Dominance and Submissiveness Body Language

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How do we express dominance or submissiveness through our body language?

When we talk about dominance or submissiveness we talk about the amount of influence over others.

How strong do we feel compared to the rest of the group?

How comfortable do we feel to take command and make the decisions? Are we the alpha males (females)? Or are we the followers? Or maybe we’re at the bottom of the ladder? All these signs are visible through the way we talk and walk.

Because we’re social creatures we need hierarchy to maintain order. Who makes the decisions and who follows? We automatically decide that within any new group setting, we’re part of. We don’t need to cast votes and we don’t need to ask questions. Somehow, everyone just finds their place. How does that happen? With the help of 2 main factors:

1.  The context of the meeting. Theme and position often dictate who should be dominant in each particular scenario. A general might be the most dominant figure on the battlefield, but back at home, he might let his wife make the decisions regarding their marriage. We automatically submit to those we believe know what they’re doing.

2. Nonverbal communication. What we actually communicate to others. This might be according, or not, to how others perceive us. E.g. if a young trainee acts dominant in front of his CO, he will be considered insolent, because he challenges the authority of his commander.

Most often we cannot control the context (yes, one day our young trainee may become a CO, but it won’t help him in our particular scenario) but we still can choose how to act. Using body language is a great way to deliver the message you want without the need to do something too obvious like shouting “I’m in charge, listen to me!”

Accordingly, the aim of this article is to show you what postures show a dominant attitude, and what postures suit submissiveness. By using body language in the way you want others to perceive you, you gain more control over the interaction.

What is Dominant Body Language?

Adopting a dominant posture can be a result of 2 things:

  1. Habit, if we’re used to being in charge of others. Just like you would expect from our retired general to still have some appetite for command, for example;
  2. Our impression is that we’re at the head of the food chain in a certain scenario.

Alternatively, we submit to those whom we recognize as more powerful and knowledgeable than us.

So how can you spot the leader from a distance?

1. First, pay attention to the group dynamics: Who leans towards whom?  To which direction do group members curve their body (or their feet, or their heads)? Who makes eye contact with whom? Most members will incline or turn their bodies towards the leader, maybe unconsciously to seek his attention and approval.

2. The behavior of whom you suspect to be the leader. A leader figure doesn’t have to be aggressive or loud, or even in the center of attention. A dominant person just feels comfortable in his position – he has control and makes the important decisions.  This is represented in body language, tone of voice, and the way he interacts with others.

Let’s let’s stay focused on postures, though – A dominant figure will be using body language to take a large amount of space and to appear taller and bigger. Just like in the animal kingdom the leader is the biggest, the strongest, and has the largest share, so is the same for us. Only we’re a little more sophisticated, so you don’t actually have to be the strongest or biggest physically to be the dominant.

By adopting a dominant posture even a short and small person can have an aura of command (Napoleon, anyone?). It’s all in the way he uses body language and holds himself, some examples:

  • Standing tall with an open chest and head high
Three men walking on streets
  • Taking space – spreading the arms, and legs wide apart.
Man sitting on a chair
  • Exposing vulnerable areas. “Hit me if you dare” – fearless attitude.
Man standing while arms are hidden behind and in pocket
  • Leaning back with hands behind the back – the “know it all” posture 
Man standing while arms behind the back
  • Hands-on Hips. Like a fluffed rooster trying to appear bigger and more intimidating.
  • Hands tucked in the belt or in the pockets with thumbs protruding towards the genital area – Showing who has the “biggest tool” around here. It’s more popular for males for obvious reasons, but some assertive females may also copy this dominant body language.
Man tucking his arms on his pocket
  • Hand in hand behind the back. Just imagine a policeman patrolling the street (well they hardly patrol by foot anymore, they got cars after all, but you get the idea). A very self-assured posture.
Person holding his arms behind himself

These are some examples but there are many more, usually, they’re the opposite of the defensive body language postures. It’s all about exposing vulnerable parts of the body and gaining a lot of personal space. Women use similar postures only in a subtler fashion to keep a more feminine, delicate touch: keeping one hand on the hips instead of both, lifting their head high (exposing their smooth neck), and walking in fast and strong strides.

What is Submissive Body Language?

Submissive body language involves “caving in” gestures and postures. It reflects defensive, reclusive or indecisive behavior. Submissive characters prefer to relinquish their power to others and avoid being in control. This means they will try to appear as small as possible and avoid making “a lot of noise”.

The reasons behind this behavior are plentiful: fear of command, complete admiration of the other party, low self-esteem, insecurity, or simply lack of motivation to act.

So what are the submissive postures? The opposite of the dominant ones, obviously:

  • The body will cringe to appear smaller and less threatening
  • The head bows slightly chest caves in.
  • Doe eyes – wide open and innocent gaze
  • Hunched shoulders – show passiveness and even sadness.
  • Crossed and defensive postures can also be considered submissive and indecisive. When you cross your body you hinder your ability to move, and therefore you become more passive.
Man and woman sitting and talking

Many females tend to display submissive traits because they are culturally taught to do so from an early age. In order to be more feminine and ladylike they needn’t extend their body, use small gestures, and talk quietly. While these gestures add delicacy and innocence to their act, they also make them easier prey for dominant figures and often hurt their self-esteem. In order to prevent that, these women need to adopt more dominant postures like standing tall, keeping their head and chest up and not being afraid of using strong gesticulations.

man and woman shaking hands

Keeping the Good Measure

I want to clarify that using submissive body language is NOT wrong.

It has its own uses and can be a powerful tool in the right hands. Many women know how to play the innocent and vulnerable girl to get what they want in a much more efficient way than bullying people around.

Dominant body language is a double-edged sword. 

Act like the alpha dog all the time and you will often step on someone’s toes and ruffle some feathers. Surprisingly, people dislike being intimated and pushed over, so watch your back.

Using submissive gestures, up to some extent, can help to create empathy and bond with others.

Even the smile is considered a submissive gesture, but more often than not, it aids rather than harms your relations.  We’re not in the jungle anymore and we need the cooperation of others, which we can often achieve without the use of raw power.

So all in all, it’s about good measure, there’s a lot of space between being a complete jerk to a floor rag, and you don’t need to choose either.  Being flexible and knowing how to adapt is the key when using body language. E.g. being aggressive in sales can often hurt your efforts because most buyers prefer to feel in control rather than to be pushed around.

Body Language Shapes Who You Are

I often mention that body language affects the way we think about ourselves, for a demonstration I highly recommend watching this amazing TED talk by Amy Cuddy about using body language.

She makes a fascinating study that reveals how adopting dominant postures (for only 2 min!) helps lower stress hormones and makes people feel more relaxed and confident.

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Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
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