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Power Displays


Explanations > RelationshipsStatus Games > Power Displays

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



A common way that people use to seek status is to demonstrate power. This may be done with harmless bragging. It may also include subtle threat, indicating that the person speaking may act to harm the other person if this person does not acknowledge status.

'Harm' in such cases includes anything the other person does not want, such as leaving, direct criticism, telling secrets to others, and so on.

Ways that power may be displayed include:

  • Dominant or aggressive body language.
  • Demonstrations of superiority.
  • Stories of power being used.
  • Hints at potential action ('I could...').
  • Actual use of power.


A manager has a nicer desk and chair than not only her subordinates but also other managers.

A teacher responds to bad behaving by moving into the pupils personal body space.

Two people arguing get into a shouting march, with each trying to out-do the other in displays of anger and aggression, yet without coming to blow.


Power is very largely about status when it is afforded by others, and in consequence has an illusory quality. People in power often work hard to sustain their power with regular checks that they still have higher status, using subtle and unsubtle threats in this process.

The use of power displays may vary significantly with culture. In some countries and companies, regular power display is almost essential, for example with boasting, bullying and political plays. In others, it is considered crass, uncaring and uncivilized.

Be careful when using threats. Keep them as subtle as possible so the other person gets the message without seeking to fight back. If the threat is too overt or the person too sensitive, then they may fall into the fight-or-flight response, responding in ways that do not gain you the status you seek.

Threats are still useful where other, more sociable methods have failed. By showing you are not inferior and have power of your own, you can respond effectively to those who seek status at your expense.

So what?

Be aware of the power (high or low) that you are projecting in what you do, say, wear and so on. Avoid reducing your power by putting yourself below others, wearing cheap clothes and so on. Also avoid others seeking to attack your power when you appear too powerful.

When others start doing power displays, which can be typical in conversation, decide if you want to play this game. You can, for example, give status by being amazed at their skill in something, then ask them for help.

See also

Power, Status

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