Meri Paterson

The ideas business and other interests

Body language

Experiments in body language

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The inspiration behind this post comes from observing my fiancé. I say this with love: he is someone with a natural sense of entitlement – and I don’t mean in the millennial sense. I mean that he seems to feel entitled to exist and occupy a space in the world, and not ask for permission nor forgiveness for it. You can see this in his body language – for example, the way he stamps his feet coming up the stairs, or the way he belly-laughs at funny things on the internet. When he’s around, you hear it first.

Contrast this with me. My natural instinct is to deflect attention. I’m inclined to walk lightly, close doors gently, speak at the lowest volume that will still allow people to hear me, automatically walk on the edge of the pavement in case somebody wants to pass by, and generally behave as if I’m trying to minimise the signs of my presence.

Lately I’ve become really aware of the ‘minimising’ behaviours and tried a number of experiments to ‘maximise’ my presence, instead, and let me tell you – it’s fun. These are some of my experiments:

Be in the middle. Walk down the middle of streets and corridors; stand in the middle in a lift; sit in the middle of park benches; find a seat in the middle of meeting rooms. Wherever you are, claim a space somewhere visible, and only move if you’re actually in someone else’s way. (Practice this in empty lifts/streets first, if you like.)

Make noise when you walk. Recently I used my umbrella as a walking stick and let it make a crack when it hit the pavement. I felt very conspicuous, but I didn’t get any funny looks. You could also get shoes with hard heels, or if you know you make an effort to walk unobtrusively, stop doing that and see what happens.

Speak up. My voice is naturally quiet, but I’ve been trying to train it to carry better. Nothing makes you feel in possession of a space like filling it with your voice. You may know this from listening to other people who have good, loud, resonant voices.

Take up more space. Put an arm around the next chair, too; use the whole of your personal space when gesticulating; spread your things out on the table. Take up spaces that other people don’t, as well. At work, we have these sitting areas which are avoided by most people – I think because they’re quite exposed, and the sofas are white so it feels slightly decadent and presumptuous to sit there. Still, they are made for sitting on, so I do.

Look up. You won’t notice it unless you’re paying attention, but you probably spend a lot of time looking down at the ground. Make a point of looking up and ahead. You’ll discover a lot about your environment you didn’t know, because you’ve rarely looked at the tops of buildings, for example.

The most surprising thing for me has been that no one seems to disapprove of me when I do these things – or even notice. But to me personally it has been really useful to break my own boundaries a little and see how simple it is to feel a little more at ease. I’m going to keep experimenting.

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