I’m sitting outside a small restaurant in Baroliche, an outdoorsy city in Patagonia that has recently become a tourist destination of sorts due to the diverse varieties of adventure trips and medium-end food that has become available since the economic downturn Argentina has experienced these past few decades.
The table I’ve occupied is standard-issue: circular, large umbrella to block any potential rain, and four chairs as sentries, one to each side.
I choose my chair carefully, just as I chose my table. I position myself just so, take a moment to consciously settle my facial expression and posture, arrange my day bag, and then go to work.
It doesn’t take long.
“Buddy, do you know a good place to get a drink around here?”
I respond that there is a solid place a few blocks away with a large beer selection. The man with the question thanks me and heads that direction with his friends.
“Are you Argentinian?”
The question comes from the bravest of a group of teenage girls. No, I say, Estados Unidos. She pauses, not quite sure what to do with the information, then turns back and mutters something to one of the other members of her group with the resignation of someone who has lost a bet.
“What are you up to tonight?”
Getting some sleep and hopping an early bus out of town, I tell the good-looking 20-something who asked. He looks disappointed but still grins as he gives me his number and tells me that if I change my mind, he’d love to buy me a drink.
All of these (and several more interactions) took place in the amount of time it took for me to eat a small meal in downtown Bariloche.
I had just arrived into town that afternoon and I knew absolutely no one, so I was looking for some conversation. From past experience I knew that appearing calm and confident makes these kinds of encounters a lot more common, as does communicating in a non-verbal way that you are open for interaction, so I had to present the appearance of being these things (despite the fact that I was a little uncomfortable, tired, and lost).
Here are some things I did to make myself appear more put-together than I was:
Scouting out the area
After dumping my carry-on at a hostel, I spent most of the day wandering around downtown Bariloche. I made sure I knew the main roads in town (by asking a few employees at the hostel) and made sure I always knew how to get back home.
From there, I snaked out in different directions, going as far as I could in one direction, then going up a block and walking back. It can be a bit tedious, but there is always plenty to see and enjoy (especially if you can take pleasure in the details).
I made mental notes about places of interest. This is how I knew that there was a bar that offered a wide selection of beers; it stood out against the ranks of Italian restaurants and cheap empanada shacks, and I had considered checking out the happy hour earlier.
Knowing your way around also helps you feel more confident because if something bad were to happen, you’d know your way back to safety without having to think about it. Just knowing how to get ‘home’ is a good start, but if you’ve walked the path several times, and from several different directions, then you can do it mindlessly or in the dark or under duress.
Of all the tables available, I chose one that was right on a street corner. Of all the seats available I chose the one facing the crosswalk and the other people sitting outside.
The first instinct for many people in this situation will be to fall back and blend in, choosing a seat that will allow them to do their own thing and ignore everyone else around them. What if they make eye contact? Awkward!
But eye contact is exactly what you want. Or rather, you don’t want to go out of your way to make eye contact, but you don’t want to avoid it.
There’s a sociological premise called ‘civil inattention’ which essentially says that in nature, we as social creatures would need to check out every new human that came into view, sniffing and shaking hands and figuring out if they are friend or foe. With civilization, however, we have created a social contract that allows us to skip this step and just assume everyone is not an enemy until proven otherwise.
This is good because it keeps us from each other’s throats, but bad because it allows us to completely ignore everyone around us unless something extreme happens, and this makes it difficult to make contact with strangers.
Eye contact helps break through this social barrier. As soon as you’ve locked eyes with someone across the room (or in this case, across the sidewalk), you’ve acknowledged their existence and they yours. Now if something happens (a handful of stray dogs loudly chasing down a man on a scooter, for example), you’ve just had a shared experience with that stranger and you will be the first person they look at for confirmation that, yes, that was a weird thing that just happened. They’ll probably only say it with their eyes, but that’s a huge step forward from where you were before (politely ignoring one another as you shared the same street corner).
I paid close attention to my posture that night because, especially when you’re in a country where everyone else speaks a different native tongue, body language is vital.
I leaned back into my chair slightly, relaxed, and angled my elbows out on the armrests a bit (but not too much). Think about how your arms arch out from your body when you walk casually; that’s about the right distance. The idea is to take up enough space that you look (and feel) comfortable and show confidence, but not so much that you look like a tool (you’ve seen these guys…they can’t sit down without spreading out and taking up as much space as possible. Don’t be that guy).
Depending on where I’m at, I’ll sometimes cross one leg over the other, but in this case I was at a table too short to allow it, so instead I spread my legs out a little bit further than my arms, feet casually cocked out at slight angles (compared to where my knees pointed). I looped the shoulder-strap of my satchel over one ankle, so I knew if someone tried to snatch it while I was eating, they’d have to drag me with it. This also made it clear to passersby that I wasn’t some green tourist — I’ve been around the block before, and it was likely a rougher block than this one.
The last thing to remember with posture is that there are certain body signals you can give that show you are open for conversation. Exposing certain parts of your body — the insides of your elbows, your neck, your crotch (but not too much, obviously!) and your palms — indicate that you are comfortable with your environment and not in a defensive posture (which would involve you covering up and defending the aforementioned delicate targets).
There are a million little things that a person does when they are comfortable, and each of us is different, so I can’t tell you what yours will be.
For example, I know that when I feel good about a situation and confident with myself, I’ll let the glass I’m drinking from dangle casually from my hand, holding it from the top, sipping from between my forefinger and thumb. I also tend to allow my eyes to wander around, taking in details, and purse my lips a little bit as I do.
Next time you’re feeling really comfortable and confident, take stock of yourself and what you’re doing.
It’s important to know these things because it will help you put on a strong demeanor even when you’re not feeling 100%.
And that leads us to the main point of this entire exercise: when you can portray a certain emotional state accurately outwardly, you’ll be much more likely to fall into that state, inwardly, shortly thereafter.
There are mountains of scientific research that show muscle memory as having a major impact on your emotional mindset. If someone is asked their opinion about something arbitrary while nodding ‘yes,’ for example, they are much more likely to respond positively than if they are nodding ‘no’ (or not nodding at all).
I’ve found this to be true over and over again. If you can identify how you act and look when you’re feeling at your best, you’ll find that it becomes much easier to make yourself actually FEEL that way on command.
Fiddle with your phone, twitch/tap the table with your fingers or the ground with your feet, repeat the same motion over and over (sipping from your drink with great frequency doesn’t look natural), smile at everyone who passes by, avoid eye-contact, make too much eye-contact, make faces, pace, or ignore everyone.
All of these things show nervousness, and if you are acting nervous, it’s very likely people will treat you that way (even if they don’t directly interact with you) and that will keep you from that feeling of confidence you’re trying to achieve.
Update: November 25, 2016
In retrospect, some of these posts I wrote back in the day make me seem like a bit of a sociopath.
That doesn’t mean it’s untrue information, it just means that it feels a little weird to have obsessed so much over this kind of thing, and then to have written about that obsessing. That said, I also remember this kind of writing being immensely popular with some people in my audience, so I’m guessing that the state of mind I was in, that of someone trying to quantify the things that seem to be working, socially, wasn’t one I was alone in having.