In the peer group therapy sessions that I conduct for youth, the ground rules do not always prevent an occasional face-off. That’s what we got when college batchmates Amita and Preeti (both names are not their own) slid into a verbal clinch during a free-wheeling discussion on intimate relationships. Amita accused Preeti of “stealing” her boyfriend. Preeti hotly denied it. Amita asked why Preeti was spending so much time with her guy. Preeti insisted they were just good friends. The swipe-and-thrust continued for a minute (a long time for such flinty exchanges) until I called Time Out. “You need to back off,” I told Amita. “Look at how Preeti’s sitting. She’s settled into a defensive stance. She’s not going to let you through.”
Amita looked at Preeti; the group looked at Preeti. She was sitting huddled in one corner of a lounger, her knees drawn up to her chest, her arms hugging her knees, hands balled into small fists. Every part of her body was angled away from the group and pointing towards the door. She had closed up not only internally but externally as well. Under attack from an angry adversary, her body had retreated into the self-protective stance that her Paleolithic ancestor had used in a threatening situation and which we all still carry, embedded powerfully in our 21st century brains. Faced with a powerful foe, the Paleolithic man would try to make himself as small a target as he could: by hunching his shoulders, curling up his body, and lowering it in relation to the attacker. To protect the most vulnerable part of his body, his genitals, he would cross his arms in front of him.
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Today, the attack may be verbal more often than it is physical, but the nerve circuitry that imprinted those reactions into the pre-historic brain still functions on cue, unbidden and generally without our being conscious of it. And it can manifest itself – as it did so expressively in Preeti’s posture – not only when we are standing but also when we are sitting.
Sitting is an eloquent business, any actor will tell you that. We sit according to our natures. We sprawl and straddle, we fidget, perch, cross and uncross our legs – or, at the other extreme, we sit rigid and rocklike, without stirring a muscle. And each of these sitting postures is a dead giveaway to our feelings, our moods, and the way we relate to other people.
Once you know how to read the signals, you’ll be able to tell whether someone is confident or nervous, belligerent or closed-minded, interested in what you’re saying or bored, even whether someone is trying to – either subconsciously or deliberately – manipulate you.
To start, here’s an overview of what constitutes attractive sitting posture and what does not:
Relaxed – or not?
Relaxed sitting posture has several elements to it:
» You’re sitting upright but not ramrod-stiff in your chair. Nor are you maintaining any death grips on the arms of the chair.
» Sitting up straight also means keeping your head up, not keeping your eyes on the ground which can make you come across as insecure and a little lost.
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» When you’re relaxed, your body in the seated posture may be in a very slightly asymmetrical position – for instance, leaning slightly to one side (say, at a 10 degree angle). Examples: Sophia Loren, Meryl Streep.
» On the other hand, if you’re feeling tense, you’ll be sitting in a way that makes it look like you’re about to spring into action (e.g., sitting on the edge of your chair).
» Often, the tension winds up in your shoulders which might move up and forward a bit. If you become aware of this, try to loosen up by shaking your shoulders a bit and moving them back slightly.
» A habitual slouch indicates a sloppy, uninterested attitude and /or a lack of energy.
» Someone who habitually maintains a stiff back while sitting either reflects self-conscious authority – or just a longing for it. Stalin sat like a guardsman on parade, and so did Bismarck, the German “Iron Chancellor”.
Don’t be afraid to take up some space. It’s simple and it works. If you want to project power, take up more space. For example, by sitting with your legs apart a bit – this signals self-confidence through a sense of entitled territory; it also says that you’re comfortable in your own skin. On the other hand, hunching down in your chair and caving into yourself says you’re not worthy of attention and entitlement of some territory.
So, instead of folding inwards, spread out a little. If you’re sitting at a table, let your forearms stretch across the table directly in front of you.
Of course, when expansiveness is taken too far -- e.g., tilting your chair and leaning your body far back, with your hands crossed behind your head -- the signals you’re sending out are not just of over-confidence but also dominance and a controlling stance.
Avoid defensive postures. Crossed arms or legs signal defensive, closed posture, and when both are tightly crossed, they may indicate not only that you are wary and guarded, but also possibly negative, belligerent and closed-minded.
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Like folded arms, the use of bags, files or books as a barrier while sitting is also usually a tell-tale cue to defensiveness or nervousness.
Straddling a chair (sitting backwards) – may look cool, but often is a covert body language signal in that the person is using the back of the chair as a defense against aggression.
Leaning forward or backward sends out messages, too. Leaning slightly forward can say you’re interested and involved in what the other person is saying (or that you have something exciting to say yourself)! But leaning in too much can come across as needy – desperate for approval. If you’re a man and you lean forward too much towards a woman, you could really creep her off.
Leaning forward right across a table is a sign of aggressiveness, even ruthlessness. It’s the posture of someone who, sub-consciously perhaps, intends to manipulate the other person or the discussion. “Tiger” Clemenceau, the French prime minister of World War I fame, always sat like that at conferences. So did Napoleon.
Leaning back a little can make you look confident and relaxed. But leaning back too much all the time when talking to people can make you seem aloof and distant, even arrogant. This is the habitual sitting posture of a person who wants to run everything his own way and will not make a good team player.
The Do’s and Don’ts
To put it all together, here are some of the key distinctions that a poised and confident person does -- and does not -- do when he is sitting:
» He takes up as much space as humanly possible
» His feet are shoulder-width apart or slightly wider
» In addition, he uses up more space and conveys more power by placing his arms on the sides of his chair
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If he does cross his legs, they are relaxed and send a message.
» He does not cross his arms (unless he is intentionally sending a message)
» He does not put his hands in his pockets
» He does not hold anything in front of him (which gives the impression that he is “protecting” himself)
» Having his arms spread out wide is the ultimate power statement!
Of course, all the above does not mean that if you momentarily lapse into a sprawl you’re arrogant, or that if you occasionally shift position in your chair you’re a nervous fidget. Your sitting characteristics have to be habitual for you to be stamped with a psychological rating.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)