Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier: The Secret to Confidence

Next time you’re in a meeting, notice how people sit. Some (often men) splay their arms across the backs of chairs next to them. They may lean way back in a chair, arms behind their heads. Whether they know it or not, they are showing confidence and power.

Now look at others (often women) who sit with their arms crossed, not touching the chair arms. They may sit with their arms on the table, fingers crossed or resting their hands on their necks. Whether they know it or not, they are showing a lack of confidence and power.

Harvard professor Ann Cuddy’s TED talk in 2012 makes it clear that we send messages to others through our body language. But more critically, we send messages to ourselves, and may not even realize it. She began to notice body language in her classrooms, in terms of how the students sat and how they participated in a discussion, or did not. Many men stretched their bodies and their arms high in the air to be called upon. The women slunk low in their chairs, perhaps wanting to be invisible, but when they wanted Cuddy to call on them, they put their hands just a bit into the air.

So Cuddy and others began studying nonverbal gestures. They studied actions that we make when we are proud of an achievement--arms outstretched in a V--like when you finish a marathon. They’ve also looked at what we do when we are unsure of ourselves—hunched over, shoulders forward, arms in front of us.

Interestingly as well, they learned that if we “practice” the confident movements, we can change how we feel and respond in a situation where we might be nervous or unsure. For instance, she suggests going to a private spot, like the restroom, and stretching your arms up and wide before you go into a stressful meeting. It will change hormones and shift your thinking and feeling so that you really are more confident.

The research’s bottom line: practice being bold and taking up space. It will make you feel more confident.

I can buy this idea for how we convey messages through our bodies, at least in the U.S. business world. But in other countries, the American approach of “taking up space” may not have the same positive effect.

When I’m in Japan, I try to be calm and deliberate in my movements, following what leaders do, which is definitely not “taking up space.” I might be more active and “take up space” in a place like Italy. So I think we have to take note of what works, or doesn’t, in different cultures and settings.

On the other hand, if we all become more global, perhaps nonverbal language will become more similar across countries. Just as American English becomes the “standard business language,” will American body language become the standard business body language?”

I hope not. How boring would that be if we all talk and move the same way?