I am well acquainted with that knot in the stomach feeling that most people experience in stressful situations. It started early enough, in my teens – Italian schools and colleges place a high value on the oral examination. 95% of most faculties’ exams are oral, which translates into waiting in a corridor until your name is called, walking into a large classroom, where other students are crowding right behind you to take note of what questions are asked, and sitting in front of a panel of professors – with whom you are not terribly well acquainted or not acquainted at all – and asked random questions on whatever subject matter the exam happens to be.
It’s nerve-wrecking. As a student, you learn to become somewhat eloquent, often to bullshit your way around a question and to face stress early on. In my case, I would wake up in the morning half panicked, no matter how prepared I was, with a knot in my stomach until the moment I walked in, still thinking about all the possible questions I had only skimmed over: and then the calm set in. I was going to fake composure if it killed me and once I got talking, there was no stopping me. Asked about some minor English poet once, a Shakespeare contemporary, about whom I knew next to nothing, rather than shutting up, I told the professors all about another poet I remembered being on the adjacent page in the text-book. They were amused and let it slide (it was a mean question after all).
That emptiness at the bottom of my stomach resurfaced yesterday, early in the morning, as I was getting ready to cook for a catered dinner that night. What on earth? I thought. The truth was that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with a menu I hadn’t written but was executing, especially the entree, a dish I hadn’t made before. I worried most of the day, until I walked into the client’s house and looked happy and at ease. No one would have guessed at my internal turmoil.
Coincidentally, I stumbled upon yet another Ted Talk that caught my attention (aren’t the folks at Google running out of guests? are there so many brilliant people around?). Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School. She has studied stereotyping and discrimination but her latest concern has been non verbal expression.
In the animal kingdom, across the board from primates to small birds, every creature, to express power and domination, strikes open, expansive poses: think of a monkey thumping his chest or raising his arms. Humans use similar poses when interacting with other humans: arms raised in a large V to signify victory; legs akimbo and hands on the hips for power; conversely, when we cross our legs, arms or ankles or make ourselves smaller, we convey defeat, retreat or acquiescence. And some of these postures are archetypal: a blind person who has never seen other people run, upon crossing the finish line will instinctively raise her arms and lift her chin.
What Amy Cuddy posited was that, if the power of the mind can influence the body, could the opposite be true? And she set out to study just that. It turns out that faking body postures that are expansive and open for as little as two minutes increases our testosterone, our appetite for risk and can make us perform better in stressful situations, such as job interviews. The journalist David Brooks summed up these findings as “If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully”.
Body language sends out signals that, if studied consistently, can predict up to 70% of accuracy, who we will hire, date or even which doctors are more likely to be sued or what gubernatorial or Senate candidates will be elected. It would seem that words are not enough to succeed.
This is simple science, the type of science I like because of its easy application. Ms Cuddy suggests that, before walking into stressful situations in which our performance will be evaluated, we take two minutes in privacy and stand like this:
to increase our likelihood of success. And, unlike the old adage “fake it till you make it”, this could lead us to become eventually what we want to become. In my case, stomach knot free, i.e. a bigger believer in my capabilities.
And yes, my dinner turned out just fine. A success actually. This time I faked it to make it. Next time, I am planning to believe from the start.
Images found in the public domain