Open Body Language: How To Look Confident, With Science
A science-based guide on how to improve your body language to get more of what you want out of business, relationships, and your social life.
Why is good, open body language so important?
Well… ever wonder why, for the umpteenth time, you just got passed up for a job promotion by somebody significantly less qualified than you?
I’ll give you a tip: it’s probably your communication skills. Recent science suggests that employers are likely to hire somebody on the basis of their social acuity rather than their domain-specific expertise in the subject being interviewed for.
Kind of sucks, doesn’t it? I mean you spend all this time learning how to do your one thing just right, and then the local frat boy jumps straight to manager just because HR thinks he’s cool.
Actually, becoming cool really isn’t all that hard. It has more to do with good, open body language than anything else. Most people thus have it completely wrong — they think it’s all about what you say.
Well I’m here today to tell you that your lack of cool-kid vernacular is, in fact, not holding you back.
Because (cliché time!) what you say doesn’t matter at all.
It’s how you say it.
The Social Value Theory Hypothesis
So how do we do it? Well, to really understand confident body language, you have to understand a tiny bit of evolutionary psychology first.
Don’t worry, it’s not complicated. If anything, it’s actually really simple (if you’ve taken grade-school biology, you’re probably fine). The bulk of it rests on one important principle: human evolution slowed (or potentially stopped) a long time ago.
Open Body Language: Tribes on the Savannah
Up until maybe (and this is a really loose maybe) a few hundred thousand years ago, human beings evolved just like any other mammal: survival of the fittest. Slight mutations in our genetic code would be passed down from generation to generation. Helpful mutations would be kept (since they would increase the likelihood of bearing offspring) and unhelpful mutations would be quickly eliminated.
However, our ancestors were slightly different from the rest of the animal kingdom: they were smart. Not super smart, of course. Still no flat screen TVs or rocket ships. But smart enough to form small social collectives of hunter-gatherers with which to obtain resources.
These small social collectives proved helpful, and eventually grew into larger tribes (and temporary settlements). But while they kept us safe from other species, they also introduced a new survival element to the lives of individual human beings: the ability to deal successfully with other people in the tribe.
As in, the likelihood of any individual human’s survival was given an additional contingent factor: where do you stand in the social hierachy? Were you a leader? Or a follower? If you were the former, you had access to a surplus of genetic opportunities (high quality mates, good rearing conditions, etc). If you were part of the latter group, you were scraping the bottom of the barrel (see: the Pareto principle).
Leaders and Followers
Now, let’s perform a thought experiment. Who do you think had a higher likelihood of leading a tribe: a big, hulking neanderthal with twenty five inch biceps named Tak? Or his small feeble cousin, Nak, who’s still frightened by his own shadow.
My money’s on Tak.
(This is still related to body language — I promise)
Differences in genetic endowment — primarily size and strength — determined ones standing in the social hierarchy. Bigger, stronger people were thus on top. And smaller, weaker people were stuck below.
Now, the key point: these big buff leaders were usually pretty confident. Makes sense, considering their size and status in the tribe… I mean, why be afraid walking around day-to-day if you can just beat everybody up anyway.? And their open body language reflected that — they engaged primarily in big, wide open gestures that rarely covered internal organs or pain points.
The feeble followers, on the other hand? Since Nak & co were scared of their own shadow, they adopted predominantly “safe", bad body language behaviors that covered their weak spots. And therein lies the secret sauce.
Ever wonder why people cross their arms? Think about it: crossing your arms defends your heart, lungs, and torso by using your forearms as a shield. Almost every “weak” body language behaviour (crossing your arms, placing your hand on your neck, “turtling”, etc) shares this point in common.
Alpha males and tribal leaders adopted carefree, open body language, whereas feeble followers made do like turtles — they covered up as much of their body as possible.
And these principles have stuck with us until today. We still obey the exact same “laws” of social dynamics. Some people are at the top, and others are at the bottom. Sure, today it has less to do with size or strength and more with intellect and strategy, but we still see the same weak or open body language behaviors manifest depending on which group you’re in.
“But Nick,” you exclaim, “that was 100,000 years ago! How can you say that?”
I know 100,000 years seems like a long time, but the truth is, we really haven’t changed much since. Our born instincts and behavioral patterns are still largely the same ones we were using millennia ago.
Reason being, human beings with genetic traits that would have been snuffed out, had they been left to fend for themselves, ended up surviving due to the other members in their social collectives.
Culture and technology replaced biological evolution as the main driving factors behind human progress. This is a fact that’s stuck with us today, as we continue to mold both society and our environment to our collective needs. And the other fact that’s stuck with us? That our biological milieu of human DNA responds better to open body language behaviors than closed language behaviors, and that we can use this fact to help our professional life.
How Open Body Language Can Improve Your Life
Want a fantastic career? Focus on improving your ability to get people to like you.
This goes for starting your own business, climbing the corporate ladder — hell, even being on government assistance is easier when you’re a strong communicator (real story).
So let’s leverage a few key principles of open body language to help us develop best practices in business & the workplace.
First, wide open, vulnerable body language is perceived as confident & high-status.
This has been an evolutionary constant for hundreds of generations, and the reason why open body language is god might surprise you.
Simply put, people that put themselves at greater risk for dying subcommunicate power and influence. Think of the stereotypical businessman leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his head. He looks confident, but if you asked 99.9% of the population why, they wouldn’t be able to tell you anything more than “I dunno, he just seems… relaxed!”
But try thinking of it from an evolutionary perspective. If, instead of a New York office building in the 21st century, this was the African savanna in the year 70,000 BCE, what would this open body language mean for the person that employed it?
With vicious predators lurking around every corner, you can sum it up in two words: not ideal. And for several reasons. For one, the torso — lungs, heart, and internal organs — are left wide open for attack. If something swiped at him, his survival odds aren’t looking good.
Plus, the fraction of a second it would take to move his hands down to his body would be the difference between life and death.
On top of that, leaning back would put him significantly off-balance. If an animal were to attack him, he’d have a hard time getting up. Try breathing with a 500 pound lion sitting your chest… it’s not easy.
Anyone who employed this kind of body language back in our tribal days communicated confidence —confidence either in their size, their strength, or their ability to fight — since leaning back and putting your hands behind your head significantly reduced your odds of survival in a physical altercation.
And since size, strength, and kung-fu skills are all highly correlated with survivability, you can imagine that this made the possessor of said traits quite attractive to the rest of the dating (mating) pool. Higher survivability = higher likelihood that their genetic information — their children — would propagate.
Second, small, closed-off body language is perceived as weak & low-status.
Inversely, people that were constantly putting up their guard were considered weaker and less competent. Despite being safer, they subcommunicated a general lack of confidence in their ability not to die. Think of the stereotypical nervous lady rubbing her neck. She looks distressed or scared — but have you ever asked yourself why?
The neck is one of the most vulnerable points in the body, containing a number of important structures and blood vessels. Were it to be attacked, you easily risk losing your ability to eat, breathe, and move. And, you know… live.
So it makes sense that, when people feel fear, their hands usually instinctively go to their neck — they’re engaging in non-open body language that strategically decreases the likelihood of penetration of vital tissues, by using their hands as a barrier to action.
Additionally, the neck permits the passage of the vagus nerve, a dense collection of neuronal projections that interfaces with the heart. Placing pressure on and rubbing near this nerve stimulates it to decrease your heart rate and blood pressure, acting as a sort of “adult pacifier” when the going gets tough.
More or less every negative body language behavior has a similarly scientific explanation. Whether it’s crossing your arms (insulates your vital organs), shrugging your neck (protects your carotid & jugular vessels) or any of the myriad different gestures & stances one can employ, every behavior is grounded in purpose.
This leaves us with the big question: using our newfound knowledge of evolutionary psych, can we reverse-engineer confident body language & use it to improve our own lives?
I think you can. Let me show you how.
The Best Body Language To Use For Confidence
The name of the game is subcommunication. The open body language behaviors you’re going to learn are ones that will subconsciously imply confidence, high-status, and leadership.
Use them as often as possible. The more you do, the more you’ll find people will naturally gravitate towards you. And after engaging in them a handful of times, you’ll find that they become second nature pretty quick.
Be warned… this can be a good thing and a bad thing. On the plus side, people will like and trust you more. On the not-so-plus side, you’ll find that large parts of your day suddenly vanish on account of you having to talk to so many new people.
What follows is a quick list of nearly every high-status open body language behavior out there, with images attached. Any behavior not listed is likely a permutation of one that is, so don’t worry too much about memorizing all of them.
Instead, understand the theory behind why wide open, vulnerable body language works, and you’ll find yourself engaging in these behaviors just out of habit.
Confident, Open Body Language Behaviors
Also known as the “hands on hips” pose, arms akimbo works because having your hands on your hips leaves your torso vulnerable. The gesture also takes up more space than is explicitly required — this has the potential to provoke territorial conflict, and is thus rarely used if not confident/secure.
Use this behavior while speaking to groups, fielding important questions, or assigning work. Since this body language behavior communicates power, pair it with a smile or joke for best effect.
Thumbs & Pockets
Ever wonder why “thumbs up” generally means “good” or “happy” in terms of body language? The thumbs are a huge indicator of trust — don’t waste them by hiding them in your pockets. The degree to which you see peoples thumbs is usually directly correlated with their confidence, explains former FBI interrogator and body language expert Joe Navarro, so use them as much as possible.
More generally, the amount that people like you is directly correlated to the proportion your hands are visible during a social interaction. When meeting somebody for the first time, or running into an old acquaintance, keep your hands seen to help build trust.
Smiling is a full-bodied muscular endeavor. Most people think it just involves curling the corners of the mouth upwards — but this is factually incorrect. A full-face smile actually involves both the zygomatic major (the muscle which pulls your lips upwards & outwards) and a small group of muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi (the muscle which causes you to squint).
When people smile out of pleasure, they contract both groups. When they’re faking it, they typically only contract the zygomatic major — aka, they only smile with their mouths. Many people call this the “camera smile”, because it’s an easy fallback when you can’t generate a smile organically.
Human beings instinctively spot mouth-only smiles, and deem them untrustworthy and potentially dangerous. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; small tribal collectives needed to stay suspicious of outsiders, and would only allow in those they thought were honest and truthful during their interactions. If someone was faking emotions, they probably weren’t honest or truthful — hence, they’d get the boot.
You can increase the trustworthiness of your eye contact by learning to contract the orbicularis oculi on your own. And before you say anything, yes, good body language really does get this complicated. This gives your face a pleasant appearance, like the example shown above.
Widening your stance is a confident body language “power pose”. Most people keep their feet approximately 1/2 shoulder width apart to prevent themselves from taking up too much space. A wider stance implies confidence and dominance — you’re not afraid of verging into somebody else’s territory.
When standing, keep them in the sweet spot: 3/4 to one full shoulder width apart says “I’m confident and I’m not afraid to show it”.
Laser Eye Contact
Want more success at work, in your relationships, and with your social group? Hold eye contact for longer, AJ Harbinger says. Longer and more sustained eye contact is correlated with being more memorable, honest, and attractive, likely because it shows interest and high status. This is the definition of a good, open body language behavior.
Most people remember their mom telling them “it’s not polite to stare”. But it’s also polite not to look at the person you’re speaking to!
Best rule of thumb — while listening, look at the speaker 100% of the time. When you’re the one talking, stick with the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time make eye contact with whomever you’re talking to, and 20% of the time look away to give them some respite from your awe inspiring confidence.
One Leg Crossed
Casually standing with one leg crossed puts you off-balance. This implies power and competence — if you were afraid of a potential attack, you wouldn’t be standing like this, would you?
Cross close to the ankle for best results. Any higher and instead of good body language, it can start to look like you have to pee. Additionally, pair with a slight lean for extra status points.
Hands Behind Your Head
One of my favorite examples of open body language. Placing your hands behind your head is particularly dangerous from an evolutionary perspective, because it exposes your underarms and torso. These areas contain a large number of important nerves and blood vessels, and lead to serious trouble if damaged.
On top of that, it puts you at a big disadvantage should you need to defend yourself — your arms are interlocked behind your head, and the few tenths of a second it takes to move them down to a more appropriate defensive position makes a big difference.
This behavior is versatile. Use it while sitting, standing, or lying down, and if you’re afraid of it being inappropriate at any time, know that you can always write it off as “stretching”.
This gesture is powerful, but only when used correctly. The rationale comes from the fact that grooming is very much a peaceful exercise — animals don’t engage in self-grooming unless they know they’re safe.
I mean, think about it, what’s more important if you’re a caveman in 50,000 BC: living another day, or picking that tiny piece of lint off your clothes? If you said the latter, you’ve got some serious priorities to work out.
Be careful engaging in this kind of body language around figures of authority or loved ones. It is relatively dismissive (both because of the sheer amount of value it implies, and because you’re preoccupying yourself with an additional task), so only use it in situations where being the top dog clearly benefits you.
Picture this: it’s been a long day at work. Your back hurts, and all you want to do is get home. So you walk on the 5:00 bus, pining for a seat… when all of a sudden you notice some jackass taking up three spaces for no good reason! “Why the hell would he do that?”, you wonder. “Doesn’t he see people wanting to sit down”?
We’ve all been there… and you’re about to know why. That jackass was engaging in territorial body language, implying dominance and confidence. His seat-stealing behavior was borne out of a need to project power, whether consciously or unconsciously.
In addition to being a power pose, resting his arms in that manner exposes his torso & armpits — two vulnerable regions that expose him to undue damage if attacked.
But you can use this open body language without being a jackass, I promise. The trick is to use it only in situations where you’re not explicitly stealing space from others. Empty bus? Go for it! Half-full lecture hall? Absolutely! However, if you’re making people stand or move around you for no good reason, you’re doing it wrong.
When used correctly, this behavior implies warmth and strength. It says “we’re close” and actually gives you a competitive social advantage (especially in 1-on-1 scenarios). So use it as often as possible, barring the exceptions above.
The “Lean Back”
By now, you probably get the drill — behaviors that take up excess space are generally confident body language poses. And leaning back is no exception.
Of note, however, is the degree to which leaning back can be combined with more or less every other behavior to multiply the status gain they confer. You see it in the previous example, with the man leaning back and resting his arms at about shoulder height, and you’ll see it time and time again out the in the real world.
In the example above, Obama is combining a lean back with another territorial behavior: placing his feet on something. This is a powerful combination, as it implies “I own this table”. Whether or not he does isn’t important — what’s important is the subcommunication that his behavior provides. And you can do the same.
The Hand Plant
The hand plant is seen often in business scenarios — meetings, boardrooms, and offices — and it makes sense why.
Engaging in this kind of body language is the prototypical space-stealing power move; you’re saying “I mean business”. And by leaning forward in this way, not only are you exposing your face and neck, you are offering the rather overt implication that you own this piece of territory.
Be warned: this gesture (and others like it) are not subtle. Because of that fact, you should be careful not to overuse it, and especially wary in scenarios when you’re facing off against people higher on the social ladder than you. Instead, focus on tacking this behavior onto particularly important points in a meeting brief or presentation to really emphasize your point, and leave it at that.
Try Open Body Language Today!
At the end of the day, learning good, open body language only really helps if you actually get the chance to use it while communicating with people.
So get off your couch! Roll out of bed. Head to a meeting, or grab some good friends and take them out to lunch. Build new relationships, and maintain your old ones. Surround yourself with people that complement you, and you’ll see your potential soar.
Human beings are social animals. We crave speaking, seeing, touching, feeling — and the only way you’ll get to use those newfound body language skills of yours is if you do one or more of the above.
Take a step outside of your comfort zone, today. Ask the next stranger you see how their day is going, and their answer just might surprise you. At the very least, it’ll probably give you an opportunity to see bad body language in action — bad body language that you now have the tools to fix.
Here’s hoping you learned how to have better body language. If you found the article helpful, here are some more you’ll probably get value out of:
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