Tips to managing nervous feelings while trying to make a good first impression.

Anxiety and uncertainty are prevalent emotions whether you’re a recent college graduate starting your first job or an experienced professional transitioning to a new team. How do you manage these reactions while trying to start off on the right foot? We asked certified body language trainer Jeff Baird for some tips to managing nervous feelings while trying to make a good first impression. Jeff has worked in IT and Business intelligence for nearly 20 years. Jeff's approach is science-backed, applicable, and fun. He'll help you take control of your nonverbal communication, 'read' others' body language, and finally nail those stretch goals. He's ready to help you break through your career (or life) plateaus.

When I was in third grade we moved to a new neighborhood and consequently I had to start at a new school. A brand new building full of strangers. I didn’t know if they’d like me. I didn’t know how I’d perform in class. Nervousness, even dread, intensified the first day of school. In an effort to help me make friends faster, my parents sent me with some treats to share with my classmates. As is the case with so much we worry about, my worst fears of not fitting in were unfounded. I quickly made friends, got into a rhythm with my school work, and within a month I felt at home.

At the time I was certain this was something that happened only to kids. “When I’m a grown up, this sort of thing won’t be so hard.” Imagine my surprise when as an adult, starting a brand new job I ended up with the same fears! Will I fit in with my coworkers? Will I be able to measure up to the new responsibilities? I’ve found the same patterns occur whenever we’re in new social situations. Here’s some body language hacks that have helped me when I have to face new people and a new environment once I’ve landed a job.

Why Anxiety?

I’ve found that understanding a little bit about what’s going on in my brain and body when I’m feeling anxious helps take away some of the power anxiety has over me. Everyone has two brains. Okay, it’s really just one brain, but we can split the brain into two parts. The first part is often referred to as the “feeling brain.” Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage refers to it as “the Jerk.” Dr. Daniel Amen describes it as a spoiled, demanding inner child that always wants what he or she wants, whenever he or she wants it.

It’s the primitive part of the brain (made up of the brainstem and limbic system) that seeks pleasure and avoids pain. It’s constantly on guard for anything that might be a danger to us. Back in our caveman days, it’s what would kick in to save us from a saber-toothed tiger. When a threat presents itself, we’d go into freeze, flight or fight. Today there maybe aren’t as many threats to our life, but if you’re stepping off a curb and a truck is about to hit you, you can thank your feeling brain for acting FAST to get you out of the way.

However, sometimes this part of our brain responds to perceived social threats the same way as threats to our life. How many of us get nervous talking in front of people? Our primitive brain that would prepare us to fight or flee when we’re up against a man-eating tiger sometimes kicks in when we have to stand in front of a bunch of people and speak. Our heart rate goes up and our brain gets foggy. This is what’s happening when we’re nervous in a job interview, or even when we’re starting our new job. Anxiety and dread, in a somewhat counterintuitive way, are trying to prepare and protect you against a perceived threat.

The Feeling Brain vs. The Thinking Brain

In my work with youth, teaching self-mastery and addiction prevention, we talk about this part of the brain and how to manage it so that it works WITH you and not AGAINST you. This leads us to the part of our brain that WANTS to manage it and has the ability to do so.

The thinking brain, or prefrontal cortex, is the “younger brain” from an evolutionary perspective; it can be thought of as the executive or adult brain. This is where your values, goals and principles reside. Interestingly, in an MRI you can see the left side of the prefrontal cortex light up when someone is happy. It’s the logical part of your brain that says you have no reason to dread, but for some reason there are times your mind and body don’t listen.

There is a seesaw effect between the brains, determining who’s in charge and making the decisions. This is, of course, a simplification of something very complex. When the thinking brain has high activity, the feeling brain has less, and you tend to make more value and goal-based decisions. When there is higher activity in the feeling brain, there is less activity in the thinking brain. In this state, you’re no longer making thoughtful, value-based decisions.

We’ve all been in this state before. Have you ever done something you regretted and wondered, “What was I thinking?” Or have you ever blown up at your kids or significant other and when the heated emotions subside, you felt remorse and shame for how you acted? Unfortunately, if the feeling brain has taken the wheel, it makes it hard for you to perform at your best in your new job. But there are some ways you can redirect that nervous energy or temper its effects so you can focus on rocking at your new job.

The Influence of Body Language

As a body language trainer, I teach people how to recognize emotional cues in others to better understand what they are communicating and feeling. I also teach them how to take control of their body language to communicate what they intend and to feel more powerful.

The feeling brain is at the root of most body language. When we’re nervous and anxious, we will show nonverbal signs. Not only do our emotions show in our body language, but there’s research that suggests our body language can affect how we feel. For example, in a 2002 study, participants were asked to hold a pen in their mouth sideways, without it touching their lips. This was a clever way to get people smiling without knowing it. Researchers then showed participants a series of video clips and asked them how they felt. Amazingly, the people with pens in their mouths reported being happier when watching happy scenes than those who didn’t have pens. Try it yourself. Put on a huge grin on your face, then try to say something grumpy. Makes it harder to be down, doesn’t it?

Anxiety Cues

With this in mind, let’s look at what we do when we’re nervous, so we can avoid those cues that might be making us feel even more anxious.

Take a look at this video of a mother watching her child being tossed into the air higher than she’s comfortable with. What do you notice her doing with her face, hands, etc.? This is a great example of what we do when we’re nervous.

The mother displays fear micro expressions (wide eyes and mouth). We also see her put her hand up in front of her face. This is a blocking behavior, where we put something between us and what’s bothering us. This can be a hand in the face, closing our eyes, it can be folding our arms to protect ourselves from being nervous. You see self-soothing gestures, such as rubbing her face or biting her fingers, which we do to calm our nerves. Another nonverbal response to anxiety, fear, and sadness is to shrink down. We’ll pull our arms and legs in close to our bodies, roll our shoulders forward, keep our heads down.

You likely do a cluster of similar things when you’re nervous. But if what you do with your body and facial expressions affects how you feel, then you need to avoid nervous gestures that will make you appear nervous and might make you feel even more anxious. You can do this by making a conscious decision to display power body language in place of those anxiety cues.

Power Body Language

Power body language shows confidence and competence. It tells others, and ourselves, that there is nothing to fear. When you’re nervous and feeling the urge to block and protect, give these tips a try instead.

  • Expand: Remember how when we feel nervous one of our autonomic responses is to make ourselves small? When we’re feeling confident we do just the opposite. We raise our heads, stand up straighter, and expand more with our arms and legs. As you feel worried in this new role, resist the urges to shrink. Instead, expand out to show confidence.
  • Make Friends: A second tip in starting out is to make fast friendships. Would you be as nervous at this job if you were friends with most of the people there? Most likely you’d feel more comfortable and at ease. There are many different approaches to making friends at a new job. Take, for example, two of my co-workers with very different personalities; the first is very outgoing while the second is more reserved. However, when they joined the company they both made friends quickly. The first was always ready to jump in and participate in activities and conversations. The second started a book group and sent out notices through email. Both of these methods, though very different, helped them integrate with their coworkers.

Regardless of your approach to making friends, when you first meet someone their primitive brain will be looking for indications that you are a friend or a foe. Here are a few friend signals you can send as you’re meeting new people that will help them like you.

  1. Show your hands - Our hands are the first part of the body our brain notices. This goes back to our caveman days where we’d look at the hands of strangers to see if they had a weapon. Our brains still check to see if there’s anything in our hands that might be a threat. Keep your hands out of pockets, and arms unfolded, to help your co-workers relax and trust you more.
  2. Smile genuinely - University of Finland researchers found that when people saw pictures of a genuine smile, their moods were boosted. You can tell a real smile because it will involve muscles around the eyes creating tell-tale crows feet. Smile when you meet someone to help boost their mood.
  3. Face forward- Face the person you’re talking to with your head, torso, and feet. Usually when we’re talking to people, we angle our torsos out rather than face them directly. Researchers have found that when we’re seen straight on, we’re seen as more open-minded and trustworthy. Not only that, but people love to be listened to. Fronting with someone will show another level of listening and engagement.
  4. Mirror - The more we get to know and like someone, the more our gestures, posture and other body language will start to look the same. To help people feel like they know you and are comfortable around you, subtly mirror their body language. Charismatic people do this naturally when they talk to someone, which is one of the reasons they’re so liked by people. Mirror someone’s body language for a while to build rapport. Then you can switch it up and see if they mirror you back; if so, things are going great! If not, go back to building a rapport.

Ask Questions

The last tip is a mixture of verbal and nonverbal, and that is to ask a lot of questions! Sometimes we get worried about what people will think, so we won’t ask questions we think might be dumb. Ask them anyway. The best way to get quickly into the groove of your new job is to learn your way around as quickly as possible. Not only should you ask questions about the job, but as you’re working on building friendships ask questions about the lives of those you’re meeting. We love to talk about ourselves! So ask away and get people talking about what really interests them.

As you ask questions, you can use body language to show that you are listening. As someone is talking, slightly tilt your head. Not only does this show that you are listening, but it also sends another primitive cue to their feeling brain that you trust them. You can even do a slow triple nod. Researchers have found that slowly nodding three times encourages people to talk even more.

It’s an exciting and sometimes scary time, switching to a new job. Try these tips out at your next new opportunity, or really any new social situation, and see if it helps you feel better and make friends quicker. And as I learned in third grade, it also doesn’t hurt to bring treats.