At the recent big physics conference this year, there was a really great pre-conference tutorial on how to give good talks. I have had a couple posts about giving good talks (here, here). One thing that was stressed at the tutorial was body language. One of the presenters (really, I should say workshop-runners) was an actor who thinks a lot about body language. Her advice included things such as keeping your feet firmly planted about shoulder width apart, opening up your shoulders (not hunched), and holding your head up. Also, you should use your hands effectively to help elaborate points, but do not put them behind your back or crossed over your chest.
This is all excellent advice! I definitely do all this stuff when I give a talk or in class. But, this is good advice for all the time – not just when giving a talk. In fact, I walk with such confidence and purpose, that I have been stopped on campus more than once by someone who commented “You look like you are going to kick someone’s ass.” And that is exactly how I want to look. In fact, I am there to kick ass, everyday. Walking and holding myself confidently actually helps give me the confidence to do my job. I started doing this as part of my mantra of “fake it until you make it.” I practiced, and I don’t have to fake it anymore. I especially like walking briskly down the hall with my tall boots under a flowy skirt and making a lot of click-clack noise. People know I am there. I walk with purpose. I feel and look large and in charge.
If you are a woman or under-represented minority, thinking about and using your body language and appearance effectively are essential to your success. I have written about this previously here in the context of the classroom. Your body language can communicate to the class how competent (confident) you are, how serious to take you, and that you care about the students and their learning. When paired with your words, body language can be powerful to help you make your points and connect with them.
When your body language is at odds with your words, people feel uncomfortable. Because people’s perception of body language is subconscious, they may not understand where their discomfort comes from. That discomfort and uncertainty mix to make them even more uncomfortable and distrustful. This is a bad combination, especially because women have a harder time engendering trust, in general due to sexism (see article).
Outside of classes, I also use the same tactics. At the conference, I stood with my feet apart. I noticed other women of approximately my stage and success level were also standing feet apart, heads up, shoulders back, and arms either animated or crossed. I find that, as a woman, crossing your arms doesn’t look closed off if you stand with your head up and expression open. Instead, crossed arms gives you an air of competence and healthy skepticism – a good stance for a scientist. It was cool to notice that we were all standing in basically the same stance. Most importantly, you do not want to shrink back. You want to take up space. If you are thin or short, this is even more important.
In faculty meetings or other committee meetings, I often purposely take up a bit more space than is strictly necessary. I cross my legs with my ankle on my knee. I put my arm on the neighboring chair. I make myself larger because I am often physically smaller than my colleagues (although I am by no means a “small girl”). Whatever I do, I do not shrink in or try to take up less space than I need. Taking up more space sends a sub-conscious notice that I deserve the space, and I deserve to be heard.
Why is body language effective? Most body language and facial expressions are important forms of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication allows you to communicate silently and subconsciously about yourself. Because it is subconscious, you can use it to communicate your assertiveness without actually acting overtly aggressive. Talking over men, interrupting, or speaking loudly can get you labeled as pushy, bossy, and aggressive. Using body language to communicate your place at the table is physically assertive, but it is not perceived consciously.
So, what do you think? Comment or send your own article to post. As always, push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.