Six Acting Tricks to Help You Stop Being a Pushover
New research on how actors portray emotions shows how you can be more assertive.
Posted Jun 15, 2019
Are you one of those people who values cooperativeness over assertiveness? Would you rather back down in a confrontation, doing anything to avoid seeming too bossy? Are you constantly afraid that others won’t like you unless you give in to them?
Perhaps you have your favorite seat on your regular commuter train or space on the floor to stand during a kickboxing class. To make sure you get this spot, you arrive early enough to occupy it. Some latecomer arrives and insists on pushing you out of the way. To avoid seeming rude, you feel like you have no choice but to accommodate that other person’s demands. You might not even have a regular spot that you claim as your own, but instead may be stuck waiting in a very long line at a checkout counter. Just as you’re about to move to the head of the line, someone comes rushing in and, without even asking, stands right in front of you. Not to the side, but right in front. Your cooperative nature surfaces, and before you can question this person’s right to shove you around, you’ve got to wait that much longer for your turn.
People who assert themselves over others, despite what’s “right,” perhaps rarely have insight into their own behavior. They continue to be rewarded for their pushiness, because there are enough people like you who find this behavior difficult to confront. Although your niceness can win you all kinds of praise and regard from those you interact with, aren’t there times when you’d like to be the one to have your way?
A new study based on the voice patterns that professional actors use to portray certain types of characters may be just what you need to help express, and satisfy, your needs in these situations. McMaster University’s (Hamilton, Ontario) Matthew Berry and Steven Brown (2019) investigated the vocal tones that actors use to convey assertiveness as part of their character depictions. As the authors note, to get into their roles, actors can take on the personalities and identities of their characters either through “method” acting, in which they literally become the character, or by altering their outward appearance to make it seem as if they are what the audience expects from a given role. Even if they do try to slip inside the character’s identity, they have to make some changes in their speech, mannerisms, and ways of interacting with the other players to convey the particular persona the role requires.
Think about Meryl Streep in her iconic role in The Devil Wears Prada, where she is anything but a pushover as a fashion magazine editor, and her completely contrasting role as a meek and humble mother-in-law in the latest season of Big Little Lies. Whether or not she herself feels she has become the person she’s portraying, her outward mannerisms from the Prada Streep are barely recognizable. Berry and Brown believe that all acting roles fall into one of nine types based on whether they are high, medium, or low on the two dimensions of assertiveness and cooperativeness. Knowing how actors navigate these spots on the matrix could help you move from the cooperative to the assertive side on those occasions when you worry about being a pushover.
The nine character types with their associated dimensions are as follows:
Bully: High assertiveness, low cooperativeness
King/Queen: High assertiveness, medium cooperativeness
Hero(ine): High assertiveness, high cooperativeness
Cynic: Medium assertiveness, low cooperativeness
Self-portrayal (for actors portraying themselves): Medium assertiveness, medium cooperativeness
Librarian: Medium assertiveness, high cooperativeness
Recluse: Low assertiveness, low cooperativeness
Loner: Low assertiveness, medium cooperativeness
Lover: Low assertiveness, high cooperativeness
If you’re the “lover type” (romantic or otherwise), then you want to seem as “lovable” as possible. To move up the assertiveness hierarchy, you could stay cooperative by progressing slightly up to the hero type, if you still want people to like you. Becoming a bully would most likely not feel very comfortable, so perhaps you could take on some of the qualities of a king or queen.
Berry and Brown presented 24 actors with the nine character types (14 men, ranging from 20 to 63 years of age). Rather than give the actors scripts with already established characters, the Canadian researchers gave their actors the category names, as above, along with a monologue script consisting of seven neutral sentences, organized around a narrative of describing objects in a room. The authors then analyzed audio and video recordings of the performances to determine primarily how the actors used their voices to portray the nine types of roles. Recording the actors in an ordinary conversation also allowed Berry and Brown to obtain a control baseline.
Imagine hearing what some of those characters would sound like to you. According to Brown and Berry, the most important qualities are pitch (high or low), loudness, timbre (wavering or solid), speed (rapid or slow), and continuity (taking pauses or speaking without a break). Comparing the speech ratings of the actors, the authors found reliable differences according to the assertiveness dimension, but only scattered results with respect to cooperativeness. Apparently, it is more difficult for the actors to distinguish themselves as loners vs. lovers than loners vs. cynics.
What ways of speaking led actors to seem more assertive? The research team's findings can be summed up with these six acting tricks:
- Higher pitched—Use a higher-toned voice without going up into falsetto tones.
- Loud—Speak up, as a quiet voice conveys low assertiveness.
- Clear—Use clear tones in your speech without wavering.
- Fast—Speak quickly to show you know what you want to say.
- No pauses—Leave out the "ums" and other signs of hesitation.
- No monotone—Allow your voice to go up and down in tone, loudness, and rapidity to show that you are in control of what you want to say.
Practice these tricks yourself now by trying to portray the role of your favorite hero, or perhaps, your favorite bully. How has your voice changed from the way you normally speak? Hold onto this the next time you are faced with a potential pushover-like situation.
One other interesting result from the study concerned the performance persona that the actors used when portraying themselves. Berry and Brown regard some aspects of the tonal qualities of this type of speech as similar to infant-directed speech (“motherese”), which, in their words “is the characteristic situation of caregiver-infant interaction, but is also the discursive arrangement of a seminar speaker, a tour guide, the narrator of a story, and many other situations where one speaker plays a dominant role in an interaction with attentive, but typically silent, recipients” (p. 15). If you’ve had to read a speech to your listeners, instead of talking without notes, you’ve probably adopted this tone of voice as well. Teaching versus conversing, therefore, carries distinct qualities all its own.
To sum up, it appears that, whether or not you feel more assertive, you can fool your listeners into thinking that you are just by virtue of the way you speak. Rather than needing weeks of assertiveness training to be better at getting your way, the Brown and Berry study suggests that using your voice can help you accomplish the same goals.
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Berry, M., & Brown, S. (2019). Acting in action: Prosodic analysis of character portrayal during acting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi: 10.1037/xge0000624.supp (Supplemental)