Historically, lowering the height of one’s body in front of another person has been used as a means of establishing superior/subordinate relationships. We refer to a member of Royalty as ‘Your Highness’, whereas individuals who commit unsavoury acts are called ‘low’. The protest rally speaker stands on a soapbox to be higher than everyone else, the judge sits higher than the rest of the court, those who live in a penthouse command more authority than those who live at ground level and some cultures divide their social classes into the ‘upper class’ and ‘lower class’.
Despite what many people would like to believe, tall people command more authority than short people, but height can also be detrimental to some aspects of one-to-one communication where you need to ‘talk on the same level’ or have an ‘eye-to-eye’ discussion with another person.
Most women curtsey when they meet Royalty and men incline their heads or remove their hats, making themselves appear smaller than the Royal person. The modern salute is a relic of the act of body lowering. The more humble or subordinate an individual feels towards another, the lower he stoops his body. In business, the people who continually ‘bow’ to the management are labelled with such derogatory name tags as ‘bootlickers’ or ‘crawlers’.
Unfortunately, little can be done to help people become taller or shorter, so let us explore some useful applications of height.
It is possible to avoid intimidating others by consciously making yourself appear smaller in relation to them, so let us examine the non-verbal aspects of the situation in which you have been speeding in your car and are stopped by the police. In these circumstances, the officer may regard you as an adversary as he approaches your vehicle, and a driver’s usual reaction is to remain in the car, wind the window down and make excuses for having exceeded the speed limit. The nonverbal negatives of this behaviour are: (1) The officer is forced to leave his territory (the patrol car) and come across to your territory (your vehicle). (2) Assuming that you have in fact broken the speed limit, your excuses may represent an attack to the officer. (3) By remaining in your car, you create a barrier between yourself and the policeman.
Considering that under these circumstances the police officer is obviously in a superior position to you, this type of behaviour only serves to make things go from bad to worse and your chances of being booked are increased. Instead, try this if you are flagged down: (1) Get immediately out of your car (your territory) and go over to the police officer’s car (his territory). In this way he is not inconvenienced by having to leave his territory. (2) Stoop your body over so that you are smaller than he is. (3) Lower your own status by telling the officer how foolish and irresponsible you are and raise his status by thanking him for pointing out the your ways and telling him that you realise how difficult his job must be with fools like you around. (4) With your palms out, in a trembling voice, ask him not to give you a ticket. This type of behaviour shows the police officer that you are not a threat to him and often causes him to take the role of an angry parent, in which case he gives you a stern warning and tells you to be on your way – without a speeding ticket! When this technique is used as directed, it can save you from being booked more than 50 per cent of the time.
The same technique can be used to calm an irate customer who is returning some faulty goods to a retail store. In this case, the counter represents a barrier between the store owner and the customer. Control of an irate customer would be difficult if the storekeeper remained on his own side of the counter, and this staking-out of territory would make the customer angrier. The best approach would be for the storekeeper to come around to the customer’s side of the counter with his body stooped over and palms visible and to use the same technique as was used with the police officer.
Interestingly, there are some circumstances under which lowering the body can be a dominance signal. This is where you slouch down and make yourself comfortable in an easy chair in another person’s home while the owner is standing. It is the complete in- formality on the other person’s territory that communicates the dominant or aggressive attitude.
It is also important to remember that a person will always be superior on his own territory, especially in his own home, and submissive gestures and behaviour are very effective methods for getting the person on side with you.