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second law of confidence

The Second Law of Confidence: posture- how you stand.


Why are soldiers taught to stand up straight? Why do martial artists spend years perfecting kamae- stance? Why do dancers glide into a room and seem to own it?


Because confidence, as with all mental states, is NOT something independent of your body. We forget sometimes we are not a brain in a vat (with a couple of legs to get us around), we are a highly integrated mind-body continuum, and we ignore at our peril the benefits, and disadvantages having a body attached bring.


Try this experiment: walk into a room full of strangers, ideally a party of some sort. Observe what you feel like doing. Probably it’s what most people do, slide along the wall trying to fit in and not look conspicuous. And then oddly enough you’ll have a yearning to be spoken to and an equally strong fear of starting a conversation with a stranger. You’ll conclude something like “I lack confidence” or “I’m an introvert” or some other excuse (we will look at the introversion fallacy later on).


Leave and come back in. This time do the crucifixation pose- arms outstretched, as if stretching and encompassing everyone. Now you ownthat room. Walk towards the centre and without even trying you will start some kind of conversation.


It always works. Like magic. Why? Because you changed your status, and therefore your confidence, through posture, a very powerful move indeed.


The Mysteries of Status


For a more in depth study of status I suggest you read the books of Keith Johnston, starting with Impro, but for the time being I’ll detail all you need to know with regard to status and confidence.


Johnston, who is a theatrical director and teacher of genius, more or less invented all the improvisation games now used to teach students of acting. He studied the way primates acted and he studied the way early comic genius’s such as Chaplin and Keaton created stories. From this he realised that status is never far from any dramatic interchange. 


Dr Johnson (no t), the great English wit and thinker, wrote that two men can never be together more than half an hour without one thinking he is the superior of the other. 


And even if it isn’t conscious, we unconsciously project our assumed status wherever we go.


The reasons aren’t hard to find. Higher status primates get more food, a mate, and more ‘respect’. And since, sadly, most human behaviour is on a par with the monkey house, status is very prevalent. Especially in situations where your confidence may be threatened.


The good news is, that will all change from today. Impossible? Not if you really take on board the way status can be manipulated. And, secondly, when you recognise status moves made by others you won’t be floored by them. You won’t be taken in; instead you’ll be noting to yourself “ah, a classic high status move”.


Remember the impartial spectator again? That part of you we might call ‘the observing self’? Well you can empower it by going into ‘scientist’ mode. Instead of imagining you are a ‘manager’ who has to be on top of everything and control everything think of yourself as a ‘scientist’ who is there to observe and note down exactly what is happening. By being ‘a scientist of status’ you will be amused and interested rather than intimidated by people who habitually play high status.


For observational purposes we can think of behaviour as high, matching or low status. High status behaviour tends to bring out low or matching status behaviour in others. Low status behaviour tends to bring out high status behaviour in most people (the bastards!). People who lack confidence have usually inadvertently learned how to act low status. It’s their factory setting. And of course it can be changed.


We signal high status mainly through posture, then tone of voice, then how we speak and lastly what we say.


The signifiers are quite precise as Johnston has found. For example keeping the head completely still conveys high status. Watch how military commanders talk when they deliver a briefing or report- their heads never move. You can try this experiment. Next time you are talking to a stranger keep your head very still and do not touch your hair (what teenagers, acting low status, tend to do). As if by magic you’ll find that your interlocutor starts to move their head, probably even touch it. 


No try this: talk without blinking. You’ll find the person you are talking to starts to blink! And maybe even hesitate and fumble for words as you become more fluent. Blinking is a low status activity. Watch A list Hollywood stars as they perform- they very rarely blink (especially when dead…). One of the great examples of this is Kurosawa film Living- where a low status bureaucrat takes on the yakuza and wins- and you can see how his blink rate changes as his status rises.


Tiny cues signal status. A louder voice is high status. So is a lower one. And just to confuse things there is double bluff status where a quiet voice signals status as people are forced to listen carefully- think mafia don here. 


An overbite signals very low status- hence the rush for dental braces to cure this problem. Yet a little research reveals overbite is connected to posture. If you stand up straight and look straight ahead any overbite is much reduced. Standing up straight, head not moving, hands not touching head- this is the high status, high confidence pose to have.


Experiment out on the street. Replace your over bite with top and bottom front teeth matching together, the lower lip loose, lower teeth almost bared, rather like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. Sure as hell you’ll feel more confident, even aggressive as you march down the street (though talking can be problematic).


Experiment with posture, what in martial arts is known as ‘stance’, and you’ll discover some interesting things, the main one being, you can change your mental state by changing your posture. If you walk head held high, with or without a swagger, you’ll be thinking different thoughts to slouching along the street staring at the ground. You will start to discover that most of us keep our centre of consciousness, where we imagine ‘we’ are located as somewhere between the chest and the head, but mostly in the head. If you could imagine yourself as one of those diagrams that show the sensitivity of each part of the body drawn to a scale that reflects the relative sensitivity of that part (the tongue is huge as are the lips with a tiny back and legs) then you’d be a huge wobbly head on a pair of walking sticks.


No wonder you lack confidence! A huge wobbly head thinks too much and is fearful of getting damaged. Now walk the street imagining your eyes are at groin level, yep, right in your genitals staring out. Suddenly you feel far more connected to the ground, your centre of gravity is lowered, and you’re more perceptive, less judgemental. What’s more, the inner chatter will have slowed to a halt, replaced by observational noting.


You can practise shifting you imaginary eyes to the stomach, to the feet, to the finger tips. You can also practise an old kung fu trick of walking as if you are transparent, totally see through, just a skeleton, which is see through too. All this shifts your attention ‘out there’ which as we learned in Law One, is the first step in combatting confidence problems.



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