitting, which, similarly to the leg over leg technique, can be seen as a bit more reserved. It will allow you to sit in a secure and commanding position however and you should be able to keep a bit more distance between your knees. It’s still a more formal sitting style and it should also help with your posture.
How A Man Should Stand
Just as with different sitting positions, how you stand will also impact how others perceive you during a conversation or social settings more broadly. The way you stand can show your degree of interest in a conversation and can also communicate your personality.
The attention stance is a neutral and formal stance, where both of your feet are parallel. It’s often used when talking to those in positions of authority, such as in the military where the name comes from when soldiers stand at attention. It can also send a bit of a no comment signal overall but like the standard sitting position, it’s basic but effective.
Standing with Legs Apart
This has a similar degree of spread to sitting this way, and therefore can also subconsciously communicate dominance or confidence in a conversation. In the context of a conversation, it may also show that you have no intention of leaving anytime soon because it’s a relatively solid stance. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend standing this way all the time, and you should be mindful of your degree of spread as always, but it isn’t quite as explicit as the sitting posture.
Standing with One Foot Forward
One stance we wouldn’t really recommend is standing with one foot forward and putting all of your weight onto one hip. Overall, this stance is more casual and because it’s not balanced, it may look to some like you’re signaling that you’d like to remove yourself from the conversation.
Of course, there may be other factors for your standing this way. For example, speaking from personal experience, because of a physical disability and legs of different lengths, I often do stand with my left leg off to the side just a bit. Even so, I do try to stand with proper posture and keep my hips relatively level, rather than letting my left leg bend much more than my right.
Standing with Legs Crossed
Another stance we wouldn’t recommend is standing with your legs crossed. This can communicate excessive self-restraint, defensiveness, or insecurity, so it’s not a good look overall. It might also signal that you just have to use the bathroom but in either case, it’s probably going to make conversational partners uncomfortable.
A Note: Personal Space
Personal space refers to the area around your body that you consider your own. This can vary again based on region or on culture. It can also, in some cases, be affected by population density overall. According to a book on body language by authors Allan and Barbara Pease, there are four distinct zones when it comes to the idea of personal space.
This zone has a distance of 6 to 18 inches or about 15 to 45 centimeters. As the word intimate suggests, this zone is usually only occupied by those particularly close to a person like their spouse, children, close friends, relatives, or perhaps even pets.
This zone is between 18 to 48 inches or 46 centimeters to about 1.22 meters. Typically, this is how far apart good friends will stand, or how far apart people will stand at social gatherings where everyone is being friendly.
The social zone, a distance of 4 to 12 feet or about 1.2 to 3.6 meters, is the distance we keep apart from strangers or people we don’t know very well. For example – service people, mailmen, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers, and so on.
Anything over 12 feet or 3.6 meters is often referred to as the public zone; which is the distance kept between someone speaking to a large group of people.
Of course, we’re not advocating that you should bring a measuring tape to every social interaction to figure out exactly how far away to stand from someone, but as with anything else, practice and experience will be the best teachers here.
How A Man Should Walk
Just like sitting and standing, walking can also reveal factors of your mood or general personality.
A brisk walking pace with your chin up, shoulders squared, and chest out will show confidence and importance. Allowing your arms to move a bit as well can also show vigor, and will generally communicate that you were on your way to an important destination. We’re not suggesting that you speed walk everywhere or adopt a particularly affected gait with your arms swinging wildly of course, but just walking with a bit of confidence will go a long way.
Walking Very Slowly with Head Down
Meanwhile, walking very slowly, especially if you’ve got your head down, can communicate a sense of inferiority or shame to other people. Others might interpret a lack of confidence or a sense of self-consciousness here. So, unless you’re looking for something on the ground, we’d recommend keeping your head up and your eyes straight ahead when walking.
Walking While Staring At Your Phone
Of course, in today’s technological age, we wouldn’t recommend that you walk while staring at your phone, as this can only lead to increased distraction and the potential for injury. On that note, you can find our guide to phone etiquette here.
Duck Feet or Pigeon-Toed Walk
The positioning of your feet might also raise eyebrows, especially if they’re pointed dramatically outward which is often referred to as duck feet or dramatically inward which is often referred to as being pigeon-toed. Focus on pointing your feet forward with a smooth heel to toe motion when you’re walking and your gait should be good to go.
Speaking again from personal experience, a physical disability like cerebral palsy can affect this. It’s something I’ve had to work on quite a bit over the course of my life; but barring specific cases like these, walking with a smooth motion will project confidence.
Walking with Hunched Shoulders
Another cue for a lack of confidence when walking is doing so with hunched shoulders. Overall, it may communicate to others that you’re trying not to take up too much space. Try to straighten your back and keep your arms relatively at your sides though as we said previously, a bit of movement in your arms and even in your shoulders might not be a bad thing.
The science of posture and its effects on health and psychology could probably be its own etiquette guide though, so, for now, we’ll say, stay tuned.
Walking with Hands in Pockets or Clenched Fists
Finally here, try not to walk with your hand in your pockets or with clenched fists. Having your hands in your pockets might have the effect of hunching your shoulders, and if you walk everywhere with your fists clenched this is just going to communicate to others that you might be too tense. Both of these habits show some degree of self-restraint, whereas showing your hands to other people communicates that you’re trustworthy and confident. Overall, try to relax and keep your hands out when walking.
If you struggle to pick up on social cues for any reason, say, for example, being on the autism spectrum, find someone you trust and have a private conversation with them about how to build up your perception of social cues moving forward. On the flip side, if you know someone who struggles to pick up on these cues be patient and kind with them but never patronizing.
Also, as we’ve mentioned throughout this guide, there are obviously going to be exceptions for all of these different kinds of body language. For example, if you don’t have the use of your legs or if you’ve got a physical disability as I do. Consider everything we’ve laid out today as being general guidelines. Master these techniques to the best of your ability then and you should project an air of confidence and sociability around others and overall, look all the more like a gentleman.