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How Some Men Use Body Language to Control Others

The politics of body language.

Key points

  • Nonverbal cues of dominance, such as eye gaze and touch, can be used to control others.
  • Men use more body language cues of dominance, while women use more submissive cues.
  • Even the nonverbal cues of our posture and how we dress can suggest power, dominance, and intimidation.

Body language or nonverbal communication is the primary way that we express power, dominance, and submission. Moreover, there are consistent sex differences in the use of nonverbal cues of dominance—in short, men tend to use them much more frequently than women. And men may use these dominance cues to try to intimidate and control others.

Here are some of the primary body language cues that men may use to express dominance and control:

Eye gaze

Staring directly into another’s eyes is a sign of dominance. Not holding another’s gaze shows submission.

We’ve all seen dominance displays of two people trying to “stare each other down” until one breaks the gaze and backs down (showing submission). Especially when angry, a man is more likely to look another in the eyes as a dominance display. Women, on the other hand, tend to observe others carefully but are more likely to look away when another looks at them—tending not to engage in mutual gaze.

Touch

One of the primary ways that people try to show dominance and to assert control is through physical contact. An obvious, extreme case is hitting or fighting behavior, but touch cues of dominance can be much more subtle. Social psychologist Nancy Henley, in her book Body Politics , discusses how men will use even subtle touch cues to try to control women—to calm them down (e.g., grabbing arms or shoulders), to silence them (e.g., putting their finger to the woman’s lips), or to show dominance (e.g., putting an arm across a woman’s shoulder, patting them). Research has shown that men touch more than women, often to control or dominate.

Personal space

We all have a personal space “bubble” around us. The bubble is the point where the approach of another person causes discomfort and arousal. Men tend to have larger personal space bubbles than women do (a very subtle cue of dominance), and men are more likely to invade a woman’s personal space bubble than vice versa.

Posture

Men tend to be more expansive in their posture and more open—taking up more space. This is an obvious cue of 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.

Mode of dress

Think “power suits”—even how we dress can be used to exhibit dominance or submissiveness. For example, women’s clothing tends to be both more revealing of the body and more constricting. For example, a short skirt requires a woman to sit with her legs close together—a cue of submissiveness. In recent decades, men’s popular fashion choices include camouflage, “hunting-style” outfits, and combat boots, all of which suggest power, dominance, and aggression.

It is very important to be aware of both our verbal and our nonverbal behavior and understand the effect it can have on others.

Facebook image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

References

Henley, N. (1986). Body politics: Power, sex and nonverbal communication. Prentice-Hall.

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