That Time I Tried To Be Wonder Woman
Is it true that standing with your legs apart, hands on hips, can really change your life?
Photograph by Andrew Morgan for Slate.
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.
Customer Service Encounter:
Maybe I just needed to find the right context, to situate my Amazon warrior queen in a more promising matrix of social give-and-take. To the dry cleaners!
“We’ll have this ready for you in three days,” chirped the youngish lady behind the counter, running her finger over a smudge on my shirt’s sleeve.
“Would it be possible to pick up the cleaning any sooner?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” the woman replied politely, “but we’re very busy this week, with the holidays approaching. A lot of people are dropping off their nice clothes.”
“Ah,” I said. And then: “Could you hold on one moment? I need to make a phone call.”
Of course, I did not need to make a phone call. I needed to go outside, assume the Wonder Woman pose for 90 seconds, and then bend this uncooperative dry cleaning operative to my will.
A minute and a half later, I strode back into the store, where I had left my shirt on the counter, feeling legitimately empowered. “I hate to be a pain,” I announced, “but this blouse needs to be clean tonight. Is there any way it can be ready in time?”
She looked at me quizzically. Riding a high of obnoxiousness, I kept talking. “I know you don’t typically offer same-day service, but it’s an emergency.”
And then, the miraculous transpired. The dry cleaning lady shot me a conspiratorial smile. “If it’s an emergency,” she said, “I can have it ready for you this afternoon.”
Success! (If success is getting what you want via manipulation. Which obviously it is!)
The previous two scenarios only served as warm-ups for the main event: the interpersonal joust with the highest stakes and the most relevance to Cuddy’s experiment. Just thinking about it made my palms sweat. I was going to ask my boss for a raise.
In her book, The End of Men, Hanna Rosin discusses the delicate predicament of women who want to kick butt in the workplace. Unlike their male counterparts, professional ladies don’t get credit for acting tough or aggressive around their colleagues. Instead, they tend to be punished for advocating for themselves: Rosin calls our reflexive aversion to real-life Wonder Women “the twitch.” Yet female employees who hang back too much only reinforce a secretarial stereotype and fail to snag the opportunities and breaks that come naturally to the guys. Could a power pose help?
I sent the Big Kahuna an email asking to meet with him about my salary for the new year. I figured he would reply to the message suggesting a time and I would prepare with my Wonder Woman stance beforehand. But instead he stopped at my desk on his way back to his office. “How about now?” he said, perhaps because he’s a casual boss or perhaps because he knows it’s best not to give us employees any time to prepare via vogueing in the bathroom.
“Sure!” I enthused, panicking. I followed him down the long hall with my hands resting on my hips and my shoulders not-so-subtly open, praying he wouldn’t turn around and see me locomoting like a fool. The leisurely walk took about half a minute. Were neural terminals emptying their packets of testosterone into my synapses, enzymes vacuuming up most of the cortisol? Hard to tell: This was my first salary negotiation, so I’m not sure how I would have felt without the pose. But when I sat down in his office, I squared my chest slightly. For an extra boost, I was assuming one of the less obvious high power positions—legs slightly apart, chin up, torso forward. The key was projecting poise without arrogance; if I could do that, I would be, as they say, in business.
Anyway, he named a number. I nodded enthusiastically, which I would have done regardless of whether he had sneezed, offered me a yacht, or demoted me. Then, after confirming that we’d reached the negotiation phase of the meeting (Me: “Is this the part where I negotiate?” Him: “This is where you try.”), I named a higher number. And then we talked a bit more and settled on a figure in between. No one familiar with the dark arts of workplace diplomacy should be surprised to hear any of this, but the conversation represented a departure for me—one that I can’t help suspecting was abetted, if just slightly, by the Wonder Woman posture.
Of course, any additional confidence I detected in myself that afternoon could have simply reflected the placebo effect. Maybe the secret, inward efficacies of body language per se are absolute applesauce. And yet, there I was, having assumed the high power pose briefly before the encounter, asking the bossman for a more generous salary than he had originally proffered. Something had happened to tamp down my nervousness, to refashion me as bolder, breezier, more decisive. It felt weird. It felt—dare I say it—kind of wonderful.
Katy Waldman is a Slate assistant editor.