I’m not sure now what prompted me to buy a copy of Amy Cuddy’s Presence. Only after I’d started sharing its content did someone point out there’d been an article about her in one of the Sunday papers and that she is the ‘wonder woman pose’ specialist. That’s true, but there’s so much more. Her basic premise (well supported by evidence) is that body language is more powerful than we could ever have imagined. Not only can we read it in others, we can also use it to communicate with ourselves. Lacking in confidence? Practise a powerful pose. About to tackle a difficult issue? Increase your sense of authority by taking up more space with your body. Slumped posture (shoulders down, collapsed chest which constricts your breathing) leads to you feeling less confident and assertive.
It makes sense and it’s sort of what we always knew, but how many of us are actually conscious of our body language, minute by minute, particularly if we’re feeling vulnerable, fearful of a difficult conversation, for example? Fear is a powerful emotion and powerful emotions reduce our ability to think rationally. Therefore we need to develop the habit of noticing what and how our bodies are communicating, and consciously choosing to arrange our bodies to communicate the emotion that will support us to achieve the outcome we seek.
Now here’s the really mind-blowing bit … think how much time we spend interacting with screens of one sort or another. Sit in a waiting room or on a tube and notice how many people are bent (head/eyes down, elbows in, shoulders forward) over a mobile phone. Could this have an impact on our assertiveness? wondered Amy. So with social psychologist Maarten Bos she did the experiment, testing individuals’ assertiveness after 5 minutes interacting with electronic devices with screens of different sizes. You can read the detail in chapter 8. The findings upheld her hypothesis. While 94% of desktop users took the initiative to seek out the experimenter who was (deliberately) late returning to the room to pay them, only 50% of those using smartphones did so. The smaller the device, the longer they were prepared to wait.
Now think teenagers, mobile phones and cyber bullying, and imagine what impact it has to read a bullying message when in a powerless pose. Could this knowledge about body language and assertiveness help victims of cyber bullying? If confidence supports learning, what could be the impact of pupils counteracting the unconsciously powerless pose associated with texting, with the powerful and assertive pose of, for example, the victory-V raised-arm shape that (according to Amy Cuddy) is universal across all cultures, as a sign of success.
As I delve further into Amy’s research I am reflecting on a comment by the headteacher of Bemrose state school in Derby who was partnered with the head of Warminster independent school in the TV programme School Swap: The Class Divide. She noticed ‘The calm leisurely way the young people are strolling around the grounds … they’ve already got that Oxford walk of relaxed nonchalance’.
A quick google search suggests awards for deportment are a thing of the past (at least in this country). What difference might it make to our students’ attainment if, instead of testing and re-testing until they get the right answers, we focused on helping them to choose supportive body language instead?