The Elegance of Positive Body Language

In the Disney movie of the fairy tale The Little Mermaid, Ariel makes the questionable decision to give her voice to Ursula the Sea Witch in exchange for the chance to be with a prince. Ariel asks how she will communicate without her voice, to which Ursula provocatively exclaims, “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”

Though evil and misguided, the sea witch was right about the power of non-verbal communication. It’s something I frequently taught my language arts students. In the early seventies, psychologist Albert Mehrabian conducted a well-known study that concluded body language is significantly more important than actual words spoken.

Mehrabian’s Communication Model states that messages are conveyed 7% through words, 38% through tone and voice, and 55% through body language. Body language includes our facial expressions, gestures, and posture. If we want to communicate elegantly, that is simply, positively, and effectively, then we must pay attention to the messages we send non-verbally. 

How we communicate with others is an important life skill that can greatly influence our relationships and our happiness. Every day we have the opportunity to communicate positively with people including our family, friends, co-workers, and strangers. Psychologist and author Rollo May said, “Communication leads to community, understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.”

We’ve all been in frustrating situations where our words are somehow misconstrued or misinterpreted. Here are some points we can consider to help us send a positive message through our body language.

  • Posture – Slouching signals a lack of interest or alertness. Sit and stand with back and shoulders straight but relaxed. 
  • Arms  – Crossing our arms can make us appear closed-off, self-conscious, or defensive. Placing hands on our hips can seem aggressive. Let them hang loosely and comfortably .
  • Handshakes – Handshakes should be friendly and confident. Be careful it doesn’t feel like a vice grip or a limp noodle.
  • Eye Contact – Looking others in the eye shows we are engaged, but don’t make it creepy. Just look at the person and keep a gentle gaze.
  • Facial Expressions – Genuine smiles and nods show we understand and are listening. Try to relax the face so it doesn’t appear tense or angry.
  • Proximity – Lean in a bit to show interest, but be aware of personal space and appropriate social distancing.
  • Hand Gestures – In general, palms should be open to show, well, openness. Talking with our hands too much can be distracting and make us seem nervous, but an occasional gesture can help make a point.
  • Fidgeting – Fiddling with pens, hair, phones, and other objects can indicate boredom or immaturity.

Body language is a powerful communication tool, especially when we use it honestly and sincerely. Unlike the little mermaid, we don’t have to give up our voice. We can learn to enhance our words with effective non-verbal communication to express ourselves more eloquently and elegantly. §

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
~ Peter Drucker

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Elegant Muses Like Maya Angelou, Bertha Flowers, and You

A muse is a someone who inspires others. The word originated in Greek mythology when the daughters of Zeus presided over arts and sciences. A loftier word for mentor, a muse is really anyone who helps us create our best life. We can all use a muse to inspire everyday elegance, and we should all aspire to be one.

In her poignant autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes a special neighbor named Mrs. Bertha Flowers. About Mrs. Flowers, Angelou writes, “She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her.”

Mrs. Flowers became a muse to young Maya (then Marquerite Johnson) and changed her life by exposing her to literature and other lessons in living. Angelou writes, “She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained through my life the measure of what a human being can be.”

As a literature teacher, I was thankful Angelou’s short story about Mrs. Flowers appeared in our eighth grade textbook, and I looked forward to visiting her year after year. It seemed we could all feel Mrs. Flowers’ elegant presence in our classroom after reading about her.

Just a year before Angelou died at age 86, I was fortunate to attend a lecture of hers. Wearing a beautiful black dress and pearls, she was a queen who sat on her throne bestowing wisdom, wit, and her own lessons in living.

From the moment she walked on stage until the moment she regally exited, a lump formed in my throat, my eyes filled with tears, and I had goose bumps that lasted for days. Only a muse can inspire such a reaction.

Finding a muse, or mentor, is a personal journey. It may be someone you admire from afar, or someone you are fortunate to know well. It might even be a fictional character who has become flesh and blood in your mind.

I’ve been lucky enough to have several mentors in my life, particularly in my roles as teacher and mother. In hindsight, I realize each of these people possessed everyday elegance, including the rare ability to remain composed under the most stressful situations.

While turning to a muse can help us improve our lives, at some point, we should consider paying it forward by serving as a muse, or mentor, who provides motivation, guidance, and support. I can only hope I’ve been a positive influence in someone else’s life along the way.

As adults, we must remember that we might be a muse, mentor, or role model without even realizing it. Whether we like it or not, younger people are watching and learning from us. Remembering this keeps us more accountable for our own conduct and behavior.

We may never fill the shoes of someone like the genteel Mrs. Bertha Flowers, but we can all at least aspire to what Angelou called “a true measure of what a human being can be.”

“Surviving is important. Thriving is elegant.”
~Maya Angelou

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The Elegance of Not Cussing

“Language is the dress of thought; every time you talk, your mind is on parade,” wrote Samuel Johnson in the 1700s. It’s certainly still true today. We can be dressed to the nines, but the words we speak must be equally beautiful for us to have any hope of being elegant. As a former language arts teacher, I’m aware of many things we can do to improve our communication, but we can start by not swearing.

The ubiquitous use of expletives has made it easy for them to slip into our conversation. Words that dropped jaws a generation ago, barely get a reaction today. Network television still has a list of taboo words, but even cable news is peppered with four-letter expressions. Throw in movies, reality shows, social media, and routine conversation, and we are exposed to a slew of curse words every day. In a 2018 report, Business Insider said the average American utters 80 to 90 curse words a day!

Swearing is most often done to express anger. And aren’t we an increasingly angry lot? Life can be stressful, and venting with the perfect four-letter word might initially feel like a good way to let off steam. However, in my experience, it does nothing to help me feel better and makes me question my self-control. If we aim to be elegant, profanity-laced rants undo any attempt to be calm, cool, and collected.

Swearing is frequently used in an attempt at humor. I once spent an evening at a comedy club and left feeling like I needed a long shower with lots of soap. We’ve all seen colorful sayings on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers. These quips might make us giggle, but surely we can think of more clever things to say. In the words of Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”

Cussing can make us seem less refined and even boring. CEO and author Michael Hyatt said, “If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it, you’re not that interesting.” Ouch. Conversing can be difficult and can even produce anxiety in some. Relaxed conversation takes practice, and we can learn to edit out bad words. Cursing downgrades any conversation.

I was recently at a social event, and while I wasn’t particularly offended by the conversation laden with profanity, I knew others within earshot would be. I excused myself and went to the restroom feeling like an old fuddy-duddy. Then I reassured myself that the whole point of good manners is to make others feel at ease. Swearing can be disrespectful and make others feel uncomfortable, so it’s simply not polite.

Finally, it is never okay to swear at or in front of children. Research shows cursing at a child causes increased aggression and insecurity. Children are going to imitate what adults say, even when they don’t know the meaning of the words. I’m not one who finds it cute when children repeat curse words. Every adult is a role-model to every child and should take that responsibility to heart.

Some may counter that swearing doesn’t really hurt anybody, and maybe I should lighten up. Perhaps. But as someone who spent decades teaching poetry and literature, I long for beautiful words and phrases. Why put an ugly word out into the world when we can choose a lovely one? I agree with contemporary author Rajesh Walecha who wrote, “Speak beautiful words to create a beautiful world.” §

“The wise one fashions speech with their thought, sifting it as grain is sifted through a sieve.”
~ Buddha

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The Elegance of These 10 Gracious Acts

After more than a year of unprecedented time spent in the confines of our homes, most of us have begun to venture out in public again. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found some of my manners to be a little rusty. Every time I go somewhere, I’m grateful to see someone displaying these gracious acts, reminding me of simple things we can do to make life a little more elegant for everyone. 

  1. Countenance Counts ~ Countenance refers to our facial expressions. We’ve all been duly warned about RBF (resting biddy face). I’ve certainly caught myself deep in thought and realized my mug was less than pleasing. How nice it is to go out and see friendly faces again. 
  2. Right On ~ I wish I had a nickel for every time I reminded my students to walk on the right side of the hallway when changing classes. Foot traffic flows more smoothly when we stay to the right side of the sidewalk, stairs, and escalator. 
  3. Hold the Door ~ It still seems chivalrous for a man to open a door for a woman; however, everyone who is able should hold the door for anyone who is approaching. I always feel I’ve passed a kindred spirit when another woman holds the door for me. 
  4. Wipe the Sink ~ I was recently at a highway rest stop. After washing her hands, a woman took a clean paper towel and quickly wiped down the counter before I stepped up to use the sink. I offered a her a “thank you”, but I really wanted to applaud and cheer this rare gracious act! 
  5. Please and Thank You ~ This week, I was surprised by how cordial a man in front of me was to the employee in a drive-through window. (I also noticed how quickly her attitude reflected his.) He reminded me how important it is to be friendly and respectful to the hard-working people who serve us throughout our communities. 
  6. Trash Talk ~ My husband and I were on a road trip this month and noticed the cleanliness of many of the towns we traveled through. Unless you’re Oscar the Grouch, we all want to live in communities where streets and sidewalks are lined with flowers, not garbage. We can do our part by vowing to never toss even the smallest piece of trash out the car window or onto the ground.  
  7. Dressing Rooms ~ Have you ever walked into a store dressing room and seen piles of clothing scattered on the floor? When trying on clothes, we should always put garments we aren’t purchasing back on the hangers and on the rack provided. No store employee should have to feel like they’re picking up a teenager’s messy bedroom. 
  8. Elevator Etiquette ~ While traveling, I was exiting a hotel elevator as a young boy and girl were waiting to get on. Obviously well-taught, the boy gently scooted his sister to the side and waited for me to step out before entering the elevator. It was such a sweet and memorable display of good manners from a child. 
  9. Table Manners ~ This summer, my husband and I took our grandson to a nice outdoor restaurant and sat near a couple with their grandchildren. During the meal, we overheard subtle reminders to put napkins on laps, use a quiet voice, and put phones away. It warmed my heart to see these grandparents taking time to patiently teach valuable lifelong lessons.
  10. The Golden Rule ~ Whenever my husband and I spend time with our grown children, we are always proud of their tolerance and acceptance of everyone we encounter, no matter how different they may be from us. We live in a diverse and changing world. Some may call their behavior being politically-correct, but it’s really just being kind and following the Golden Rule.

    Though most of us are thankfully past lockdowns and quarantines, it seems Covid may be with us for a while longer, forcing us to be aware of the contagious nature of the virus. As we cautiously move through our days, let’s remember being courteous is contagious, too. Just imagine if we made gracious acts like these go equally viral.§

    “Manners are the sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.
    If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
    ~ Emily Post

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