Body language! You are probably aware that it factors into your social, professional, and romantic relationships—even if you’re unsure exactly how. Maybe you’ve devoured articles about how to improve yours in various women’s magazines. Maybe you’ve secretly taken the advice of that body-language expert who’s always on Bill O’Reilly’s show to dissect the hand motions and neck placements of various politicians. Maybe you’ve even saved up to attend a workshop with the Date Whisperer. Or maybe you think it’s a load of bunk—I wouldn’t know unless you told me, with your body.
Of course, nonverbal communication exists. The angle of your shoulders, the tilt of your smile: All of that undoubtedly adds up to an aura, a general impression that beams off you like a radio wave. Often, the physical messages you send elude your conscious control. I know, for instance, that sometimes my body says things like “I just learned five minutes ago that Scotch comes from Scotland,” even while my mouth is saying, “I, too, find craft distilleries quite interesting.” Surely we all would be happier if we could regulate our corporal “speech” more skillfully. But how much happier? Just how effective are particular poses at getting you what you want?
Back in November, I read about the research of Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, who proposes that certain physical stances can alter the amounts of testosterone and cortisol in your body. More testosterone means, roughly, more confidence. More cortisol translates into higher stress. Cuddy found that “high power poses” increase testosterone and inhibit cortisol, while “low power poses” do the opposite. She describes the high power poses as positions that open up the torso. Think a cobra rearing and spreading its hood to the sun, or Wonder Woman with her legs apart and her hands on her hips. The wimpy poses force the body in on itself—the arms across the chest, the shoulders forward, the head and chin down—and convey submission. In a series of 2012 experiments, Cuddy discovered that people who assumed high-power poses for a few minutes before a fake job interview were more likely to win over judges watching a videotape of the encounter. Regardless of what they actually said, these candidates radiated presence and personality—and that got them fake hired, whereas people who adopted neutral or low power poses before the interview earned only middling scores from the judges.
Naturally, Cuddy’s findings made us want to conduct our own experiment. The women of Slate brainstormed three situations in which some extra confidence might be a good thing, and I attempted to Wonder Woman the crap out of them. Results below.
The Dating Scene:
A friend and I made plans to meet at 9:00 p.m. at a popular bar in Adams Morgan. I arrived a bit early, which gave me some time to stand outside the entrance with my fists planted on my hips and my legs spread. I did not, in fact, feel powerful. I felt silly. So I walked around to the side of the bar, where I had a slimmer chance of being observed, and tried again. No discernible testosterone cascades, but after a few minutes a sediment of calm did begin to settle in my chest. I also noticed that I was getting tired from holding the power pose.
When I went inside, a greeter was stationed in the doorway, and perhaps I was more gregarious with him then I might otherwise have been. We bantered, coruscatingly, about whether he planned to ask for my ID (“No, I’m just the greeter”) and whether the upper floor experience merited the steep climb upstairs. When I traipsed up to explore, a second man blocked my ingress.
Man: May I see your ID, please?
Me (calm, clear voice as I prepared to lie): I’m afraid I don’t have it with me. But I was born in December of 1987. I’ve been of legal drinking age for six years.
Man: You can’t go in. I need to see your ID.
Me: Um, OK. Here it is.
So, confidence. Not an acceptable alternative to a government-issued form of identification. But is that really so surprising? A few minutes later my friend arrived, and after I refreshed my testosterone levels with a quick Wonder Woman in the bathroom, we moved toward the bar.
Then what? I wish I could report I became a dervish of voluble charm, causing men to fall at my feet as I expertly and self-assuredly broadcast “presence and personality.” But the night swung toward situation-normal: a few fun but meaningless conversations with the patrons nearby, two free drinks, no numbers. Maybe I did a better job overcoming my usual shyness—in the past, I’ve been nervous about chatting up new people—but I attribute that more to my friend’s easy extraversion and, perhaps, the alcohol. So far, I couldn’t conclude that Cuddy’s empowering body language had delivered any real results.