French people have a greater sensitivity to posture than Americans, according to Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who devoted his life to studying personal space. What this means for an attorney practicing in the United States is that people who you meet as clients, and who you work with as colleagues, will be influenced by how you stand and sit, but this influence will likely not be consciously perceived by them—or by you. Put more simply, posture is important, even though you may not be aware of your own posture throughout the day when meeting with other people. In fact, it is precisely because of our cultural predisposition to be insensitive to postural cues that it is important to wake up the kinesthetic senses and intentionally work on developing correct posture.
Hall points out that Americans suffer from a general “failure to perceive or understand nonverbal cues,” including postural cues about how other people feel. This lack of awareness about postural cues as markers of emotional states also translates into a lack of awareness about how to convey positive messages to clients nonverbally, simply by the way we stand, sit, and walk.
Over the past three decades, using Hall’s work as a jumping-off point, we conducted fieldwork about the effect of posture on Americans. As we began to amass data, we developed various hypotheses, including a theory about the difference between upper-class and working-class posture. Observational field research in public and private spaces—including airports, hospital waiting rooms, bus terminals, and law offices—led to the conclusion that individuals from different social strata carry themselves in a significantly different manner. The focus of our research over the past few years has been on testing the validity of our hypothesis about the fact that posture appears to be different for upper-class and working-class individuals. It turns out that people from upper-class backgrounds usually stand straighter than working-class people, and the posture of individuals from upper-class backgrounds is also better when sitting and relaxing.
THE IMPORTANCE OF UPPER-CLASS POSTURE
The most effective posture for an attorney is one that mimics the upper-class stance as closely as possible, which includes standing with the head high (not bent forward), the shoulders back (rather than curved to the front), and the arms at the sides (instead of splayed out in a disorderly fashion). The reason that good posture works better for professionals is that people tend to respect those who have such posture, and you will find that interacting with others becomes easier if your posture is closer to an upper-class style.
Since Americans are generally less conscious of postural cues than Europeans, you might find it difficult to correct your stance to match this upper-class goal without some help. We also investigated various different techniques to improve the posture of our clients, initially asking them to walk with books on their head and shoulders, which is a common practice in finishing schools. This worked for only a small percentage of clients and was ineffective for the majority. We found that our professional clients had more success improving their posture if they utilized two other techniques: First, standing in front of a mirror for a minute or two can give you useful feedback and help you become aware of errors in your stance. Second, and immensely more enjoyable, horseback riding can improve your posture, and this is the subject of the video that accompanies this article.
The reason that riding a horse tends to improve posture is that when on horseback it is necessary to sit straight in the saddle to avoid falling off the horse, especially when it is in motion. This forces a rider to adopt an upper-class stance, so that the horseman instinctively learns proper biomechanics while on the horse, and this correct stance is transferred to his posture when he dismounts.
“Posture can definitely be improved by riding,” says one instructor at the equestrian center where we train clients to walk and stand like Ivy League millionaires.
A judge who owns a horse at the riding center also believes that riding can improve posture. “Riding is super good for posture,” she says, “because it teaches you balance and proprioception. That’s one of the reasons why kids with cerebral palsy do therapeutic riding.”
As a result of our research we recommend that American attorneys keep their posture in mind, raising their own awareness of how they present themselves to others. If you stand and sit tall in the saddle, you might be surprised to discover how much better other people react to you, even though they may not know why they are doing so.