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Body language – how to read it and how to use it

Posted by Chloe Papas on Nov 15, 2016 9:30:00 AM

We know that working in hospitality is all about positive communication. No matter what area you work in, from the top of the rung to those on the ground floor, being able to communicate effectively is likely vital to your role.

When we think about communication on the service side of things, we usually focus on the verbal – what we are saying, what our customers are saying, and how we choose our words and conversations to ensure that customers feel comfortable and in good hands.

But what about the nonverbal side of things? Body language makes up a huge chunk of the way that we communicate with and interpret the needs of others. Learning tips and tricks when it comes to body language will equate to a better understanding of what your customers might need, and how you can improve your nonverbal communication to convey a professional and friendly demeanor.


Look For the Signs


Sometimes the body language of your customers will be incredibly clear: after they sit down, they may reach for a newspaper or their mobile phone – in which case, it’s likely that they aren’t willing to engage in lengthy conversation.

Others may look directly at you and strike up a conversation without prompting, which can be a clear sign that they are searching for engagement. But in many other cases, the signs may be a little subtler. 

A customer may engage in friendly conversation on a verbal level, but if you are capable of reading each of the cues they are presenting, you may find that they have their legs crossed, or they don’t hold eye contact for very long – often a sign that they aren’t as committed to the conversation as they may seem.

When it comes to interpreting body language from afar, if a customer turns their body towards the door or service bench, or if they hold eye contact as you walk by – that will usually mean that they want to order something or pick up the bill.  


Be Open and Keep Your Hands in Check


Some people naturally use their hands to tell a story – they gesticulate and move their arms around to illustrate a point or simply to help the story along. If that is your style, absolutely stick to it! But, make sure that things don’t get out of hand (pardon the pun). Pointing is never a good idea, particularly at a customer – no matter what the context, it can come off as accusatory or rude. Try to keep your hand movements small so you don’t alarm any customers who might be nervous – and, so that you don’t knock anything off the table!

One of the biggest tips that body language experts focus on is the mirror effect. As humans, we often naturally mimic or mirror the body language of the person we are speaking to; you may have noticed the effect with a family member or partner. They cross one leg over the knee, and you follow suit. You cross your arms, and they anticipate your hostility and do the same.

Staying warm and open is incredibly important when it comes to nonverbal language in the service industry: keeping your arms uncrossed, feet facing the customer, keeping gentle eye contact, the angle of your body open, a smile on your dial. In turn, customers will often mirror your positive nonverbal cues, which will lead to an overall pleasant experience for you both.


When Things Don’t Go as Planned


Sometimes no matter how positive and open your body language is, your customer still won’t respond well. They might be having a bad day, or they might simply be a negative person.

So, how do you deal with a situation where a customer is acting rude, closed off, or hostile when it comes to body language? The best advice is to ensure you keep your cool, and work hard to keep your own body language in check - two wrongs rarely make a right!

Make sure you give them at least a small smile, keep your arms open and ensure you angle toward them and focus when taking an order or bringing food or drinks to the table. Don’t try to force them into conversation, and if they are making a complaint, follow your venue’s procedures.

If someone is unhappy or upset, they might avoid eye contact, have crossed arms or one leg over the other, and avoid communication by keeping their back turned or their body at a certain angle. Learn to read the negative as well as the positive, and choose the best tactics to operate in both situations.


It’s All a Learning Experience


Just remember that at the end of the day, learning how to communicate effectively with your body language – and learning how to interpret the body language of your customers – is a big job!

Humans can communicate over 250,000 different subtle facial expressions, and researchers believe that over 60% of our daily communication is nonverbal. Each person will react and respond in a different way physically and it can take time to pick up on certain subtleties and figure out your instinctual responses.

Next time you’re out on the floor at work, try it out – pay attention to your customer’s movements and expressions, and check in with your own instant responses. It could make a world of difference in the way that you communicate and operate within your workplace, and of course, it can make your job much easier!


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Topics: Hospitality managers, Hospitality staff