Let’s talk for a moment about incongruity. Incongruity is the act of being inconsistent within one’s self. Incongruity is one of the greatest trouble spots I have seen when geeks are interacting with people. It’s part of the reason why many of you may have found that you’re being off-putting or even making people somewhat uncomfortable when you think you’re being perfectly nice. Think of it as the Uncanny Valley of human interaction; the difference between what you think you’re saying and how you’re actually coming across can be discomforting.
As I’ve said many times before, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. If the words coming out of your mouth are directly conflicting with the message you’re actually sending, all you’re doing is metaphorically shooting yourself in the foot and making things harder for no good reason.
I want you to imagine yourself talking to a woman you’re attracted to. You’re telling an incredibly funny story about a party you went to with your friend, but he got drunk and accidentally spilled his drink all over the biggest meat-head you’d ever seen, and how you had to try to talk the guy out of beating up your buddy. Now, while you’re telling this story, your arms are crossed, you’re slightly hunched over and you’re looking down at the floor with a sour expression on your face. Nobody is going to believe you. You may think you’re talking about the time you were incredibly clever and funny, but what you’re really telling people that you’re nervous, awkward and easily intimidated.
It’s all about body language. And frankly, you may be doing it wrong.
Humans do a lot of their communication non-verbally. Researchers estimate that approximately 75% of our communication is done through body language, with another 15% being done through tonality, with a remaining 10% being through actual words. As a species, we’re biologically wired for pattern recognition; it allows us to take in great volumes of information in a literal glance. We make snap judgements based on that information, and – at the risk of quoting an old shampoo commercial – you really don’t get a second chance for a first impression.
How you carry yourself has a direct correlation to how people perceive you. Confidence is sexy; being shy and awkward is not. You want to be carrying yourself as someone who is confident, at ease and utterly comfortable within their own skin, not as someone who wants to blend into the furniture or find some way to disappear into the floor.
Fortunately it tends to be a very easy fix. The posture you want to assume is upwards and outwards.
Let’s try something here: get out of your chair and stand upright with your feet approximately shoulder width apart . Imagine a thread connected to the top of your skull, above the point where your skull and your spine meet. Let that thread gently pulling you up until your back is straight and your arms are hanging loosely at your sides and your weight is balanced evenly between your feet. Try walking around, letting your arms be relaxed and your legs moving smoothly, maintaining that feeling of being pulled up by that thread.
Right there, you have corrected at least 50% of the body language issues I have seen in nerds. Too many geeks and nerds slump and slouch; it comes across as someone who’s trying to hide, or who has no confidence in themselves. Simply straightening and lengthening yourself will make a remarkable difference in the way that you present yourself to others. By letting your limbs relax and keeping your weight balanced, you add a certain smoothness to your motions, almost a swagger, if you will. Someone who walks stiffly seems nervous or uptight.
Now, as you stand, start being conscious of your chest and shoulders; most nerds and geeks I’ve met have a tendency towards hunched shoulders and curving themselves inwards. It’s usually an indicator of “nice guy” body language – guys who don’t want to risk infringing on other people’s personal space and end up almost folding into themselves rather than risk offending or inconveniencing anyone. Draw your shoulders back, align your hips over your feet and let your chest expand outwards. Don’t puff out your chest as though you’re trying to show off the work you’ve put in at the gym or act like you’re standing at attention in front of a drill-sergeant; you want to find that happy medium where your shoulders are level and your arms hang parallel to your torso. As an added bonus, this will make you look trimmer and lets your lungs expand; you can’t speak in a confident, clear voice when you compress your lungs into themselves.
There’s an excellent scene from Superman II, where Clark is getting ready to reveal his secret identity to Lois Lane, which should be mandatory viewing for people who want to understand the messages that body-language sends. Christopher Reeve was an incredibly physical actor and you can see him actually seem to shrink as he changes from Superman back to his Clark persona. Ask yourself: would you rather be seen as Superman or as mild-mannered Clark Kent?
Don’t be afraid to take up space, by the way; a confident person doesn’t withdraw into himself, he expands outward. Just make sure not to overdo it; the line between confidence and arrogance is around the same as the line between claiming your space and sprawling. Be aware of how spatially relevant you are to someone; the concept of personal space varies between cultures, and this can cause a great deal of discomfort if you stand too close.
The last thing to think of is your head and facial expressions. I’ve seen too many men who are uncomfortable with making direct eye-contact with the people they talk to. It comes across as weak and it will make the people you’re talking to uncomfortable; either you’re not interested in them, or you’re actively afraid of them. You want to avoid this. If you have issues with eye-contact, you may want to try practicing in the mirror. As silly as it sounds, making eye-contact with yourself can be surprisingly difficult for long periods of time.
Use your face. I’ve said over and over again, you need to smile. Your face is key to your delivery – if you’re telling a funny story with a sour look on your face, nobody is going to buy it. Whether you take acting classes or just practice making faces in the mirror, you need to learn how to use your face to communicate your meaning across.
The last thing you want when you’re talking to people is to garble the meaning to incomprehensibility. Mastering your body language helps separate the signal from the noise. It projects the self you want others to see. And it means that the message you send is the same message they’re receiving.