There is a certain set of gestures people use to dominate each other. One of the most well known is a handshakes. (I can't find example right now, but somewhere in the net, there is an article with taxonomy of in-control gestures and a ways to reshape them into equal position)

Recently I've started to work with a colleague, who is using pat on a back as a dominant gesture. And I wonder, if there is any effective ways to disarm this gesture and reshape it into equal position.

  • 3
    I do not think that how to reshape the gesture is On-Topic here. We can help you deal with the coworker using them but the specific question you ask is out of scope. Jan 29 '13 at 14:16
  • 4
    In North America/Europe handshakes are not usually thought of as dominating gestures - they are just greetings, and are often used between equals. Jan 29 '13 at 14:34
  • 5
    I wasn't aware that a handshake is a dominant gesture, in fact historically the handshake started as a means for two people to present the fact that they were unarmed, by presenting their dominant hand to the other and allowing two potential enemies to actually talk face to face. If anything the handshake is a submissive gesture compared to carrying a sword as you approach somebody. Jan 29 '13 at 15:13
  • 6
    say "please don't do that" in a calm and assertive way
    – Neuro
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:21
  • 3
    I'll agree with @enderland that if you're looking for answers about how to change the psychological effects of a gesture made for the purpose of dominating the situation, than your question is probably off-topic here. However if your question is simply how to stop an overly touchy co-worker from touching you so much, then perhaps you can edit your question to reflect that, as such a question would be on-topic here :)
    – Rachel
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:34


This is highly localized. I can only speak for North America in my answer, and even then it depends on the culture of the business & industry. That being said...

I wouldn't call specific hand gestures dominating necessarily, but they are part of a 'game' that some people play. When they experience a familiarity with a situation it gives them more comfort and confidence. For example, if you step into a car dealership, a lot of salesmen will behave the same way: shake hands with everyone (including each other), ask the exact same small talk questions that they can give pre-canned comments on, etc.

This may become a problem for you if the level of comfort with what's going on is asymmetric and the conversation is inherently adversarial such as a negotiation. Pushy salesmen & certain business people strive for this. It helps them steer the conversation their way and makes sure that the whole thing happens on their terms.

The only way out is to break their 'game'. If they are taking you out of your comfort zone, you should make sure they are not sitting perfectly in theirs either.


I learned how to avoid shaking hands from a guy I used to work with. He just never shook hands with anyone. Period. Maybe it had to do with the SARS epidemic, but it somehow worked. Let's say the stereotypical frat boy salesman says "Hi Valera, how you doin'?" and reaches out his hand. Your answer would be "Yeah, great, thanks!" and you just stand there with arms at your side smiling. You should be very outgoing, friendly, and cooperative not to give a 'cold' impression, but a the same time not play into his prepared script. At this point, their norm of the conversation is challenged and they will be forced to talk with you differently.

Pat on the back

Similar to the handshake, you should make sure that they feel uncomfortable doing it. Don't shrug it off, but step a little further away from them after they do it. Alternatively, make sure that their action results in a pause. It's not the reaction that they are expecting and it breaks their script.

Final Thoughts

This is all sales 101. In my experience, technical people are not very good at this sort of thing. However, it's a skill like any other that can, and should be learned. Don't let people play their pre-canned scripts with you when they are trying to get you to agree or commit to something. Some do this sort of thing very well. Physical gestures are just an extension of their scripts that are easy to thwart.

  • 1
    These tactics are good at discouraging the action. But they could lead to other unintended difficulties in interaction in the future. It is important not to let the pause end the interaction. Jan 29 '13 at 14:45

To disarm unwanted gestures, especially those that have a physical component to them, I've personally found that the best approach is to simply call out the behavior when it occurs.

For the pat on the back, just simply say "please don't do that". Say it calmly, clearly, and look the person in the eye. Do this immediately, the first time it happens. Boundaries are much easier to establish and maintain before they have been disrupted. Wait too long, and your response won't carry the same weight.

For the handshake, you could grab the person's right hand with your left and then cover both with your right. Used effectively, this could look really sincere while also preventing the overly boisterous crush grip.

Another alternative to the handshake is the fist bump. While not as professional, if you're working in a testosterone filled environment where people regularly try to smash the small bones in your hand together, then the environment you work in probably isn't all that professional.

Whatever you do, don't do back to the person what they are doing to you. If the pat on the back is sincere, or intended to be sincere, and you respond in an insincere manner, the message this person will see isn't that you don't like the pat on the back but instead they'll just think you're a jerk. So give people the benefit of the doubt. If you don't like something, just say so.

  • 1
    This is good, and it can work but being so explicit might also make you come across as a bit of a weirdo. For example, if you're meeting with senior management, you don't want to be known as the guy who's afraid of touching people.
    – MrFox
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:24
  • @MrFox - Excellent point. I'd say the response you give depends on the situation and the person. When I was in the Army and a Sergeant Major gave a soldier a pat on the back, 9.9 times out of 10 it was sincere, so it didn't bother me. (Senior NCO's generally are real and are true leaders). You can generally tell the difference between someone who is sincere and someone who is just either trying to be a jerk or just test your boundaries. The response I suggest is for the latter two cases. :)
    – jmort253
    Feb 17 '13 at 20:32

I'm also not a big fan of the pat on the back. I disagree that it's always meant to be dominating - I think some folks do it to connect with others... but I agree that it can feel out of place and unsettling, and like many things - how you take it is as (if not more!) important as how it is meant.

I applaud jmort's idea - just say "don't do that" - short and sweet, the first time. Absolutely don't let a habit get built up. There's no need to make a big deal of it - move on as soon as the other person indicates they understand.

There's nothing more powerful than standing up for yourself.

That said, I've been in plenty of situations where I didn't feel comfortable with that. Here's a few other tricks:

  • Make it hard - sit in situations where a pat on the back is difficult without awkwardness.

  • Turn around while pat is in progress, stare at the person. This is particularly effective if you've already said "don't do that".

Also - if it's already become a norm with this guy, you may need to take overt action to break the chain. Take him aside and say "hey, look, I know you like patting people on the back, but I'm really not OK with that. I find it startling and off-putting, and I'd rather you not do it. If you like something I did, do this instead..."

When a trend has started, that's about all you can do.

In terms of really subtle options, I'd conjecture, there's not a lot out there. A pat on the back already presumes that your back is turned (and available to be patted) - which means a lot of the head on cues of "don't touch me/I'm too important to be touched", aren't readily available or visible to the patter.

  • This question is focused on the times where the pat on the back is being used as a diminutive gesture(consciously or not) and how to turn that gesture into one of equality. Avoiding the gesture all together often has the effect of empowering the gesture that much more. Jan 29 '13 at 16:23

In my opinion, JMort has good advice if your issue with the actions is the physicality of the action.

If, however, the issue is the inferred purpose of the action (i.e. to dominate), then I'm going to go against the grain of the other answers... I really think you should ask yourself why it really matters. If you know the action is to 'dominate,' then how does that really influence your day to day activities or impact your position in the workplace since you can account for it?

One option is to "rise above" the games being played... Let the sales guys or whomever play their silly little personal interaction games. Recognize that, in the long run, it has no real impact on your life or work and give the guy the benefit of the doubt that he's just being friendly. Knowing, of course, that when it comes down to actual position and merit in the workplace, you've got him beat on the things that really matter.

  • It matters because you might be in a meeting with a bunch of other people who are influenced by it. Consider a situation where 2 managers have come to argue their case before an executive team. One looks assertive and on the ball, the other looks a bit out of place. Ideally and in the long run only the content of the message should matter. In the real world, that's not the case.
    – MrFox
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:38
  • @suslik And that is exactly the reason why the OP should ask why it really matters. If OP sits in his cube all day slinging code, then it probably matters a lot less than if he's competing for the attentions of executives in your scenario.
    – Jacob G
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:45
  • 1
    @JacobG - I will agree this is a tactic that you can take but I disagree with your assessment of its value. Jan 29 '13 at 16:25
  • Not sure why the down-vote hate. We're not talking about someone stealing lunch money here. A lot of times it makes perfect sense to lose the battle in order to win the war.
    – Jacob G
    Jan 29 '13 at 20:44

There is a simple way to equalize any gesture that you think carries a message of dominance - and that is to do it back to them. That also takes care of the possibility that they might see it different from you. If they think it's a gesture of friendliness, they won't have any trouble with you doing it. If they object you can say "If you don't like it done to you, please don't do it to me".

  • A challenge of their dominance is not a constructive action especially for someone who does not have a dominant personality. Jan 29 '13 at 14:42
  • If someone has no right to act dominant over you, I find challenging them in a subtle way to be effective. Even if you don't have a dominant personality it is often worth understanding and being able to use the language of dominance. Jan 29 '13 at 15:02
  • @DJClayworth this is the correct answer to the question on dominance/equalizing, but currently not really formatted well...
    – enderland
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:32

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .