Sounds rumbled from just outside my closed bedroom door at 1AM.
Thump… thump… thump.
It was spring 2015 and I’d been living in downtown Baltimore for a few months. When the riots had raged, friends asked me what the city was like.
“Well, I’d sit in the living room hearing police and ambulance sirens outside and helicopters buzzing overhead. So, it was just like any other night in Baltimore.”
But these noises came from inside my townhome.
They sounded maybe ten feet away. Was it someone next door? No. The thumps came from the hallway.
Then, something odd happened. The air shifted, like the townhome was a sealed jar that someone had suddenly snapped open. The drone of nighttime traffic got louder. What was going on? I threw back my bed covers, swung my feet over, and crept to my door. I twisted the knob and, holding it in place, eased the door open a few inches.
The dark hallway. Voices. Laughing. And a ladder coming straight down in the middle of the hallway.
Confusion flushed away. Rage replaced my fear. I pulled on a shirt, pants, marched to the ladder, and hauled myself up. The thin, plastic rungs hurt the webbing of my feet.
The townhome was built with a layout like a vertical spiral. When you entered the front door, you could go downstairs to the garage or upstairs to the kitchen, then swing up more stairs to the master bedroom and more stairs to the two other bedrooms. Then, if you wanted to keep going, the townhome had a skylight built like an escape hatch with a ladder. You could unlatch it, push it open, and climb onto the roof. Which is exactly what my roommate had done.
In an impressive feat of narcissism, he decided on a Tuesday night – technically a Wednesday morning because it was 1AM, when we both had work in a few hours, to climb the ladder, causing the thumping, throw open the skylight – causing the air shift and louder traffic noise – and hang out on the roof.
As I climbed the steps, I heard his voice and a woman’s voice. Ah. That’s why he did it.
It wasn’t my roommate’s first time disturbing my sleep on a night before work. We had the same job at the same company, which is why we both lived in a townhome the company rented. Except I gave a damn about work and he cared more about certain recreational activities, to which his rooftop excursion was but a mere prelude.
I climbed near the top of the ladder and my head poked above the townhome roof like I was about to exit a submarine. My roommate and a woman were leaning against a wall on the side of the roof, sipping from beer bottles in between rounds of laughter. Beyond them, lights from Baltimore’s cityscape blinked and shimmered.
“What the hell are you doing?” I said. “It’s one in the morning.”
“Oh sorry!” he said, walking over to me.
He stopped a couple feet from the hatch.
As my anger flared higher, I pushed myself up another rung. “We’ve got work the next day. Don’t you care at all about that?”
Now, my torso stuck above the roof. My roommate sighed, put his hands on his hips and, like an exasperated parent trying to explain something to his child, looked down on me and said, “Yeah.”
I knew he hadn’t completed any long-term project the company had assigned him, even though he’d been working for months or, more accurately, getting paid for months.
“Then finish something!” I said and climbed back down the ladder.
A minute later, they climbed down and joined me in the hallway. My cockblocking was a small compensation for him wrecking my sleep.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I’ve got a couple roommates who work so I get it.”
I thanked her and then apologized to my roommate – not for confronting him but for being rude about it. “We’ll talk tomorrow.” We went to sleep.
Later, we negotiated a sex/noise ceasefire of sorts – a topic for another article. But I’ll never forget the sight of him standing on the rooftop, looming over me, illuminated by the city lights that pulsed through the night sky as he sighed and shook his head, hands on hips. Then there was me, craning my head up, which stretched my voice box enough to give my voice a whiny tinge as I lobbed impotent demands at him.
That wasn’t the only time we had clashed. One morning, I marched into his bedroom, glared at him, and called him out for making noise so late the night before.
I’ll never forget how he bugged his eyes out, whites flashing like the eyes of a panicked muskrat.
He didn’t put his hands on his hips and sigh that time. Instead, he listened.
Was my body language any different? Not really. Both times, I was pissed. Both times, I directly approached him. But this time, we stood eyeball-to-eyeball.
Years later, my girlfriend (now wife) and I travelled east to visit relatives for Thanksgiving – our first time doing that as a couple. After visiting my father’s side of the family, we recuperated in our hotel room. Something had triggered me – some bullshit I had concocted – and as my girlfriend sat on the edge of the bed, I stood over her and accused her of saying something bad. Later, I apologized. After that, I talked about what had happened with our therapist. He asked how I had stood – not just my body language but my body positioning.
A fitting example of body positioning for today’s age of increasingly remote working, is Steve Jobs’ 1997 presentation for Apple. Bill Gates appeared on the screen, towering over Jobs – and everyone else – as if he were The Emperor giving his marching orders to a kneeling Darth Vader. You can find images of this with a little Googling.
Body positioning is the missing piece of body language.
If your positioning is wrong, it doesn’t matter how you throw back your shoulders or imagine a string pulling your head up. When you want to confront someone, make sure you’re on at least the same level – literally. When I climbed up that ladder, I should have stepped onto the roof and faced my roommate – equal footing. When I wrongly lashed out at my girlfriend, it would have been very different if, instead of looming over her, I had sat on the edge of the bed next to her, our hips aligned, so we could talk on the same side – allies.
A friend of mine who’s been in business for almost twice as long as I’ve been alive, told me that when someone tries to bully him, he’ll stand slightly askew so he isn’t squared off with his attacker. This helps defuse the energy of conflict.
Monitor your body positioning, especially in a conflict.
Are you squaring off with someone? Then you’d better want a fight because that’s what you’re going to get. Are you looming over someone? Then you’d better want to dominate them. Are you positioned below someone? Then you’d better want to be submissive.
Otherwise, change your position. Place yourself so you can be someone’s ally. Get on their level. Don’t let the other person have their own Iron Throne and don’t create one for yourself. When you take advantage of the missing piece of body language, you might be surprised how others start treating you.