When I was younger, I had no idea how much posture mattered. “Stand up straight” was a popular mantra for my mother, who grew ever more attached to it during my teenage years. Since I’m from the generation that didn’t trust anyone over thirty, my mother’s dedication to criticizing my posture immediately signaled to me that standing up straight or sitting without slouching had little value.
My mother’s voice has followed me into adulthood, where I hear a variation on this theme from my physical therapist: “Pull your shoulders back.” More than twenty-five years spent sitting in front of a computer screen is the biggest cause of my rounded shoulders and back. These have led to other aches and pains, which is why I’m now doing exercises to help me stand up straight.
Recently, I read that posture means more than walking like a ballet dancer and sitting tall. How you sit can affect people’s perceptions of your power and intelligence. According to a U.S. News & World Report article on research from Northwestern University, “sitting with your hands under your thighs, scrunching your feet and letting your shoulders sag” tells interviewers you are a person without power who will not take charge. A “power pose” that consists of taking up space, which researchers called “an expansive physical posture,” helped undergraduates in the school of management score “higher on…measures of their sense of power, abstract thinking and willingness to take action.” Power poses caused changes in the endocrine system, including an “increase in testosterone levels in both men and women” and a decline in “levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).”
This is not to say everyone should try to blow away interviewers with a Zeus-like abundance of power and confidence. Creating a sense of openness and warmth is the goal here. But it does suggest that our posture signals a lot more than we normally imagine and is something we should think about in meetings, interviews and other situations where we want to gain people’s confidence.
I hate to admit it, but my mother was right.