The dominant and submissive clusters are often looked at from the perspective of identifying people about to commit violent acts, but obviously not everyone who displays this type of nonverbal behavior does so in a threatening manner.  There are countless reasons why a person might give off submissive cues that are completely innocent and need to be considered when you observe  this cluster of behavior.

Think about a time when you were around someone that you had an incredible amount of respect for, the type of person who you wanted to be like and that you wanted to model your leadership style after.  Now think about the way you might have acted in that person’s presence.  It is likely that you took on many of the characteristics from the submissive cluster.  You might have clasped your hands together gently, either in front of or behind your body.  You probably weren’t lounging back in your chair with your feet splayed out, but were instead sitting up attentively with your feet positioned either directly under your knees or even pulled slightly back underneath your body.  As the conversation wound down, you probably weren’t beginning to turn towards the door, but were waiting politely to be excused by the person before giving any indication that you were ready to leave.  You weren’t behaving this way because you were consciously thinking about being submissive to the other person; you were doing it out of respect.

Take a look at the picture above showing the (at the time) Director of the CIA, David Patreaus talking to the Bulgarian Prime Minister (on the left).  How would you categorize the Prime Minister’s behavior?  (Please note, photo no longer available but can be found here.)

People unfamiliar with the terminology of the clusters might say that the Prime Minister is being polite, while some say he is being attentive.  These are all cues from the Submissive Cluster.  The Prime Minister’s hands are clasped lightly in front of his body (clearly not about to strike), his shoulders are lowered (not attempting to protect his neck), his torso is exposed (no sign of a threat), and, while we can’t see his feet, I would assume that they are probably slightly less than shoulder width apart (not prepared for fight or flight).   These are all indicators associated with making yourself smaller, the driving science behind the submissive cluster.  While these are also cues that could be used to categorize the Prime Minister as being in the Comfortable cluster, the reason that I instead assign his behavior to the submissive cluster is because David Patreaus is giving off dominant cues as he is lecturing at this point in the conversation.

The question that I am asking myself is, how is the Prime Minister is responding to the dominance? Because I would assume that the Prime Minister is often the dominant person in the room and rarely finds himself in a submissive posture, without knowing anything else about the conversation they are having, I might assess his behavior as not fitting his baseline.  What might cause him to take on this posture?  It could be that he acknowledges that the Director of the CIA has higher quality intelligence than what his country has access to.  It might be that he admires the military career that Patreaus has led.  Without knowing the actual relationship between these two people, I would assess that his submissive posture is a sign of respect for David Patreaus.  If he was offended that he was getting lectured, you would probably see his body language shift into the Uncomfortable Cluster if he was getting ready to leave or the Dominant Cluster if he was getting ready to regain control of the conversation.  Whether you refer to the cause for this relationship to be adoration for another, respect, or deference, the observable cues come from the Submissive cluster.

All of the behavioral clusters need to be considered in both positive and negative contexts if we are going to make accurate predictions about a person’s intentions.    A person giving off submissive cues could either have chosen to behave this way in order to not further enrage a potential attacker or challenge an authority figure. On the other hand they could be showing respect and adoration towards a person of higher stature.  The context of the situation has to be taken into account when determining the cause for certain behavior and determining if it fits your baseline or not.

If you want to see another example – here is a video from Afghanistan that shows the same relationship between a Taliban leader and a soldier. Watch Here.

Standard Disclaimer When Using Images To Show Behavior:

I want to note that this picture was chosen to highlight the point of this post, and I acknowledge that this picture is one split-second and just a moment in time.  To make more accurate assessments, I would typically rely on a series of pictures or a video, as that would provide the additional information needed to improve accuracy.  Luckily, we don’t view life as only seeing a single photo of an event, so this isn’t a problem we would have to worry about in real life.