Friday, October 28, 2011

A Few Words About The Nonverbal

About eight years ago, I found myself at an adult spelling bee in downtown Austin, which I'd read about the day before. I hadn't been living here long at the time. I did spelling bees as a kid, and at that time had just started playing Scrabble tournaments. Sounded like my kind of thing, and I figured I might do well, though you never know.

The way the adult spelling bee here works is that they first pass out a written test. Contestants circle the misspelled words on the page, the panel grades the tests, the top X finishers go on to take a second written test, and the top 20 or so from that test get to go onstage and compete. I went down there alone, didn't know anyone and I'm hardly a social butterfly to begin with. So I've got my first test but we haven't been told to open it and start yet, and I'm standing there with a beer in hand, finishing up a cigarette (five years quit now! but this was eight years ago, remember), pacing a little nervously...I was feeling competitive excitement, sure, and spelling was on the short list of things I would have been confident about at the time, but as far as I know I was not outwardly displaying that to any great degree.

What happened next is why I'm telling you this story. A woman came up to me, I don't know, fiftyish? Barely remember her, but I remember what she said: I bet you're going to win this. You just look like you will. I said, well, shucks, I hope so...I did end up winning, the heck did she pick up on that? I hadn't said a word to her. Yes, the situation was not like others for me, but she couldn't have known that at all. I didn't look bookish, nor intimidating - just some nervous but generally happy-looking guy in jeans and a patterned shirt finishing off a smoke and a beer and waiting to open his test. I have no idea what I was doing that made her think I had supreme confidence (even more than I actually had).

Last year, I competed in this event again, as I usually do. I've done it seven times and won five times. There's a highlights video here:

My family emailed the video around, and one of the viewers noted that she thought I oozed confidence here. What's strange is that to me, watching this video, I look nervous - rapidly blinking eyes, shifting posture. That the viewer thought I was supremely confident could have been confirmation bias (she knew I'd won the event multiple times), but I suspect not. Other people who were there or have seen the video have volunteered similar observations. Yes, in the video I'm spelling quickly as if I know the answers, but only because, well, I did happen to know them, and like a lot of people I tend to speed up when I'm nervous. I had also drunk maybe four beers rapidly on an empty stomach, which is, what, like six or seven normally, so I had a good buzz going and was feeling a little queasy and was trying to manage that. I've almost always had a lot to drink at these things, and it's part festive and part trying to calm my nerves since there's a lot of socializing. Yeah, I'm confident when I'm up there, but that's not really the internal dialogue - I'm not up there thinking, man, I'm a badass. I'm thinking, yikes, I hope I don't get a word I don't recognize, guess wrong and get knocked out. I'm always a little surprised when I win. Honestly.

So I'm perceived as giving off this super-confident vibe in this situation, and this situation alone, even when I'm not really all that confident. And it was true before I ever won, so it's not just people knowing I've won before. Again, what the heck are people picking up on? If I could identify what I was doing right there and replicate it at will, I'd do it all the time, because intense but calm confidence is the optimal social strategy.


  1. Very intriguing!! Congratulations on all the SB wins... and on the oozing of confidence!! On watching, I have to agree!! :) WTG crazyg :)

  2. Thanks! A couple of people have pointed out some confidence indicators I wasn't seeing before, things like regular speech rhythm and such.