By Tony Samson

MANY of our communication habits are cultural, and sometimes non-verbal. Such expressions take both forms (receptive and expressive). In a restaurant when asking for the bill, an imaginary square is drawn in the air with both sets of thumbs and forefingers. When one gets the waiter’s attention, he understands the message and the bill is promptly delivered. He can, of course, turn off his receptive skills by looking up at the ceiling and then at his fingernails looking for a stray cuticle to declare — are you talking to me?

Are there non-verbal signals applicable in the workplace?

Facial expressions are the first signals to watch out for. A fatigued and distracted look indicates more pressing matters than the approval of your request for a transfer of parking space closer to the elevator. It’s best to defer your agenda at a more propitious moment — nothing important, Sir…catch you later.

The CEO is texting without let-up and going through photo galleries on his phone, sometimes even smiling to himself at some message that popped up, not once looking up while you are presenting the strategies to make your unit the center of the universe. Is this a sign of disdain, or at the very least a lack of interest? Of course, it is. Can your office stuff fit in one portable box to be cleared by tomorrow?

Body language can also express a cooling of relations. The “avoidance waltz” is obvious to somebody paying attention. When X moves to the right, does Y automatically move to the left? Here, lesser beings are used as physical screens to avoid contact the same way a 3-point shooter uses blockers to get an open look.

Meetings for higher-ups can involve abruptly moving the time and then holding the conference outside the office, or country. These rescheduled events involve fewer people than before. (You’ve been dropped.) The Fence Sitter’s “Rule on Rescheduled Meetings” states: The more unusual the time and venue for a meeting called by a superior, the higher the probability of bad news for the persons suddenly excluded.

Do facial expressions like “a blank look” need to be translated? The warm greeting met with a vacant stare indicates any of the following: 1) The greeted party doesn’t know who you are; 2) He knows very well who you are but is pretending to be somebody else like a lost twin brother of the CEO; Or 3) He is more interested in the person right behind you and is wondering why you are blocking his view.

While media seldom get it right, corporate changes featured in the business news (he stepped down to spend more time with his family) often point to a crisis — where there’s smoke, there’s somebody smoking. When the questioned executive (Sir, is it true you were forced out of the company?) looks like a dagger has been plunged in his back, he is likely to avoid the question. (He is rushing for the exit.) There’s no need to repeat it. He heard it the first time.

Julius Caesar, the clueless victim of a palace coup had all the warnings of people whispering in small groups and even a soothsayer impeding his progress to the forum, with a clear warning to beware the ides of March. The famous exchange is between Caesar saying that the ides have come, and the soothsayer replying, “but not yet gone.” (It ain’t over till it’s over.)

Alertness to body language and hidden messages should be developed.

Still, there is the danger of reading too much into simple greetings so that even the most innocent actions are given conspiratorial overtones. What did his smile mean when he said “good morning” in the elevator? Why was he looking up at the numbers of the floors after the greeting? Does it mean my number is also up?

Words have literal meanings and interpreting their unintended connotations too minutely can lead to paranoia. What can be worse than being dismissed as “too insecure” and reading too much between the lines? Freud himself mused in his interpretation of dreams that, “sometimes an umbrella is just an umbrella.”

Still, when it comes to facial expressions, raised eyebrows combined with a sneer at your approach need no further comment.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda