Are you wondering what’s social power, and how it sounds like in real life?
This post focuses on the signs of social power when it comes to verbal expressions.
- #1. Leading The Conversation
- #2. Assertiveness
- #3. Verbal Aggression
- #4. Avoid Submission
- #5. Use Fewer Words
- Words of Dominance
#1. Leading The Conversation
A few key variables are crucial to controlling a conversation, and dominant individuals heavily influence all of them:
- Tone (happy, sad, serious etc.)
- Subject (what to talk about)
- Who speaks (who speaks and for how long)
When the conversation is 1:1, more often then not, the dominant person will be the one who makes questions and asks for clarifications.
This is especially true on 1:1 conversation, because in group conversations you can often have the jesters and the loudmouths who talk most of the times.
In those situations, the socially powerful man might just call himself out of the rate race for attention.
When dominant individuals answer questions, they take more freedoms instead.
They choose whether to answer the question or whether to go off topic. Their answers are less about answering questions and more about what they choose to talk about.
1.1. Dictating the Tempo
Dominant men control the speed of the interaction to make sure they understand and that they don’t waste time.
This is a behavior you hear a lot from interviewers, who need to manage the tempo to keep the conversation engaging (the interviewer does it 3 times in 20 seconds with Nassim Taleb).
If it’s a group they are leading, they make sure everyone is on the same page.
Other expressions of controlling the tempo even more directly include:
Socially Powerful: Go ahead
Socially Powerful: Wait a second
Socially Powerful: Let’s hear Mark here what he thinks
Socially Powerful: Slow down, you’re going too quick
1.2. Imposing The Frame
Dominant men hold the frame of what’s right, what’s fair, what’s “normal” or not normal to do. The more power they have, the more they can buckle groups and cultural diktats.
An example from Horrible Bosses:
Drinking at 8:15 in the morning is not normal, but his rank and social power manage to impose on the more submissive man his new normality.
1.3. Posing The Questions
Dominant individuals ask the questions, and the submissive individuals reply.
When the domination/submission dynamic is very pronounced the submissive party will also be nervous while providing the answers.
This dynamic is replicated in seduction as well.
Here is an example from The Saint:
1.4. Correcting People
Corrections are a form of attacks on authority, which makes it a potential power move.
Corrections increase the authority and credibility of the person making the correction while decreasing the authority of the individual being corrected.
That’s why submissive people will often avoid correcting others: they are afraid of taking a social stand.
Dating Power Move
Correcting people is also a strong sign of intellectual dominance. Since I live outside of English speaking countries, I also mostly meet non-mother tongue English speakers.
Albeit my English is far from perfect, 99% of the times I’m the one with the best language skills.
I always take advantage of that by asking the girls I interact with if they want me to fix their English. That positions me as the intellectually dominant party of the relationship -and their answer gives me great insight into their psychology depending on their -.
1.5. Contradicting People
Similar to correcting, but packing an even bigger punch, is to contradict people by saying the exact opposite of what they just said.
Here is an example from Meet the Parents:
Real Life Check:
Don’t use this one too much. Yes it’s dominant and socially powerful, but it’s also a huge rapport breaker and it’s the most socially unaware people who contradict others.
The more socially smart individuals say “yes” and then redirect the conversation towards the right answer.
1.5. Summing & Finalizing the Conversation
A dead giveaway of who’s the leader in a conversation is who sums up the discussion.
Whenever you want to take a step forward and advance your leadership, always sum up what’s been said and people will look at you like you’re the de-facto leader.
Socially powerful individuals expect to be heard.
And they expect that their rights to speak will be upheld while they also make sure they can understand what you are saying -if they want to-.
They are also not easy to hush and they won’t buckle down if you pressure them.
2.1. Confirm Understanding
Socially powerful individuals will make sure their subordinates understand.
They will say “did you get it?” or “everything clear?”.
In the most extreme situations, they will tell them to repeat. As in this example from Pulp Fiction:
2.2. Expect a Reply
Sometimes in social exchanges, people will try to avoid answering a question.
Dominant men will make it clear when they don’t appreciate it, and they might keep questioning with the attitude of the person who expects an answer.
A great technique to do so is to simply repeat your question with the tone of the person who expects a reply.
“well, let’s say I just got one”.
If at that point he had laughed uncomfortably, he would have admitted she’s the dominant one. Instead, he keeps inquiring as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Super powerful.
2.3. Repeat the Message
Look at Theresa May doing something similar to the video example above.
Imagine you are delivering a speech and the crowd gets too noisy.
If you stop your speech, you lose power because you are raising the crowd at your level -and lower yourself to theirs-.
Look How May handles it instead.
By repeating her statement instead she communicates something like this: “you can laugh as much as you want, but you gotta to listen to me because I’m the authority”:
“to what’s been said in this chamber and out of it“, as her voice raises on the repetition, she is conveying power and disapproval with her assertive tonality and inflection.
Also notice it was very, very good of her not to acknowledge the jeering in any shape or form, not even with her facial expressions.
#3. Verbal Aggression
The dark side of dominance is the ability -and willingness- to punish others.
3.1. Speaking Over Others
Dominant and aggressive individuals will trample your right of speech if you let them to.
If you saw any of Trump’s debates, it’s shocking how many times he blatantly interrupted, spoke over or simply just robbed opponents of their right to speak.
And whenever others fought him, he won almost all the times -if not all the times-.
Here is an example with Jeb Bush:
Jeb Bush, like pretty much everyone else, was simply unprepared to deal with Trump at his level of dominance, aggression, and Machiavellianism.
He makes a litany of mistakes.
Not only he allows Trump to win, but turns towards him with a smile, suggesting with his body language that Trump is the real leader of the pack.
Trump caps it all off telling him “go ahead”, and Bush starts speaking on cue like a puppet on a string.
3.2. Cutting People Off
Similar to speaking over people, but even more powerful as the submissive party simply accepts it, thus confirming that he is the real authority.
In this scene from Platoon:
Real Life Check:
for both of the above, avoid them most of the times unless you have been aggressed first.
3.3. Pushing People on The Defensive
Whenever there is an argument, look at who’s attacking and who’s defending.
The person attacking is the dominant one, and the one defending is the submissive one.
This is an example with a shame attack:
The interviewer is being dominant by not accepting any of Julien’s rebuttals and pushing Julien to defend only. Julien would like to counteract but ends up only defending without really ever making his point (he is also nervous, understandably).
Beating Shame Attacks:
Don’t defend. Either defend and counterattack, a typical politician’s approach to debating, or attack back right away by reframing the topic or refusing their frame.
See the full shame attack case study.
We will see examples going forward.
3.4. Ignoring People
Ignoring is a way of showing dominance through (slight) disrespect.
You will see most often when submissive individuals make a mistake or get into a topic that the leader doesn’t like.
An example from Beautiful Girls:
By starting with “so what do you do” Matt Dillon ignores the previous topic and gives the impression he is starting the conversation from scratch. But since the red-headed had already started the conversation, Dillon is lowering his status and showing himself as the dominant man of the group.
Real Life Check:
Ignoring people and remarks is a skill you must develop. It’s powerful and high quality while at the same time avoiding escalations and unneeded time wasting.
3.5. Judgmental Aggression
Judgmental aggression is an aggressive form of judgment.
Example from Trump:
That’s dark power, but it’s high octane power nonetheless.
Look at it very well. The pauses, the power and anger in his voice, the hand gestures and, in the end, his judgmental head shaking.
He looks authoritative, strong and, given his conviction, even right.
People tend to side with authority and power. Many people who have no idea at what happened will laugh and side with Trump there.
Good or bad, that’s the world we live in.
When he says “I watch you a lot”, that’s where he lost power though.
By now you can start guessing why: it’s because he shows a lot of investment in them. He spends lots of effort to keep up with them. He is basically admitting that they are a high priority for him (and they get under his skin).
3.6. Wielding Social Pressure
Social pressure is not necessarily rude or intimidatory.
However, it does leverage a certain fear or at least some discomfort from the submissive party.
An example from Meet The Parents, a movie we’ll be using quite a bit here:
De Niro’s questions are strong and direct. Stiller makes a joke to relieve some pressure but instead of accepting the release of pressure -a friendly but not dominant gesture- De Niro keeps piling pressure on, culminating with “but you didn’t pick it”.
Now if Stiller wanted to be equally dominant, here is how he could have done it:
De Niro: They say geniuses pick green…. But you didn’t pick it
Stiller: “They” say it? Who says it
Here he would be questioning his authority and forcing him to explain. Then he could have delivered his dominant coup de grace by taking the judging position and ending with “hmmm I’m not convinced. Anyway… “.
If he wanted to be even more direct and aggressive:
De Niro: They say geniuses pick green…. But you didn’t pick it
Stiller: Not really, idiots pick green
And this is a powerful yet polite way of handling it:
De Niro: They say geniuses pick green…. But you didn’t pick it
Stiller: I don’t know about that Jack. It’s just a nice color as far as I’m concerned. And it fits well with your lovely garden too (smiles ). Shall we go in now guys
#4. Avoid Submission
Dominant men avoid expressions of submission.
Makes sense, no?
They avoid submitting to other people’s tempo. They avoid defending themselves, they reject contradiction and corrections and, finally, they approach questions differently than non-dominant men.
4.1. Take Liberty in Replying
Remember that answering questions put you in the submissive position?
Well, here is how dominant men avoid to fully commit to answering questions:
- Don’t answer with everything there is to say
- Say something, then ask a question back
- Only address a bit of the question, then talk about what inspires you
Here is an example from the intellectually dominant Aleksandr in Sex and The City:
If she wanted to be less submissive, she could have insisted in a socially smart way. For example: “very nice, I liked that. But you must remember something more.. how did you feel there, was it a good time?“
Also observe Aleksandr for the whole scene, very socially powerful with his facial expression and social-pressure inducing silences (albeit he is a bit emotionally distant).
Aleksandr comes across as socially powerful and intellectually dominant (which it’s even more important for him as an older man)
This is why it’s difficult, extremely difficult, to be dominant and socially powerful at a Senate hearing or at an interrogation.
Being the one grilled, forced to reply and forced to stick to what people want you to answer, it’s extremely difficult coming across as socially powerful.
4.2. Don’t Follow Their Lead (Pressuposition Answering)
This is very socially smart and shows high-level social skills.
It consists of answering in a way which presupposes yes or no instead of saying yes or no.
Here is a great example from Jackie Brown:
Saying “no” would have followed her lead while decreasing his value -admitting of not being a well traveled man- and would have put an end to the conversation.
The way he answers instead presupposes the “no”, but presents himself a strong independent man who doesn’t follow her lead. Plus it allows the conversation to continue.
(too bad for the ending).
Here is another example from the Hedge of Tomorrow:
Notice the general does not reply with “yes”.
Replying with “yes” would have elevated Cruise’s question to a level where it “deserves” to be properly addressed.
That would entail a respectful conversation of two people who are nearly at the same level.
Instead, he raises his voice and makes his point, which shows a slight disdain for Cruise’s question and communicates that he is not up for a conversation between equals.
4.2. Block All Attempts at Soft Power
Social power often requires you to “see” the social dynamics and avoiding people to take a soft power position over you.
This is exactly where this website will help and here are two ways to avoid people from pushing you on the defensive with the judge role:
#5. Use Fewer Words
Remember the law of social effort?
It applies to verbal production as well, of course.
Socially powerful men, on average, speak less.
And when they speak, they say something important that people will listen to.
5.1. Pregnant Pauses
Fearful people speak quickly as if they cannot stand being at the center of attention.
Speaking quickly also signal they’re afraid someone will steal their speaking time.
Powerful people instead speak slowly and use lots of pauses.
Olivia Cabane in The Carisma Myth recommends people who want to look powerful and charismatic to wait 2 seconds before replying.
Here is possibly the most famous example of pregnant pauses:
5.2. Wielding Social Pressure With Silences
One of the most powerful ways of exerting dominance is by actually removing words in a way that puts social pressure on people.
Di Caprio does it in this scene from Wolf of Wall Street.
He puts pressure on the banker to answer his question and gets down to business through pure silence.
However, my by far favorite example of the power of silence is in Casino.
Both of these are examples convey final authority without words.
Words of Dominance
Here are more expressions of social power.
For brevity I only list the words, for examples and ways to deal with them, check Social Power:
- (Yo) listen (to me)
- I didn’t understand anything, tell me again
- What did you just say
- That’s right
- No! It’s not like that at all…
- And you think there is nothing wrong with that?
- “Alright?“ (as if to say “did you get it?” or “done, now we move on”)
- No, answer my question
- Sorry, I don’t wanna hear about it right now
- Tell me something more interesting
- Shut up! Silence! Quiet!
- Facts and numbers say it
The last one is important.
In debates, rationality and science convey power and authority and are often what makes the difference between losing or winning a debate.
Trump lost two exchanges in a row because the journalists managed to take the rational high ground on him: