Jun 21, 2016

Body language

Hello, stranger!

I learned to sail this weekend. It was pretty cool! MIT has free sailing lessons for all students (and faculty, and, I believe, anyone with a 6-month MIT gym membership... but don't quote me on that). It was a little confusing to learn that turning is backwards depending whether you're sailing downwind or upwind -- the laws of physics govern all! -- but once we were out on the water, I got the hang of it pretty quick.

It's very difficult to successfully register for beginner sailing lessons because registration fills up within 20 seconds of opening. I failed two weeks in a row. However, this Sunday morning, three of us showed up unregistered, and we were all able to join the class.

I was paired with another student, a PhD researcher at MIT Sloan who was visiting from Portugal for the summer. He was much more attentive to the guidelines than I was, so when he had the tiller, he would call out a warning that we were turning, and when he thought I should shift my weight to balance the boat. (Great coxswain skills!) I, on the other hand, was much more interested in "learning by doing", which made for some abrupt jibes! Luckily, neither of us fell out. I never fell even INSIDE the boat, so there's a win for my method.

Now I can take the tech dinghy out sailing whenever I want, AND I have the blue MIT sailing pavilion card so I will have access to the LGO* 4th of July barbecue at the pavilion.

Speaking of Charles River water sports, I still haven't figured out the rowing situation here in Boston. I emailed the MIT rowing club, but their schedule conflicted with my 8 am classes. I also looked at Riverside, but it seemed too competitive a club for me -- there were tryouts and two-a-day practices. They might have a masters program, but I need to check. In the end, I'm not sure I want to commit this semester. Unlike running or any other sport, if you miss a rowing practice, you cause your whole boat to miss practice. Committing to row is a big responsibility.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about body language. My first class at LGO was a leadership workshop called "Universe Within". At one point, we briefly discussed body language. I remember thinking (as I always do on this topic) that body language is a silly thing to worry about. I agree that sometimes others reveal their feelings through body language, but it's important to support any body language assumptions with additional evidence, like tone of voice or context, and then to verify those assumptions via direct inquiry.** During one activity, for example, I noted that all the women in the room, and about half the men, had their legs crossed, but they were obviously not CLOSED to the conversation.

During my sailing lesson, one instructor came by and told me to move my weight into the center of the boat, so I crouched down on the floor of the dinghy. The next instructor who came by saw my awkward stance, diagnosed me as anxious, and told me not to be afraid of sailing, that being afraid would hold me back. Having played team sports under a coach for many years, I intuited this moment as the wrong time to explain WHY I was squatting in the boat, but I felt validated when my sailing partner commented on the miscommunication a few minutes later.

In conclusion, body language is a pretty garbage framework on which to judge other people's emotional state. Always ask.

*TLA for Leaders for Global Operations, MIT's joint MS engineering/MBA program
**To be sure, our class did focus heavily on the "ladder of inference" and our professor recommended direct inquiry as a best practice.