Friday, April 21, 2006

The other side of body language tips

Learning about body language through the Web is very difficult because so many sites just repeat the same vapid bullet points without exploring the topic in depth. Admittedly, most people reading the Web don't have much time for depth, but when you're looking for new information, seeing the same old regurgitated information is not helpful.

One of the most common "facts" I have seen cited concerns sock pulling by Men. This is supposedly a major preening gesture. Um, I've read the studies that produced this nonsense fact, but let me set the record straight. Men pull up their socks when they are alone, no one can possibly see them, and there is no hope of anyone seeing them with straight socks.

We do it because we feel uncomfortable and we want to feel more comfortable. While discomfort can be associated with a stressful or emotionally charged (or hormonally charged) situation, when it comes to socks, the most common reason we feel discomfort is that they've lost their elasticity. They just sag around the ankles and they feel uncomfortable. I have learned to buy long socks that reach up over the calf, but they are more expensive than the nylon socks you can buy at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Target stores. And eventually those socks shrink, shrivel, or waste away into wads of lint you have to clean out of the dryer.

I'll be rolling down the road on a 12-hour trip, minding my own business, when suddenly one of my socks slides down my leg. I pull it up. I don't do that because I hope the 300-pound trucker who is now about to pass me may decide I'm cute enough for a cup of coffee. I do it because it just feels weird to have a sock squished down around my ankle.

So, to all you sock tip body language experts: GET A CLUE.

There are some other body language tips I don't always agree with. For example, hands on hips. Sometimes I put my hands on my hips because I have nowhere else to put them. I could put them on my butt but that feels weird. Actually, sometimes I do put them on my butt when I'm around women because women say I have a nice butt. If you see me with my hands on my butt, I'm overtly saying, "Hey, ladies, look at my nice butt".

And I'm also trying not to look dorky by letting my arms dangle at my side.

Body positioning can be due to non-sexual/non-romantic causes as well. Sometimes, you cannot help but point your body a certain way. Sometimes, when you're sitting in a small seat, you spread yourself out as much as possible in order to keep other people from sitting down next to you. So that, "Hey, baby, I like the way you look" knee on leg scenario could be, "God, I hope the dirt-covered, major stinky dude who hasn't bathed in a week doesn't come sit next to me".

Hands on hips is another way of marking turf and intimidating possible rivals for space. If you don't want other men to stand near you, put your hands on your hips. Yes, it's a signal that says, "I'm ready for action -- I might just kick your knee caps if you get too close."

You can be inviting to other men by putting your hands on your hips if you look at them squarely, engage them in conversation, and tilt your head. Why does that work? Because head tilting bares the neck and makes you look vulnerable. You're saying, "Dude, I'm on your side. Let's get together and strategize."

Preening (straightening of clothes) is usually a reliable sign of a man's interest in someone else, but it may not be romantic/sexual interest. Men will preen before going on stage, before going into a sales meeting, and before going into a boardroom meeting where they have to make a presentation. But in all situations where men preen, we are trying to look our best and feel our best. Feeling comfortable and feeling like you are well-put together helps you feel confident. Looking your best reassures you that you will make a great first impression.

There is a funny television commercial that sells something I cannot remember. It starts out with an executive, a silver-haired gentleman, strolling down the hallway on his way to a meeting. His employees casually and gracefully say "Hello" to him, "Good luck", etc. They tie his shoe laces, clear off his dandruff ("There is snow on the mountains! I repeat, there is snow on the mountains!"), and generally fix him up. Unfortunately, when he greets his Japanese guests, he smiles broadly and reveals that part of his lunch is hanging in his teeth.

The commercial drives home the point that first impressions are crucial. It's a pity it didn't compel me to remember what it was advertising, but this kind of preparation for any encounter is a major part of a man's behavioral arsenal. Sadly, too many men let this weapon rust in the shed.

We don't consciously communicate our feelings through our body language. Our bodies do that for us. Think of body language as the body's way of seeking equilibrium in a constantly swirling pool of emotions, stimuli, and circumstances. We never quite settle down. Even when we sit perfectly, rigidly still, we are saying something about our emotional states and our mental states.

Nonetheless, many experienced public speakers know you can school yourself to project certain elements. Older men often put one hand in a pocket (usually a jacket or sweater pocket) and gesture moderately with their primary hand. They look casual, comfortable, and authoritative if they do it right.

They look like John Kerry if they do it wrong. The guy must have been coached by whoever conceived the original "High Karate" commercials, because he karate chops every point he makes. Kerry's body language screams out, "I am coached. I am going to beat my point of view into you regardless of what you want to believe."

Do you honestly want to entrust your life with a man who is trying to beat the crap out of you? He may have run a close election, but he lost in large part because his body language made him look belligerant, rude, bullying, and arrogant. He acted arrogantly in many other ways, as well. His body language, as coached as it was, revealed his true inner state: he was feeling aggressive and wanted to dominate the American people. He allowed no room for other viewpoints.

President George W. Bush's body language has been roundly critized as well. While his sincerity is legitimate (he often touches his heart, which is a widely recognized sub-conscious gesture that proclaims, "I believe what I am saying in my heart"), he often furrows his brow. The brow furrow can mean many things, but I believe most Americans correctly interpret Bush's furrowing as "I am trying to figure this out."

Our President's most frequently cited drawback, at least in the eyes of many people, is that he doesn't seem to be too bright. Most people who know him personally say he is extremely intelligent and very capable of seeing depth in complex situations. But on television he looks like a totally lost first year freshman student who just stepped onto the campus of life. Do you really want to entrust your future to someone who constantly misses the student life center?

Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, was just absolutely awesome to watch. I was always impressed with the man's presentation, and he left office many years before I learned my first lessons in reading body language. He projected warmth, humor, confidence, knowledge, passion, and strength. He was powerful and even his greatest detractors gave him credit for being able to save any situation. He is, to my knowledge, the only President of the United States to pass gas on worldwide television. When that happened, he paused long enough to let the distraction finish itself, and then he continued right on without missing another beat. He never lost his poise. He didn't become infatuated with infantile humor or petty personal attacks.

Reagan's politics may not have pleased everyone, but most people felt more comfortable with Reagan as a leader than they do with any of today's politicians. Men in general have lost that polish they were once taught to flourish in public. We are no longer conscious of why we do what we do. We have given up control over our own actions and we're just going with the flow.

Guys, the flow ain't too comfortable. You feel like you're not in control and you look like you're not in control. A man has to take responsibility for his actions in every way. He has to present himself as someone he is proud to be, not as someone who is better than everyone else, but as someone who is the match and equal of anyone in the room. Of course, there are times when we defer to others. But even in such moments, you have to learn to assert your stature or you run the risk of losing the other person's respect before you even have a chance to earn it.

Remember, the next time you are around anyone, make yourself feel like you are someone to be respected. You'll project that feeling, and other people will see it and they'll react to it. Or make yourself feel like you are lower than dirt, worthless and just something to be stepped on. See what happens then.

That's the kind of depth I find lacking in body language tutorials on the Web. Notice I didn't include any bullet points.


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