Nonverbal Communication and the Social Control of Women

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Nonverbal Communication and the Social Control of Women*

by  Nancy Henley

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 4, July 1976, p. 16-19

Nancy Henley was a staff member of Radical Therapist/ Rough Times for several years. She teaches psychology at the University of Lowell (Mass.1 where she also works with women’s groups and is treasurer of the faculty union. She has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Johns Hopkins, and is particularly interested in social psychology and the psychology of women.

*Revised from its original form, “Nonverbal Communication as Social Control,” a paper presented at Pioneers for Century III, April, 1976. This paper is adapted from Chapter 11 of my forthcoming book, Body Politics: Sex, Power and Nonverbal Communication (Prentice Hall). Supporting evidence, and more on race and class in nonverbal interaction, are presented in other chapters of the book.

Social systems have built into them both rules for control, i.e., making people conform to the system, and rules. for the explanation of that conformity. Since social control is best exercised in disguise, we are best influenced when we are made to believe that we are acting of our own volition: the best explanation of behavior, from the point of view of those in power, is not in terms of the social control built into the system, but in terms of people’s voluntary conformity.

Typically a system such as ours has the following rules that explain its members’ conformity: first, there are no rules- rather, there is complete freedom of action; second, behavior is to be explained as a manifestation of individual differences (needs, drives, tendencies and aberrations), rather than of coercion or external influence. Furthermore, in our social system the ideology of equality also depends on psychological rationalization to explain social stratifications: thus a third rule of explanation says that all people have equal opportunity, therefore their differences in occupations, privileges, association, etc., are due to ability, diligence, and preference, to likes and dislikes rather than to class or power.

People who have questioned these status-quo-preserving explications are met with evidence of seemingly voluntary choice in conformity and obedience and of internal psychological motivation; they are challenged to point to the massive controls it would take to keep a people: or even half the population, in submission. My thesis is that nonverbal communication serves in large part as this massive but hidden control – one that particularly keeps the female half of our population in de facto submission.

Many questions confronting women around the issue of power may be placed in perspective through the examination of nonverbal behavior in the maintenance of the power structure. Nonverbal behavior is a major factor in communication, estimated to be over four times as informational as verbal behavior 1 . Though popular publications, and much academic research, encourage us to conceive of nonverbal communication as primarily expressive of emotional content, in fact the nonverbal channel carries much information on status, dominance, and power relationships.2 Because nonverbal behavior is considered trivial and is little understood, it is a perfect avenue for subtle influence. People are influenced by others’ nonverbal communication when unaware; or are told their own nonverbal behavior is conveying something they were unaware of.

Moreover, nonverbal communication is of greater importance to women than to men, in several ways. First, women are socialized to docility which makes us particularly susceptible to such subtle control. And unlike most other powerless groups, we are integrated around centers of power, for example, as wives and secretaries, necessitating frequent interaction with the powerful. Finally, we are more sensitive to nonverbal cues3– a quality which seems to be the dual gift and burden of the oppressed – slaves were thought to be exceptionally observant of people4, and blacks have been shown to be more nonverbally sensitive than whites.5 In the interaction between women and men, many nonverbal acts may be seen as dominance signals emitted by men and submission signals returned by women.

In addition, nonverbal communication occupies a unique position in the exercise of power: it is at a juncture between the open and concealed expression of both dominance and submission. Let us look at power.

Power may be defined as the ability to influence others, determined by the control of resources. These resources must be defended against those who lack them (to insure continuation of power). Though the ultimate base of power is physical force6, social control is generally maintained with only the suggestion of force, and through an elaborate system of supporting institutions and customs. Power is exercised along a continuum, from smallest to greatest application of force. This continuum involves at least the following points, from subtlest to most blatant:

1. Internalized control: one’s conscience or superego, which has also been called colonization of the mind; this is achieved through socialization.

2. Environmental structuring: strategically placed reminders in our surroundings supplement the internalized control and help keep us in place if socialization fails.

3. Nonverbal communications: control is exercised through other people in their nonverbal signs of approval and disapproval, dominance and submission. Power is often incorporated in body signals.

4. Verbal communication: we may be told what to do by those who have power over us, subtly or in no uncertain terms. (Of course, expressions of like and dislike, surprise, joking, and cajoling may be used in the exercise of power, as well as order.)

5. Mild physical sanctions: at times we are restrained by agents of social control, in the persons of our peers and loved ones, authorities, and even strangers. They hold our hands and arms, kick our shins, cover our mouths from doing the undoable or speaking the unspeakable.

6. Long-term restraint and its ramifications: the power of the state allows it to restrain some citizens in prisons, with physical and psychological punishment for breaking or being suspected of breaking the social/legal code.

7. Weapons, death, war: the ultimate power comes in brute force, from those who control its weapons. At this point the power is threatened, and subtle niceties lose their importance.
As noted, nonverbal behavior occupies the point in this continuum between covert and overt control, between covert and overt resistance. It is the point where people must be controlled, for the social structure to remain intact.

The control comes in the many forms of power related* nonverbal communication:

Research from various sources shows that persons of higher status control more space (personal and other),7 are allowed more freedom in demeanor,8 and are more likely to touch others,9 and to exhibit less body tension,10 than persons of lower status (or less dominant persons). And research also shows that these highstatus behaviors are exhibited by men; women’s behavior in this realm takes the form more of submissive or affiliative behavior than of dominant behavior 11.

Other evidence suggests that persons of greater power may stare at others (without being the first to avert the eyes),12 smile less, show less emotion,13 and generally withhold personal information;14 subordinate persons, on the other hand, avert the gaze when stared at, smile frequently, and exhibit much greater emotional variation. We also recognize these latter behaviors as characteristic of women15.

Certain human gestures are analogous to the gestures of dominance and submission identified among primates, for example: staring is a gesture of dominance, met with the submissive gesture of averting the gaze (or blinking); touching asserts dominance, cuddling to the touch submits; interrupting is dominant – yielding the floor is submissive; similarly, crowding another’s space – stepping back; looking sternly – smiling back.

* Little research has been done on nonverbal behavior in actual power relationships; rather, the variable studied has often been status, and sometimes personal dominance tendencies. Though these are not the same as power, they are closely related to it, and give us clues to power signals; other studies have looked at power itself.

Again, the gestures of dominance are likely to be emitted by men, and those of submission, by women.

Another aspect of much nonverbal dominance behavior is that it carries a subtle physical threat; e.g., pointing, staring, and towering over someone are elements of actual combat; this is probably a residual of the origin of these behaviors in physical confrontation. Because of their training, women may be readily and unconsciously intimidated by such dominance displays, and also fail to utilize them themselves.

There is a further pattern to these dominance behaviors, in that most may also convey intimacy as well as power, e.g., touching, staring, moving close. Nonverbal gestures follow the dual pattern shown with terms of address,16 that a single set of forms may express either status or intimacy, depending on whether their usage is mutual or nonmutual. This dual nature makes it possible for a gesture of power to be claimed as one of friendship, and therefore hard for the receiver to protest.

Similarly, when women use these signs of power themselves, the gestures may be taken as sexual advances, denying the assertion of power. The ambiguity surrounding nonverbal communication is used against women when they wish to repel unwanted sexual advances, and are told that they were “sending signals” inviting them. Such claims, far from being innocent misunderstandings between male and female cultures, are the ultimate justification for front-line attack in the sexual war: rape.

The crucial position of nonverbal behavior to power – half-covert, half-overt- is also crucial to the individual: nonverbal communication may be seen as the link between internalized and externalized control. Social control may be internalized as one’s nonverbal communication to oneself – inhibitions originally imposed by others may be incorporated into one’s rigid and inhibited body postures and movements – “character armor,” in Reich’s terms.17 But there is a more politically important sense in which nonverbal behavior links internal and external control – it is at that subtle point between voluntary and involuntary action, where it is hard to be clear about the source of one’s own behavior. And this also illuminates a major debate of recent years among women, the controversy over the source of women’s “passivity” and “docility.” Nonaggressive behavior in women, on the one side, is attributed by many to socialization, sometimes termed “brainwashing.” This point of view implies that if women only acted differently – assertively, non submissively- they would have different (and better) outcomes. On the other side of the debate are those who point to the external rather than internal conditions keeping women in subordinate place: economic dependency, sanctions against deviance from the female role, etc. They believe that to blame socialization is a coverup and diversion that perpetuates the patriarchal status quo. Implications from this point of view are that the societal structure must be changed, rather than women’s behavior.

Lynn O’Connor18 and Nicole Anthony19 have called attention to nonverbal communication which mediates between these two sources, and between these two points of view. O’Connor describes in some detail the encounters between females and males in which gestures of dominance and submission are exchanged; she writes,

The forms of female behavior that our contemporary ideologues have called internalized self hate or masochism are usually just a logical response to a man’s gesture of dominance. Women have spent years on the psychiatric couch hunting down a nonexistent internal enemy.

Similarly, Anthony writes that a strong woman may notice herself acting submissive toward a man in a heated debate, and blame herself for self-oppression. But

If we filmed the scene we would see that what really happened was that he gave a gesture of dominance and she submitted in fear. 0 0 0 The moments of ‘internalization’ are really the moments when we respond to gestures of dominance. They are not inside of our heads. (Emphasis in original.)

These observations give us a perspective on women’s submissive behavior: much of women’s behavior which is interpreted as self-limiting may in reality be the end of a sequence in which assertion was attempted, and suppressed, on the nonverbal level.

In a similar way the study of nonverbal behavior may enlighten us on other questions basic to women’s liberation: in nonverbal communication we see how much of the seemingly personal truly is political. Some questions relevant to women and power that may be approached through studying nonverbal behavior are:

  • What are the forms power takes, and the dynamics by which it works? What forms and dynamics find particular application to relationships in which women are involved?
  • What analogies can be drawn, what similarities seen, between the exercise of power over women and its exercise over other groups – blacks, homosexuals, children, other racial and national minorities, working class people, etc.? What differences exist that make different power forms and dynamics exerted toward these different groups? What are the similarities and differences in our responses to nonverbal power?
  • What is the relationship between institutionalized power and individual power relationships (between the macropolitical and the micropolitical)? How is the study of personal power related to questions of social control – and how “trivial” and diversionary is the study ‘of personal power? What does the study of nonverbal communication tell us relevant to assertiveness training for women?
  • What goals are to be obtained through studying power- defense and/or offense? Does power exercised in defense lead to power exercised in dominance? Will power that is openly known and understood (e.g., through knowledge of nonverbal communication) lead to corruption as readily as power that is concealed and misunderstood?

In summary, my points (made here and elsewhere) are as follows:

Power is the capability of influencing or compelling others, based on the control of desired resources. It is exercised along a continuum, from least to greatest application of force. Generally speaking, the mildest form of force which is effective will be used.

Nonverbal behavior is a major medium of communication in our everyday life, and power is a major topic in nonverbal communication. Nonverbal behavior is a major avenue for social control on a large scale, and interpersonal dominance on a smaller scale. Because our culture considers trivial, ignores, and doesn’t educate us to nonverbal behavior, it constitutes a vague stimulus situation. Its interpretation is then highly susceptible to social influence – e.g., explanations utilizing sex stereotypes, which further maintain the status quo.

Many nonverbal behaviors have the dual function of expressing either dominance or intimacy, according to whether they are asymmetrically or symetrically used by the partners in a relationship. Because of this, when nonverbal dominance is challenged, it may be claimed to be intimacy. Nonverbal power gestures provide the micropolitical structure, the thousands of daily acts through which nonverbal influence takes place, which underlie and support the macropolitical structure. Nonverbal behavior occupies a critical point in the continuum along which power is exercised, between covert and overt control, and between covert and overt resistance. Because women must be more circumspect, particularly in challenging power, than men must, they operate at this point.

Nonverbal control is of particular importance to women, who are more sensitive to its cues and probably more the targets of such control. The overwhelming bulk of sex-differentiated nonverbal behavior is learned rather than genetically determined*, and is developed to display otherwise unobtrusive differences between the sexes.20 Many nonverbal behaviors that seem meaningless and non-power-related in fact are aspects of sex privilege or reflect societal biases ultimately founded in power differences.

The behaviors used by males and females in the unequal relation of the sexes often parallel those expressing dominance and subordination between non-equals. Sexual attraction cannot sufficiently explain men’s greater usage of those gestures which indicate either intimacy or dominance. Usurpation of the nonverbal symbols of power by women may be ignored, denied, or punished rather than accepted. Denial of dominance -gestures made by women often takes the form of attributing the gesture to sexual advance rather than dominance. Finally, nonverbal behavior may mediate between explanations of women’s submissive behavior based on socialization and those based on external controls: much of women’s behavior which is interpreted as self-limiting is in reality the result of a sequence in which attempted assertion was suppressed on the nonverbal level.

If women are to understand power, on both the macropolitical level and the micropolitical one which underlies and maintains it, we must learn more about nonverbal communication. For every major decision in Washington or on Wall Street that determines whether and how much sugar and oil we have and what information we will read, there are a thousand unnoted, silent power gestures – the glare, the silencing touch, the grip on the arm – meant to insure that we will never question our boss, husband, or lover, let alone Washington or Wall Street.

* Some nonverbal behavior may be genetically determined as a consequence of such known sex differences in anatomy as pelvic bone structure and juncture, amount of fatty tissue on buttocks, breast development, etc.; but I know of none that is known to have much social consequence.


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