Did you see US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi get tearful during her September 17 press conference? What was your reaction to her emotion?
No surprise, the liberal contingent found her tears genuine and unrehearsed, while the Rush Limbaughs of the world saw only crocodile tears on a calculating politician. But, ignoring the critical political issues for a moment, let’s think about body language and public image. Pelosi’s tears reminded me of an interview with the great British actress Helen Mirren. Before she began her role as Prime Suspect detective Jane Tennison, Mirren researched the work of female detectives, interviewing real women in that male-dominated, hard-boiled world.
Based on her interviews, she discovered three cardinal rules of female detectives:
- First, no matter what the circumstances, never cry in public. This is a no brainer. From childhood, it’s uncool to be a crybaby.
- Second, do not cross your arms in front of your chest. Keeping the body exposed signals strength, while crossed arms (which automatically hunch the shoulders) reveals guardedness. This might seem counterintuitive. Both men and women often cross their arms to appear stern and unyielding. Or they stand with crossed arms simply for something to do with their bodies, whether standing alone at party among strangers or waiting in line. Whatever the reason, crossed arms are not recommended.
- Third, touch people; touching connotes control and power. It might seem a benign, even compassionate gesture (and it certainly can be), but it can also determine who is the alpha dog and set the hierarchy. (Notice how all recent US Presidents are big handshakers, huggers, backslappers, and arm touchers?)
Back to Pelosi: Did her tears help or hurt her cause? Assuming that they were real, could she have stopped them anyway?
It’s hard to generalize the right behavior. It’s even harder to follow a recipe to create an image. You are who you are.
The Tennison rules are intriguing. But unless you’re a professional actress playing a part, don’t try too hard to follow them, especially if they clash with your true self. A person standing in the corner with arms crossed might seem awkward, but not as ridiculous as a naturally cool and reserved person forcing bear hugs on strangers.
Back to Mirren: I never watched the show, but Mirren was apparently superb in her detective role. And not once during the show’s seven-series run did she ever cross her arms.
Image: Chisame Hasegawa