Judged by Your Body Language

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Apparently I’m a shaker. Not a twitcher, a fidgeter or an occasional trembler, but an actual shaker. I’ve spent the last 28 years walking around and doing my thing, assuming that I’m coming across as confident and uber charming, only to find out that my body has been miserably failing me all this time. Not just failing me but betraying my trust, projecting my inner most secrets to the world without my consent.

I was at a networking event the other day, schmoozching, flashing a toothy grin and spewing well rehearsed conversation starters before dazzling my audience with my intelligence and charm. As I took out my pen to write down a contact’s email address I realized that my hands where rattling all over the place. I could barely hold the pen, let alone make legible contact with paper. I brushed it off as possibly too much caffeine or (very) early onset of Alzheimer’s, because what other options could there be?

But, according to trusted sources, this is something that I do all the time. And it’s not just my hands, my cheek muscles are known to visibly stir up a frenzy, while my softly warbling voice evokes pity, leaving some wondering, and I quote,  “Awww, she’s so nervous! What a poor, shy little thing…” What happened to the nerves of steel I thought I was blessed with? Faced with this newly found knowledge I could no longer hide behind my ego, those nerves were real, very real indeed. True to form I set about trying to understand why my body so readily works against my desired intention of appearing fearless and self-assured. Of course there’s no harm in appearing and being nervous, and though such characteristics may come across as endearing, it’s not exactly the positive lasting impression I hope to convey to the world. Plus, if I can master my mind, I thought, continuously learning how to trick it into behaving counter-intuitively (and at times deceptively), surely I must be able to master my body to some similar degree.

I’ve talked about the heart’s energetic language, the powerful electromagnetic forces our hearts project. But hearing and understanding this language isn’t easy, it takes time, practice and a whole lot of courage. There’s another language that’s much easier to learn, one that has overt signs and symbols, tangible patterns of communication. You guessed it, it’s the language of that beautiful, bountiful body of yours, conveying everything your mouth has the intelligence not to mutter.

Just like we subconsciously pick up on others energy levels, we’re incredibly adept at reading subtle physical cues from others and we’re just as quick to infer meaning to all the muscle twitches, limb placements and body positions we pick up on. Most of us are very familiar with some of the basic body language cues – trembling often signifies nervousness; a lack of eye contact can indicate untrustworthiness; crossed arms can come across as standoffish. Even if we’re not aware of it, we’ve developed time-tested formulas for judging others, using their body language as a trustworthy guide. These ‘spontaneous trait inferences’, i.e. snap judgments that we make when briefly looking at faces and body postures, occur so quickly that our conscious minds often aren’t aware that we’ve already decided whether or not a person is a monster or our future soul mate.

We’ve learnt that body language can be trusted because of the effort it takes to force our muscles to act and react deceptively. While this works in our favor when it comes to judging others, it can work against us when attempting to judge ourselves (which we’re infamously terrible at) or control our behavior. Bear in mind that body language not only occurs externally, but also internally as well. For example, my aforementioned muscle spasms are caused by the rush of the hormone adrenaline flooding my system, triggered by the feeling of anxiety, which is rooted in a perceived external threat, i.e. other people. I may not be able to control the automated reaction that triggers the secretion of adrenaline, but I do have control over whether or not to feel anxious.

However, what I really wanted to know is if there is a way I could learn to control my body’s response to anxiety and subsequent adrenaline rush. Could I figure out how to mask, or even prevent the physical cues of anxiety? Italian Renaissance diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli pondered a timeless conundrum 500 years ago: Is it better to be loved or feared? Being the self-interested skeptic he became famous for, Machiavelli acknowledged that ideally “One should wish to be both,” but, “because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.” However morally questionable his conclusion may be there is some truth in his rationalization.

It’s said that love and fear are the two principle driving forces of our behavior, and as behavioral science research uncovers the dominant factors involved in social judgment, we’re learning that these are the two primary characteristics we look for in other people: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence). Why? Because these characteristics answer two critical questions for us: “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” and “Is he or she  capable of acting on those intentions?”

Based on this it would be a fair conclusion to state that modern society, especially Western, capitalist/dog-eat-dog environments, takes a Machiavellian perspective; we tend to regard, and reward, strength and competence as more desirable traits than warmth or trustworthiness. Whether or not I agree with this perspective, if that’s how people are judging me (and in New York City you can almost guarantee that they are), then theoretically, it’s in my own best interest to learn how to convey these, potentially fearsome, traits. And maybe by conveying such strength or power I could begin to start feeling strong and powerful, which would override my mini-anxiety attacks and truly give me nerves of steel! Maybe? This is what social psychologist and Havard Business School professor Amy Cuddy has been researching with fascinating results – whether body language can not only affect how others see us, but also change how we see ourselves. Hence, whether we can change our minds or feelings by first changing our body movements.

As Cuddy explains in her brilliant 2012 TED Global talk, both humans and animals express power through their bodies. They, or we, tumble in on themselves when they feel unsure, making themselves smaller by hunching over, crossing their arms over their chest and avoiding big movements, adopting what Cuddy refers to as low-power poses. When they, or we, feel on top of the world, they sprawl out, adopting high-power poses. This isn’t something that is learnt by the way; congenitally blind athletes express the familiar arms raised and spread out position to convey victory, despite never having viewed the position.

Cuddy’s research reveals even more to us, suggesting that across the animal kingdom, feelings of strength and power have close ties to two hormones: testosterone (associated with assertiveness, reduced fear, and willingness to compete and take risks) and cortisol (associated with stress and stress reactivity). Hence, high-powered, ‘strong’ people are seen to poses higher levels of testosterone, acting fearless and assertive, and lower levels of cortisol, being less reactive to stress. The incredible part of Cuddy’s findings is that conveying strength and power through high-power poses can shift the levels of both testosterone and cortisol. In one of her studies she asked participants to perform either powerful or powerless poses prior to a job interview, a universally familiar stressful situation. The results indicated that:

a) Neutral recruiters, who didn’t know who performed which pose, consistently picked only those that previously performed the powerful poses as people they would want to hire, and; b) Those that adopted high-power poses showed an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol, which, theoretically, convey the feelings of strength and power.

So apparently the solution to my anxiety drenched issues may be as simple as changing my body postures from low-power poses – arms crossed, shoulders hunched, chin down – to highpower poses – open, expansive chest, feet firm and square. Being the faithful amateur scientist I like to believe I am, I went about testing this theory.

At a networking event the following week I made a conscious effort to adopt high-power poses as far as possible. I walked around like Wonder Woman, arms akimbo, chin elongated nearly vertically, making direct eye contact with anyone who dared to cross my path, and offering bone-crushing  handshakes. Did it work?

Well, I did feel more powerful and commanding, though at the cost of looking thoroughly ridiculous. I did also blend right into the NYC, downtown-chic crowd of posers, wannabes, hustlers, and rabble-rousers, all of us strutting behind a plastic sheath of confidence like electrocuted zombies. All of us bopping our heads to the mantra of faking it ‘til we make it, praying that one day, hopefully one day soon, we will finally become ‘it’.

At which point it dawned on me that if I could so easily trick my body into tricking my mind that I’m an anxiety free wonder woman, it just may be that there really wasn’t that much trickery involved. Perhaps I already was, and have been, this twitch free, nerves of steel warrior, I just didn’t believe that I had it in me. Trickery or not, becoming who I wanted to be rather than being who I was, did actually work. (Though for future reference I would strongly advise against impersonating Wonder Woman and attempting to convey strength by crushing people’s fingers.)

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