Better Body Language for the New Year

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in my countless classes, consultations and conferences, it’s that women tend to exhibit timid body language.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in my countless classes, consultations and conferences, it’s that women tend to exhibit timid body language.

It’s sad but true ladies. Generally speaking, the women I work with are much more likely to cover up their “power zones” (neck dimple, bellybutton and “naughty bits”) than their male counterparts.

Moreover, power equals space, and women take up significantly less of it. Sure, women are generally smaller statured than men, but there is more to it than that. In my experience, women are more likely to stand with their feet close together, aka, the “tall, skinny candle” stance. Men prefer a broader “short, fat candle” stance. What’s the difference, you say?

When you bump a table … which is more likely to fall over? That tall, skinny candle is going down. It just simply does not have the balance of the short, fat candle. Which, by the way is still in its tabletop perch, blissfully unaware of the skinny candle’s fate.

Simply speaking, if men are body language Hummers, women are Smart Cars.

Why is this? It’s one part clothing (it’s impossible to spread out in a pencil skirt), and two parts social conditioning (young girls get rewarded for being blushing belles, not raucous rabble-rousers).

Researchers Tomi-Ann Roberts and Yousef Arefi-Ashar at Colorado College recently hypothesized the latter reason may be responsible for gender differences in posture, mood and performance.

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that posture mirrors mood, especially feelings of pride or shame following success or failure. Imagine a teacher passing out test papers to a class. You could probably pick out who failed and who passed based on the “slouchers” and the “posture princes.”

Knowing that mood affects posture, researchers sought to learn if posture can affect mood. They coerced participants into assuming either slumped or erect postures and had them perform a series of tasks. They found that those who sat upright performed the tasks better and also experienced a greater feeling of accomplishment after successfully completing a task than those who were slumped forward.

The problem with most of these studies? They focused only on men. To remedy this gender imbalance, Roberts and Arefi-Ashar tested both women and men in a similar experiment.

These researchers tasked participants to perform math problems while assuming either a slumped or upright sitting position, gave them “success feedback,” and asked them to rate their performance. They found that men sitting upright performed better following success feedback and reported more positive feelings than their slouchy counterparts.

Stunningly, for women the reverse is true. After receiving success feedback, female participants in the upright position scored lower and rated their performance more poorly than the ladies in the slumped group.

Why the gender difference? Roberts and Aferi-Ashar point to our culture’s objectification of women. Women, they say, often regard their bodies from an observer’s point of view, and thrusting their chests outward with a straight-backed posture makes them feel insecure.

What do these results mean for you? How can you tune up your body language to perform in top gear in the New Year? If you’re male, it means you should sit up straight and keep your shoulders back so you’re always working with 100% confidence. Be tall and strong like a statue (more “David”, less “The Thinker”).

For women, these results reinforce the importance of being aware of your body language and the effects it can have on your mood. Monitoring your movements and escaping your comfort zone can be nerve-wracking, but it’s an essential step toward projecting a new, more confident you. Knowing that assuming an alert, confident posture will lead others to perceive you as alert and confident can help ratchet down anxiety.

In my New York Times best-selling book You Say More Than You Think, I outline a strategy to capture your baseline behaviors on video, correct problematic posture, and put your best body language forward.

For a quick-fix now, go home and practice perfect posture in the mirror. Once you “try on” good posture, you’ll be able to see how much stronger and more confident you look. If you keep at it, you’ll be opening up, revving your engine, letting your body language roar like a Hummer in no time!

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