Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Body Language

Why Your Body Language Could Be Offensive to Others

How to make a more positive nonverbal presentation.

Key points

  • Our resting facial expressions can have a negative or positive impact on others, yet we are often unaware.
  • Stereotypical nonverbal cues of nervousness or awkwardness can lead to a negative social performance.
  • Changing our body language isn’t easy, but with hard work and dedication, it can be improved.

Our body language consists of a number of nonverbal cues, most of which we are unaware of. Yet, how we present ourselves to others nonverbally can have a big impact on how we are perceived, and treated, by others. The intent of this post is to discuss some of the more common body language cues that may turn others off and to suggest ways to overcome negative body language cues.

Resting Angry Face. The physical features of our faces, and the configuration of our resting facial expressions, can be perceived positively or negatively by others. Some of us have resting faces that appear to be more positive and happy—slightly turned up corners of the mouth, bright and happy-looking eyes. Others have a resting face that may look serious, even angry—down-turned corners of the mouth, narrowed eyes.

Put on your neutral face, and take a quick picture. Study it. If you carefully observe your resting face you may see elements of basic emotional expressions that are either more positive or more negative. Here are extreme examples of basic emotional expressions for comparison.

  • What to Do: If you have a negative resting face (I do, as I noticed in photos and on my driver’s license), get in the habit of posing a slight smile when encountering others. First impressions can mean a lot, so overcome that resting angry face with a subtle smile.

Too Many Nervous Cues. Our early research on first impressions (Riggio & Friedman, 1986) noted that people who engage in stereotypical cues associated with perceptions of nervousness (rubbing hands together, darting eye movements, face-rubbing) were evaluated less favorably by strangers. Some of us are more prone to use such body language cues, regardless of whether we are feeling nervous or not.

  • What to Do: First, become more aware of what you are doing with your hands and your eye movements. Second, when meeting others, try to avoid giving off these stereotypic cues of nervousness. You can video yourself interacting with others and get feedback on whether you are appearing nervous or calm and relaxed; the latter is typically viewed more positively.

Body Language Out of Sync. When we interact with others, greater rapport is reached when our nonverbal behavior syncs up with that of the person with whom we are speaking (Bernieri, 1988). Another form of synchrony involves our own body language cues. For example, a happy face, coupled with a tense posture and rigid arms/hands can look out of sync and lead to a negative impression.

  • What to Do: You can establish greater rapport in a one-on-one conversation when you focus intently on the other individual and listen carefully to what they say. Note their nonverbal behavior, and try to get in sync with them. This often will happen naturally when you get deeply involved in what the other person is saying.

All Tied Up or Out of Control. Tense, robotic body language can lead to making a negative impression on others. Generally, fluid, expressive nonverbal behavior is more positively evaluated by others. On the other hand, being too expansive or frantic in your nonverbal behavior can also be a turn-off.

  • What to Do: The key to making a positive impression is fluid and moderate nonverbal behavior (Riggio & Crawley, 2022). The first step is awareness of one’s own body language. That is accomplished by getting feedback, either visually by videotaping or from trusted others. The next step is practicing making a more positive presentation.

Developing more positive body language is not easy. It takes work, time, and dedication. Yet there is good evidence that people can indeed improve their nonverbal presentation and make more positive impressions on others.

Facebook image: Shift Drive/Shutterstock


Riggio, R. E., & Friedman, H. S. (1986). Impression formation: The role of expressive behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 50(2), 421-438.

Bernieri, F. J. (1988). Coordinated movement in human interaction: Synchrony, posture similarity, and rapport. Harvard University.

Riggio, R. E., & Crawley, A. (2022). Nonverbal skills in relationships: Too little or too much may be a bad thing. In Nonverbal communication in close relationships: What words don’t tell us (pp. 341-361). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today