Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about non-verbal communications. Mostly how body language, the tone of your voice, your facial expressions and what you wear can affect the way people feel about the content of your message. In many contexts, these non verbal communications can be even more important than the content of what you are saying verbally. So much so, that the wrong body language can actually work against what you’re trying to say. If someone is aware of this, they can take advantage of these subconscious cues to help reinforce their message instead. So, on this thought, I had a talk with my boys about the importance of using their body to convey the right message (some great tips on this can be found at Vanessa Van Edwards’ Science Of People).
Young teens can often feel a great deal of social anxiety, and it is usually quite apparent in their posture. Their shoulders are curved inward, they slouch, they put their arms in front of their chest or on their neck. These are all physical signals of submissiveness and lack of confidence. This is further entrenched by frequently ending sentences with an upward inflection (aka upspeak – where every sentence seems to be a question). To make matters worse, the reaction that most people have to this type of body language is usually negative, which creates a feedback loop as this negative reaction exacerbates the teen’s anxiety. Being able to understand this, and to at least use confident body language (shoulders back, chest up, arms at your side, etc.) is a way of breaking that feedback loop. Even if the person still feels anxious, and they ‘fake’ their body language intentionally, the reaction they will get from confident body language will help boost their self-image, and eventually, they won’t be faking it anymore. It will become a habit, and their natural expression of how they feel. The expression ‘fake it until you make it’ in this context is really ‘fake it until you become it’. Confident people who feel good in their skin are also attractive to others in virtually all social contexts (work, dating, friendship, etc.). Feeling confident and, more importantly, acting confident can definitely help boost your social status. So, this is why I was explaining to my boys why this is very important to their future happiness and success.
Seeing as they are young and pre-teens, when trying to give them examples of strong, confident people, the names that came up were those of super heroes. Batman/Bruce Wayne, Superman (and his alter-ego, the non-confident Clark Kent), Thor, Iron Man/Tony Stark, Spiderman/Peter Parker, and Captain America/Steve Rogers. These are all examples of ‘manly men’ – the type of men that most people either want to emulate or be around. This would seem fine and everything, but there’s actually a problem with all but two of these characters. These manly men also have what many people would consider to be pretty undesirable character traits. Bruce Wayne is a cocky philanderer, Thor is a blowhard warmongerer (so much so, that his father Odin deemed him unworthy), Tony Stark is also a cocky, arrogant philanderer, and Peter Parker’s ego and desire for revenge almost ruined him.
The fact that these superheroes are still likeable, relatable and looked up to in spite of these character flaws says a lot about how we value strength and confidence. We seem willing to look past arrogance, cockiness, boorishness, and a bunch of other negative traits if they’re held by someone who comes across as strong and confident. Of these superheroes, only Superman and Captain America (my favourite of them all) are true virtuous characters. In fact, Steve Rogers became Captain America specifically because he was a virtuous man, yet he was still less of an attractive character than other less virtuous characters around him when he was weak – Peggy Carter, his future girlfriend, had no interest in him before he was strong, despite being fully aware of his character. Lets face it, while we can sympathize with the Steve Rogers in the top image on the left, he’s still a bit repulsive and pathetic. While the guy on the right, well, you can tell by what Peggy is looking at how we think of him. Even Superman lost his virtue in the movie Superman II when Clark Kent returned to the truck stop to seek vengeance on the bully who beat him earlier, making Superman a bully. So, not only does strength and confidence trump arrogance, being weak and submissive trumps virtue.
This makes the old adage that women often fall for bad boys who end up being jerks understandable. This is also true for non-romantic relationships.
So, what was the take away message that my boys finally got? Unfortunately, it was that if you want to be socially successful, it is easier to do this if you are a confident jerk than if you’re a meek nice guy. While I obviously try to stress that you can be confident and virtuous – be Captain America, not those other guys – sadly the path to being arrogant and cocky is only a small step away, and has few social costs.