What your body reveals about you*
If you want to ace your next job interview, client pitch, performance appraisal or make an impact at the school council meeting then here’s a tip: spend an extra few minutes in the ladies room.
I don’t mean to double check if you have parsley in your teeth or baby vomit on your collar. Head to the loo and strike a pose — a pose like Usain Bolt after winning the 200 metre men’s final at the London Olympics.
We all know that our body language affects the way people perceive us. Eye contact. Check. Open body position. Check. Firm handshake. Check.
But new research by social scientist Amy Cuddy reveals is that our body language can also affect the way we perceive ourselves. By pretending to be more powerful we can actually be more powerful.
As Cuddy explains in her TED talk ‘Your body language shapes who you are’, our non-verbals can influence our thoughts, our feelings and even our hormone levels.
In one study Cuddy asked participants to hold either a high power pose (think: gorilla chest beating, Tony Robbins air punching, or smug-man hands behind head) or low power poses (think: hunching, leg-crossing, or wrapping arms across your body) for two minutes.
The participants’ hormone levels were tested prior to and after the poses, specifically testosterone, which is the dominance hormone, and cortisol, which is the stress hormone. These hormones were tested because there is some evidence that high testosterone and low cortisol is a winning hormone combination for effective leaders, making people more confident and less anxious.
Cuddy’s study showed that the high power pose people experienced a 20 per cent increase in testosterone and 25 per cent decrease in cortisol after posing. And the lower power posers experience a 10 per cent decrease in testosterone and a 15 per cent increase in cortisol.
While it’s fascinating that changing your body language for a few short minutes can affect your hormone levels, even more important is that these changes can have material impacts in real life situations.
In a recent Harvard Business School Working Paper titled ‘The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation’, Cuddy reveals that a bit of air punching in the privacy of a toilet cubicle can make us appear more confident, authentic, captivating and employable.
In the study, 61 Columbia University students were asked to adopt either high power poses or low power poses while practicing a speech for a high-stress job interview. The poses were held for only seven minutes.
The students then performed their speeches in front of interviewers trained to give no non-verbal feedback (to increase participant stress levels). Their performances were videoed and evaluated by four people who knew nothing about the aims or the hypothesis of the study.
The evaluators determined that high power posers were more competent and hirable than the people who assumed low power poses. The significance of this research is that the biggest predictor of whether people were likely to be hired or not wasn’t what they said during the interview, but their presentation and their body language before the encounter.
This research is particularly good news for women who are often socialised to take up as little space as possible. How many times have you seen a woman try to squish herself into less than half of a bus seat while the man in front is happy to take up two-thirds? We cross our legs, suck in our stomachs, and wrap our arms around ourselves trying to make ourselves smaller.
Those who dare to take up extra room and make their bodies big — think legs spread, one arm resting on the boardroom table while the other one is wrapped over the back of the next chair — are punished for their non-compliance by being judged as unfeminine and brash.
Yes it’s maddening that women have to constrict themselves in public just to be considered acceptable — especially when you consider that by making ourselves appear meek we could be changing the hormone levels that make us feel and behave meek as well.
But at the same time, we shouldn’t discount the benefits of taking up space in private. Any chance to even the playing field in the power game has to be welcome.
So the next time you need to impress someone, try high-fiveing yourself in the bathroom mirror for a few minutes before you meet them.
Kasey Edwards is the author of Thirty-Something and Over It: What happens when you wake up and don’t want to go to work. Ever again. (Random House) www.kaseyedwards.com