A lot of what I have written, so far, has covered areas of recent personal discovery on subjects I am only beginning to appreciate and understand. In this regard, I must hold myself to be a peculiar and imperfect model. So I thought I’d take a short moment, today, to discuss something that has always come a little more naturally to me, and that is posture.
Most everyone is familiar, from childhood, with the basic precepts of good posture. If our own parents didn’t scold us, we saw parents telling our counterparts on television: stomach in, sit up straight, shoulders back, head held high — that sort of thing. This is, I feel, a serious problem in talking about posture. None of that is wrong, really. Anyone who does these things on a regular basis is technically going to have better posture — at least in the sense that they are not straining their neck or back and are showing their poor stomach to best advantage.
But that is not helpful, in a social setting. Here we are looking at something to which posture, itself, is merely symptomatic, and that is poise. Poise is looking and feeling confident, calm, and self-assertive. Whether a person comes across as intense or easygoing, their sense of poise is a critical factor in calculating that person’s social charisma. We want poise, and posture is a huge factor in that. But here is where things get tricky.
If you have ever watched people who feel uncomfortable with their surroundings, you will see them pull off a pretty close imitation of what we normally think of as good posture. Legs together, spine rigid, they do not come across as poised. Their posture may be an improvement over their normal, slouching state, but they do not come across the better, for it. Why? They are being formal. Their posture shows them to be pulling in on themselves. That formality signals an unwillingness to relate with others. They are immediately seen to be “stand-offish.”
What is the difference, here? Well, the first is in the shoulders. They are generally not held back, but scrunched forward, if only a little, in self-protection. But the real difference is stasis. Social interest is primarily indicated through movement, and when we allow our bodies to get stiff, our “good” posture conveys aloofness or discomfort. My grandparents’ generation would have referred to their posture as “stiff as a poker” or “poker-backed,” and if you imagine someone holding their back as straight and unyielding as a fire poker, you have a fairly clear image of how this posture comes across.
Take a look at some of the great villains of cinematic history. These are not people who pace about and flail their arms. They are people who command presence by their inactivity, who only move suddenly and rigidly. The first person who comes to mind for me (nerd that I am) is Christopher Lee’s Saruman. The reason this behavior draws us in is because we inherently mistrust this stillness. It is deeply antisocial, and so it disturbs us.
Think of when and where people go out of their way to use good posture, and you can understand why inspiring this reaction would be more than a little problematic. Posture is emphasized in high-performance situations where we deeply care about the outcome of our appearance. Whether it’s a job interview or approaching a potential love interest, the outcome of our interaction matters to us. And disturbing the other person is the last thing on our agenda.
What to do about it.
One of the most important things one can learn to do is practice good posture in motion. Sure, we spend much of our time sitting at an office desk, and good posture there can save our bodies pain, over extended periods. But for the social aspect of posture, I recommend taking a course in pilates or yoga with a teacher who is meticulous with body alignment. Pilates is especially helpful for its emphasis on finding and holding the spine neutral and strengthening the core (and especially the oft-overlooked pelvic floor) throughout the entire exercise program. What this does is retrain the body to experience posture as an active phenomenon — the first step in moving from “good posture” to real social poise.
Next time, a look into the social and psychological dimensions of poise: how to share space with other people.