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By Anita Bruzzese, Gannett News Service

It's one of those awkward situations we've all found ourselves in: we're standing around at a company function and all of a sudden the top brass shows up and heads our way.

Suddenly, we don't know what to do with our arms. Our hands are some strange appendage that hangs uselessly or flutters nervously. How did our necks get to be too short for our bodies? When did we become unable to smile without an eye twitching?

These are all natural reactions under stress. We want to make a good impression, but our bodies seem determined to make total twits of us in front of some pretty important people.

But if we just remember some simple rules about body language, these situations can be brought under control.

Harry Mills, head of an international consulting group, said there are a number of ways we can make a good impression without saying a word, whether it's in a social situation or a formal business meeting.

''The most common mistake people make is that they don't adjust to the situation. The key is to adjust to the person you are speaking to,'' he said. ''When you're making small talk, then body language is absolutely everything. But when discussing a serious matter, it is not as critical because the message becomes more important.''

Still, he said, the most effective users of body language use gestures and speech patterns similar to the other person in the conversation — especially critical when the other person ranks higher in an organization.

Mills, author of Artful Persuasion, said some of the key ingredients to using body language effectively include:

  • Facing the other person squarely. Show your interest by looking directly at him or her. Tilt your head to one side, arch your eyebrows and nod every once in awhile to show you're listening. Keep your face relaxed and smile when appropriate.
  • Assuming an open posture. Researchers have found that when negotiations are going well, participants unbutton their coats, uncross their legs, sit forward in chairs, and move closer to the other side of the table.
  • Leaning forward. When you want to show interest, lean forward slightly in your chair, and lightly clasp your hands in your lap or place your hands near your knees. Indifference can be indicated by lean back and placing your hands in a ''steeple'' position.
  • Maintaining eye contact. The last thing you want to do is have your eyes shifting all over the room when you're talking with a boss. When we're nervous, our eyes typically meet the other person's less than 40% of the time. As a result, we begin to make people feel uneasy or make them begin to distrust us.
  • Touching. ''People have become frightened to touch in the workplace, but with a friend or close working buddy, touching on the shoulder can deepen a contact,'' Mills said. ''I would suggest taking the lead from the other person, especially if it's a leader. If they touch you on the arm, I'd say it's OK to do the same to them. You kind of have to know that person's culture.''

So the way you stand and walk can convey your openness to what the other person is saying. Standing tall and walking with shoulders back shows your confidence. Those who walk rapidly and swing their arms usually project confidence as well.

Mills, based in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, said that since a handshake is often the most acceptable form of contact in the business world, make sure yours is not limp or clammy. (He said females especially ''loathe the limp handshake.'') Keep your handshake firm and brief, hold it about three to five seconds, then release.

No trying to crush the other person's fingers in some kind of power play!

Remember to relax. This may be difficult to do when the CEO is headed your way and you suddenly can't remember your own name, but take a couple deep breaths and concentrate on standing straight, with shoulders back.

Spread your feet a bit and don't lock your knees — keeling over at the boss' feet like a downed tree won't be good for your career. Keep your arms and hands still, and keep an open and welcoming look on your face.

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