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, but...how 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kl-jiVilS9U
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.