Inspirations: Your body language shapes who you are

  • The nature of an interaction can be gleaned from the body language alone.
  • Describing a character’s pose can define their personality.
  • Practicing a confident pose in private can increase confidence.
  • What happens when someone is forced into a position that requires more dominance than their personality allows?

Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist, holding the post of associate professor of business administration at Harvard. Like most writers, I am terrible at business administration so it’s the psychology that interests me. Her TED talk says some fascinating things about nonverbal communication, not only with other people but also with ourselves. The talk is worth watching for that alone, but I’m going to focus mostly on how her insights could help to develop fictional characters. If the video below doesn’t work, there’s a full transcript.

Characters can communicate without speaking

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Nathan Rupert (CC / Flickr)

My characters communicate mainly through what they say, even if they keep a lot back. Body language is usually restricted to the supporting role of tagging dialogue. Yet the pictures of world leaders in the opening minutes of the talk suggest that I’m underestimating the importance of body language.

Consider the picture of Christine Lagarde in what Cuddy later describes as the ‘Wonder Woman’ pose, while the man she is speaking to cowers before her. It speaks volumes about the interaction, even with no movement or knowledge of what they’re discussing. That picture is practically a story in itself, and could be conveyed by a short sentence of description to introduce a character.

The handshake clip is even better. With apologies to Gordon Brown, what could something like that say about a character without a word of direct description being needed?

Posturing at myself

Cuddy’s main topic is the postures of domination and submission. It’s not exactly news that conveying confidence gets people further than competence, hence many perplexing things about the world starting with the global recession. Cuddy cites examples in which dominant posture predicts which doctors will not get sued and which politicians will be elected. More useful for most of us is that communicating confidence is likely to get us further in an interview than what we actually say.

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Arctic Wolf (CC / Flickr)

Cuddy’s more novel finding is that the relationship between body language and attitude is two-way. It’s no surprise that confident people assume confident poses, but Cuddy summarises her research showing that simply assuming a dominant posture for a few minutes made people more confident. Not only were they more likely to gamble on a game of chance but there was a measurable physiological effect: the ratio of testosterone to cortisol was increased by five minutes of dominant posturing. Five minutes of submissive posturing had the opposite effects.

Cuddy goes so far as to suggest that the oft-repeated advice, ‘fake it until you make it’ should really be ‘fake it until you become it’. Simply behaving as though we are confident can make us genuinely confident, which is useful advice for approaching an interview or giving a talk in public.

Where can this go wrong?

Perhaps it’s my tendency to look for implications that drove me to write fiction in the first place. For example, I’ve noticed that cafes and public transport are full of people in a submissive pose, with their shoulders hunched and their head downcast. They are not being shouted at or preparing for an interview. They are reading texts and emails on their phones. If it is the pose itself that matters rather than the reason for assuming it, could Apple have created a generation of submissive consumers?

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Esther Vargas (CC / Flickr)

When Cuddy was talking about how people moving into senior positions alters their testosterone / cortisol ratio, it suggested that people adapt themselves to their role as much as they are selected for it. I found myself wondering what happens if they don’t adapt. It must happen sometimes. Not everyone put in a position of authority rises to it. That is a central theme of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, in which the exigencies of the Second World War push Captain Queeg into a position beyond his abilities. Queeg’s officers are reservists rather than professional Navy men, and the situation divides them into those who rise to the situation and those who cannot. There are plenty more fictional possibilities for the situation, and it could be used to explain the many situations that come up where it’s necessary for an authority figure to make a poor decision.

The same situation could equally be explained by the inverse, where an authority figure has been promoted because they are confident rather than because they are suited to responsibility. Anyone who has worked in a couple of posts without encountering that sort of entitlement is very fortunate indeed.

Let’s be Wonder Woman

Fiction aside, most of us are trying to make our way through a world that is not biased in our favour. If all we learn from Amy Cuddy is a technique for faking that may just help us to become who and what we want, she’s worth paying attention to.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

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