There are significant differences in the way that men and women use, and respond to, nonverbal cues. Many of the nonverbal cues commonly used by men put women at a disadvantage in situations involving power and status. Men often use these nonverbal cues of dominance to unknowingly (or knowingly) make women feel defensive and submissive.
Here are some gender differences in nonverbal communication that are associated with power and dominance:
Personal Space. Men tend to have a larger personal space “bubble” around them. This bubble is the point where the approach of another person causes some arousal and discomfort. Women tend to have a smaller personal space bubble. Moreover, a woman’s bubble tends to get “invaded” by men more often than the other way around.
Posture. Men tend to be more expansive in their posture, and more open – taking up more space. This is associated with dominance. Women, on the other hand, tend to take up less space and be more constricted. For example, consider how men cross their legs while seated, while women will often hold their legs tightly together. Expansive positions are associated with power and dominance and constricted positions with submissiveness. Moreover, there is research evidence that a more open, “forceful” posture will actually make you feel more powerful and confident.
Mode of Dress. Women’s clothes tend to be more revealing of the body, and more restricting. Consider a short skirt, which requires a woman to sit with her legs close together – the very posture that suggests submissiveness. In addition, men use their pockets to carry belongings, women typically carry a purse. Besides being cumbersome, the purse can be a nonverbal signal of sex and submissiveness (consider the failure of men’s ‘satchels’ in catching on; there is a devaluing of men who appear to be “carrying a purse”).
Touch. Like venturing into the personal space bubble, touch can be considered an “invasion” initiated more by dominant individuals. Research suggests that men initiate touch more than women (among non-lovers), as do dominant individuals. In one interesting study, it was found that when a man and woman walk side-by-side, the man tends to keep the woman on the side of his dominant hand. Moreover, when women initiate touch, it is often misinterpreted as a sign of sexual interest.
Eye Gaze. Staring at another person is typically a sign of dominance, not holding another’s gaze is a sign of submission. Women tend to watch men when they are not looking, but look away when a man looks at them.
While these sex-based patterns of nonverbal behavior are deeply ingrained, it is important to be aware of our nonverbal behavior and the effect it is having on others. Being confident and assertive, and displaying it, are tied to our nonverbal cue displays.
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