How do I improve my body language to improve my days?
March 26, 2009 1:35 AM   Subscribe

I'm fascinated by studies of body language and their application - yet my own body language sucks - I seem to have - 'hey, cut in front of me when I'm walking or queueing' or 'when I express an opinion, puff up and argue with me' - even though sometimes I actually do have the right info. Does anyone have theories on the type of body language I can use to dispel/improve this? Being short, female and 38 with a 'kind' face doesn't give me a good head start apparently. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. This can get to be tiring and annoying - and I'm actually pretty patient.
posted by IdleRepose to Human Relations (26 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Stand up straight.
Shoulders back.
Look people in the eye.

Cut down on your use of "I think" and "In my opinion" and "If you wouldn't mind, could you possibly" and "I may be wrong, but...". Apologise less.

If you're very quiet, go and learn to project your voice.

When working, try dressing a little more professionally than you do. I find that wearing heels helps. People really do take taller people more seriously.

Consider occasionally being more rude, when the situation warrants it. There is such a thing as too much patience when you are being taken advantage of.
posted by emilyw at 2:50 AM on March 26, 2009 [8 favorites]

Relationships, auras, dynamics - that's what you're facing. Have a look.
posted by watercarrier at 3:27 AM on March 26, 2009

Best answer: Auras? Seriously? No. Invisible coloured circles surrounding you and other people are not your problem.
Emily W has good advice. As a fellow short woman with a round, pleasant face, I would add that you need to smile less. It worked for me, anyway. I smiled all the time because I thought it made me seem happy and confident, but realised it actually made me seem cringing and apologetic. Now, at work, and around people I don't know in public, I only smile when I have a reason - when someone does something nice for me, or in response to a joke, or when greeting or saying goodbye to someone, that kind of thing. I don't smile when I ask someone to do something. I don't smile when sharing my opinions. And when someone is a jerk, or doesn't seem to be taking me seriously, I pull out what my husband calls 'the face' - eyebrows raised, mouth perfectly neutral (OK, maybe slightly pursed. But just slightly). This, accompanied with a few seconds of silence, often does the trick by itself, but if they don't immediately stop being jerks, something along the lines of 'I'm sorry, do you not think that my opinion on this is as valid as your own? I'd be interested to know why' usually works.
As for people cutting in line or pushing past you, I usually just say"EXCUSE ME, did you not notice me here?". That always makes people apologise and stammer and probably reconsider the next time they try to do the same to someone else.
posted by Wroksie at 5:17 AM on March 26, 2009 [8 favorites]

You mention people puffing up and arguing with you -- do you get interrupted? One of the best things I ever did in this department was to decide never to stop what I was saying just because someone else starts talking. If someone tries to interrupt, just finish your thought with the two of you talking at once, until the other person realizes that he or she isn't getting in and shuts up. Don't look or even glance at the floor when someone disagrees with you.

As for actual body language, watch the way that you walk and stand. There's a scene in a 90s movie called My Life in which Michael Keaton tells his son the right way to enter a room: you don't look left and right, walk in a wavering line, and then nervously approach someone while looking at the floor. You walk in, set your eyes on your destination, and stride directly toward it. If it's a person, you engage him or her directly. Most people respond to visible confidence, real or faked. Fake it enough and it'll become real as you see the results.
posted by hayvac at 5:31 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just got down my interpersonal communication textbook (Reflect & Relate, Steven McCornack), and here are what it says are the top five nonverbal cues to communicate dominance:

1) Exhibiting confident and self-assured facial expressions
2) Initiating the shaking of an interaction partner's hand
3) Using broad, large, and expansive hand gestures while you talk
4) Engaging in "invasive" behaviors with your conversational partner, such as standing too close, touching, and pointing
5) Showing facial disgust

It also says that "larger-than-normal use of space; access to other people's space, time and possessions; one-sided use of touch (giving more, receiving less; indirect body orientation; direct gaze and staring; frowning and scowling; and silence" all signal the dominance of the person who employs them.
posted by amarynth at 5:54 AM on March 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

Above all, stop being "nice." Nice-ness is a disease, which baby girls are injected with by their parents at birth. Nice-ness is what causes girls and women to fall for scams, be trusting of (obvious to the rest of us) jerks, tilt their head to one side and murmur "awwww" to someone's tale of woe, and other behaviors of weakness. Take it from me, a petite woman who has learned to be a Tough Broad™ in self-defense, and I much prefer myself this way.
What, you don't like it, Mister? Go kill yourself.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:11 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

From the examples you cited it doesn't sound like a problem with body language, it sounds like a problem with verbalizing a specific attitude.
posted by JJ86 at 6:36 AM on March 26, 2009

Don't waste time wishing you were taller. It's not going to happen, and change will be about all of the other elements. The same things happen to me, and I'm 5'10".
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:43 AM on March 26, 2009

Best answer: This is a fascinating topic for me. Over the years I've tried really hard to quantify my own body language to help some friends in a situation such as yours. I apparently have some sort of universally understood body language that screams "Do not touch. Do not anger. Do give this person reason to focus on you." and I've never been able to fully isolate it. I can share a few things and hopefully they'll help:

1. I always speak like I know what's going on and I use minimal words to convey my meaning. "Don't touch that." "Step back." etc.

2. I make eye contact. I -always- make eye contact. Shady guy in the parking lot at night? I'll make eye contact with him from 50 yards away just to say "I see you. I know what you're up to."

3. I walk like I've got better things to do than put up with your shit. I never trained myself to walk this way, I just walk like I'm going somewhere important and can't be bothered. Broad shouldered, long stride, focused on where I'm going.

4. I look -everywhere-. You'd think I was charged with protecting the president or something. I scan constantly. I don't stand in line and look straight ahead with glazed over eyes or see my car in a parking lot and make a beeline for it with my eyes locked right on it. I scan and rescan. Because of this I almost always notice things before they become bigger things. Guy cutting in line? I see him coming a mile away and just adjust my body position to make his course of action less desirable. Creepy guy in the parking garage? I saw him before he even saw me. Sales pitch coming from a guy walking across the coffee shop? He knows I've seen him and my eyes already say "I know who you are."

Honestly if I had to put my finger on one thing, I think I inherited a certain set of traits from my mother. My mother is a very strong woman with a very commanding presence. Her very presence in a room says "I belong here. I am correct. I command this stage."

Now I will grant you that as a male, these things come easier to me than most women. American boys are raised to believe it's ok to be forward and commanding, aggressive and territorial, to put practicality and power before kindness, etc. Girls on the other hand are constantly chided and told to be nice and that people won't like them if they aren't soft accommodating balls of syrupy niceties.

If you want to change your body language you need to change the language inside yourself. You may not even realize it but you've got a lifetime of conditioning. Start telling yourself that you're in charge, that you control the space you're in, that you don't take shit from people. Hell tell yourself "I will punch this motherfucker in the face if I have to." That's how boys grow up and learn to command space.

Oh one more challenge you'll have that guys don't usually have to deal with... I can be friendly and smile at someone and they don't assume that I've let my guard down or that me being friendly is a sign of weakness or that I'll be duped easily. Men, unfair as it may be, have that advantage. When a thug looking guy walks up to me and I look him in the eye and say with a polite word and a smile "What can I help you with?" he understands the subtext is "I see you. If I can see you, I can shoot you." but if a small woman said the same thing most likely she'd be considered an easier target for already showing signs of being less aggressive. It isn't a fair double standard but you'll have to work harder to find the balance.

Hopefully some of my advice helped? =)
posted by JFitzpatrick at 6:55 AM on March 26, 2009 [27 favorites]

You mention people puffing up and arguing with you -- do you get interrupted? One of the best things I ever did in this department was to decide never to stop what I was saying just because someone else starts talking. If someone tries to interrupt, just finish your thought with the two of you talking at once, until the other person realizes that he or she isn't getting in and shuts up.

Actually, what I usually do when someone interrupts is immediately stop speaking. Then when the interrupter finishes, I pick up exactly where I left off, ignoring the interruption as though it never happened. Works like a charm.
posted by Maisie at 7:07 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hold on ... I'm sure great advice is being given here. But please don't stop smiling and being nice to people.
posted by Xhris at 8:17 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Xhris: I think the important thing is that your smiles and niceness should be a direct response to a given situation and are appropriate in that situation. A smile and niceness should not be the default response.
posted by Freen at 8:50 AM on March 26, 2009

When you're centered and grounded as the martial arts teach, nobody can move you, sway you or pin you down. You are solid in your standing, and present yourself with assertiveness that basically is give and take - with respect - but you're not a pushover. It helps to get the info from the masters and how to achieve that inner gravity center. This is just one book to give you an idea - there are many others.
posted by watercarrier at 8:55 AM on March 26, 2009

Best answer: I'm 33, male, and in the same boat.

There are a few things going on here & a few things you can do to work on it.

1. Clothing.

Does your clothing project a positive, confident attitude? This video hilariously points out what I mean. I once walked 10 paces behind a guy wearing a kickass suit & nobody crossed in front of him, they all crossed in front of me.

2. Body Language.

Live for Success by John T Molloy (of Dress for Success fame - unfortunately while men's style never goes out of fashion, women's style often does, & the "Woman's Dress for Success" give somewhat dated advice) has a chapter on mismatched body language. He had a guy in his office who frequently gave great advice, but nobody listened to him & then the eventual consensus was to do what he had advised to do, though he never got the credit. (this happens to me sometimes too)

They analyzed his speech & language patterns & found that he mis-matched his body language (timid, etc.) to his speech & video taped him during a meeting (allowing sufficient time for him to "feel comfortable" in front of the cameras) and then showed him the video tape, painstakingly pointing out every little thing he did wrong.

Then they sent him home with homework (the exact nature of the homework eludes me at the moment, I can look it up if you like).

After a few weeks of practice, he was much more confident during meeting, getting his point across much more clearly.

3. Socializing.

You need to spend a lot more time around people. I'm great one-on-one, but not as great in a group where I'm frequently trying to figure out where to walk/stand or when to interrupt because the other two+ people have such great rapport & I'm sort of the odd man out.

Part of it is that I'm not around people a lot. The more you're around people, the more your body language & actual language patterns will pick up on the subtle dance that is communication.

I remember reading an article a few years ago about a professor who studied body language. He had a brief video clip of a simple exchange over breakfast "please pass the toast" etc. and he discovered that there was an intricate dance of body language much greater than verbal, even over that simple exchange. A raised lip here, a head nod there, etc. were all subtle cues that people project & pick up on.

It sounds to me like you're out of practice.

Once you get your kickass new wardrobe, start going out & socializing more, especially meeting new people. The more you do it, the better you'll become at expressing yourself.

etc. - I could go on, but I think I've covered the basics.
posted by MesoFilter at 8:58 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Look people in the eye. Might not be the best idea in all situations, culturally it can be misconstrued as a threat or an invitation by some to be even more intrusive and in your face.

Just be yourself, be cool - don't get flustered by people's attitudes, because there are a hellofalotta rude and obnoxious people out there who just want to ride you and feed off your energy fallout. Don't even do the dance with them. It's not worth it. Be strong inside and that will reflect through everything you do. For some pointers watch Madonna and how she carries herself. Yeah. Madonna.
posted by watercarrier at 9:34 AM on March 26, 2009

The issue isn't that people cut in front of you or argue with you, it's how you respond to those things. There's no reason to stop being nice.
posted by mpls2 at 10:54 AM on March 26, 2009

Best answer: I'm a 5'0", very petite woman with a "small" voice. For some reason, everybody always thinks I'm super confident. I'M NOT. I just have a few habits that are apparently able to obscure the fact that I'm really a quivering mass of insecurities. I don't blink very much, and I tend to look people in the eye without glancing away for longer-than-usual periods. I speak in declarative sentences (as opposed to making everything sound like a question, which a lot of women do). And I have pretty quiet body language--I don't touch my hair, or fold my arms, or wave my hands around a lot. I'm no specialist in body language, but it seems to me that "using broad, expansive gestures," as noted by amarynth, above, works differently for men than for women. I totally agree that this signals confidence in a man, but it's somehow different for women. I can't quite put my finger on it.

Also, my job requires me to dress in a suit a lot, and I notice such a difference in the way I'm treated when I'm dressed professionally. (I actually hate having to dress up and would gladly trade the respect I'm shown for the ability to dress more comfortably.) MesoFilter's "Respect the Suit" video is hilarious and so true.
posted by HotToddy at 11:39 AM on March 26, 2009 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Make eye contact. Allow your eyes to look "watchfully" and "critically" at people who underestimate you. Many women make "nice" eye contact- eyebrows up a little in the centre, so they look vulnerable & young. Let your brows stay down as you look at someone. If you have big round eyes, you can even narrow them a little.
Drop your voice a little so it's a deeper pitch. You want to feel it vibrate at the base of your tongue, in your throat and belly, rather than in your sinuses and palate.
If you're a slow talker, speak a little faster. If you're a fast talker, slow down.
Look at the person you're speaking to more. Most people look at their target about 10-20% of the time while they speak- up your percentage so it's 30-40%.
Look at everyone in a conversation while they speak and while you speak. Get them all on-side by creating tiny eye-contact relationships with them, so when you get interrupted, they all kind of stiffen in your defense.
Don't use qualifiers: banish "I think". Cut to the verb.
State the obvious, in summation of a discussion. This makes people see you as "smart and perceptive" and is a really effective way to up you perceived intelligence at work. In a meeting, when everyone goes over the sales figures again and again, say "We need to increase sales."
Sprinkle a few Latinate (rather than Germanic) words into the beginnings of conversations with anyone who acts like you're simple-minded. (As a basic rule of thumb, Latinate words are the multi-syllabic ones that express nuanced ideas. Germanic ones are single-syllabic and express more primitive concepts. Think perspire/sweat, irritated/pissed, disappointed/hurt, hypohesize/guess). You can often intimidate these jerks by adding extra syllables.
Talk through the interrupters. Push your voice slightly. Don't get "higher", though, as raising your pitch makes you shrill & inneffectual. Think of pushing your voice straight ahead a further distance, as if plowing through the crap.
Style your hair out of your face, and bluntly rather than wispily.
Don't touch your clothes, hair, or face in public.
Carry your body like an athlete: strong vertical spine, shoulders strong and back, capable stride. Lift some weights in a tank top and watch your strong arms and shoulders at work. Feel that strength in real life, too.
Watch how young boi-ish lesbians, female athletes, and roller derby girls carry themselves- they tend to do many of these things naturally, and it makes people take them fairly seriously.
(I'm a smallish young woman with an authoritative job. I have consciously modified my behaviour in many of the ways I just listed, and for me they've worked. I totally feel you on this- good luck!)
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:34 PM on March 26, 2009 [11 favorites]

Male Perspectives, somewhat relative, may be found here, previously
posted by DrtyBlvd at 12:59 PM on March 26, 2009

This is a previous thread with some good suggestions buried in it as well.
posted by availablelight at 3:15 PM on March 26, 2009

I found that when I started to take myself seriously, other people did, too. Affirmations can help. Once a day, look in the mirror and say "I deserve to be respected" or "Hey you, you're badass" or whatever will help you recognize that you have every right to be heard, to be respected, etc.
posted by theora55 at 6:03 PM on March 26, 2009

Best answer: Smiling: what freen said. I've often thought that if a man went about smiling as much as most women do, they'd probably be taken for simple-minded. Many women smile all the time as a sort of forced social default setting, and I think it can signal someone who is anxious to please, doesn't want to raise a fuss, etc. Smiling is fine... you smile when someone does something that pleases you. You smile when you are extending friendship, or when when someone is helping you... there are many opportunities to smile, but mindless smiling seems to send the message that you can be imposed on.

When I want to put someone on the spot because they are behaving badly: no smile; direct unblinking gaze; blunt declarative language, and I never fill in the silences. Basically, I drop every bit of conversational/social unguent. I'm not actually behaving aggressively, but simply refusing to provide those little helpers, which puts the other person off-balance, and either forces them to do it, or at least understand that I am not to be considered fair game. If they want to mess with me, they need to know that it is going to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. People seem to expect women to provide these "nicety" services even when they are being attacked, interrupted, imposed on, etc. Bah to that.

Generally, a straight posture, confident stride, alert expression, arms relaxed (not crossed defensively in front of you) all suggest a person to take seriously. Fiddly gestures with hair, clothes, jewelry, indicate nervousness and lack of confidence. If you wear anything that you need to tug up, pull down or adjust repeatedly in any way - throw it away. If you need to constantly check your hair or jewelry, get a better cut, simpler jewelry (if you find yourself twisting your rings/bracelets/necklaces, stop wearing them). If you pick at or chew on your nails, cut them, or get a manicure, but force yourself to stop. Don't constantly put you hand to your face/mouth, don't frequently look down or avert your eyes. If you are carrying something - bag, purse, books, whatever, don't do the sort of huddle thing where you bunch your shoulders and carry the item like a shield in front of your chest.

Finally, standing in line. I've actually had to formulate a serious standing-in-line stance, because in Greece, weakness is folly - people will cut in front of you constantly. Typically, I stand attentively, with a very straight back, feet planted solidly, weight slightly tilted to one hip, with the foot of the other side extended a forward (ready to step up, as it were), usually with one hand in a pocket, elbow out, the other hand on my hip, or at the strap of my bag, elbow out. So, I'm basically a) in a moving-forward stance, and b) taking up my whole space by having my elbows out and foot forward. There will be no sidling by me! :) An adaptation of this is also helpful on public transit to keep the creepy-touchy-creepers from creeping too close. Fill/own/occupy your space.
posted by taz at 5:35 AM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

It even happens to the tall folks if your body language is off. Decent posture plus being able to look someone in the eye with a "no the fuck you don't" is a skill.

Then again, it's one of those skills that might not be worth having.
posted by talldean at 8:33 PM on March 28, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I haven't answered before now because I have been trying these out - its been a lot of fun and has really helped. I have so many favourites because I received so many useful and useable pieces of advice.

I had fun walking through a mall of crowded people last week - head high, shoulders back, gaze leveled just above people's browlines, focussed on a point past people's heads. I walked confidently through the crowds and could see people think twice before cutting in front - it was fun. I am also using the 'standing in queue' stance...

I really like the thought of 'channelling Madonna' too.

On smiles - recent teacher training I did advised not smiling before the three month mark to ensure students didn't try to get too familiar too early...I won't stop smiling but i will be more circumspect with that and with my body language from now on.

'Obey the Suit' was funny too.
posted by IdleRepose at 1:06 AM on April 6, 2009

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