The Intimidation Factor

It can be daunting to encounter people who are physically formidable, ultra rich, super smart, or generally high powered. But there are ways to manage such interactions with grace and confidence, whether you’re the intimidator or the one who just wants to get away.

By Jennifer Latson, published August 21, 2019 - last reviewed on November 21, 2019

Robert Seale, used with permission
Bar manager and former bouncer Jason Peña knows firsthand how appearance can trigger other people’s fight or flight response: “Some people see a big guy and want to prove themselves.”
Robert Seale, used with permission

When he ran into an injured hiker on a remote mountain trail, Bill Stratton just wanted to help. He’d come around a bend to find two young women, one of whom had hurt her leg so badly she couldn’t walk. Stratton, a poet who teaches writing at the State University of New York’s Plattsburgh campus, happens to be trained in wilderness rescue. He’s also 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, with a booming voice and abundant facial hair that, on winter hikes, tends to frost over into what he describes as an ice beard. It can make him a startling figure in the woods.

“Hi, my name is Bill and I know first aid. Can I help?” he asked the women. Hoping to project nonthreatening helpfulness, he smiled, kept his hands in his pockets, and remained at a distance. But he could see the fear in their faces. The standing woman immediately yelped, “No!” The injured woman took longer to respond, as though thinking of the right words to get rid of him. “I’m waiting for a helicopter,” she finally said.

Stratton knew there was no helicopter on the way. But he also knew that saying so, and sticking around, would only make the pair more uncomfortable. So he hiked on and eventually came across a ranger, who headed up to help. The women got off the mountain safely, but it bothered Stratton to know that they counted him among the dangers they faced that day.

“I was doing everything I could think of to not be intimidating,” he says. “I hate that that’s how I’m perceived. And it happens a lot.”  

Intimidation plays a role in our social interactions every day. Some people present as physically intimidating; others are imposing because of their personality, intellect, wealth, or social status. Still others may remind us of someone who spooked us in the past. Whatever the source, we rarely discuss it openly, so the people who intimidate us often have no idea how we see them. That can carry real risks, since the feeling of being intimidated can trigger a fight-or-flight response just as any other perceived threat does.

People who are easily intimidated, especially those for whom self-esteem is a challenge, may find their behavior changing for reasons they don’t always realize. And even the most seemingly secure individuals get intimidated sometimes, though not always by whom you’d expect.

Big Misunderstanding

The fact that Jason Peña is built like a linebacker was a clear asset on his high school football team. It also helped him become a bouncer at the Houston bar where he now works as a bartender and manager. But he rarely throws his weight around; friends describe him as a softy and coworkers call him Peanut. As a bouncer, he’s always tried to avoid physical confrontation. But while his size alone often persuades potential troublemakers to get in line, it can occasionally provoke a violent response. “Some people see a big guy and want to prove themselves,” Peña says, “especially if they’ve been drinking.”

Stratton, who also worked as a bouncer for several years, says his size was more often a liability than an advantage on the job. He took at least 20 punches over the course of his bouncing career, he says. One patron broke a pool cue over his head.

The intimidating effect of physical size is one of the easiest to explain from an evolutionary perspective. People bigger than we are pose an obvious threat: They could hurt us. “It’s basic mammalian stuff,” says psychiatrist Grant Brenner. “These nonverbal cues signal things that we pick up outside of consciousness and influence the way we perceive the other person and interpret their intentions.”

We may, therefore, be ready to fight an intimidating person before we understand why. And those of us who’ve unintentionally intimidated someone may be surprised when that person throws a punch—or runs away.

Stratton would prefer they do neither, especially when it’s someone with whom he aspires to form a relationship. “I never want to intimidate people when I’m teaching, or at a faculty meeting, or talking to the parents of my kids’ classmates,” he says. “I would say most poets and writers aren’t the most social people, but I am social, I’m friendly, and I like meeting people. But I can see it come across people’s faces. They’ll tell me later, ‘When I first met you, I was intimidated and nervous.’ I’m like, ‘Why? What was I doing? How can I not do it again?’”

For tall people, one answer could be to make themselves seem shorter. But it’s not as simple as crouching down or hunching over, which can appear condescending. Crouching also forces people into a closed posture that comes across as unfriendly, Brenner explains: It looks a lot like looming.

“The tall people I know who put people at ease find a way to lower themselves without being obvious about it,” he says. Some, for example, simply widen their stance, which makes them seem a few inches shorter.

Stratton’s preferred approach is to stay seated as much as possible, but he’s still seeking a better way to convey that he’s not a threat. “My mom once got me a shirt that says, ‘Sometimes I pee when I laugh.’ That’s about the least intimidating shirt I could think of,” Stratton says, adding that he’d wear it all the time if it meant he’d elicit “whatever is the normal response to meeting a person.”

Why We Retreat

Even giants aren’t immune to intimidation. “When I’m intimidated, it’s almost never about size or loudness. Sometimes it’s about the stakes,” Stratton says—such as when he interviews for a job. “But I know that feeling, and it’s terrible.”

Feeling intimidated typically boils down to a sense that the person you’re interacting with is more powerful than you. Socially powerful people, for example, could be wealthy, attractive, intelligent, talented, or even just incredibly charming. Because these qualities are valued by others, they elevate the people possessing them to a higher perceived social status. Then there are those who occupy a position of power, either absolute or relative to you, such as a police officer pulling you over for speeding.

One way we react to these power differences is by deferring to people in higher positions, trying to please them and do what they say. But we don’t have to be afraid of someone to have this reaction, according to psychologist Jessica Tracy, director of the University of British Columbia’s Emotion and Self Lab. We also show deference to powerful people we respect and admire, she says, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Our instinct to follow people with higher social status is one of the ways we, and other primates, have succeeded in creating stable social structures that benefit the group as a whole.

Humans also have a fundamental desire for social inclusion; studies show that we feel rejection in much the same way as we do physical pain. Since people with high status have an outsize influence on our social networks, their position represents another way they could hurt us. “They could ostracize you, or turn others against you, if they decide they don’t like you. They could cut you out of important group decisions,” says Joseph Marks, a Ph.D. candidate in experimental psychology at University College London and the co-author of Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why. “But if you have a strong alliance with them, the reverse could be true. So you’re motivated to look for ways to win them over.”

We don’t even have to know a person well to admire or fear them: Status symbols alone are enough to sway our behavior. “You form stereotypes from a tiny piece of information, like what car they drive or what job they have,” says Marks.

Mike McGregor, used with permission
Jessica Audet has been told that her meticulous preparation daunts rivals in the courtroom. She insists it’s not intentional. “I’m terrified of public speaking,” she says. “How can this introverted, 4-foot-11 attorney be intimidating? I still can’t see myself that way.”
Mike McGregor, used with permission

Status Signals

One early study of how socioeconomic status inspires deference, conducted in the 1960s, measured the amount of time it took California drivers to honk at a car that didn’t move when a traffic light turned green. In surveys, most people said they’d honk just as fast no matter what make of car they were stuck behind. In reality, drivers gave high-end cars significantly more leeway. “Drivers took much less time to honk at a scruffy old sedan than at a shiny new Chrysler,” Marks says. “We defer to higher status without realizing it.”

We’ve evolved to be lightning-quick judges of where others stand in the social hierarchy. Sometimes the signifiers are obvious, like driving a Bentley. But we all signal status in the way we talk, act, and carry ourselves, and these nonverbal cues are surprisingly effective at conveying social rank. “There’s research to suggest that some of these are universal—that people see certain signals for higher rank across different cultures,” Tracy says. That includes what researchers call “expansive postural displays” such as puffing your chest out, putting your hands on your hips, or otherwise occupying more physical space.

These gestures do tend to accurately reflect higher status, Tracy says. “Think of ‘manspreading,’ or of the executive who leans back and puts his arms behind his head at a meeting and takes up a lot of space. That’s a very dominant gesture.”

Even small gestures can make a big difference in how we’re perceived. A 2013 study found that people were judged more intimidating when they just tilted their faces slightly, either upward or downward. Tilting in either direction makes our faces look wider, the researchers noted, and wider faces correlate with higher testosterone levels—and greater aggression. We understand this effect, even if we aren’t consciously aware when we do it: Participants in the study also spontaneously tilted their faces when they were told to try to look intimidating.

Staring is another powerful intimidator. A sustained, direct gaze tends to elicit strong fight-or-flight reactions. A 2017 study found that people with lower social status were more likely to avoid someone who was staring, while people with higher status tended to approach and confront the onlooker. And in a 2016 study, Tracy and her colleagues found that deep, low-pitched voices are perceived as a sign of dominance and leadership capacity across cultures. Further, they observed that we modify the pitch of our own voices depending on whether we outrank the person we’re talking to in terms of social status.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in situations in which we want or need to create a more intimidating impression, so we use these techniques intentionally. But Tracy warns that this can backfire if we can’t back up the vibes we try to give off. “These subtle cues can have a huge impact on how others perceive you, but they can be risky because people could see you negatively if they feel you don’t deserve” the power you project, she says. “You have to know the context and know your audience.”

A Force for Good

Patricia DiMango didn’t get her former job as a New York State Supreme Court justice—or her current role as one of three judges on the courtroom TV show Hot Bench—by being meek. On the show, her audience includes the 3 million people who tune in daily to watch her argue verdicts with her tribunal. In court, however, she adapts her performance for a much smaller audience: the defendants. When she comes across as tough talking and iron willed, it’s a deliberate choice. She’s trying to harness the power of intimidation for good.

“I am different as Patricia than as Judge DiMango,” she says. “I often won’t tell people I’m a judge, because that title in itself is intimidating. In my personal life, I want to be pleasant. I want to make friends. But when I’m on the bench, I need to portray a person who has credibility and consistency, a certain amount of power, and the ability to impose tough penalties.”

In addition to her law degree, DiMango has a master’s in developmental psychology. She began her career as a public school teacher, focused on students with behavioral issues and learning delays. Over the years, she crafted a tough-love approach, first to help those students, and later the juvenile offenders she saw as a judge. But it requires her to project the most intimidating version of herself.

“I recognize, personally and from my psychological background, that you can’t make people change. It has to come from them,” she says. “And one thing that motivates that desire for change is recognizing that behavior has consequences. Unless someone steps in and says, ‘You either stop doing this or you’re going to end up incarcerated or a drug addict,’ it’s not going to happen.”

That can put her in an uncomfortable position because scaring people straight requires her to be, well, scary. Once, facing a 17-year-old boy accused of first-degree robbery, she had the choice of imposing a lengthy jail sentence or diverting him to probation. “My impression was that he was a good kid,” she says. “He told me he wanted to be a veterinarian. I said, ‘That’s great, but how are you going to do that from prison?’”

She wanted to keep him out of jail. But she also needed to make him believe that she’d lock him up in a heartbeat if he slipped up. So that’s what she told him. “I said, ‘You go to school, and if you don’t miss any classes for the rest of the year, I’ll reevaluate my decision that you belong in jail.’”

She succeeded in scaring the boy. But she also scared his father, who called DiMango to report his son when the teen cut school one day. She wasn’t sure how she could keep him out of jail a second time without undermining her credibility—and potentially losing the positive influence she had.

When the teen came back to court, he admitted that he skipped class, which gave DiMango an out: She rewarded his honesty with a lesser penalty. Instead of sending him to jail, she had him spend every day of spring break in court with her as she adjudicated adult crimes, doling out the kind of prison time that could have been in his future. The young man finished the school year, stayed out of jail, and even wrote a poem about his judge: “Some people call her mean, but I can see her as a friend. . . Your Honor, you have made me bloom.”

Mike McGregor, used with permission
“I never want anyone to fear me in a visceral sense,” says six-foot-tall social worker Liz Myers, “but it serves my clients well for me to have an intimidating presence.”
Mike McGregor, used with permission

The Scared and the Scary

Some traits may be universally intimidating, but we’re not all equally affected by them. Some of us are more easily intimidated than others—and some of the characteristics we find most daunting might not even rattle the next guy.

Our strongest feelings of intimidation often correspond to our own insecurities, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, the author of Joy From Fear. If we’re afraid we’re not smart enough, we may find someone with an advanced degree especially intimidating. If we worry that other people are constantly judging us, we might feel threatened when we meet a psychologist—as many people are.

“It goes to the core of our self-esteem,” Manly explains, and sets us up for toxic comparisons that can spark feelings of inadequacy. If we pride ourselves on our looks or athletic ability, then when we meet someone better looking or more athletic, that uncomfortable feeling can arise. Some people set out to intimidate us, however, while others never mean to. The trouble is that we feel the same in either situation. To tell the bullies from the well-intentioned people who just happen to push our buttons, we have to get past our instinctive threat response and analyze each interaction logically.

But it gets trickier, Manly says, when we’re intimidated by people who remind us of someone who hurt us in the past. It’s hard to overcome the emotional power of that reaction, especially because we aren’t always conscious of it.

“I have certainly experienced being intimidated by very specific people—particularly those who remind me of a highly aggressive person from my youth,” Manly says. “Even as a psychologist, I had to do quite a bit of self-work in order not to be triggered by every male who seemed to have those same characteristics. Once you become aware of your triggers and old patterns, you can practice being more discriminating and less reactive over time.”

Exuding Power

The antidote to all forms of intimidation is self-esteem, Manly says. “Strong self-esteem doesn’t rely on external attributes; it comes from knowing that you’ve overcome challenges with strength, courage, and dignity, and that you have a moral compass that guides you. The secret is: Nobody’s better than you. We’re all human.”

Developing stronger self-esteem not only makes us less easily intimidated but less intimidating as well, since those of us who feel the most vulnerable can also be the most menacing.

That’s something Liz Myers knows firsthand. As a child growing up in an abusive environment, she developed a tough exterior and a brazen personality to protect herself. It was a shock when she first realized that her defensive ferocity evoked fear in others—even adults.

“Inside I felt so minimal, but I had to project something else,” she says. “When you internalize that abuse, it becomes part of your personality to be defensive and fearful. I did what I had to do to keep people away.” It took her most of her 20s, she says, to untangle her reactive aggression from an empowering assertiveness. “True assertiveness doesn’t make other people afraid of you. Or it shouldn’t.”

Today, Myers is six feet tall, heavily tattooed, and naturally loud, so she still scares people, but not the way she used to: “People are influenced just by my physical space, combined with the fact that I have exactly zero need for small talk and I don’t have a problem asserting my opinion.”

Myers works for a social service agency in Connecticut, finding housing and support for people who are chronically homeless and often challenged by mental illness and addiction. Her clients aren’t usually cowed by her forceful presence—or her tattoos. “I feel like it makes me more human to them,” she says, “ because of my appearance and my direct communication style, and because I was raised with people who had the same challenges.”

The trouble arises when she has to navigate bureaucracy on her clients’ behalf and has to adapt to avoid rubbing someone the wrong way. “I don’t change who I am,” Myers says. “I just adjust the volume.”

Sometimes, though, being a little scary can be beneficial. “I never want anyone to fear me in a visceral sense, like I might hurt them,” she adds, “but it serves me well to have an intimidating presence, and it serves my clients.” For people on the margins, out of sight, out of mind, and largely voiceless, Myers provides a bullhorn. “I can’t hide and I can’t blend in. I just have to own it.”

Misreading Introverts

Introverts can have an especially hard time realizing when they’re sending intimidating signals. At 4-foot-11, Jessica Audet, a Connecticut attorney, doesn’t take up a lot of space in the courtroom and she doesn’t have a loud voice or a brash personality. So she’s been surprised to hear—a number of times, usually from much taller male attorneys—that she comes across as intimidating.

“I’m very introverted, shy unless I know you, and terrified of public speaking. And I chose to be a litigation attorney—oh, the irony,” she laughs. “I’m constantly questioning my own abilities. Law school made me feel like the stupidest person alive.”

That’s not how others see her, though, and Audet’s self-doubts may contribute to her intimidating presence. Too unsure of herself to wing it in the courtroom, she prepares diligently for each case, which has earned her a reputation for exacting thoroughness. At the same time, her natural introversion can translate as standoffishness.

Then there was the time she made a witness cry on the stand. “That was only because she was lying,” Audet explains. “You can’t lie in court. I told her that.”

Because introverts sometimes come across as emotionally distant, others can get the impression that they’re holding something back, which rings an internal alarm. “We have this automatic, intuitive sense of ‘There’s something off here’ when words and emotional signals seem misaligned,” says Marks, of University College London. “It doesn’t allow people to connect on that human level.”

Still, despite the faith we put in our gut instincts when sizing someone up, those hunches are often unreliable. “First impressions are far less accurate than some would have you believe,” says psychologist Scott Highhouse of Bowling Green State University.

Although some social psychological research suggests we can make accurate assessments based on a brief moment of observation, or “thin-slicing,” that holds true only if we are able to compile the assessments of multiple observers, Highhouse explains. “At the individual level, which is what we care about, thin slices have minimal accuracy for predicting behavior.” Sociopaths, after all, excel at winning people over, and while introverts may fumble first impressions, they tend to be more trustworthy than others in the long run.

Karjean Levine, used with permission
“I think I’m a sweetheart,” says information technology manager Terrell Belin. “I guess you have to get past my invisible wall that I’m not always aware of.”
Karjean Levine, used with permission

Managing Expectations

Why don’t people realize they are intimidating? Studies show that nearly all of us believe we’re self-aware—able to discern, for example, if we appear threatening or standoffish—but only 10 to 15 percent of us actually are, according to organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich. And those at the top of a particular social hierarchy may be especially out of touch with how they’re perceived: No one will tell them.

“Most people think they’re really approachable,” says Mark Bolino, a management professor at the University of Oklahoma. “But you don’t know how you’re coming across. You have to ask.”

That’s why he urges business leaders to cultivate an atmosphere in which people can give constructive criticism freely—and to ask for feedback often.

Even subtle reminders of a power differential can make others anxious. “If you’re a supervisor sitting behind a desk, the desk itself can create an intimidating presence,” Bolino says. “To counteract that, if you’re talking to an employee, come around the desk and sit next to them. Or have the meeting in their office instead, or outside of the building, to de-emphasize that hierarchical relationship.”

Terrell Belin, an IT manager at the New York Public Library, recently discovered how climbing the career ladder made him more intimidating. Earlier this year, he was promoted to a higher-level management position overseeing three regional managers and 15 technicians. Soon after, he interviewed candidates for an open technician spot and noticed that many seemed flustered; one couldn’t remember the word gigabyte. The candidate he ultimately hired seemed sure of himself in his interview, but when Belin called to offer him the job, the man was shocked. “He said, ‘I didn’t think I was going to get the job. I’ve never been more nervous on a job interview.’”

Belin was shocked, too: He’d had no idea he was a scary interviewer. He worked his way up from the library’s ground floor—his first job, at age 15, was as a page returning books to shelves—and still thinks of himself as more blue-collar than white-collar.

“I think I’m a sweetheart, but when I’m sitting across from you in my suit, and I’m tapping my pen or whatever, I can come across as very serious,” he now realizes. It’s not just an issue in job interviews. Colleagues who meet him as a manager, and never knew the 15-year-old page he sometimes still feels like, can find him closed off. “I’ve had people say, ‘I didn’t like you at first. When I saw you walking down the hall, you seemed like you couldn’t be bothered,’” he says. “I guess you have to get past my invisible wall that I’m not always aware of.”

Such blindspots can carry real costs in the workplace, Bolino says. If employees are intimidated by their supervisors, they may not alert them to problems they’re having on key projects. And companies could eventually lose talented workers who feel anxious on the job. The fact that coveted management attributes like competence and charisma can be intimidating makes the issue even more complicated.

Being extremely morally upright can discomfit others as well. “I’ve known people who are incredibly upstanding and ethical,” Bolino says, “and I sometimes find myself more nervous around them and more cautious about what I say. I’m afraid I might accidentally curse or do something they could find inappropriate.”

To counteract this, Bolino suggests that managers—or anyone who comes to realize they intimidate—inject humility and humanity into their interactions whenever possible. Making a mistake is perhaps the most human thing we can do, and research on the “pratfall effect” shows that screwing up tends to make us more likable. In one study, when people perceived as highly competent spilled coffee on themselves, it didn’t diminish people’s perception of their competence but it did make others like them more.

“By exposing weaknesses or vulnerability, you make yourself emotionally open,” Marks says. “It’s very endearing, especially if you have high status.” This approach can backfire, though, if you’ve intentionally intimidated others—and they know it. “If you’re in the high-status, low-connectedness quadrant,” Marks says, “people might just like it if something bad happens to you.”