The James Dean Guide to Being a Body Language Bad*ss
James Dean is an iconic figure of legendary proportions. He was a paragon of coolness who occupied the middle ground between normalcy and anti-social rebellion. He took up lots of space (both physical and psychological) and his body language simultaneously conveyed extreme confidence and boyish vulnerability.
For those who’ve forgotten Jimmy’s coolness, see below for a reminder:
Anyway, you might not be a real bad*ss, but with Jimmy as our guide we’ll be showing you . . .
7 Rules for Being a Body Language Bad*ss
Rule #1: Lean on Stuff While Standing
Gravity is a fact of life, but a fact of life that Jimmy had little little time for. As a result, he expended little energy holding himself up and supporting his own weight. If Jimmy was near an object, you can put your money on him leaning on it sooner or later. (It seems nearly impossible to find a picture of James not propping himself up on one object or another). This doesn’t just apply to the “trunk” of his body, it also applies to his limbs: James often took all of this a step further by propping up one leg (see the middle picture, above) or using an object to support one or both arms (see gun picture, above).
Modifying the Lean
The basic lean can be modified in a number of ways. You can place a hand in your pocket (usually the back pocket), arch your back, or employ the sideways lean (see the gun picture above, left). And if there’s an object at the proper height, bad*ssness can be increased by hooking ones arm around it (you essentially want as many limbs as possible to be supported by objects).
Don't Lean In
As important as what Jimmy did is what he didn’t do. Jimmy almost never leaned in while talking. He leans away. In an effort to be heard at a loud bar, for example, Jimmy probably wouldn’t lean towards his conversational partner in. He’d instead make himself heard by talking louder or he’d let the other person lean in.
Rule #2: Get as Horizontal as Possible While Sitting
Whether leaning forward or leaning backwards, the world was Dean’s lounge chair. The earth was his for the wallowing. Indeed, for body language bad*sses, the propping up of one’s self doesn’t end after they’ve sat down. To be sure, sitting down often opens up a whole new world of items available for the propping up of limbs, and they all should be used. It’s also important to remeber . . .
The #1 Body Language Bad*ss Rule
The rule is this: your coolness while sitting is positively correlated with being horizontal. Imagine that you’re a piece of plywood trying to consume as much surface area as possible. The closer to horizontal you become, the more confidence you project. In short, you want to get as horizontal as possible without actually lying down.
More About Confident Sitting
Confident people often sit on unconventional objects. They also sit on conventional objects in unconventional ways. In the picture to the right, for example, James is sitting on a car door when easily could be sitting in a car seat. But as a body language bad*ss, Jimmy sits where Jimmy wants to sit.
More About the Propping up of Limbs
The “arm-hook” method of propping up ones limbs isn’t limited to standing or to standard body configurations. Indeed, even if it takes more energy to awkwardly prop up an arm, you’ll look better for it. For example, in the picture to the left, James simultaneously scores an arm hook and a bonus head rest (with the same object).
Another possibility is the elbow/head rest. Like the aforementioned arm-hook, the elbow/head rest again provides the one-two punch by allowing you to simultaneously prop up your head and a limb.
Rule #3: Assume an Open Posture
Confidence and vulnerability often go hand in hand. When you’re positioned in a non-defensive and open manner, you communicate that you’re comfortable and confident in your space.
A Note on Body Orientation
Despite the openness frequently displayed by James Dean’s body language, he often didn’t orient his body towards people. Because Jimmy lived in his reality and marched to the beat of his own drummer, he was slow to use body language to acknowledge the presence of others’ existence. I don’t recommend this.
Rule #4: Take up Lots of Space
What rules #1, #2, and #3 have in common is that they indirectly advocate taking up lots of space. By propping up your head and limbs, leaning, and taking an open stance, you communicate that you’re comfortable, confident, and well-adjusted to your surroundings. You demonstrate that you are not ashamed to take up space and be in the world. You aren’t ashamed of your own existence.
Rule #5: Master the Confident Gaze/Fearless Stare/Scowl
James was often found staring at distant objects, furrowing his brow, or just plain scowling. He hardly flinched, although his unaffected glare held just a hint of timidity. When Jimmy did make eye-contact with others, he was rarely the first to break the contact and look away. Jimmy’s eyes were bold and unafraid.
Disclaimer: In the wrong parts of town, you may get yourself shot if you go around scowling and not breaking eye-contact. I don’t want to be responsible for that, so don’t do it. If someone someone holding a bat, knife, or gun maintains eye contact for more than 2 seconds, then immediately look away.
Do not get into a series of staring contests; instead remember to hold your gaze longer than an unconfident person would hold their gaze. Be willing to meet someone’s eyes, and if you want to continue the gaze while minimizing harm to your person, then start talking. (Starting a conversation is just about the only acceptable means for safely continuing a staring contest). This will allow you project a strong vibe without risking your life. Got it?
Rule #6: Talk Slowly
As the first minute of this video demonstrates, James Dean spoke with deep tonality, and to the speed of his own drummer.
In addition to taking up space, Jimmy also consumed a lot of time (while talking). He assumed that because his words were important, you’d make the time to listen. He spoke deeper and slower than needy, nervous men.
Rule #7: Smile Strategically (No Sycophantic Smiling)
A smile is often used to gain approval or validation, ease uncomfortable moments, or show acceptance. Jimmy rarely used his smile in these ways. He didn’t smile when expected. He smiled on his terms. He reacted to people less than they reacted to him.
How Did James Use His Smile?
James Dean used to smile to give approval, not to get it. If you answered a question in a manner that pleased him, then he’d smile. If you said something that amused him, he’d smile. Jimmy smiled to reward you for doing something he liked. He did not smile to be rewarded. He made people pay for his coy, self-satisfied smirkish grin and he generally did not smile to appear friendly.
In Summary . . .
- Lean on Stuff While Standing
- Get as Horizontal as Possible While Sitting
- Assume an Open Posture
- (Take up lots of space)
- Master the Confident Gaze/Fearless Stare/Scowl
- Talk Slowly
- Smile Strategically (No Sycophantic Smiling)
Final Note: This guide is less about social psychology and more about observing the facets of James Dean’s body language. There are several paths to “correct” (and incorrect) body language, and James Dean’s particular favor of non-verbal expression is by no means infallible or the only way to go. Pick and chose what you’d like to integrate. Maybe a version of James Dean “light” might work for you.