The ‘intimidation’ factor: What elements make some people more deserving of respect and awe?

November 7, 2021 — by Sanjoli Gupta
The different angles when looking at someone from different heights.

Sophomore Ella Asher is 5 foot 10, making her appear more mature and older than many of her peers. With both basketball and volleyball skills under her belt, Asher can be found walking around campus in a sweatshirt, full-length pants and Vans.

Unlike some of her shorter classmates, Asher said she doesn’t worry about appearing weak or vulnerable.

“I would say it’s interesting and kind of funny at the same time because I do look intimidating, but I’m the opposite after [people get to know me],” Asher said.

Height, maturity, body language and confidence — among other factors — play important roles in the way people are perceived and how intimidating they seem to others. Asher said she views herself as confident, but others can sometimes see her as intimidating. 

She said that she understands why: People often act confidently to appear more self-assured — especially in sports like volleyball, which Asher plays, where players gain an advantage by intimidating the opposing team during serves. 

In addition to a confident attitude, more subtle body language cues play into intimidation. According to an article in The New York Times, 55% of the content of a message is communicated nonverbally.

In the article, Allan and Barbra Pease state, “Studies show that when negotiating over the telephone, the person with the stronger argument usually wins, but this is not so true when negotiating face-to-face. Overall, we make our final decisions more on what we see than what we hear.” 

Research by Ray Birdwhistell, a senior research scientist at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric institute, backs this up: “The average person actually speaks words for a total of about ten or eleven minutes a day … [but] we can make and recognize around 250,000 facial expressions.” 

Britdwhistell’s research further showed that almost 65% of conversations are communicated nonverbally. 

This body language can result in intimidation; scarce eye contact and protective body language can make people seem more threatening in in-person conversations. 

Junior Haley Marks said that while intimidation can be linked to confidence, it is ultimately “about a person’s stance and the aura they give off; whether they have some sort of [superiority] surrounding them.”

Marks, who stands 5 foot 9 inches, said that when many people first meet her, they are intimidated by not only her height, but her facial expressions as well.

“I’ve had people tell me that I look like I’m on edge [because of my height and expression],” Marks said. “But I have not a single thought [like that] in my head at all. I’m fine, just happy living my life.”

According to an article published in Forbes, when someone’s head is tilted downward, the angle makes it look like they are “contracting their eyebrows in an intimidating glare” despite having a neutral facial expression. Looking at someone face to face and at eye level will make them seem less intimidating just because of the angle of their face. 

Marks prefers to focus on the advantages of height rather than its downsides. She said that she uses it to ward off strangers while walking on streets alone, since — as a result of historical predatory harassment and assault — it can be dangerous for a younger woman to be out alone. In America, every 73 seconds, someone is assaulted and young women are at the highest risk. 

Though Marks said others can find her intimidating, she is self-assured in her personality and comfortable in her height. 

“I don’t feel like the giant in ‘Jack in the Beanstalk,’” Marks said. “I like it, and I think it’s a good attribute. I feel confident in myself.”

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