Breaking the Body Language Code In Business

New in a country, new to entrepreneurship, or new to a business deal and need to make sure you make a brilliant first impression?

Photo: Solveig Malvik; Source: Courtesy Photo
Photo: Solveig Malvik; Source: Courtesy Photo

As a small-stature, redheaded female doing business in the Middle East, Russia, Asia and Europe I’ve had to learn to establish authority and respect fast. You don’t get Arab sheikhs to listen to you and sign your contracts if you don’t know how to navigate within their culture, how to put all of your communication ducks in line and make sure everything (from words to body language) pulls in the same direction.

New in a country, new to entrepreneurship, or new to a business deal and need to make sure you make a brilliant first impression? Here are three keys to breaking the body language code anywhere in the world.


  1. Learn the first law of body language.

    The first law of body language is the law of observation. Observe the country, culture and social segment you’re in as much as you can, and observe yourself. Keep your eyes open for the levels of formality expected in a situation, the use of personal space, and the direction of personal space (are people standing face on or sideways?), various posture points (chin, shoulders, arms), size and pace of gestures, use of eye contacts as well as tone of voice.

    Different countries, different cultures, and different demographic segments within a culture have different rules for what goes in a situation. For example what makes for acceptable personal space when doing business in Asia is not the same as in Europe, and northern England is again very different from southern Spain. Learn what your personal preferences are – do you pull away or get closer, or are you happy with adapting to a situation?

    Learning to deal with Russians I had to be confident and authoritative being firm and direct in my proposals and recommendations, while in the UAE I needed to appear as more submissive and get my way through suggestions and indirect counsel. In order to adapt successfully to another culture’s unspoken signals, you need to start by knowing what your personal preferences are and create a baseline for your own behavior.

  2. Create a baseline for yourself and business partners.

    In body language terms, a baseline is a measure of someone’s normal behavior. Start baselining someone from the first handshake. This includes their posture, their tone of voice, pace and size of gestures and how they react to jokes, small talk and questions.

    Once you’ve established a baseline, keep your eyes open for anything that breaks with the baseline you’ve created for an individual, or a culture segment. Things like new gestures, new pace of gestures, different tone of voice or new eye movements are great indicators that something has changed. But be aware! As the third key to breaking the body language code will show, the thing that has changed might have nothing to do with you, your business situation or what’s going on between you.

  3. Don’t read too much into people’s body language, but expect them to read too much into yours.

    As humans we love to tell stories. Someone looking a bit annoyed today? Being a tad short in their answers? We are always able to find a story behind it and a why, but rarely are the stories true. Be aware of the stories you tell yourself about people’s motivations. Questions the assumptions you make and the reasons you give why someone is appearing one way or the other.

    As humans we always think of ourselves as agents, so when we see someone being uncomfortable in our company we automatically assume it is a reaction to something we’ve done or said. But something as simple as shoes that pinch or hurt, a glint of sun in the eyes or too many layers of clothing might make someone look uncomfortable and unfocused.

    Be transparent to others of why your own behavior might have changed. Don’t underestimate the power of a great explanation. Telling people that it’s the weather and that extra t-shirt making you sweat—not their proposal— can make for a great opening for more honest negotiations. For women getting dressed for a business meeting, pay attention to too high heels, too heavy bags and too tight dresses. Anything that makes you uncomfortable or takes your focus away from the present can risk jeopardizing a budding relationship, especially if the relationship is being built across cultures.

Knowing and using these three keys for breaking the code of body language anywhere in the world will help you be successful in creating business relationships that last, read what’s going on under the surface in negotiations and present yourself confidently, clearly and consistently.


Solveig Malvik is a speaker, writer and coach. Solveig helps private clients and professionals all over the world connect better in person and online through one-on-one coaching, online courses and workshops. Her clients get promoted faster, win more business and stand out in the marketplace. They build engagement, connection and loyalty with customers, colleagues and the other sex. Solveig is the 2010 European Public Speaking Champion, a Future Shaper, Freeman of the City of London and in 2012 received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award for Voluntary Service while National President of JCI UK, a global voluntary membership organization for young active citizens. Solveig has lived and worked globally, from managing rock musicians in the Middle East, publishing a Russian newspaper to being Head of Marketing at one of the largest education companies in the UK. Connect with @solveigmalvik on Twitter.


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