Monday, August 20, 2012

Sage advice: Chimpanzee politics and alpha males

OK, I’m back with another article for my female friends about how to decipher how men think and behave. This post is about being Alpha.

Whenever men get together they are constantly, sub-consciously assessing each other and establishing hierarchies. Who is the Alpha chimpanzee, who is Beta, and who is the lowest of the low, the Omega*? I started thinking about this past weekend when out with a group of friends, to noticed that the guys were deferring to me – even though one was my age, and was ex-special forces and could probably kill me with his pinky, I was the one who was making all the decisions, and being deferred to (this was probably because I was the boss of his girlfriend, and the supervisor of many others there - and so was the one that most there were automatically looking to). 

Usually when men meet there is some subtle, or not so subtle jostling about who is alpha. This may involve non-verbal communication, such as posturing. Standing straight with legs apart, or sitting, leaning back, legs spayed, this are typical alpha poses. Me top chimpanzee, look at the size of my impressive genitals.

Even something like a handshake could be involved – my father taught me to try to give a strong, near crippling hand shake whenever possible. Some men however use this and close a handshake super-quick, so that before you can get a good manly grip, you are instead left grasping fingers of a firm hand shake you are – you have been up-alphaed by trickery.

Sometimes the posturing is verbal. Usually in the form of trying to out compete the other males by stories, tales of prowess, or mastery. Because, as I’ve mentioned before, everything is a competition for guys, and status is everything. In many ways, the tales of “how much I had to drink”, “she was so into me” or “I’ve just bought a new Bugatti” are no different to the tales of battles and cunning Vikings would tell around the fire place in their mead halls, all attempts to establish hierarchies. However, sometimes chimpanzees lie, and in due time you will see the other chimps testing this verbal posturing – can they back up their claims? Or will they be caught in a lie? The chimp caught out, will soon find their place in the hierarchy faltering and they plummet in status. I have a couple of relatives who were particularly bad at telling stories and exaggerating to promote their status, and they were easy to see through, however, to call them on it would cause them to lose status, cause embarrassment and ruin Thanksgiving.  

By agreeing with, or even bolstering the verbal bragging of a higher status, alpha male a younger chimpanzee gains favour with the elder, and also is seen as being less of a threat, subservient and less of a competitor. To see this in action just watch any (socially aware) guy who is meeting his girlfriend’s father for the first time.

Now, woe betide you if you get a group of established alphas in a room together. They will start jostling for superiority, and the inner chimpanzee may come out, and poo may be flung. In my world this is called “a faculty meeting”. The posturing and whatnot is usually more pronounced in academia, as many professors are used to being alphas in their labs or classes, and moreover often lack social skills or self-awareness to moderate their behavior so that it’s more subtle. Amongst so many wanna-be alphas, sometimes a chimp needs to get a bit stick and clout the competition – metaphorically of course.

Personally, at work I’m an alpha through and through. To adequately control a class of over 100 students, you have to make yourself their alpha. For graduate students, this is particularly important, as they may be used to being top dog in their offices – many of my graduate students, in fact I would say close to a half, are older than me and often have senior government positions, frequently out earning me, so you have to show them who’s boss quickly – and in an academic setting, this is usually through leadership skills, organization, and showing that you not only know what you’re talking about, but you know more than they do. You can tell a class where the instructor is not the alpha – students aren’t listening, they are always arguing and talking back, or getting obstructive. Being alpha is particularly difficult if you are younger, or look younger (as I do/am), so you have to exert yourself more and establish that dominance early. I also chair and organize multiple committees and groups of academics - which again is pretty tough when you are relatively young. This involves constant chest beating and alpha-ness trying to get squabbling academics to listen to you, to respect your opinion, to agree, with your plan; to stop their academic hand-waving and posturing and to concentrate on the matter of hand and get organized. In many ways, my short term as an elementary school teacher and as an uncle of a bunch of feral nieces and nephews was very useful, in trying to control the bunch of ADD children that are many academic faculty. 

Being alpha is particularly important in a field setting. You could be in a situation where carrying out a command could mean the difference between life and death, or at least a serious injury or problems. This past summer, although at times had a group of 50 or so students, if I said the night was over, we are going home, or “you will be at the bus at 7:30”, it was done. No arguing. Everyone left the bar as if a fire drill had been called. That’s alpha.

One of my students recently had problems controlling a class. That was because she tried too hard to be a peer and a friend, without establishing ground rules and dominance first. So that when things went south, it was hard for her to get control. When I was a high school teacher I was once told “don’t smile until half term”. This is a dominance trick. Look fierce, aggressive, look in control. If you try to be the student’s friends too soon, you lose our ability to rein them in. It becomes easier at university, but you still need to use similar tricks. I saw a colleague lose a class when they realized that he did not know the subject and was trying to bluff his way through. Come in strong, and knowledgeable. Set the ground rules quickly. Show that against wrong doers that you will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger” to quote the bible/Samuel L. Jackson.
Now, as I said before, for men, it's all about status and ego, and alpha-ness is part of that. Want to crush a man, you undermine and destroy his status, especially in front of others who are assessing him. You can sometimes see this happening in relationships that are collapsing. She openly contradicts his verbal posturing in front of others, especially males who he is trying to impress. It's also a staple scene in many sit coms (just think of the US, or especially the British, version of "The Office"). It's funny, because it strikes a cord, and you are extremely thankful that it's not happening to you.
Now women have hierarchies and plays of status and dominance too, and I'm not suggesting for a moment that they don't. It’s just men do it ALL THE TIME, and we are not as subtle and sophisticated about it. We are still chimps at heart. Women are a little more involved ... and evolved.

*The omega male is the lowest of the low. Imagine a colony of elephant seals on a beach. The Alphas and betas are the beach masters, controlling the beach. The alpha lies in wait in the surf until the beach master is preoccupied fending off a competitor, or a predator, to sneak onto the beach and force his unwanted attentions on the female elephant seals. In a night club, this would be the sleazy guy who waits until the end and tries to hit on the drunk and vulnerable, especially when the alphas are not there. If caught by the alpha and beta males though, the omega will get an ass-whuppin’.

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