15 Signs of Verbal Submissiveness

verbal submission quote

Reading submissive signals is crucial to understanding if someone is submitting to you and accepting your leadership and authority.

And, equally important, it’s crucial to understand if YOU are (subconsciously) sending submissive signals.
Once you know, you can then work to weed them out.

This article shows you exactly what submission sounds like.


Signs of submission in humans communicate that the speaker is lowering one’s own status in comparison to others.

Men mostly use submissive signals in social settings, while women can use submissiveness signals in both social and dating settings (see: signs she likes him).

Submissive signals are not bad per se. 
They are an integral and natural part of communication and, when used strategically, they can also be part of a long-term strategy of power.

However, too many verbal signals of submission will make it impossible for men and women to meet their true potential in life.
So it’s best to become aware of them, and only deploy them when they are strictly necessary.

Let’s see what these submissive signs are:

#1. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is indeed a recurring pattern of submissive people.

In verbal expressions of dominance, we saw that dominant individuals take the judge role, ask questions, lead, control the frame, and, potentially, attack.

Well, the submissive individual does the opposite.
He answers, justifies, and defends.

Submissive people fall into this trap because they feel that their destiny is in the dominant men’s hands, and they need to win their approval and/or their forgiveness by defending and justifying.

1.1. Justifying

Imagine this dialogue:

Authority: You knew it was forbidden didn’t you
Submissive Person: (long face, low gaze, says nothing) …
Authority: (assumes guilty and/or negative intent) Then why did you do it
Submissive Person: Well, I was thinking that it was OK after all because in this case there was an exception, because basically what happened is that…

The “Submissive person” in the above dialogue is defending and justifying himself.
Both the words and the length of the answer sub-communicate submissiveness and lack of confidence (see more in “skills for career advancement“).

Notice that he might be guilty. Or he might not. Or he might be in a grey area that he could easily come out of if he only behaved higher power and with better frame-control skills.
But simply by retreating, defending, and justifying, he behaves like he’s guilty and everyone around will think of him as guilty -or weak-.
In short, low-power and submissive behavior makes you sound guilty, even if you’re not.

A more dominant way of handling that conversation would be the following:

Authority: You knew it was forbidden didn’t you
Confident Person: Yes I knew it
Authority: Then why did you do it
Confident Person: I’m not sure why. I just did it and it was a mistake (I apologize to everyone involved)

Or to deliver a barb to your inquisitor you could say:

High-Power Person: I’m not sure the how the why will help us. I’ve done it, it’s in the past, and now I know it was a mistake. I apologize to everyone involved and it won’t happen again. This is what I will do to make up for it…

Much more powerful.
Even with the apology, it’s much more powerful. You own it and you don’t defend yourself.

Notice that “apologizing to everyone involved” is a social finessing power move.

Instead of apologizing to the person who is cornering you, which will give him a lot of power and authority, you are instead apologizing “to everyone involved”, thus not deferring to him.

Very shrewd, and very effective.

1.2. “Just… ” 

“I Just meant.. “, “I just wanted to say…”

Just is the keyword of the defensiveness and it’s akin to asking for forgiveness.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, I just wanted to fix a mistake”.

1.3. “What”

(long nonverbal pause) “what”

Do you remember that dominant individuals withstand social pressure and create tension?

Well, the submissive party tries to release that social tension.

Especially when the most dominant party seems angry or judgmental, the more submissive party will defend himself and release tension by re-engaging verbally.

“What” in that context communicates something like “what have I done wrong now”.

Here is an example from the movie “Beautiful Girls”:

Owner: Free apps! 
Group: (glares at him, says nothing)
Owner: I got free apps
Group: (glares at him, says nothing)
Owner: What? (Opens up his arm, as if to say “was I out of order?”)

It’s not the worst behavior, but he still lost some power.
With his “what” he doubts himself, accepts that he’s done something wrong, and buys into the frame of the group.

A higher-power individual might have stuck to his own frame, and come from a very different mindset.
The mindset might have been, for example:

Higher-power mindset: Nobody died as far as I know, and if someone did, speak and let me know instead of glaring at me. Bar that, I am giving you free food, so I’d expect a better behavior

And he might have replied:

Group: (glares at him, says nothing)
Owner: what the hell is wrong with you guys

See the difference: instead of thinking “what have I done wrong”, he’d think “what the hell is wrong with you guys”.

#2. Insecurity

Submissive individuals speak in a way that betrays a lack of conviction, clarity, and confidence.

Read this section attentively.
These issues plague lots of people, and removing them is an easy win to skyrocket your social power.

#2.1. Filler Words

Filler words are expressions such as:

  • “ehm”
  • “uhmm”
  • “well…”

Filler words come naturally to most of us.

But “natural” doesn’t mean “good”, and we should all get rid of them.

Watch this Judge Judy video several times until you also start hating filler words. Or join Toastmasters where they use a clacker to highlight filler words.

It’s time well spent: getting rid of filler words will do miracles to make you a more credible, authoritative, and powerful figure. If you can’t join a TM, then you need to become aware of your own usage.

Go “damn!” in your head every time you use one of these hideous sounds. That will help you become aware and once your awareness precedes the sound, then you will be able to swap the filler word with a pause.

Here is an example from Margin Call:

Big boss: Speak as you might to a young child. It wasn’t brains that got me here, I can assure you that
Junior analyst
: Well, ehm… 

Also, notice his words going up at the end of the sentence.

This is a stumbling block for many people who could otherwise be confident and powerful.
But you can’t look confident and powerful until you get rid of your filler words. Make filler words a priority.

Here is an example of a public speech without filler words where most people, including me in the past, would have used filler words.
I come across far more influential and compelling after I trained myself to remove filler words.

#2.2. Tail Filler Words

There is no existing expression for this signal of insecurity, so “tail filler words” is an expression that I made up -and to which I claim rights for :)-.

But even though an expression for it doesn’t exist, sure does the phenomenon of adding filler words at the end of a sentence exists.

They are utterances such as “ah”, “ok” or, as they do in Germany “ja”. It sounds terrible and like you don’t believe in what you’re saying.

Jimmy: Have you ever had a situation where you felt amazing OK

He’s a cool guy and looks solid. He’d come across even better without the “OK”, which was an unnecessary appendage.

An example of tail filler words is also ending sentences with “or… “.

#2.3. Lowering Expectations

“Guys, maybe this is silly, but… “.

How would you feel if I prefaced my paragraphs with those words?

Certainly, you wouldn’t think I know what I’m talking about. Or that I am worth being listened to.
That’s what lowering expectations does: it decreases your power and authority.

Low-confidence individuals lower expectations because they fear social judgment and fear looking bad.
Thus, they preface their ideas and opinions with words that predict failure. So that if they do fail indeed, they at least “soften the blow” (or so they think).

Similar low-power expressions that signal insecurity are:

Insecure Person: I’m just rambling here, but…

Insecure Person: I hope this is not completely stupid…

Real Life Check: Exception
Advanced communicators can use similar expressions to draw more attention to what they are about to say.
So if you have a good reputation, authority, and social status in a group, you can use it strategically.

Lowering Expectations Give Away Judge Powers

Lowering expectations says this:

I am afraid you will judge me poorly, so I do it first

Lowering expectations gives away power, and also gives away the judge’s role.

Sometimes you can see this behavior in women right before a date -especially if from online dating-.

They try to manage down expectations saying they don’t look good, they’re fat, or they dressed poorly for the day.

“Managing expectations down” can work, but it must be done more strategically. And better in person.
And, usually, it is better not on those aspects that most people are insecure about. Because the main issue is just that: it makes you come across as insecure:

I said something uplifting that made her feel good, but in truth, I was respecting her less and less

#2.4. Emotional Over-Reactions

Such as:

  • Getting angry
  • Getting emotional
  • Begging and pleading
  • “Oh my God-ding” all over the place

The first overreacting does, is that it sub-communicates you’ve probably never been in that situation before.
And that self-frames you as not very “worldly” and experienced.

And if you overreact on 1:1, it shows signs of nervousness, unease, and over-dependence on the more dominant individual.

Furthermore, people who overreact show they don’t have much control over their own minds.

Here’s an example from The Godfather:

Michael: the ink on your divorce isn’t dry yet and you’re getting married? (…) You fly around the world with a man who doesn’t care about you and use you like a whore
Conny: (yelling) you’re not my father

Because she raises her voice you might misread the power dynamics and think that she is dominant.
Raising her voice is a sign indeed that she is not fully submissive and she is trying to reject her brother’s authority.

But getting so worked up also shows her weakness: she needs to aggress to defend herself, which tells us that her brother is getting to her.
And when someone can easily get to you, it means that they are very important to you (likely, they hold soft power in the form of a judge and you need their positive opinion).

Another example of an overreaction is when a submissive individual is being scolded, maybe unfairly, by someone they respect a lot and they just can’t wait to jump in to defend themselves.

Men who are relationship leaders will see it a lot from their girlfriends. When you are unhappy or explaining to her why you’re disappointed she will jump in to justify herself before you can even finish your sentences.

Over-reaction Quiz

Look at this scene for twenty seconds, and ask yourself: who is the least socially powerful in the group?

Guy 1: blew a whole f*cking platoon to pieces. Bad sh*t
Guy 2: yeah, they got two lieutenants and captain
Guy 3: Jesus (looks around)

It’s the lieutenant who says “Jesus”.
He is the only one who overreacts to the bad news, coming across as the most fearful. Then he darts his eyes around looking for other people’s reactions.

#2.5. Upward Inflection (Upspeak)

Upspeak means “going up at the end of the sentences”.

It’s a common way of talking in some regions.
It’s also feminine, but not necessarily in a positive way.

If you’re a woman you can keep it a little as long as you’re conscious about it and want to seem more demure to some men.
But scrap it completely at work and whenever you need authority and credibility.

Here is a good example of upward inflection from the movie Bridesmaids.
The very first moment, when she introduces her friend she goes up with the words “Annie” and “Becca”:

Her: Annie (upspeak), this is Becca (upspeak) my friend from work (upspeak)

#2.6. Trailing Off

To trail off means to go down in volume as you approach the end of the sentence.

It happens when an insecure or low-status individual starts to say something and notices that people either aren’t listening or aren’t liking what he says.
So instead of increasing his intensity to draw attention and be more influential, he gives up and trails off.

It sub-communicates that you don’t believe in yourself and you’re afraid that people might disagree.

Here is an example from The Wolf of Wall Street, the Swiss banker scene:

Low-status guy: Yeah, yeah, french fries, “pomme frittes” ehehe, and that kind, that kind of stuff.. (trails off and looks at the leader)

Notice how he also ends with a slight smile -a friendly submissive signal- and a nod.
As if to say “OK I’m done, you leaders can take over now”.

#2.7. Passive Aggressive Attacks

“Passive-aggressive attack” might sound like an oxymoron, but it exists.

It’s a pattern I’ve seen several times but, again, it doesn’t have a standardized name.

So here it is just for you, an exclusive from The Power Moves :).

Submissive people are afraid of cornering others, even when they are right.
So they use utterances such as “come on” and an abundance of filler words to “keep the pressure on”.
But their way of keeping the pressure on is low in power, and delivered with many submissive cues.

I could not find any good video for this, but it’s important because I have seen it from many different people it’s difficult to explain with just words.

So here’s me doing an interpretation of a passive-aggressive attack:

What’s the alternative?
The alternative is to state your point resolutely and assertively. Rinse and repeat if needed, but no “come on”, no upward inflection, and no filler words.

#3. Indecisiveness

Submissive people look insecure because, often, they themselves don’t know what they want.

And when they know it, they still submit their will to that of the leader or to that of the group, so they end up looking like they don’t know what they want.

3.1. Verbal Flip-Flop

Verbal flip-flop means going from yes to no and spending a lot of time “uhm-ming” in the middle without making a final decision.

Why do submissive individuals engage in more verbal flip-flopping?

Because they don’t answer based on reality or based on what they believe in. Submissive people seek to provide an answer that the group will accept and/or that the dominant individual wants to hear.

Hence, especially in tense exchanges, submissive individuals tentatively guess what they should answer. They say something, then look for cues in the environment. 
And if they don’t get any, they switch opinions back and forth waiting for some encouragement from the environment.

In this scene from “Reality Bites”, Ben Stiller shows all his insecurity by going back and forth on such a simple decision as to whether or not the waitress can take his dish.

Waitress: You all done here sir?
Him: Ahhhh… (she takes it away) yeah, yeah
Her: Oh, you don’t wanna finish that? 
Him: (looks back towards the dish) no, yeah, nonono, I’m fine

He seems undecided on such a simple decision as to whether or not the waitress can take his dish.

And a little later:

Her: the establishment owes him a sneaker
Him: (looks at her) right, right. Well, I mean, I guess, you know…

He is indecisive and seems flip-flopping because he is trying to gain her approval. So he avoids committing to anything, hoping that by remaining vague, she will not dislike him.
Of course, the opposite is true. Strong leadership helps seduction.

PRO TIP: How to Become More Decisive 

Sometimes it’s not that we are being submissive, but that we aren’t even sure ourselves. What you can do then is to pause to think for a second about what you want, then make your final decision.

In the above example, you would tell the waitress: “one moment” and take two seconds to think.
If you’re still not sure, keep the status quo to give you even more time to think about it and tell her “thank you, I’m not done yet”.

If you’re with someone, you can ask them first to take their opinion into account. Asking and taking other people’s opinions into account is a very leader-like behavior and it will also give you some more time to collect your thoughts and more inputs to reach an even better decision.

3.2. “They Said…

Try saying the following sentences aloud:

  • they said I could do it
  • they allowed me
  • they told me

Trump is usually a very high-power guy.
But here, when he was still fresh into the presidency, he hadn’t taken full ownership yet.
Listen to him using first “we” and then “they”.
Notice how different it feels when he moves from “we” to “they”.

Trump: They should stiffen up laws, and they should…

He doesn’t sound too presidential using “they”, does he?
Probably Trump is trying to detach himself from the problem and doesn’t want to make big statements about what he fears he cannot accomplish.
But don’t fall for that: leaders must take responsibility for themselves, even when the problem has no easy solution. Especially when the problem has no easy solution.

The passive form makes it only worse, such as:

I was told

I have been instructed

I have been tasked with..

Real Life Check:

Of course, there will be plenty of situations in life where you are indeed instructed or told what to do.
And that’s fine.
But if you keep speaking (and thinking) like you have no agency whatsoever in life, you will keep having no agency whatsoever.

Even if you were told, instructed, or tasked, take ownership of those tasks. Nobody put a gun to your head, so you also elected that those tasks are fair and moral enough that you can execute them.
So now they are your tasks.
You are doing, you need others to, you want to.

#4. Social Fear

Part of submissive individuals’ verbal woes is that they are overly afraid of punishment from the group or from the most dominant individuals.

And that reflects poorly on their verbal communication.

These are signals of fear and lack of confidence:

4.1. “Come on…

Come on is the verbal equivalent of sticking your hands out, palm up, and begging.

When people have no power to enforce resolutions and no courage to mount a serious challenge they resort to “come on-ning”.

In Scarface Frank, with no leverage and no power whatsoever shows you both the “come on” and the tail filler words combo:

Frank: come on, you listen to me ah

“come on you listen to me ah“.
That “ah” is a tail filler word. It serves no purpose if not to prop up his own sagging courage.

4.2. Passive Aggressive Attack, Then U-Turn 

Much of passive-aggressive behavior stems from fear of confrontation, fear of engaging, fear of ruining the relationship, and, of course, fear of the dominant and assertive individual.

When submissive people get annoyed by more dominant individuals they might push back first.
But then get scared they pushed too much and keep adding more words to soften the blow and fill the uncomfortable silences.

Especially so if the more dominant individual puts his foot down.

Here is a great example from the movie Fargo:

Him: (loud and snippy) ma’am, I answered your question!
Her: I’m sorry sir
Him: (now lower voice) ma’am, I answered your question (nervous smile). I answered the darn… I’m cooperating here. And there’s no, no… 

He first explodes -at least for his usual standards of behavior- and then spends the rest of the interaction trying to defend his own behavior with a slew of passive aggression.

Persistence, Pressure & Power

This is a crucial aspect of learning power dynamics.

But to give Power University alumni an edge, it’s only available on Power University.

This is an excerpt from Power University.

Scroll to Top