Influence - Up Close (Part Two)

How we influence each other up close.

Posted Feb 07, 2011

Part Two - First Touch

             This is the second part of a two-part series on when and how we influence others. In part one I explained how we begin to influence each other at a distance. While that may be news to some, those who study body language know better. We can influence each other at quite a long distance away, which is why over centuries soldiers have drilled to marching perfection and Māori tribes perform the Haka (which Rugby players have copied), to impress and influence their opponents. In business and in politics we also seek to influence others and it begins at a distance.

 Up Close and Personal

            And while it is important to impress others from afar, up close everything becomes significantly more intense. At close range, the spatial, the visual, the physical, the tactile, and the olfactory all come together to help us form impressions. For millions of years this is how hominids evaluated each other. They still do, we call it the meet and greet.

           This confluence of so many important variables (stimuli) has a prominent and long lasting role in creating perceptions and establishing rapport, and will also impact on your emotions as well as your level of trust of others.           

 Body Chemistry

           Up close, as Dr. David Givens has pointed out in his book "Love Signals," we begin to pick up each others' chemistry. This is no small matter, for in many ways we are still influenced by pheromones, testosterone, and our unique individual scent. Our body chemistry influences how we are perceived. Smell a baby and you will notice how that smell soothes us (an important evolutionary trait to garner affection and thus insure survival). And the scent of our spouse or lover may arouse strong emotions. Compare that to the co-worker who comes in with smelly armpits or breath odor and you realize how body chemistry begins to influence us, both positively and negatively.

            Some people feel compelled to use perfumes, erroneously thinking that helps. Research tells us that it is best not to use perfumes in a business setting. The reasons vary but they include, dislike of the scent, the strength of the scent, or even allergic reactions.

            I always found it interesting when I was doing jury consulting work that female jurors disliked when female attorneys wore perfume during mock trials. That dislike turned into indifference during oral arguments or even disdain even though it had nothing to do with the weight of the arguments. It was, as if, "I don't like how you smell so I am going to turn the sound off." Not encouraging but a reflection of how even an unwanted scent causes discomfort and as I have argued repeatedly (Spycatcher blog and in my books), when there is psychological discomfort we fail to connect and communications suffer. 

            I tell business people, if you want to impress others, get rid of the perfume or the cologne, it doesn't work. This is especially important when applying for jobs or when undergoing management review - also equally important when meeting people of higher status or business prospects.


            At close distances grooming, not just attire, becomes critical. We have all met someone who had food on their tie, dandruff on their shoulders, dirty finger nails, scuffed shoes, hair that was too long, who had food between their teeth or whose nose-hair looked like barbed wire. Some people actually think these things don't matter and yet we can all reference an event where someone lacked proper grooming and we are forever mindful of that and seemingly nothing else that transpired.

Spatial Needs

            Then there is the matter of personal space or what anthropologist Edward T. Hall called proxemics. We all have a need for a certain amount of space between ourselves and others (in fact all animals do which is why birds sit equidistant from each other on power lines). What that distance is depends on where you are from (area of the world or even country) and your personal preferences. People from big cities tolerate others standing closer (think of the Japanese getting in subways) while people from the American Mid-West prefer greater distance. In Latin America people stand much closer and touch more than people from Western Europe and so forth, these are culturally instilled preferences.

            The significance of space is no small matter. As I stated in "What Every Body is Saying," if you violate someone's space and stand too close, you create psychological discomfort. When that happens, your brain seeks to deal with that discomfort. Think of how you feel when someone gets too close to you at an ATM machine. I think we in America become quiescent in elevators because they are crowded and our space is being violated which creates psychological discomfort.

            At work, how you deal with spatial needs will indicate to others that you have "social intelligence" (as Daniel Goleman postulates) and that you are sensitive to the needs of others. So be aware of how others react to your presence and their spatial needs. It's up to you to contribute to their comfort.

Eye Gaze

            At these close distances, eye contact also affects others and not always in a positive way. If you want to un-impress someone, look where you are not supposed to. We are by social convention allowed to look at each others' faces and scan the eyes, mouth and chin. But the minute your eyes start to wonder to other parts of the body, especially when men look at the lower neck and breasts of a woman, negative emotions arise.

            Even where you look in the room can have negative implications. Researchers find that when job applicants look around a room as though "they owned the room," they tend to be rated poorly by evaluators. We are only entitled to look where social norms say we can look, not where we feel like looking.

            In some societies, how you look at others has to be submissive depending on your status. Inferiors don't look directly at superiors (Japan, China, Middle East) while in other cultures, eye gaze can be very up close and intense (Italy, Brazil, Saudi Arabia). How we use our eyes will determine how you are perceived. Come across as arrogant, haughty, or too intense with your eyes and kiss first impressions goodbye.


           In my last business book, "Louder Than Words," I talk about touch in the business sector. In spite of an overzealous attempt by some to inhibit human expression, touch still has its place. It is part of being human and communicating human emotions; do it right and it lets others know you are attentive and care, do it wrong and you turn people off.

            Most people don't think about it, however; when we shake hands that's usually the first time we touch each other. Ever receive a bad handshake? Yes you have, we all have, and it amazes me how some people can get it so wrong. Especially knowing how important that first contact is and how long we remember these bad handshakes.

            We have all experienced the "vise grip," the "wet fish," the "clammy hand," the "snake" (that's when they try to feel your inner wrist with the index finger) and of course there is the "jujitsu handshake" (that's where they try to dominate you by twisting your hand into submission). When we receive these handshakes all we can think of is how bad it feels and it leaves such a bad impression. In fact, just this week, as I was writing this piece, AOL had an article on bad handshakes, here is what one CEO said, "I shook hands with Hilary Clinton: two-handed and clammy."-Maria K. Todd, CEO, Mercury Healthcare. Which reminds me don't give a two handed handshake. Known as the "politician's handshake," it reeks; save it for your grandmother, don't use it in business.

            Incidentally if someone gives me a handshake that is meant to intimidate or make me feel inferior, I stop, withdraw the hand, and say to their face, "here let's do this right this time." That will stop the social thugs who think they can dominate you by rendering your hand into a submissive position. In spite of what you may have read, you want to always shake hands as equals, not superior and certainly not as an inferior.

            And while we are on the subject of touch, keep in mind also that not all cultures shake hands; maybe they prefer an air kiss or an abrazo as they do in South America. Yes you can screw that up too if you are not careful. I have seen many a diplomat look like a klutz trying to perform an abrazo

           In some cultures they want to hold your hand (Middle East) or hold your arm (Italy, Afghanistan) or maybe, if they really like you, kissing you repeatedly on the face as they do in Russia. Show that you don't like this kind of touch and you may be perceived as aloof, cold, and insensitive. Or you may travel some place where there is no physical touching, a bow will do.

           How and where we touch, the science of haptics, says a lot about us. I tell business people as well as diplomats to anticipate and reflect what is expected in social greetings abroad. Fail at this and you are not earning your pay. Also, how you are greeted gives insight into how you are perceived. I also tell them that if after multiple visits to Latin America you are still shaking hands and not receiving an abrazo, then you have failed to establish empathetic channels of communication.

           If you remember nothing else: Touch in most places around the world is equated with rapport.

Getting it Right

          At close distances we can really utilize the proximity to influence people. I find the easiest way is to greet with a smile and arched eyes (eyebrow flash). Then as I shake hands I mirror the strength and the duration of the other person's handshake or manner of greeting. If they give a very weak handshake then that's what I give them, if it's strong and robust I mirror the same, but greet them as equals.

         After I shake hands, I take a step back and to the side and watch to see what they do. If they move closer, then I know they like to be close. If they stay where they are at, then this is comfortable for them. If they take a step back, then I know they really need distance and that's fine too. The benefit of this technique is that they feel comfortable around me, I did not make faces when their handshake was weak (if that is the case), I just go with the flow. I make sure that they are comfortable at all times and I continue to verify with my body space and gestures as well as touch.

          Incidentally, the reason I move to the side is because direct face to face eye contact has been found to be too intimidating psychologically. When you move slightly to the side you are better received, blood pressure goes down, and you increase psychological comfort.


          We influence each other through everything we do. Up close everything becomes more intense and more personal. Get it right and people will appreciate you, get it wrong, and articles like this will be written about you.


           Joe Navarro is the author of the international best selling body language book, "What Every Body is Saying." For references and a free nonverbal communication bibliography, with no hassles: or he can be followed on twitter at @navarrotells.