A few weeks back, I watched all 29 minutes and 44 seconds of Dorie Clark’s Body language for Women on LinkedIn Learning. One of my main motivations in choosing this particular course out of all available was its duration and seeming complexity (rather, lack thereof). It was a Tuesday night, I was tired from work, but I just wanted to learn something; anything that would add more value to my personality and I could feel great about afterwards. This was the best fit — it was short and doable. Plus I’d get a certificate in the end, which suited my vanity well. And after all, how mentally taxing could it possibly be to process a course on body language and behaviour, of all things? So I decided to give it a shot.
Thank God that I did, because it opened my eyes to a world that I’d left unexplored. I started to rabbit-hole into blogs, articles and further readings on the subject of gender bias, diversity and inclusion. Saying that I was left feeling surprised when I was done would be an understatement. Saying that my education had just begun would be more accurate. Previously, I’d found myself rolling my eyes at buzzwords like “D&I”, perhaps because they’d seemed inauthentic. Or because I’d been born and raised in a relatively liberal environment, where I’d never had to face gender inequality in the face, or be deprived of opportunities I aspired for. I’d only read about things like that within the safe distance of a newspaper or a TV screen. But as I did this course and read up more, I realised with some discomfort that legalising, institutionalising gender equality or saying you believe in equal opportunity doesn’t make it so. It most definitely is a step towards solving the imbalance, but the equation still remains, very much imbalanced. There are countless factors that determine your beliefs, thoughts and actions, one of them being subconscious bias. That’s the most challenging part about subconscious bias; it’s subconscious. And the most dangerous part about it, is the magnitude of the impact it has on the world around us.
Why do this course
I’m a recruiter specialised in science (academia) and engineering, and let me tell you this. In no statistical breakdown in no country that I’ve surveyed so far have I seen a 50%-50% talent split between men and women. It’s more like 30%-70% if I’m having a lucky day (I’ll leave you to guess which is which). In certain markets and certain industries especially startups, this is more like 16%-84%. Now we either accept this as status quo, or we wake up to see the ratio for what it truly is: unequal. Unfortunately, I don’t have the expertise to advise any quick-fixes to solve this inequality in the immediate-term, but I don’t see what stops us from simply paying more attention to it, for now. Read, research, ask questions!
In the 1970’s, UCLA Prof. Albert Mehrabian came up with the 7–38–55 rule of personal communication which states that only 7% of communication is verbal i.e. spoken words, while tone of voice makes up 38% and body language constitutes 55%. Disclaimer: this rule is hotly debated, widely controversial, and often misused. Enough people have spoken up with examples and evidence that the spoken word actually contributes way more than 7%.
But I’m not here to discuss numbers and ratios, only to argue that if there is a possibility that body language plays an important role in our communication and how we are perceived, it’s worth hacking it to our advantage. Let’s experiment with it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t move us from where we are.
So anyway, here are 5 lessons I learnt from Dorie Clark’s Body Language For Women:
Lesson 1: Women and men naturally gravitate to different styles in body language
Dorie starts off by explaining why she chooses to focus the course on women. It’s because men and women tend to differ in the default style they communicate with, non-verbally. Men take up a lot more physical space, as they speak, using their arms and relaxing their shoulders, while women shy away. Perhaps because aggression and dominance is not natural to most women, and in fact they’re oftentimes penalised for aggressive behaviour. What appalled me most was the understanding that a lot of times, women give away power by smiling a lot. So now it’s a crime to be nice?
So should we be more aggressive in the way we communicate, to gain equal standing with men? Do we have to give up being who we naturally are, to fit into a stereotype in order to succeed at work? Dorie disagrees, “We don’t have to be heavy-handed verbally, but we can with our body language.”
Lesson 2: What you wear can help send the right message
There are two factors to help you decide how you could dress “right”, the situation at hand, and what you consider to be your personal brand (I’d argue that this makes sense for anyone, irrespective of gender etc). The context around you and the industry you’re in should help define the situation at hand. If you work for a large multinational in a senior role, it probably makes sense to put on that pantsuit. While in startups, logo-stamped T-shirts seem to be the norm these days. Your clothes give you the opportunity to reveal your personal brand in the shortest amount of time. If you’re creative, dress creative. The bottomline is, it’s not about the clothes. Being well-dressed can boost your confidence and directly impact your state of mind. So dress like your definition of a winner, and you will be one.
Lesson 3: Hacks to keep your feet, hands, arms, face and voice in check
The first thing to do with your feet is nothing. Seriously, just keep them still, or you could be perceived as bored or restless. Make sure to point them squarely towards the person you’re talking to, and keep them hip width apart.
As for your hands and arms, never ever ever cross them. Ever (Honestly, I’ve heard this one so many times now, that each time my hands start to settle into a cross I can hear somebody screaming a No in slow-mo at me). What do you do with them then? Left to their own devices, they’d probably just dangle at your sides like string bean. Don’t let them do that! You could clasp them together, or — this one’s my favourite — pretend like you’re taking notes. Now, the only risk is if the person you’re speaking to demands to see what you’ve written, only to discover a bunch of meaningless doodles your child could draw better. So long as you’re aware of it. Oh also, avoid pointing, as it may come across as hostile. There was more that Dorie covered here, something to do with palms up being open and receptive (Oprah style) and palms down being assertive and in control (Obama style). But I’ll leave it out for the sake of brevity.
When it comes to your face, do not roll your eyes. If you’ve been a disobedient teen like me, you’ve probably learnt your lesson with this and already know this. If you haven’t, know that it’s unanimously received as the ultimate sign of disrespect. Instead, learn to make eye contact — this communicates honesty and openness. Make sure you regularly relax your facial muscles. Micro expressions can be revealing, or worse, misunderstood. I have this habit of scrunching up my face tightly, when I’m focused in deep work. More times than one, I’ve heard it makes me look like I’m about to kill someone, or at least extremely pissed off. Finally, smile more. It’s a powerful tool to build good rapport. Of course, smile strategically and on occasions that command it.
A strong voice conveys authority. Learn to project your voice, maybe hire a singing or acting coach if possible. It’s also worth paying attention to emotion in your voice. Interestingly, women end up sounding more emotional because we use 5 tones while speaking (and their voice rises with stress), whereas men use just 3. Culturally-speaking, deeper voices are perceived as more confident. So take a deep breath to reset your voice if you sense yourself sounding shrieky.
Lesson 4: How to show that you’re genuinely interested and present
The first and easiest thing you can do to come back to the present is to control your breathing. If you notice your breathing is shallow, you’re probably tense. Pay attention to your breath and make sure you’re breathing evenly. Next, monitor your body movements. Do you find yourself fidgeting often, rubbing your neck, cracking your fingers? (I most certainly do). Well, then stop doing it. Bring back your attention to the person you’re speaking to and don’t get caught up.
Third, focus on listening. On really listening, and not prematurely formulating your response before the speaker is done talking. Don’t worry, as you get used to it you’ll realise that you have enough time to process their words, think over it and come up with an appropriate response. And if not, two seconds of awkward silence are a small price to pay for a much wiser response.
It’s not enough to be present, you also have to be interested in people and what they’re saying. Put away that phone! Your parents are right, unless they’re addicted to Whatsapp too. Lean towards the person you’re speaking to, but well within limits. Or you could be arrested. Additionally, if you can, try and calibrate your energy levels with the person you’re speaking with, to be on the same wavelength as them (I’ve actually had a terrible experience trying to match my emotional registers with my Chemistry teacher from back in school. I smiled each time he did, only to realise that he wasn’t smiling, that was his angry face. So take this one with a pinch of salt, all humans are unique).
Lesson 5: Next Steps
So you have all this information that you’re not quite sure what to do with. Fret not. First off, remind yourself that focusing on and improving your physical presence can be extremely rewarding to your self-confidence, and your life at home and at work. Then, pick one area to target and start practising. Maybe it’s your hands, maybe it’s your voice. Bring in your trusted friends, family and colleagues to help out by observing you and giving you feedback. If you don’t have friends, marvel at the wonders of modern technology and record yourself. Or just practise in front of a mirror.
Most importantly, get started! I would also love to hear your thoughts on how useful you found this article, if at all. Do comment on any improvements you’ve made with the tactics mentioned above, or if you made any new discoveries along the way.