How the forces dance


That everything revolves around power is one of the most important things I’ve learned on my path to adulthood. This truth applies not only to the political and economic fields, it is just as valid in the arena of personal relationships.

Any person who has ever been lucky enough – or unlucky, as is sometimes the case – to have been in an intimate relationship could tell you that both parties always knew where they stood in the balance of power. In the ideal relationship both parties are of course equal, even if one is sometimes in a better emotional state than the other, and therefore better able to dictate matters for the moment. But the fact that the party in better mood changes every now and then confirms the basic equality of the two parties.

This principle also applies to friendships. There may be times when one friend is more in control of a situation, and more confident of him- or herself. In such cases, the other friend almost instinctively takes the submissive position. These roles may change as soon as the topic of discussion changes, or when a situation develops in which one person is more comfortable, or that he can approach with more confidence.

The same phenomenon also manifests in subtle ways in social intercourse between strangers. When two people meet for the first time, say at a barbecue or at a drinking and dancing event, the brain undertakes a speedy profiling process. Facts are sought and arranged in a preliminary understanding of the balance of power. Is the person friend or foe? Is he cool, or is he a loser? Is she someone whose name I should remember, or should I give her a limp handshake while I look over her shoulder for someone else who could pique my interest?

Depending on the initial answers to these questions, we decide where we stand with the stranger in question. If the person is considered a non-threatening potential friend who gives the impression that he or she knows what words to use in what context, then the next set of questions is sent to the Supreme Organ: Should I treat him/her as an equal, or as someone I wouldn’t mind dragging along as a fan? Or, should I try my best to win this person’s favour because, a) the person knows more than I do, b) has more experience than me, c) has something that I want, or d) I regard the person as my superior for all three reasons, and a few additional ones?

You might think that this whole thought process takes up most of a minute, but in many cases these questions have already been answered by the time the handshake is done, or the heads have stopped nodding. The factors that determine the answers include appearance, the intensity of a smile, the enthusiasm or lack thereof when the other person is greeted, people you or the other person are with when you are introduced to each other, or any information that the person knew about you before they met you, or information you had about them.

Sometimes it is possible that an initial weak view of you changes as soon as the other person become privy to certain information about you. If the person finds out, for example, that despite your eccentric appearance, you are, let’s just say, financially very comfortable, you might just find an immediate change in attitude on your return from the bathroom.

Of course, the opposite can also happen. You may reckon you have left a lasting impression with the fine synchronisation between appearance and fantastic myths you have spread about yourself, but by the third time you see someone who initially fawned over you, you might find to your dismay that the person has since found a stronger figure to cosy up to. Or maybe you leaned too heavily on your anecdote about the time when you and a member of the dethroned Burmese royal family had fled through the jungle of Vietnam, only to find you are in Thailand and that he held you responsible for the fact that he had malaria. “Since when does everyone have stories like these?” you’ll ask yourself as you search the room for a new group of people to impress.

It is, unfortunately, not only the untouchables of India who are struggling with a caste system. All communities have hierarchies and classes that crisscross each other. Everyone, from the richest to the poorest, from the hippest accountant to the most boring pop star have to cope with keeping up with what defines their place on the power hierarchy in the environments in which they display themselves.

Someone should invent a mist that can be sprayed over a social gathering that would reveal the true opinions and levels of respect that people have for those around them. A few secret admirers might be exposed, but the chances are much better that some bloated egos will be pricked into nothingness.