How does social power look like?
What are the clear signs of social power?
This article will show you exactly how dominance and power look like in real life.
The previous article alpha male body language was more about still poses.
This post instead will show you social power as it happens in real social interactions.
- #1. Leading
- #2. Exerting Social Pressure
- #3. Fewer Words & More Nonverbal
- #4. Dominant Touching
- #5. Aggression, Assertion & Punishment
- #6. Commanding Attention
- Learn More
One of the most obvious signs of social power is, of course, leadership.
Powerful people lead.
Here are some real-life examples of leading:
1.1. Walking First / Forging Ahead
If there is a group walking, less dominant individuals will look around to see who is going first and who is going to take the lead.
Dominant individuals instead don’t look around: they walk first.
If there is a decision to make, they speak first. And if there is an important guy to meet, they greet him first.
Look at the character Tony Montana in Scarface. What’s the obvious sign that is a dominant man?
The title of the video is “Tony meets Frank for the first time”.
Tony has never seen the Frank, he has never been to that place before. Going into unknown places is where you will see most people behave tentatively, looking around for leadership’s cues.
Super dominant individuals will take the lead even in unknown situations, which is exactly what Tony does as he starts walking towards the house first.
Omar, who is Frank’s friend, has to speed up to catch up with Tony. The character of Tony Montana is a typical meathead/young gun.
Real Life Check:
Albeit a sign of social power is to take the lead in unknown situations, I don’t recommend this course of action as your go-to response.
It’s best you first check in the group if there is someone who’s more knowledgeable than you are. And if there is nobody more knowledgeable than you are but it’s a high stake situation, you should probably still consult others as well before committing to an action.
Making mistakes or taking the group down the wrong path because you wanted to look dominant and didn’t consult with others is exactly what poor leadership is about.
1.2. Protect & Caring Leadership
Any behavior to protect and care for the people around is inherently leader-like and dominant.
This is also very powerful from a man to a woman. For example, guiding her by putting his hand on her lower back. Or helping her get up.
Example from the movie Spread:
Real Life Check:
There are no cons to protective and caring leadership in a romantic relationship.
As a matter of fact, I highly recommend men to take a protective and caring leadership in their relationships.
A strong leader-like man who cares and protects is a man who makes a woman happy. And it’s the healthiest way to maintain control and leadership of the relationship.
1.3. Make People Follow Your Lead
People following you is the definition of social power.
Any time people follow your lead, you are by definition acting as the leader and as the most powerful individual.
Politicians, schooled and instructed by communication experts, play this game quite often.
They shake hands, place a hand on people’s back, then open up their body and point to something in the environment.
What they’re trying to do right there is to have people follow their lead.
Of course, Trump heavily engages in it.
Here with Macron while they both try to play each other and end up being quite awkward:
Real Life Check:
When people want to follow your lead, then you should provide that leadership. This is the epitome of social power.
If you are not yet sure people accept your leadership, proceed with caution or they will resent you.
If you notice people are resisting you, drop the games and focus on becoming a figure people want to follow first.
When you “test the waters” always start with small requests and work your way up.
1.4. Guiding Others: The Good Host
Socially powerful men politely invite others to “be their guests”.
To follow them, to sit down, to enjoy the food, to go through the door first. It looks polite, but it’s also leader-like and it puts them in charge.
Here Obama and Putin trying to play host on each other:
This is a game politicians often play, continuously telling each other where to sit and go, even when they have no freaking idea.
How to handle it:
Whenever you can avoid following, avoid.
For example, you can wait 10 seconds longer before sitting. If the host tells you to get inside, pretend you want to stop one second to admire the panorama. If you can’t avoid following them, then sit or follow them nonchalantly, without looking at them and without saying “ok”. Just do it as if you wanted to do it.
Then make a mental note that you’re one down and need to even the scores.
Real Life Check:
If you are hosting an event at your place or if you have the ranks and formal authority of leadership, then you should engage in guiding behavior.
If you are someone’s host, avoid leading them because it’s highly jarring being told what to do in one’s own place. As a matter of fact, it’s OK to let people play the host if they are the actual hosts.
1.5 Assigning Tasks
Dominant individuals task others.
They do it when they have formal authority, of course, and they will often task people even when lacking formal authority (which never fails to piss yours truly royally off :).
Always second guess and analyze a command.
Ask yourself: is he in a position to assign tasks?
You will over-analyze in the beginning, granted. But over time it will become natural for you to discern between fair requests and unfair requests from people who have either no authority over you or who cannot ask you to do what they’re asking.
Make a point to challenge and reject all tasks from people who have no authority and/or assign them in a curt and non-respectful way.
Below is an example, from a reach out through a website’s contact form:
When you take a stand most people realize they were being out of order and will naturally get into a more respectful behavior. And they’ll respect you more afterward.
Real Life Check:
More submissive people are afraid of assigning tasks even when they know the best course of action or when they have actual authority. And they are afraid of saying no.
If you’re more on the submissive end, you will have to force yourself to assign more tasks and refuse more tasks.
If you are more on the dominant side, you need to start noticing when people push back on your tasks or they execute them but with growing resentment -poor execution is often a sign of growing resentment-.
#2. Exerting Social Pressure
Dominant men create social tension to make the more submissive individuals comply, crack, speak or act.
Sometimes they create that tension without an actual reason, just to show who’s in charge.
Some other times it will be in jest, just for the fun of wielding power and seeing you squeak.
2.1. Social Aggression
A rather dramatic example of creating tension and releasing it is the famous “how am I funny” scene in Goodfellas, with Tommy being another example of meathead.
He uses intimadatory looks, loud voice, aggressive tonality, pregnant pauses, full frontal body language. Overall, his social pressure here is basically an unstated threat of violence.
Real Life Check:
Only use this one when people are being highly disrespectful and you need to draw a powerful line in the sand.
2.2. Inquisitive Look
Denzel Washington uses this one often, including a few times in the movie Training Days (there is a quiz with that example in the course).
The dynamics of who produces tension and who suffers under tension are an important indicator of who is in charge in a relationship.
Here is an example from an ex-girlfriend of mine before we were a couple:
Me: What about Enrico
Her: (looking tense) Enrico, what do you mean
Me: Enrico, don’t you remember?
Her: (getting worried) No…. Did I say Enrico in my sleep?
Me: (ignoring: didn’t even want to entertain the possibility of jealousy) Enrico, don’t you remember what is it. Try to guess
Her: (more and more worried) OMG, I don’t know if I said it in my sleep, I have no idea who is Enrico
Me: (sideways glance, pursed lips, slightly corrugated eyebrows: this is the inquisitive look, examples later)
Her: … I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into me, I really have no idea how Enrico is, really Luc…
Me: Enrico is the name of the breakfast menu we had last time
Her: Ooooh ahaha true, OMG I was thinking I said it while sleeping, I’m sorry! Ahaha yes I would love an Enrico ahah
I didn’t start with the aim of creating tension, but she put herself under pressure.
And that exchange told me a lot about where we stood (such as: she was more into me than I thought and I was more dominant in the relationship than I had previously thought).
Real Life Check:
This is a very powerful technique which can be used in a friendly and joking way as well.
When you can be dominant while half-joking and while still being friendly, it’s pure gold.
Dominant signs delivered in a half-joking fashion have all of the upside with little downside, so I highly recommend you learn it and start using in your daily life (we’ll see the video of how it’s done in a later quiz).
#3. Fewer Words & More Nonverbal
The law of social effort says that those who give less and take more are more powerful (also check: the law of social exchange).
And that applies in communication as well.
People who have lots of social power use fewer words less and more nonverbal gesture.
3.1. Facial Expressions
An example from Crazy Stupid Love:
3.2. Dominant Hand Gestures
Hand gestures can be used either to defend the right of speaking without stopping your train of thoughts (imagine raising your index finger like as if to say one moment) or to make someone else speak.
Very, very powerful.
Here is another example from judge Judy:
Asking questions and having people answer is dominant. But making others speak and move without a single word is much more powerful.
3.3. Facial Expressions Powe Moves
Watch out for this one because judging or socially attacking with facial expressions only can be passive aggressive instead of dominant.
It becomes a sign of dominance when talking directly and openly would be out of place, not possible or way too confrontational.
Basically, think of it like this: in a situation where most people would have just pretended of going along with the flow, the socially powerful individual still allows himself to pass judgment.
Look at De Niro passing nonverbal judgment with his future son in law:
Saying something in that situation would have been way too confrontational.
But he still sends out a message of disapproval. His expression right before sipping communicates “hmmm I smell bullshit”.
Task For You:
Most people use way too little nonverbal. Try to increase your use of facial expressions and gestures.
Joining an acting class is a good way of increasing your nonverbal repertoire.
#4. Dominant Touching
Several studies show that people who touch others more are perceived as more dominant.
Different ways of touching convey different levels of dominance of course.
Back slapping or light punches on the shoulder while laughing and drinking for example tend to be very juvenile.
Here are some more dominant touches:
4.1. Parenting Touch
As we have mentioned on the basics of power, when one individual takes a parent role, it often pushes the other party into a “baby” role.
And of course, the parent is the role with most social power.
Touches that signal a parent role include:
- patting on the head
- cheek pinching
- face touching
Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, complains of “patriarchy” in the workplace and shares the story of a congressman who patted her on the head as he asked her “what are you, a pon-pon girl?”.
That was indeed an attempt at taking the power role / father role in the relationship.
Here is an example of cheek pinching, which a professor of mine used on a classmate of mine:
This one is very good for a man to do to a woman because it places him as the dominant father figure while still showing a caring attitude (next lesson we will see the perfect words to go with it).
Most of the times when people touch your face they are communicating they’re in charge.
But it can also be used in a friendly way, to communicate you are taking care of someone (bosses in mafia movies often use it):
4.1. Power Hug
Example of Mike Epps in “Janky Promoters”
Real Life Check:
Avoid this one if you’re older than 20 YO and sober. As a matter of fact, avoid it even when you’re drunk: it’s rather juvenile and it’s extremely annoying.
It’s also easy to remove your arm and make you look as overly aggressive.
Women should always avoid it.
#5. Aggression, Assertion & Punishment
The continuum of aggression is usually understood as going from submission to assertion to aggression.
Dominant men are rarely on the submissive side, of course.
The most socially adroite ones are on the assertion side, but they also know how to cope with aggression and, in the rare times when it’s needed, they can also cross into aggression.
Finally, the dark side of dominance also shows when dominant individuals need to punish, aggress or intimidate.
5.1. Face Slapping
Face slapping can be friendly (Henry getting pinched) or it can be more threatening as if to say “watch out”. In either case, it sends a strong signal of dominance.
A slap in the face among male adults is very emasculating and it’s one of the biggest signs of a dominant/submissive relationship.
5.2. Touching or Taking Your Property
Dominant men allow themselves to touch or take other people’s property.
It’s as if to say “you belong to me (and so does your stuff)”.
And the moment you let them take and touch your property at will you are basically communicating you approve of that power relationship.
Beating property invasions:
Either you don’t let them touch your stuff or be more liberal about “property” and act the same way towards their property.
You might not be comfortable doing it, but do it anyway.
If they complain that’s also great: you created a precedent when it will be OK for you to complain when they touch your stuff again.
Most people have a natural understanding of “personal territory”. But the most submissive people though don’t act on personal space’s encroachment.
The most dominant individuals instead do so very openly. So defending one’s territory and space is a strong sign of confidence, dominance, and social power.
Here is an example from the movie Boiler Room:
#6. Commanding Attention
Finally, there is a tendency for the more socially powerful individual to command attention.
Individuals with great social power are not necessarily flashy -and often they are not-.
But people tend to gravitate towards them.
There is also a major tendency for people to pay more attention when the most socially powerful person enters the room.
6.1 Problem Fixers
But it’s especially when the going gets tough that people turn towards the most dominant individuals.
Look at this scene from The Godfather:
Of course they pull him back in.
It’s because people naturally turn towards the most socially powerful people when they’re lost or when they’re in trouble.
This is the “leaders’ burden”: people will look for you. And they will expect you to be there. And possibly, it’s also part of your duty to help.
The leader’s burden.
This is an extract from Social Power.
There you can see more examples, the “judging” category which is all important for soft power and a walk-through on how to deal with dominant men.