As with many people, public speaking filled me with dread. I am a writer and I feel more comfortable expressing myself in writing, not on stage.
But, interestingly, I found that the feeling of anxiety itself is completely tolerable. I worried about how people would receive my nervous energy – the slightest twitching of my voice, the unconscious lip smacking…
I thought I would be judged severely for any nonverbal cues that revealed my lack of confidence. I worried about my anxiety – the double whammy of worry that made the event so scary.
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You may have felt the same way before a job interview or an important work meeting with your boss. And the more you try to suppress your feelings, the more power they gain.
But a surprising new study has concluded that these concerns may be unfounded. Jamie Whitehouse, a researcher at Trent University in Nottingham, UK, has shown that visual cues of stress are often positive and prompt people to like us and treat us well.
If this is true, then we don’t have to worry about keeping a calm, emotionless expression as if we were playing poker—with the assurance that people will welcome our emotional authenticity.
Whitehouse’s interest in stress is based on the theory of evolution.
Stress is usually accompanied by many internal physiological changes that help us prepare the body to face the challenge. For example, a running heart helps deliver oxygen to the body and brain, which allows us to react more quickly.
It is easy to see why these changes are the result of adaptation. Many primates, when stressed, also exhibit distinctive “displacement” behaviors – such as nervously scratching their skin, for example. Such behavior serves no apparent purpose in dealing with a situation that causes discomfort. So why did evolution motivate him to do so?
One possibility is that this behavior helps facilitate social interactions with the group.
Primate groups are often complex, with alliances and established hierarchies among their members. Encountering a potentially hostile person can be a major cause of stress.
Displacement behaviors can serve as subtle signals that demonstrate this discomfort, reducing the risk of unnecessary collisions. After all, for high-ranked individuals, the most egotistical rivals may be the most in need of humility lessons—and not necessarily those who are already agitated.
In 2017, the Whitehouse found early evidence to support the idea. Observing a group of 45 rhesus monkeys in Punta Santiago (Puerto Rico), he concluded that the monkeys tended to scratch themselves more nervously when they were with superior individuals in the hierarchy and relative strangers with whom They did not yet have strong social ties. As a result, this appeared to change the nature of the interaction, with the other monkey exhibiting gentlemanly behavior.
Inspired by this discovery, Whitehouse set out to see whether human stress cues could also shift individuals’ responses in our favor—perhaps with sympathetic responses.
In addition to the scratching of the skin displayed by other primates, humans have a number of subtle behaviors associated with anxiety, including touching the face and hair, turning the mouth, licking the lips, and biting nails. All of these can indicate our sense of vulnerability and lead to compassionate reactions from others.
To find out whether this is true, Whitehouse’s team asked 23 study participants to take a “social stress test” — an anxiety-inducing routine in which participants would undergo a mock job interview accompanied by a presentation. Three minutes demonstrating why they are ideal candidates and an on-site mental arithmetic test.
Then another 133 participants were asked to rate videos of mock interviews, which contained questions about each person’s apparent stress level and how much they liked the people they were watching. In parallel, the psychologists counted how often the participants showed nonverbal signs of stress.
As expected, the people who rated the video were able to predict the stress levels of the respondents, apparently due to these specific non-verbal cues. More importantly, these perceptions – for the better – influenced assessments of how pleasant the respondents were. The more respondents showed signs of stress, the more attractive they were to the people watching their videos.
“This tells us that these behaviors are not just meaningless by-products of stress, but are actually communicative functions,” Whitehouse says.
The Whitehouse study aligns with experiments examining the effects of shyness on someone who is shy.
Many people feel uncomfortable when their sense of shame is presented openly—but like the neural expressions studied by Whitehouse, our red faces can actually improve how we feel about others. Huh.
One example is a recent study by Professor Christopher Thorstenson of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State in the United States. In a series of experiments, Thorstenson presented photos of embarrassed people with captions describing awkward social situations.
The researcher then asked the participants about people’s reactions. For example, “You find that these people are lying – which face looks more embarrassed?” and “These guys are apologizing for cheating on the exam – which apology sounds more sincere?”
Thorstenson found that a slightly flushed face increased participants’ ratings of shame and honesty and made it more likely that the person would be forgiven for the offense. “It signals peace to others,” he says.
And unlike other non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, a red face cannot be easily faked. That’s why it’s considered a sign of honesty, which in turn makes you more likable.
Whether you’re biting your lips nervously or gleaming like a hint, it can be worth showing some emotional authenticity.
Professor Leah Mayo of the Center for Social and Affective Neurosciences at Linköping University in Sweden was intrigued by the results obtained by Whitehouse. His research has examined facial expressions associated with stress, and he suspects that people’s responses to our nonverbal cues are context-dependent.
For example, when someone gives a talk or presentation, the reasons why we’re feeling nervous are obvious—and this knowledge of the situation prompts the other person to feel more empathetic. “In this case, you may get a protective response,” he agrees.
But the reaction may not be the same if someone sees us trembling and trembling in the office, with no idea of the source of our worries, according to Mayo. In these situations, observers can more easily interpret stress signals to be hostile or anger, and we may need further interpretation to help us read the signals correctly.
Clearly, we need to be careful about making too broad generalizations from this research. But Whitehouse hopes his study can at least offer some relief to those nervous about a presentation or job interview, which is the specific context of his study.
“One of the cool things from this research is that it’s okay to be stressed out and look good sometimes,” he says. “You don’t have to keep trying to suppress your stress.” As long as you still manage to spread your knowledge and potential, you won’t be judged harshly for showing your nerves.
When you allow your feelings to be more transparent, you may also find that the experience feels less frightening. Whitehouse points to a different study that found that people who openly vented their stress were more likely to overcome it more quickly than those who concealed their anxiety.
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They suggest that changing the behavior of others may provide a helping mechanism. “Creating the stressful behavior may induce a more cooperative response, which in turn may allow the individual to recover from the stressor more quickly.”
There is also strong evidence that the way we think about stress can determine its outcome. People who find anxiety activated perform better on difficult tasks than those who fear this emotion and find it fundamentally disabling. Recognizing the social value of worry may be another reason to look at our distress a little more positively.
I’ve definitely found that this stance can help with my public speaking. Once I learned to accept my nervousness before the lecture, I stopped worrying about my anxiety.
The result has been that I can now focus more mental energy on the message I want to deliver, with the security of knowing that my audience will react with more human warmth than I could have imagined.
*David Robson is an award-winning science writer and author of The. is the author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Thinking Can Change Your Life (in free translation from English), was published by Canongate in the UK and by Henry Holt in the US in early 2022. His Twitter account is @d_a_robson.
read original version of this report (in English) On the BBC Worklife website.
– text was originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/vert-cap-61908848