The Hard Facts: Do Powerful People Have Friends?

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“When people have power, they act the part. Powerful people smile less, interrupt others, and speak in a louder voice. When people do not respect the basic rules of social behavior, they lead others to believe that they have power, according to a study in the current Social Psychological and Personality Science.” (“Breaking Rules Makes You Seem Powerful,” Science Daily, 5/20/2011)

I shouldn’t be surprised that powerful people don’t adhere to accepted norms of polite behavior. It’s been proven time and time again that powerful men don’t play by the standard marriage rules, so why would they adhere to any other relationship principles?

Given that powerful types tend to behave rudely—interrupting others, excessively frowning—people who want to be perceived as powerful (regardless of their actual status) need only to emulate this crappy conduct. Any Joe Schmo off the street (side note: I just googled the correct spelling of “Schmo” only to get lost in 15 minutes of YouTube video of The Joe Schmo Show. Anyone else remember that FX goodie? The fake reality series, a la The Truman Show? Kristen Wiig starred! But anyway…) can act like a douchebag and suddenly get mistaken for a guy who “gets to make decisions.”

Of course, this kind of behavior is a pretty quick route to nofriendsville. Which I guess is why it’s so lonely at the top. But are the two mutually exclusive? Do you have to be a grumpy interrupter to be powerful? I’ve always been a believer in the whole “be nice to people, you never know who you are talking to” mindset. But then again, my powerful ranking is at approximately zero, so what do I know?

It’s sort of fascinating that when one meets someone new, she has to immediately make a choice: be perceived as a pleasant human being, or be perceived as powerful. Smile, listen, engage, make friends or frown, interrupt, talk down, establish rank.

This study gives me entirely new insight to this guy I encountered at a bar a few months ago. I was meeting a potential BFF for dinner. I thought it was a one-on-one girl date, but when I arrived it became clear she had a more friendly group gathering in mind. (This is a whole other friend-dating dilemma: When you think it’s a friend-date and she thinks it’s the-more-the-merrier. A topic for another time.) One of the diners was the coworker of my friend’s friend. My girl-date had never met him. You’d think under such a circumstance he would be polite. Instead he called me stupid within the first five minutes of meeting, and called my friend a JAP, having met her for all of, maybe, 15 minutes. (You’ll be glad to know she tore him a new one… Said friend is much more confrontational than I.) I’ve never understood why anyone would behave like that on first meeting—now I think maybe he had decided to go the powerful route? Is that a manly thing? Or maybe I am giving him an undeserved benefit of the doubt?

Do you think plenty of people would choose power over friends? Or, more specifically, perceived power of perceived friendliness? Think it’s totally gender based?


Filed under The Search

3 responses to “The Hard Facts: Do Powerful People Have Friends?

  1. San

    I’ve encountered these kinds of people and it has always left me with a strange feeling of “what’s wrong with this person” … why would you openly “attack” someone that you don’t even know yet?
    Sure, first impressions can always make or break new relationships, but how awful must one feel about themselves, if they lash out at people that they just met, just to feel better?
    I do believe that some people go for “power over friends”… which might just be plain ol’ insecurity.

  2. Hmm that makes sense.

    It might be partly a gender thing… I know a girl who uses her charismatic people skills to become more powerful (she does better in classes that involve writing and therefore grading is a bit subjective, she seems genuinely interested in whoever she’s talking to and naturally does better in job interviews and networking.)


  3. Lorrie Paige

    I think a generalized assumption that powerful people are overbearing, rude and obnoxious people is being snobby. Plus, I’ve met PLENTY of people with no “power” at all who are overbearing, rude and obnoxious too.

    Plenty of powerless people cheat–men and women. That’s been proven time and time again too. Also, now that I think about it, I’ve met HOMELESS people who come up to people with a bad attitude, interruptive, and speaking very loudly, trying to intimidate others., especially timid people.

    Rudeness is an equal opportunity behavior. 🙂

    It would be best to define “power”. That word has a very broad meaning and levels…. If you mean power as in being able to get pretty much whatever you want in life with rarely a struggle or challenge, then I’ll opt for having no friends. That wouldn’t bother me as I’ve been without friends most my life, that is friends the way I define friendship (which I have described at my blog in the past).

    Plus, with power, I guess that means I can help out others more, especially my favorite charities One can do a TREMENDOUS amount of good, selfless, acts of kindness by having power (and still have a nice personality). So yeah, definitely the power.

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