Non-verbal communication and your (struggling) career


As South Africans settle into the New Year and old routines, many are questioning why this year is already veering into the same old space as years before, despite their renewed attempts to shine and perform or finally land that coveted position.

“If you are intelligent, hard-working, passionate and driven, yet it seems like you are always overlooked for promotions or you are unable to land your dream job, the problem could very well be that you are sabotaging yourself through nonverbal communication,” an expert says.

Commonly referred to as “body-language”, nonverbal communication actually involves a lot more than merely how you physically present yourself, says Dr Franzél du Plooy-Cilliers, a renowned Business Communication specialist and Head of Faculty: Applied Humanities at The Independent Institute of Education, South Africa’s largest and most accredited private higher education provider.

“Nonverbal communication, as the word suggests, refers to anything that can communicate a message without the use of words. Unfortunately, few people know that they are often inadvertently sending out strong and powerful messages that influence how other people judge and perceive them,” she says.

Du Plooy-Cilliers says many factors communicate information about people, including the way in which a person dresses, the jewellery they wear, make-up, tattoos, shoes, hairstyle, and perfume.

“Also, if you attend meetings and you do not maintain eye contact with the chair of the meeting or other speakers, doodle, play on your phone, yawn and stare out of the window, the nonverbal message that you are sending is that of total disinterest, which will not make a good impression on your superiors and they will therefore be reluctant to consider you for promotion.”

To create a good impression at job or promotion interviews, says Du Plooy-Cilliers, one should try to keep some of the following nonverbal aspects in mind so that nonverbal communication does not sabotage one’s chances of success:

  • Before the interview, check the spelling and grammar on your CV and if you need to do a presentation, make sure you have had it proofread. The same is true for any cover letters or emails that you may need to send. If you send out a communication that is grammatically incorrect and if you do not pay attention to language errors, you are likely to be judged as someone who does not pay attention to detail and does sloppy work.
  • Make sure that you are dressed appropriately and in line with the organisation’s culture. For example, the way you will dress for a creative position at an advertising company will differ from the way you will dress for a position as an account manager at a bank. Regardless of the industry, make sure that you have clean hair and fresh breath, and be cautious of any body odour. For example, do not wear perfume, aftershave or deodorant that is overbearing and do not smoke or drink coffee before you go for your interview.
  • Take care to be on time for your interview. The way in which we use time is also a form of nonverbal communication, and arriving late for your interview communicates that you are not able to plan your time well. In some cultures it is also seen as disrespectful to be late for a meeting because it is viewed as being inconsiderate of others’ time.
  • During the interview, keep the following in mind: Do not chew gum, and make appropriate eye-contact. A lack of appropriate eye contact can communicate that you lack confidence, that you are disinterested or even worse, untrustworthy.
  • Do not fidget or play with objects such as your car-keys, click a pen or crack your knuckles. These are known as “adapters”, which some people use to calm themselves down when they feel stressed, but most other people find these habits extremely annoying.
  • Do not look at your watch and switch off your phone for the duration of the interview.
  • Maintain an appropriate upright body-posture. Do not slouch in your chair and do not cross your arms. Both postures send out negative messages.

“Most of us consider our verbal communication carefully. For example, instead of telling your line manager that you think her idea is ridiculous, you would probably rather say something like: ‘I do not fully agree with your idea and I think we need to investigate more options’,” says Du Plooy-Cilliers

“Regrettably, we do not always do the same when it comes to our nonverbal communication, which carries a lot more weight than actual words. Try to become more conscious of your nonverbal communication to be sure that you do not sabotage yourself without even realising it.”