Episode 54: Power and body language

December 17, 2014

“You take a normal body and you make it even more compact and that’s a sign of, quote, femininity, and it’s also a sign of low power.” - Marianne LaFrance

“Quite often I get pulled in for a kiss. And I’ve had one person tell me not to be so formal. I think...some men think a handshake is something you do with men, and kisses are something you do with women." - Elaine Moore

20 minutes.

Christine Lagarde and former Greek Prime Minister Lucas PapademosIn the summer I produced a show about communication at the office. But that show left out one glaring component of all this: body language. So today we tackle hunching, spread legs, eye contact, and kissing - by gender, and all in a business setting. I speak to Yale psychology professor Marianne LaFrance about how men and women play up their power, or lack of it, through non-verbal communication. And Financial Times journalist Elaine Moore talks about how she deals with unwanted male kisses at business meetings. 

The photo above illustrates what we talk about in the podcast - but in this case, the person using a 'power pose' is a woman, IMF president Christine Lagarde. The former Greek Prime Minister is using a typical lower-power (i.e. usually female) pose, with his hands folded in front of him.  

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Further reading: If you haven't seen it, here's Amy Cuddy's famous 2012 TED talk on body language shaping who you are.

Here's Elaine Moore's FT piece, A plea to high finance: Can we give kisses a miss? 

Marianne LaFrance is the author of Why Smile - The Science Behind Facial Expressions.


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, the messages we send at work not through what we say, but what we don’t say…

“You take a normal body and you make it even more compact and that’s a sign of quote femininity, and it’s also a sign of low power.”

He who has the power takes up more room.

And what do you do when you go to a meeting prepared to do business and are greeted…warmly?

“Quite often I get pulled in for a kiss. And I’ve had one person tell me not to be so formal. It’s all jokey, it’s all intended to be very nice.”

Or is it?

Coming up: Power and body language at work.

But first, a word from our sponsor.

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Several months ago I did a show on communication at the office. But that show only covered verbal communication, and so much of our communication is nonverbal. It’s in the looks we give, in smiles, in gestures. Marianne LaFrance has devoted her working life to researching this topic. She’s a professor of psychology and women and gender sexuality studies at Yale.

“Power is often reflected in the fact that people with power, that is having higher power than someone else, they tend to take up more space: so they talk more, they take up more room, their arms are spread out, their legs are spread out, they tend to assume that the floor is theirs. So they engage in more presentation that others have to listen to.”

A while after Marianne and I spoke, I was looking at coverage of the café siege in Sydney that left two hostages dead. One of the images that popped up on the New York Times website showed a male TV reporter talking to camera near the site of the siege. He was standing with his feet in a wide V-shape, smacking of confidence – he looked like he owned the street. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female reporter stand like that. I know I never have.

AM-T: And what about women in the workplace and what we tend to do? I don’t want to indicate that everybody crosses their legs and folds themselves into a pretzel in a meeting, but I know I’ve done that, and I wonder if you could talk about the ways in which women use our posture in the workplace?

“Well, women – you’ve described it absolutely rightly, that is, women take up little space, and how that’s accomplished is if they’re sitting the lower legs are parallel and the knees are together, or one leg is crossed over the other at the ankle, reducing the distance between the legs in lateral sense, arms tend to be very close to the body, often such that hands are folded in the lap or at the very least the elbows are held close to the sides of the body. So you take a normal body and you make it even more compact and that’s a sign of quote femininity, and it’s also a sign of low power.”

It all goes back to how women are raised and the messages we get about what we’re supposed to be – neat, tidy, small, and inoffensive. Basically this kind of condensing posture says I’m not really here – don’t notice me, don’t ask me anything. That’s certainly what I’ve tried to achieve subconsciously in some past job situations. But one of my listeners, Alisha Miranda, she wrote to me recently with the opposite problem. Until a few weeks ago she was with a company where her bosses implied she was sitting too confidently – they said her posture was too assertive, asked that she sit back a bit in meetings to diminish what they saw as a confrontational stance. In other words the exact way a guy would sit. She was also reprimanded for taking notes on her laptop during meetings – having her head down indicated to them she wasn’t paying attention…

“Mm-hmm. Well I think the thing that’s interesting is often people have a reaction to someone who steps out of the usual gender rules for how to hold one’s body or voice for that matter, so that often people are told to quiet down or be more respectful or adopt some position that suggests they are listening, that they’re going to be good doobies rather than speak out.”

And we got a hint of this just now with Alisha’s experience, but Marianne says this question of power, it’s not just in how we hold our bodies. It’s present in eye contact as well…


“…there is a lot of eye contact going on precisely when the high power person is talking. So let’s imagine I’m in a high power role and you and I are having a conversation: I will talk and look directly at you while I’m talking, and you will look back, because good listeners tend to look at the people who are talking. The result is a lot of this eye contact or mutual gaze. But what happens when the conversation changes hands as it were, now the low power person is talking – and they probably won’t look much while they’re talking…”

In other words that lower power person doesn’t quite dare to hold eye contact with the more powerful person they’re addressing…

“And meanwhile the high power person is in the uncommon position of having to listen, and they tend to not look at the person who’s talking.”

So translated to the workplace…many women will be the ones at the end of all that eye contact. But when it’s their turn to speak their boss will tend to look away quite a bit during that interaction.

Now you can’t do a show on non-verbal communication and power without mentioning Amy Cuddy. A lot of you probably know who I’m talking about. For those who don’t, Cuddy is a sociology professor at Harvard Business School who shot to fame after a TED talk she gave in 2012…

“….but before I give it away I want to ask you to right now do a little audit of your body and what you’re doing with your body…so how many of you are making yourselves smaller…”

That 20-minute talk is TED’s second most popular ever. It’s had more than 5 million views.

The element of Cuddy’s talk people fixate on is this: that people can actually use what she calls power poses to get into a better state of mind before something nervewracking like an interview or presentation. So in other words if you’re someone who tends to shrink into yourself, if you practice standing like an alpha male, shoulders back, legs spread, or feet on a chair…you’ll feel more confident when you start that interview.

Marianne LaFrance says yes, but there’s a twist…


“On the one hand I think professor Cuddy is absolutely right, if women adopt even for brief period an expansive posture it translates into feeling more expansive, feeling more in control, feeling more power. What she doesn’t speak to however is what the effect is on other people if they see it. So in fact the thing that’s interesting is if you attend closely to Cuddy’s presentation, she’ll talk about the fact of women, suggesting that women before a presentation or a big class, going to the ladies’ room and pumping up those shoulders and swinging those arms and holding the chin up high and that prepares the person for what’s coming up…”

Marianne says there’s good reason for the exhortation to do this in private, in the loo – and not actually in the interview or presentation itself. 

“In fact we are doing some research right now where we’re finding that women who adopt expansive postures are not exactly liked a whole lot. So they may feel better themselves but it also has interpersonal consequences.”

You’ve heard it before: men can be competent and likeable but women are generally seen as one or the other, not both.

Now I am working on my own posture and I do think there’s a medium here. You don’t have to strut like a type-A male if that’s not you, but you can uncross your legs and arms for instance. You can try not to hunch. You can stop fiddling with your hair. And if you’re a female a leader I would love to hear from you about whether this whole body language thing is something you think about and monitor, and how you’ve dealt with any criticism.  

I was fascinated by what Amy Cuddy says in her talk about the effects of these so-called power poses: in experiments she found when people practiced a hunched-up pose, arms crossed, etcetera, for a few minutes, their stress hormone, cortisol, went up…and when people used a powerful pose their testosterone went up…

“Yes, exactly, testosterone, the data aren’t all consistent on that count but it makes good sense…because testosterone is associated with feelings of certainty, self- confidence, self-esteem if you will, and we know hormones vary from moment to moment and we know that both sexes have levels of testosterone…so the thing that’s interesting is if testosterone actually does go up when women are being more expansive in their postures, that is really interesting thing and it shows once again that our bodies, our minds, and our psyches and our emotions are tied in very complicated ways with eachother.”

 We may as well try and see what happens.

Another Broad Experience listener, Geof Morris, got in touch with me recently about an aspect of body language he’s noticed in his workplace…

“What I’ve seen consistently men do with women in my background, aerospace engineers…is that they will initiative physical contact, almost always on the arm, when they’re trying to defuse a stressful situation or worse, dismiss the woman’s point of view altogether. I’ve seen it happen before and I’ve probably done it once or twice myself without thinking. I saw it happen the other day in a meeting.  The woman didn’t flinch but she visibly stiffened, and frankly there was no need at all to initiate any physical contact.”

To be clear, he says this is always men who are at the same level or higher than the woman they’re touching. Marianne LaFrance says this is a tricky situation for the woman at the end of those fingers….

“Under those circumstances one can’t protest, that’s again one of those difficult situations because to say, excuse me, please don’t touch me, would be seen as making a fuss about something that was completely unintentional, benign, you know, what are you getting so exercised about?”

She says high-power people often feel they have the right to touch others, but think about it the other way around – most employees wouldn’t just go up and tap their boss on the shoulder, let alone touch him or her in a meeting.

But touching on the arm – that’s just one aspect of unwanted physical contact at work.  A couple of months ago I read an article in the Financial Times by Elaine Moore. She had recently begun a new beat at the FT covering capital markets and she was having a lot of meetings in the City, London’s financial center. She was meeting economists, bankers, the PR people for those people…and almost every one of these contacts was a man. The only women she encountered in this new world were receptionists and assistants. She felt completely outnumbered. At the same time she found her personal space was no longer her own…

“Basically I was getting kissed, much more than I would have expected and more than I think a lot of people in other industries realized. So quite often, if I met somebody once and they’re a contact and we meet again, it doesn’t really matter what time of day it is, whether it’s a dinner, or it’s a lunch, or it’s even breakfast meetings, coffees, and quite often in quite formal settings, so within the bank or within a public restaurant or something, fairly often when I arrive I would be greeted with a kiss on either cheek.”

Now you might say, well, isn’t that nice? How friendly! Even Elaine didn’t think much of it initially…

“…until I came into the office after a breakfast meeting and spoke to some of my male colleagues – because I’d been kissed by about five different people who I didn’t know – and  I asked them whether it was happening, whether you know, the opposite sex greeted them with kisses, and they all looked at me as though I was mad. It doesn’t happen to them. I don’t think it ever happens to them.”

Her female colleagues on the other hand? They experienced the same thing – the one-way kiss from men. Elaine says it just felt weird…

“It really makes you notice that you are different to everybody else in the room I think. If you’re treated in a different way, even if you’re being treated in a way that is supposed to be really nice, it’s just a little kind of a reminder that you are not the same as everybody else in the room. And I think that you’re very aware of that already, so it’s just slightly odd because it kind of reinforces the idea that everybody else also recognizes that you’re not the same as everybody else in the room, and that can be quite tricky I think in the workplace, I don’t think that’s necessarily really helpful when you’re trying to do a job.”

At which point I couldn’t help wondering whether this had always been an issue for women in financial services in London – they may be relatively few but they have been around for a few decades now.

AM-T: “It strikes me also as a much more European thing, the Americans are much more hands off when it comes to that sort of thing. Even friends don’t kiss here as much as they do in Europe.

“Really, that’s very interesting. I think that’s the UK’s special quality is that we sit halfway between the US and Europe and I think in certain social situations like these we’re not quite sure of what we’re doing. We’re trying to be polite to one another and we’ve lost the kind of very formal social ceremonies that maybe we used to do, and we make it up on the hoof and sometimes it doesn’t go very well. I think you’re right, I’m sure the European influence has something to do with it.  I think women probably were kissed when they were starting off in the ‘80s in some of these industries. I spoke to a lot of my friends who work in other industries when I was thinking about this because I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a few random instances, something odd that was happening in a new job. And I found that to some of them the whole thing seemed completely absurd. And that happened when they worked in industries that were more evenly men-and-women distributed. So people working in the charity section had never heard of it, it would never happen, whereas those who worked in still quite male-dominated industries – one girl is a comedy writer and comedy writers’ rooms are predominately male – she said it happens to her all the time. So I think it’s the gender split, that’s kind of what’s kind of behind the behavior.”

We’ll get back to that thought in a minute. But first I wondered what happens when Elaine sticks out her hand for a more dignified greeting?

“Well I get pulled in, quite often I get pulled in for a kiss. I’ve had one person tell me not to be so formal…it’s all very jokey, it’s all intended to be very nice but I think some people, some men, find it awkward to take a woman’s hand because they think a handshake is something you do with men, and kisses are something you do with women, so I guess they’re thinking in their own social circles they wouldn’t shake hands with the wives of their friends, or their female friends. So I think that’s what they’re kind of referencing when they’re going in for a kiss.”

And to me that’s just the problem. Elaine’s article is a funny, lighthearted piece – but what niggled at me from the get-go was just that last point: Marianne LaFrance says when men kiss women in this kind of work environment…

“It basically changes a professional context to a social one, which is a way to reduce someone’s stature.”

To put women back in their box, to treat them as social prop rather than someone on the same level.

AM-T: I read it as disempowering for her, the woman…

“I think it is disempowering because again because what it does is re-define the situation. So you think you’re here to discuss currency exchange but someone else is going to first remind you that you’re just a nice woman, after all, which is a way to put you down, it’s a subtle way of reducing your stature as someone who has important things to talk about. One of the things women have a tough time doing still is being taken seriously in a professional context…and anything that subtly undermines their stature as professionals can have some undoing consequences.”

Elaine has done her best to keep any such consequences at bay. She can hardly duck, still…

“I try to avoid it so I try to be quite formal – and I have noticed since I wrote that piece I get kissed hardly at all now. So something’s changed.”

No more business kisses for Elaine Moore. I’ll link you to her piece under this episode at The Broad Experience.com.

When I was putting the podcast together I checked in with a powerful woman I know in London who some of you will remember – business owner Heather McGregor. She says she never greets new contacts of either sex with anything other than a handshake…but sure enough, men will go straight for her cheek, even at a first meeting.

I’d love to hear your experiences of any of the topics we’ve discussed on the show today. Post a comment on the website or on the show’s Facebook page – I will be checking in.

And have you ever thought about power and smiling? Marianne LaFrance and I had a much longer conversation and because I didn’t have time to include it in this show I am writing a blog post about gender and smiling so you can read all about it. Go to The Broad Experience.com for that.

And don’t forget to check out my sponsor at www.sanebox.com/broadexperience for access to a less cluttered inbox.

This is the last show of the year. Thanks so much for listening and spreading the word, and I want to extend a particular thanks to those of you have donated to the show or are donating on a monthly basis. I’m really grateful.

And thank you again to April Laissle for all her help with the show since the summer.

I’m AM-T. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next year.