Author and YouTube personality Vanessa Van Edwards will be the first to tell you that she is a recovering awkward person. When she was younger, Van Edwards found herself misreading social cues, and she tells me she often misinterpreted people around her as angry or mad at her. She said her desire to understand people better has led her to the work she does now. Her most recent offering is called Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication
I ask Van Edwards how she started her work, and she tells me that the genesis of her research began while watching an interview Larry King had with Lance Armstrong. King asked Armstrong if he was doping and Armstrong said no. Of course, no one knew yet that a major doping scandal was about to happen, but at the time, no one knew for sure. While watching the interview, Van Edwards noticed something that piqued her curiosity.
“It was this bold, outright lie,” she says. “I remember watching and when nobody was new. We all wondered if he was on doping? So he says this big lie, no, I’ve never used doping before. And then he lips. So he presses his lips in a hard line, and I went, what was that? What does that mean? I started looking into the research, looking into academic databases… I found that this was a sign of withholding, that often [thought not always] when people press their lips into a hard line, they do it to hold [information] in. Liars often act as if they want to say: keep it together, don’t say too much, don’t be guilty.’
Van Edwards was fascinated and continued her research. She wanted to know if this moment with Armstrong was a one-off, or did she notice something that could be a pattern that others in his position might exhibit?
“I noticed as I started watching more of these interviews that the ‘bad guys’… the Anabaptists and the liars, and the cheaters… that whether they were on Jerry Springer or Larry King, whether they were showing politicians or athletes they often sent similar negative signals when they lied, were afraid, or felt ashamed.”
Initially, Van Edwards says she started tracking the physical cues from people who were deceiving or dishonest, but she says she eventually started noticing similarities in people who were popular and considered charismatic. This fascinated her, so she created a map of various signals that were showcased by both charismatic people and those who were not quite authentic. This turned out to be interesting research for her, but its impact really struck when she decided to apply her newfound research interest to her own life to help her with her own social relationships.
“I really tried to build relationships and really struggled,” she says. “I tend to misinterpret cues. Specifically, I interpret neutral cues as negative. So what would happen is I’d be in a meeting, or on a conversation, or on a date and I’d recognize a cue , thinking it meant something bad and then get inside my own head.”
Van Edwards might see someone who had a restless face, or as she calls it, an irritated face, and think it was a sign that the person didn’t like her. She would then begin to spiral into thinking she hated, or even hated, and her self-esteem plummeted. She felt uncomfortable. She later says that it was her husband who eventually encouraged her to see if she could hack this so she could form even more meaningful relationships.
“I was sitting with my husband one day,” she says. “We had left a dinner party and I said: I think they are all mad at me. And he said, what are you talking about? No one is mad at you. And he said: you should sit down and think out what anger looks like see because no one there looked angry. And that was an a-ha moment where I thought there was obviously this language going on, this invisible language. People were sending all these signals and I didn’t know how to speak this language. So at that time I spoke a number of different languages. I speak Spanish and I thought: I wonder if I could study for directions like I study for a foreign language?”
Van Edwards set out to create her own curriculum that was modeled after one you could use to learn Spanish, French, or Italian. She started with vocabulary words and how cues went together to make sentences. She realized there was a way to code it and become fluent in this language. Eventually, her fluency in learning about cues became her expertise and eventually became her latest book. Van Edwards tells me there are four different kinds of signals that we give off as humans.
The first category is non-verbal cues, things like eye contact, body language, smiling, frowning etc… The next category is vocal cues and it has to do with how we say something… the tone, the pitch, the cadence of our voice. Do we speak cordially? Or with an edge? The third category is verbal cues… basically the things we say. And the last category, which I find fascinating, is called Ornaments. This category consists of things like what we wear, colors, patterns, styles, or the type of car we drive, or art we have hung in our office, etc…
Van Edwards tells me that where she thinks we as humans differ is in the land of the nonverbal. That’s where we are perhaps most misunderstood. She thinks it gives her strength to see the ways we come off, especially when we’re listening or when our faces are at rest, because we want to make sure those we communicate with know our intentions and our true feelings.
“Resting a frustrated face makes you look like you’re bothered, tired, irritable, angry, or stressed, even when you’re not,” she says. “I explain this in the book because this is actually very important to know about yourself. What does your face look like at rest?”
Van Edwards tells me a lot of it has to do with the shape of our facial features. She explains that, for example, she has a mouth that naturally turns downwards and that her resting face can be misconstrued as a frown. So in an effort to present herself in a positive or neutral way while listening, she will make a conscious effort to turn the corners of her mouth slightly up so that she is not so bothered to read.
“That gives you strength,” she says. “Because you know your default. You know how it comes across by accident and you know how to turn it off if you want to. A lot of signals I think we do by accident without realizing it and that triggers this whole series of loops. People are like, are you upset? And you say, no! Do I look angry? And then you get upset.”
Verbal cues are easier to understand, but the vocal category is fascinating. I talk to Van Edwards about how one of my stories is that if I tell a white lie so as not to hurt someone, my voice goes up. This usually happened in a restaurant where the meal was only okay, and I was asked by the manager how my experience was. I may have eaten there before and I can see it was a bad night for the kitchen but I don’t want to upset the staff. So I’d tell them the meal was great, but when the words leave my mouth, the tone and rhythm of my voice changes. It’s higher and it’s tight and Van Edwards tells me there’s science behind this.
“When we’re anxious or uncomfortable, or about to lie, or trying not to lie, like those white lie situations… those moments when you feel, this is so uncomfortable, your body is tensing. You body prepares for It prepares to be defensive – so protect itself, or offensive – jump into action Our bodies start to tense, our chests tense, our shoulders ache, we often roll our shoulders as if we are ready to someone to fight. We clenched our fists, we clenched our jaws, we roll our shoulders in. Our vocal cords tighten. Our vocal cords actually react the fastest. That’s because we have the least control over them. So when I start to be too anxious or if you ask me a question that makes me nervous, my vocal chords tense a little, and i go a little higher in my range, and then what starts to happen is that i actually start to lose breath, so i’m talking end of my breath and that brings vocal boy.”
When it comes to decorative cues, I have some of my own experiences with how these affect how I am perceived. There were many years when I drove an older, more fuel-efficient car, but I found myself not being taken so seriously when I arrived to set up. I also noticed that my clients were more impressed with my work when the cameras they used were larger and more like film cameras. Everyone knows that you can practically record a movie on an iPhone these days, but something happens when a customer sees the large professional camera with the large professional lens. Van Edwards tells me there is science behind this phenomenon. That people are actually taken more seriously when they put in more effort.
“They’ve found that when they post resumes, one on a thin, flimsy plastic clipboard and one on a heavy wood clipboard, the heavier the clipboard, even if it looks exactly the same, the more serious that candidate is. [taken]† So in other words, when you read a candidate’s resume on a lightweight clipboard, you think they are less skilled and less serious than the exact same person on a heavy clipboard.”
I ask Van Edwards if she thinks it’s crazy to step forward, and she says it’s one thing to present yourself as something you’re not, but make an effort to show who you really are. It’s the difference between buying a watch that you can’t afford to look rich, or having your suit dry cleaned so you look smart when you attend a business meeting. There’s nothing wrong with putting on a little lipstick to look beautiful, or making sure you’re clean-shaven when you walk into an important meeting, event, or even a first date.
“I think people who are very smart and very talented are all too often overlooked and underestimated because they send the wrong signals by accident. And they don’t know why people don’t take them seriously. I would say yes, we should “front” which simply means being goal oriented. If you know you want to be taken seriously, as competent, friendly, trustworthy, you know exactly what cues to use to align your social goals with your reality. I think that we bring a word to this language that is already happening.”
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