Submissive behavior among humans communicates the acceptance of someone else’s leadership over the environment and/or over oneself.
In a nutshell, submissive behavior relinquishes power over the environment and gives that power to others.
This article shows you exactly what submissive behavior and body language looks like.
Submissive body language is common to most social species. Humans included.
- #1. Deferring to Others
- #2. Defensiveness
- #3. Signs of Social Insecurity
- #4. Signs of Low Self-Esteem
#1. Deferring to Others
The core of submissiveness in social encounters is deferential behavior towards others.
Often, “others” end up being leaders or more dominant individuals.
Deferring takes many forms, including:
1.1. “Monitoring”: scrutinizing the leader’s reactions
Submissive people lack confidence in what they need to do and what they can do.
And to understand what’s admissible and what they should do, they look around searching for cues from the social environment.
Most of all, they look at the leader(s).
Let’s revisit an example from “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
But this time, look at the pattern of eye contact and gaze:
Underling 1: (stares at the banker)
Underling 2: (looks at the banker, then to his boss, then back to the banker, monitoring what the ones with power are doing)
Notice the dynamics at minute 1:22. The underlying makes a joke and looks at the leader to check his reaction. Then he nods as if to say “alright, I’m done here, take the lead”.
And here is another interesting example from the movie “The Break-Up”.
It’s a split second, but notice how he keeps looking at her after he delivers his dominant line:
Him: and guess what, now we make a better meal, VS something visually nice to look at (takes a sip but keeps staring at her, monitoring for her reaction at his wisecracking)
He sounds like he is dominant and in control.
But he looks at her to monitor her reaction, which suggests that she has a strong influence on him (she may have judged power in the relationship and controlled him emotionally).
He is not submissive, but he’s not the leader either.
The dynamics in “The Break-Up” are very common in relationships where the man looks dominant, but where the ultimate power actually rests with her.
PRO Tip: Only look at the leader strategically, avoid “monitoring”
There are many situations in life in which you are not the leader. And that’s OK.
However, looking at the leader too often sends the message that you might not have many leadership qualities at all.
And that doesn’t bode well for your future, both from a career perspective and from a social power point of view.
In that scene from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” they all look like eternal underlings, no matter how much money they make or what their official title is.
And in real life, 95% of the time, the eternal underlings are not the ones who make it into upper management.
To have a great career, you must learn to act more like an executive. In the beginning, it’s OK to monitor to absorb as much information about people and the environment.
But once you understand the politics and power structures, the company culture, and the general rules of socialization, then grow into your own man-woman.
1.2. Rotating towards the leader
Dominance is a bit like an electromagnetic charge.
It can repel people who are afraid or not comfortable with the dominant person (equal charge), but it will attract all the rest (opposite charge).
For example, submissive women, or women who are extremely into their men, move towards their partners with their bodies (or even hide behind their partners when they’re feeling shy and nervous).
Similarly, they will angle their bodies towards the person they are either most attracted to or who has the most social power (which is often the same person).
Notice the meeting between South and North Korean leaders, and how the women move right after the meeting:
White lady: (turns towards the men, and “his” man. She sub-communicates that she’s only there to support him)
Blue lady: (keeps engaging the white lady, does not turn towards the men, shows a stronger resolve and inner drive to lead)
Kim Jong Un’s sister doesn’t rotate toward him.
We might speculate she doesn’t respect him much or she does not like him much (but it’s heavy speculation of course). In either case, what’s a far safer bet is that she’s likely a strong woman with a strong will to lead.
On the other hand, we can guess that Lee Nak-Yeon’s wife recognizes his leadership over her because she rotates toward him.
1.3. Following the leader and group’s laughing-patterns
Patterns of laughter and smiles are a great indicator of social power in a group.
The social dynamics of laughter are very telling for two reasons:
- Who defers to whom: laughs are a sign of friendliness, so who smiles at whom is a good indicator of who is deferring to whom
- What topics the group or the leader sanction as safe or taboo: laughter communicates what topics one can laugh about, and what topics must instead be taken seriously
Deciding which topics are “free to make fun of” is an important decision in the group’s social dynamics.
This is especially true for “risky” subjects such as relationships, sex, politics, feminism, race, etc., etc.
Submissive people are scared of taking that decision by themselves and when they risk it, they look around to make sure their social gambit is being well received.
And what happens if the group is not receiving their joke well?
They will get embarrassed and mortified, and they will often look down… And the laughter will choke in their throats.
Example of laughter power dynamics:
Him: that guy was like “don’t let the door hit you on the vagina on the way out
Her: (flat tonality, sub-communicating that it’s not a joke she found funny or approves of) yeah I heard him
Him: (keeps laughing for a while) ah that was hilarious
Do you think he was displaying submissive behavior there?
Not much, actually.
She sub-communicates disapproval, but he doesn’t backtrack or defend, he doesn’t justify, and he doesn’t even blame her for being “so uptight” (a common reaction for more dominant men who still feel the sting of her judge role).
Men shouldn’t let the women they want to seduce dictate what they can or cannot laugh about. Because that will likely kill most of her attraction.
1.4. Laughing at the leader’s joke even when not funny
Submissive people laugh along with both the leader and the group.
Even when they don’t find it particularly funny.
If someone around you has done a poor joke, arch your lips up just a little bit without showing your teeth as if to say “that wasn’t really funny but I’m being polite”.
Then move on.
Did you do it? – “I’m sorry :(“
Do you remember the article on body language of dominance?
We first introduced there that submissive people close their bodies and make space for dominant individuals.
The same applies to socialization, which is expressed in many forms:
2.1. Walking backward
Walking backward is a way of giving space to the person whom we perceive as being the leader.
You can see this in seduction as well, where it replicates a dominant/dominated body language which can be the precursor of sexual submission:
Him: (walks towards her with a predatory-like gaze)
Her: (walks backward until she hits the wall and slinks away)
Real Life Check:
This can be a great seduction power move for men.
A “predator-prey” dynamic is extremely seductive when she’s attracted and primed for sexual intercourse.
However, men must be conscious to only pull it in situations where the woman is attracted and feels safe. Because in all other environments, it’s outright scary and rape-y (and not in a good way).
2.2. Rushing away
Rushing away is a dead giveaway of social un-assertiveness.
When you rush away from someone it sub-communicates that you are (overly) worried about bothering someone, worried about taking too much of their time, or that you are outright intimidated by them.
And that in turn communicates that their time is so much more important because they are so much more important (and powerful) than you are.
This dynamic is common in workplace environments.
Alternatively, it can also communicate that you’re intimidated or you’re afraid of them, like in this Godfather scene:
Roberto: (brings back the money)
Godfather: thank you so much, can I offer you something
Roberto: (is intimidated and wants to get out of there ASAP) another time, absolutely, we can sit down, talk, but right now I have an appointment, I must really go (rushes towards the door and his anxiousness escalates into panic when he can’t open it right away)
But don’t let the dramatization fool you: this is a common behavior in real-life.
Think about when you’re standing at the checkout line for groceries. Or when someone is waiting for you to leave your parking spot.
Do you feel the pressure of “rushing”?
That’s what we’re talking about here.
2.3. Covering one’s mouth
Very child-like, but it’s not so rare among adults either.
A dramatized example from Fantozzi:
Him: who, that monkey (realizes it’s not cool to say, puts his hand on his mouth)
Again, this example is dramatized, but the dynamic itself is common, and the sub-communication is the same even when not so blatant.
Indeed, any movement of your hand in front of your mouth communicates the same lack of social power.
So if you see your hand going near your mouth stop it immediately and eradicate that behavior in the long run.
Seductive Exception for Women
Covering one’s mouth can be a highly seductive coy signal.
It’s very feminine and it attracts most men.
It’s also a signal of potential “exploitability”, and we explained how that’s an effective dating strategy.
Women can keep covering their mouths as a strategic tool of attraction, but should avoid doing so when they want to be more assertive and be taken more seriously -ie.: in the workplace-.
Also read: how women can be successful in male workplaces.
2.4. Averting leader’s gaze (during criticism)
People with power are not afraid of looking at people’s eyes.
And that includes the times during which they voice disagreement, when they criticize, or when they are making a controversial pitch.
People who feel strong enough to criticize but not strong enough to look into people’s eyes are communicating a personal drive to get things done, but also that they are not fully confident in their own power.
Look at Schumer:
Schumer: yeah, lemme say something Mr. President (looks ahead and low, not at the president whom he is addressing), you say “my way, or we’ll shut down the government”
Schumer comes across as solid and high-power, overall.
He has a strong voice, defends his right of speaking just a few seconds earlier, and delivers his opinions with conviction and power.
But the moment he says “lemme just say something mister president” he does not look at Trump. His gaze is fixated ahead of him and it goes lower.
He communicates two things: that he probably doesn’t like Trump and is not very comfortable with him. And two, that he is lower-power relative to Trump (who instead keeps looking at him straight on like a predator).
With just this single eye-contact behavior, Schumer sub-communicates that he is in the “power down” position (ie.: “I voice disagreement but we both know I’m not in charge”).
PRO Tip: Communicate respectfully, but look at them in the eyes
If you express your disagreement fairly and if your criticism is well-founded, then back it with your eye contact as well.
Be tough on ideas but respectful of people, and then stand behind your words with your body language.
Same for when receiving criticism: keep eye contact and don’t close your body language.
As usual, more advanced social and Machiavellian strategies and exceptions can apply to specific situations.
For example, if you have a boss who’s very high on power and/or has a very fragile ego, then you can avoid them seeing you as a threat by looking away.
2.5. Leaning towards the ones we want/need
Leaning is particularly obvious in intimate relationships or seductions.
The partner who is more into the other will usually move towards them, or touch them more.
Sexy picture, but it’s him who leans into her.
#3. Signs of Social Insecurity
Insecurity and submissiveness are not the same.
But there is a strong overlap between them.
Insecure individuals rarely are leaders, and submissive people tend to be insecure.
Submissive individuals tend to be particularly tentative and insecure around more assertive individuals.
They are focused on threats, and fearful of causing the ire of the more dominant individuals.
Some examples of insecurity signals:
3.1. Looking away after a “risky” comment
A risky comment can make or break your social status.
If people back it up (ie.: laugh, accept the topic, or adopt your attitude towards it), you’ve just acted as a leader.
If they ignore it or contradict it, you lose status.
When socially insecure individuals make a risky comment, they are afraid they might have gone “too far”, and they’re afraid the group might not accept it.
So they look away, look down, close themselves up, or “move away” from what they just said.
The moving away can be physical, and it can be a telltale sign of a lie as well.
Look at Nixon here and see if you notice anything:
Nixon: well, I am not a crook, and I’ve earned everything I’ve got (moves away from the podium, nods up, crosses his arms)
Right after he finishes, he backs away, nods up, and crosses his arm.
He can’t stand there because, deep down, he knows he’s in the wrong. The nod up (aggressive) and the arms folding (defensive) are also confrontational signs of gearing up for a fight.
Same with people who feel like they have just said or done something socially risky: they feel the need to escape and defend themselves.
Now, let’s see an opposite example to fully internalize this dynamic.
Look how James Bond does the exact opposite. He looks away before delivering the witty remark and then stands behind his joke with a straight gaze and by holding the silence.
That’s social power right there:
Dr. No: do you know much about guns, Mr. Bond?
Bond: No (looks away). I know a little about women (looks straight at him, holds the pause)
3.2. Angling one’s face away
This is a bit like the ostrich burying his face in the stand.
Instead of facing the issue, we’d rather remove ourselves and hope the issue disappears.
Angling our face away serves to avoid an environment that is too overwhelming. An environment over which submissive individuals don’t feel like they have enough control.
Milton in “Office Space” does it twice.
Body language teacher Allan Pease says that blinking is a way of blocking messages we don’t feel comfortable with.
The more we blink, the more we get to remove ourselves from situations and people that make us uncomfortable -or afraid-.
Frankly, I’m not sure the explanation is true. But too much blinking can make you come across as more insecure.
And a longer blink-free gaze makes you look more confident.
Sergio Leone’s alpha men make it a point to not blink at all, in spite of the scorching sun
Note on Blink-Free Stare:
Don’t overdo the blink-free gaze though or it can become overwhelming the same way psychopaths‘ stare can be overwhelming (but also note that the psychopath stare can be highly intoxicating for women in the right seductive environments).
#4. Signs of Low Self-Esteem
Low self-esteem looks like insecurity externally.
But while insecurity is situational and changes depending on the environment, low self-esteem tends to be “stickier” (but you can change that too).
Please see Power University for more (I need to leave some gold for the customers).
- Dominant body language (what you must do more)
- Dominant expressions (what you must say more)
- Submissive expressions (what you must avoid saying)
This is an excerpt from Power University