As the most complex social animal on the planet, we humans form elaborate hierarchies based on position, money, and power. We are aware of these hierarchies, but we do not like talking explicitly about relative power positions, and we are generally uncomfortable when others talk about their superior rank. Instead, signs of dominance or weakness are more often expressed in nonverbal communication. We have inherited this communication style from other primates, notably chimpanzees, who have elaborate signals to denote an individual chimp’s place in the social rank. Keep in mind that the feeling of being in a superior social position gives people a confidence that will radiate outward in their body language. Some feel this confidence before they attain a position of power, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as others are drawn to them. Some who are ambitious might try to simulate these cues, but it has to be done well. Fake confidence can be quite off-putting.
Confidence usually comes with a greater feeling of relaxation that is clearly reflected in the face, and with a greater freedom of movement. Those who are powerful will feel allowed to look around more at others, choosing to make eye contact with whomever they please. Their eyelids are more closed, a sign of seriousness and competence. If they feel bored or annoyed, they show it more freely and openly. They often smile less, frequent smiling being a sign of overall insecurity.
They feel more entitled to touch people, such as with friendly pats on the back or on the arm. In a meeting, they will tend to take up more space and create more distance around themselves. They stand taller, and their gestures are relaxed and comfortable. Most important, others feel compelled to imitate their style and mannerisms. The leader will tend to impose a form of nonverbal communication on the group in very subtle ways. You will notice people mimicking not only their ideas but also their calm or more frenetic energy.
Alpha males like to signal their superior position in the rank in several ways: They speak faster than others and feel entitled to interrupt and control the flow of the conversation. Their handshake is extra vigorous, almost crushing. When they walk in the office, you will see them assume a taller stance and a purposeful stride, generally making inferiors walk behind them. Watch chimpanzees in a zoo and you will notice similar behavior on the part of the alpha chimp.
For women in leadership positions, what often works best is a calm, confident expression, warm yet businesslike. Perhaps the best example of this would be current German chancellor Angela Merkel. Her smiles are even less frequent than the average male politician, but when they occur they are especially meaningful. They never seem fake. She listens to others with looks of complete absorption, her face remarkably still. She has a way of getting others to do most of the talking while always seeming to be in control of the course of the conversation. She does not need to interrupt to assert herself. When she wants to attack someone, it is with looks of boredom, iciness, or contempt, never with blustery words. When Russian president Vladimir Putin tried to intimidate her by bringing his pet dog into a meeting, knowing Merkel had once been bitten and had a fear of dogs, she visibly tensed, then quickly composed herself and looked him calmly in the eye. She put herself in the one-up position in relation to Putin by not making anything of his ploy. He seemed rather childish and petty in comparison. Her style does not include all of the alpha male body posturing. It is quieter and yet extremely powerful in its own way.
As women come to attain more leadership positions, this less obtrusive style of authority might begin to alter our perception of some of the dominance cues so long associated with power.
It is worth observing those in positions of power in your group for signs of dominance cues and for their absence. Leaders who display tension and hesitation in their nonverbal cues are generally insecure in their power and feel it threatened. Signs of such anxiety and insecurity are generally easy to spot. They will talk in a more halting manner, with long pauses. Their voice will rise in pitch and stay there. They will tend to avert their gaze and control their eye movements, although they will often blink more. They will put on more forced smiles and emit nervous laughs. As opposed to feeling entitled to touch others, they will tend to touch themselves in what is known as pacifying behavior. They will touch their hair, their neck, their forehead, all in an attempt to soothe their nerves. People trying to hide their insecurities will assert themselves a little too loudly in a conversation, their voices rising. As they do this, they look around nervously, eyes wide open. Or as they talk in an animated way, their hands and bodies are unusually still, always a sign of anxiety. They will inevitably give off mixed signals, and you must pay greater attention to those that signal underlying insecurity.
Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France (2007–2012), was someone who liked to assert his presence through body language. He would pat people on the back, be the one to direct them where to stand, fix them with his stare, interrupt what they were saying, and generally try to dominate the room. During one meeting with him in the midst of the euro crisis, Chancellor Merkel saw his usual domineering act but could not help but notice his foot nervously jiggling the entire time. The extra assertive style was perhaps his way of distracting others from his insecurities. This was valuable information Merkel could put to use. People’s actions will often contain dominance and submission cues.
For instance, people will often show up late to indicate their superiority, real or imagined. They are not obligated to be on time. Also, conversation patterns reveal the relative position people feel they occupy. For instance, those who feel dominant will tend to talk more and interrupt frequently, as a means of asserting themselves. When there’s an argument that turns personal, they will resort to what is known as punctuation—they will find an action on the other side that started it all, even though clearly it is part of the relationship pattern. They assert their interpretation of who is to blame through their tone of voice and piercing looks. If you observe a couple from the outside, you will frequently notice one person who is in the dominant position. If you converse with them, the dominant one will make eye contact with you but not with his or her partner, and will appear to only half listen to what the partner says. Smiles can also be a subtle cue for indicating superiority, especially through what we shall call the tight smile. This usually comes in response to something someone said, and it is a smile that tightens the facial muscles and indicates irony and contempt for the person they see as inferior but gives them the cover of appearing friendly.
One final but very subtle nonverbal means of asserting dominance in a relationship comes through the symptom. One partner suddenly develops headaches or some other illness, or starts drinking, or generally falls into a negative pattern of behavior. This forces the other side to play by their rules, to tend to their weaknesses. It is the willful use of sympathy to gain power and it is extremely effective.
Finally, use the knowledge you glean from these cues as a valuable means of gauging the levels of confidence in people and acting appropriately. With leaders who are riddled with insecurities that poke through nonverbally, you can play to their insecurities and gain power through this, but often it is best to avoid attaching yourself too closely to such types, as they tend to do poorly over time and can drag you down with them. With those who are not leaders but are trying to assert themselves as if they were, your response should depend on their personality type. If they are rising stars, full of self-belief and a sense of destiny, it might be wise to try to rise with them. You will notice such types by the positive energy that surrounds them. On the other hand, if they are simply arrogant and petty despots, these are precisely the types you should always strive to avoid, as they are masters at making others pay lip service to them without giving anything in return.