Author and YouTube personality Vanessa Van Edwards will be the first to tell you that she's a recovering awkward person. When she was younger, Van Edwards found herself mis-reading social cues and often misinterpreting people around her as being upset with her or angry. She said her desire to better understand people is what led her to the work she does now. Her most recent book is called, Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication.
I ask Van Edwards how she started her work, and she tells me that it began when she was watching Larry King interview Lance Armstrong. King asked Armstrong if he was doping, and Armstrong said he was not. Of course, no one knew yet that there was a large doping scandal about to unfold. As she watched the interview, Van Edwards noticed something that sparked her curiosity.
"It was this boldfaced, flat-out lie," she says. "I remember watching and at the time no one knew. We were all wondering, is he doping? So he says this big lie, no I have never doped. And then he lip purses. So he presses his lips into a hard line, and I went, what was that? What does that mean? I started to look into the research, look into academic databases... [and] I found that this was a cue of withholding -- that often [though not always] when people press their lips into a hard line, they do it to hold [information] in. Liars often do it as if to say, keep it together, don't say too much, don't be guilty."
Van Edwards was fascinated, and she continued her research. She wanted to know whether this moment with Armstrong a one-off, or was she noticing a pattern that others might show?
"I noticed as I started to watch more of these interviews that the 'bad guys'...the dopers, and the liars, and the cheaters...that whether they were on Jerry Springer or Larry King, whether they were politicians or athletes, they tended to show very similar negative cues when they were lying, or afraid, or in shame."
Van Edwards started by noting the physical cues exhibited by people who were being deceitful or dishonest, but she says that eventually she also began to notice common cues in people who were popular and perceived as charismatic. This fascinated her, so she created folders of cues exhibited by people who were charismatic, as well as cues for those who weren't entirely authentic. This proved to be interesting research for her, but the impact of it really hit when she decided to apply her research to her own life and social relationships.
"I was really trying to build relationships and really struggling," she says. "I tend to misinterpret cues. Specifically, I interpret neutral cues as negative. And so, what would happen is, I would be in a meeting, or on a call, or on a date, and I would spot a cue, think it meant something bad, and then get in my own head."
Van Edwards would perhaps see someone who had a resting b*tch face, or, as she calls it, resting bothered face, and think that it was a sign that the person didn't like her. She would then start spiraling, thinking she was disliked or even hated, and her self-esteem fell. She felt awkward. She says it was her husband who finally encouraged her to see if she could hack this so she could engage in even more meaningful relationships.
"I was sitting with my husband one day," she recounts. "We had left a dinner party and I said, I think that they're all angry at me. And he was like, What are you talking about? No one is angry at you. And he said, You should sit down and figure out what anger looks like, because no one there looked angry. And that was an aha! moment where I thought, there was clearly this language happening, this invisible language. People were sending all these cues, and I did not know how to speak this language. So at the time, I spoke a couple of different languages. I speak Spanish, and I thought, I wonder if I could study for cues like I study for a foreign language?"
Van Edwards got to work creating her own curriculum, which was modeled after one you might use to learn Spanish, French, or Italian. She started with vocab 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 fluidity in learning about cues became her expertise, and ultimately became her latest book.
Van Edwards tells me that there are four different kinds of cues that we as humans give off. The first category is non-verbal cues, things like eye contact, body language, smiles, frowns etc. The next category is vocal cues, or how we say something -- the tone, the pitch, the cadence of our voice. Are we speaking warmly or with an edge? The third category is verbal cues, basically the words we use. And the final category, which I find particularly fascinating, is called ornaments. This category is comprised of things like what we wear (colors, patterns, styles), or the kind of car we drive, or the art we hang in our office etc.
Van Edwards tells me that where she thinks that we as humans get off track with one another is in the land of the non-verbal. That that's where we might be most misunderstood. She thinks it's empowering to note the ways we come off, particularly when we're listening or when our face is at rest, because we want to make sure that those we are communicating with know our intentions and our true feelings.
"Resting bothered face makes you look like you're bothered, tired, irritable, angry, or stressed, even when you're not," she says. "I break this down in the book because this is actually a really important thing to know about yourself. What does your face look like at rest?"
Van Edwards tells me that a lot of it has to do with the shape of our facial features. She explains that she, for example, has a mouth that naturally turns down, and that her resting face might be misread as a frown. So in an effort to present herself in a positive or neutral way when listening, she'll consciously make an effort to turn the corners of her mouth up slightly so she's not reading as bothered.
"That is empowering," she says, "because you know your default. You know how you're accidentally coming across and you know how to disengage it if you want to. A lot of cues I think we accidentally do without even realizing it, and that triggers this whole set of loops. People are like, Are you upset? And you're like, No! Do I look upset? And then you become upset."
Verbal cues are easier to understand, but the vocal category is fascinating. I told Van Edwards that one of my tells if I'm telling a white lie so as not to hurt someone's feelings is that my voice goes up. This might happen, say, at a restaurant where the meal was only OK, and I was asked by the manager how my experience was. Maybe I've eaten there before and I can tell it was an off night for the kitchen, but I don't want to upset the staff. So I'd tell them the meal was great, but as the words leave my mouth, the tone and cadence of my voice shifts. It's higher and it's tight. Van Edwards tells me that there's science behind this.
"When we are anxious or uncomfortable, or about to lie, or are trying to not lie, like those white lie situations...those moments where you're like, this is so uncomfortable, your body tenses. Your body is preparing for action. It's preparing to be defensive, so protecting itself, or offensive, spring into action.... Our vocal cords are actually the fastest responders. That's because we're the least amount in control of them. So if I start to be anxious or if you ask me a question that makes me nervous, my vocal cords tense just a little bit, and I go a little higher in my range. And then...I actually begin to lose breath, so I'm talking at the end of my breath, and that brings in vocal fry."
When it comes to ornamental cues, I have some of my own experience with how these affect how I am perceived. For many years, I drove an older, more economical car, but I noticed I wasn't taken as seriously when I arrived to set. I also noticed that my clients were more impressed with my work if the cameras used for their shoot were bigger and looked more like movie cameras. Everyone knows that nowadays you can practically shoot a movie on an iPhone, but there is something that happens when a client sees a big professional camera with a big professional lens. Van Edwards tells me that there is science behind this phenomenon: that people are actually taken more seriously when they show more effort.
"They have found that when they put résumés, one on a flimsy, thin, plastic clipboard and one on a heavy, wooden clipboard, the heavier the clipboard...the more seriously that candidate is [taken]. So in other words, if you are reading a candidate's résumé on a lightweight clipboard, you think of them as less competent and less serious than the exact same person on a heavy clipboard."
I ask Van Edwards if she thinks it's silly to front, and says it's one thing to try and portray yourself as something that you're not as opposed to putting in a bit of effort to show who you really are. It's the difference between buying a watch you cannot afford to appear rich and getting your suit dry cleaned so you look polished when attending a business meeting. There's nothing wrong with putting on a bit of lipstick to look nice, or making sure you're cleanly shaven if you're walking into an important meeting, event, or even a first date.
"I think, all too often, people who are very smart and very talented are overlooked and underestimated because they are accidentally sending the wrong cues," she says. "And they don't know why people aren't taking them seriously. I would say, yes, we have to 'front,' which just means being purposeful. If you know that you want to be taken seriously, [and] as competent, friendly, [and] trust-worthy, you know exactly what cues you have to bring to align your social goals with your reality. I think we're putting a word to this language that's already happening."
More with Vanessa Van Edwards here: