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How to Read– and More Important, How to Ignore– Body Language During an Interview

When you walk into the lobby to greet your candidate, she squeezes your hand hard and stares you in the eye like a hungry lioness. A minute later her laser-like focus relaxes and you think you’ve made an honest connection. That is, until she laughs way too loud at an idle remark you didn’t intend as a joke. The next candidate leans forward in his chair, listening intently to your every word. But when you stop to ask him for his thoughts, he looks momentarily blank and stricken. He was trying so hard to appear attentive, he didn’t catch the last ten words you just said.

What’s wrong with these candidates? Their body language seems to be on overdrive. Every tic and twitch (and there are plenty) seems to reveal volumes of information and vast insight into how well prepared they are for the job…but it probably doesn’t. These candidates are just nervous, and they’ve been coached to adopt clumsy, unnatural gestures in order to make them seem confident. In short, they want you to like them and they’ve never taken professional acting classes.

Neither of these are a crime. In fact, they’re almost universal among well-adjusted human beings, and being overly rattled or turned off by an expression of nerves might cause you to accidently dismiss an excellent candidate. Or worse, hire the wrong candidate simply because his body language put you at ease.
Nerves can express themselves in odd ways. A candidate who touches her nose a few times during the interview may not, in fact, be a chronic nose-toucher.  A leg-crosser, a paper clip fiddler, or a fake laugher may also not be flawed on a cellular level. As a general rule of thumb, nerves are not a bad sign. In fact, the opposite may hold true. A bit of unnatural jumpiness or a sweaty palm may be far preferable to a candidate who glazes over and has no interest in impressing you at all.

But in either case, don’t be drawn in or overly influenced by any of these things. Let the candidates worry about body language issues. They’re the ones who must actively control their inner turmoil. The task of the interviewer should be to look past the rebellious nerves, awkwardness, and clumsy coaching to find a candidate who can adapt to the culture and handle the demands of the position. Put applicants at ease if you can, don’t worry about it if you can’t, and above all, stay focused on the job at hand.