Body Language Expert | Motivational Speaker | Keynote Speaker | Communication Expert | Presentation & Speaking Skills Trainer | One-On-One Coach

Hide the Vegetables under the Mashed Potatoes

By Patti Wood MA
Professional Speaker, Consultant and Coach

I was the baby of the family, significantly younger than my siblings. In fact my sister Robin, who is twelve years older than me, went off to college the same week I started first grade. This age difference obviously affected our family dinners. I was down at the end of the table playing with my food, trying to hide the broccoli under the mashed potatoes (because no self- respecting five year-old eats anything green) while the rest of my family was focused on adult interaction.

Every family has its own dinner rituals. And your childhood rituals affect your adult interactions. Nonverbal research indicates that where you sat and who you talked to at the family dinner table created a pattern of conversational behavior that can affect your entire adult life. Yes, think right now of where you sat for family dinners as a child, and think about where you sit and how you act at meetings. Think about the way you interact with your co-workers, your lunch and dinner companions and your current family. After reading this article you can even try to imagine the family dinner patterns of the people you work with and how that may affect how they treat you.

As the baby of the family I loved attention. At dinner I would interrupt the conversational flow with exploits of the number of minnows in my latest creek catch and how super high I swung on the swing that day. I always had to fight my way into the conversation, using an extra loud animated voice and body language. I had more energy and enthusiasm than a high school cheerleader and more funny facial expressions and gestures than the “Last Comic Standing.” My family loved to laugh, and I am sure I started working on my comic timing in grade school! My father was a professor and he loved us to share what we learned each day, so I was always looking for and sharing golden nuggets of knowledge from my little kid life. I even had funny way of sitting on my feet, thinking it was just a few inches of height that separated me from the big people fun.

If I went a second too long or wasn’t funny at the table, the adults would shush me and continue on, and I would be the small, silent food magician, with my abracadabra broccoli disappearing under the potatoes again. Now that I think about it, I may have had my first tough audience as a five year-old! Occasionally, my enthusiasm and disruptions would so disturb the adults that I would be “allowed” to eat in the basement family room in front of the TV. I could hear the family laughing upstairs over the sounds of my cartoons. It was lonely downstairs. I felt left out, so I learned to be quiet unless I had something fantastic to say and worked harder on my delivery! I was training to be a professional speaker and didn’t know it.

Now here is the kicker. Years later, as I began to attend grad student meetings, then faculty meetings and then corporate meetings, sitting around any boardroom table I felt like the little kid at the end being ignored. In my twenties I even sat on my feet! And like the shushed child, I was silent most of the time. It took two years of speaking in front of my corporate and association audiences and doing this exercise to see my pattern and to help me get my table talk confidence up enough to speak up while sitting in a boardroom or dinner party! The patterns created at the family dinner table are very strong, but it has helped me tremendously to know what my tendencies are and it can help you too! Reflecting on your conversation patterns can give you great insights into your behavior, as it has for many of my one on one coaching clients that are working on their boardroom body language!

I have a client who was one of few little kids in large loud extended Italian family, where he had to compete to be heard and was spanked when he whined. He was rewarded only when he was an alpha male. He realized he still shouted and yelled whenever he sat at a big conference table and he didn’t like anyone to express vulnerable emotions. So we worked so he could be awake and aware to when he raised his voice and got angry and used many of The Ten Alpha Characteristics. He learned how to read the group members body language so he could choose Alpha behavior or use Gentler Listening Techniques.

I had a client who was also raised by a professor. Her father always asked, “Where did you learn that?” and other Spanish inquisition like banter that made her want to keep her head down and get small. We worked on her confidence and power body language cues and vocal cues to rev her up for a new vice president position.

Where did you sit at the table? Take out a piece of paper and draw, perhaps with crayons, where you sat at the family dinner table and who you talked to the most and what your behavior was. Use red lines to signify conflict filled conversations, perhaps with your pesky brother, and green lines for easy fun conversations. Now draw where you sit at the table and the current conversation flow at home and at work. For the full table exercise in my book, SNAP! Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma, click on this link full exercise and scroll to the bottom of page and click view the exercise.

Check out my web site at and my blog at for more articles on conversation.

Let me know if you have any table talk insights. In the meantime, may you have all the mashed potatoes you need.

Contact Patti Wood at Communication Dynamics Inc. at or on my cell at 678-358-6160.

Benefits of family dinners – I shared that you need family dinner time to learn body language - studies link regular family dinners with lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents.