It takes a special kind of perversity to use a handshake, the symbol of connection and cooperation, as a tool in establishing control.
Pecking orders are about establishing dominance and social hierarchy. Chickens do it by pecking, and Donald Trump does it with bone-crushing over-long handshakes. There have been a few instances where world leaders have succeeded in beating him at his own game, notably Justin Trudeau of Canada and Emmanuel Macron of France. I wonder if the US President will now come up with a new method of telegraphing his power; it will be interesting to see what he tries.
Every society has its methods of doing this, but we don’t always understand its significance until we become aware that someone else has the upper hand. When I was young and living in England, it was understood that regional accents were less advantageous than more generic but polished BBC-type accents with no obvious geographical origin. Top of the accent pecking order, though, were the country club accents of the aristocracy, which were generally disdained by those at the bottom of the social heap.
This accent-based hierarchy has changed a lot since the Beatles took the world by storm with Liverpudlian cheekiness and since the street-smarts of London’s city kids became of value to the financial industry. Suddenly, it wasn’t considered so bad to keep your local pronunciations and slang. These days, you can hear all sorts of regional accents on the BBC, and British people have learned to listen for ideas, intelligence, and talent rather than articulation.
Another form of pecking order makes itself apparent in the workplace. If you have ever been in a meeting and found your comments being ignored, or talked over, or presented by someone else as their own, then you know how that works. I am told that this type of pecking order is on its way out, but I won’t hold my breath. I suspect that it will stay in place as long as it helps some people get ahead.
Humour is also something that can be used as a cudgel in social situations. Any time you hear someone say something a bit nasty followed by “Just kidding!” you know someone is being pecked at. It’s the kind of humour that hurts if you are the target, but when you say so you are accused of not being able to take a joke.
We establish hierarchy in all sorts of ways, and we often use non-verbal messages. We can do it by buying a faster car, a bigger truck, or a designer handbag. However, none of those techniques crosses the line between assertion and aggression. They are simply about strutting our stuff — something else that chickens are good at.
When we are pecked at, we sometimes take a little while to figure out what is going on, then we learn how to play the game. The pecking order is a passive aggression and most of us don’t usually employ it unless we have to. But, when the stakes are high enough, we sometimes have to show the pecker that we aren’t going to submit. The only way to do that is by pecking back, only harder. With luck, we will only have to do it once.
Header image: Handshake by John Hain via pixabay. (CC 0)