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Condescending Body Language: Showing “I’m Better Than You”

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I stumbled across an interesting interview between a Fox News anchor and author Reza Aslan.

In this interview, which gets quite heated, Reza Aslan takes offense to the anchor’s questions and begins to list his accomplishments and accolades. This video is the perfect example of condescending body language in action!

YouTube video

I think this video is interesting because it shows what we do nonverbally when we feel attacked and go into defensive mode. Aslan shows the classic signs of “I’m better than you” body language or body language that demonstrates superiority.

I am not writing this post to pick on Aslan; I write it so we can see how “superiority” body language works so when you see it, you know exactly what is happening.

I also think this is important for our lie detection students. Liars often feel morally superior. In fact, they build up their feelings of superiority to cover up their own feelings of guilt. So you often see liars with this kind of indignant, “better than” nonverbal behavior.

Watch the video and see if you see some of these moves. And while you’re at it…

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The Royal Nose

“My nose is so sensitive to your utter nonsense.”

In my body language course, we talk about how people who put their chin in the air and look down their nose are typically feeling superior. It is literally looking down your nose at someone.

When they first pan to Aslan in the Fox News interview, you will notice he is in this position before he tilts down and begins his answer. Already, we know what he’s thinking.

Volume Emphasis

“Did you hear me!?”

The volume emphasis is a nonverbal cue to superiority. We increase our volume on one word to call attention to the word and to imply that the listener is “slow” or needs help understanding.

Aslan says, “To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with FOUR degrees, including one in the New Testament.” This is a way of saying, “Four more than you. Or did you hear me? Four is a lot, if you didn’t know.”

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Third Person

“By the way, this is ME… ”

Aslan then begins talking about himself in third person. Another sign of superiority. He refers to himself as “Who,” as in “Who has been studying for two decades… ”

Slowed Words

“Do. You. Understand. The. Words. Coming. Out. Of. My. Mouth?”

The anchor continues to press her point, annoying Aslan even further. And he answers and slows down his words for her: “I. Am. A. Professor. Of. Religion.” And then, “That’s. What. I. Do. For. A. Living. Actually.”

Slowing down his words so much is likely to make the anchor feel inferior. It’s the same way adults speak to children.

Chin Thrusts

“Fight me!”

In addition to the fact that Aslan keeps popping his forehead up, looking down his nose at the camera, he also pops his chin up in an anger thrust. We have learned that this is part of the anger body language. This shows his anger and when combined with him looking down his nose, makes the deadly mix of condescending and angry feelings.

First Person Emphasis

“I’M oh-so superior.”

When Aslan does mention his book, he often emphasizes his first person pronouns. He says MY book, MY opinions, I made the conclusion. Again, this volume change hints at the subtle thoughts behind the words—his opinion is superior.

Now that you’ve got a glimpse of some of Aslan’s condescending behavior, let’s move on to even MORE condescending body language.

The Sneer

“Want to see my mouth weapons?”

The sneer is characterized by a rising of the upper lip, almost as if the lip is crinkling. When you see a sneer, you might even see the upper teeth showing. It’s also part of the contempt microexpression. This can indicate aggression and can be used to nonverbally say, “back off.”

The Palm

“Oh no you didn’t!”

If someone points their palm at you, this can be done in a very condescending way. Nonverbally, they’re shutting you down and telling you to stop. People might show the palm to people who they believe have little or no extra value to add to the conversation.

Avoid this gesture at all costs.


“Think you’ve got the power? I disagree.”

A steeple is when someone brings their fingertips together and holds them in front of their body. Steepling isn’t just a hand gesture seen on Shark Tank. It can also be used to show power over someone else. Steepling is a nonverbal power move and can be used when someone feels like they’re right and you’re wrong.

An important steeple to look for is the handgun steeple. This steeple looks as if someone is ready to shoot with their finger guns. It’s a nonverbal way to shoot down someone else’s ideas.

During work situations, an employee can do this to nonverbally say, “Screw you!” to a boss or manager that is condescending.1

Eye Rolling

“Oh, come. On!”

Eye rolling is the classic move people do when they’re in disagreement or in conflict with what someone just said. It’s also a blocking behavior since we avert our eyes. Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor at the University of Ottawa, says that eye rolling is a mechanism we developed over time to act aggressive in a nonphysical way.

The Dismissal


The dismissal is that backhanded wave some people do when they’ve just had enough. It’s common in rebellious teenagers and grumpy Grinches alike. Giving the dismissal is a way to “sweep” you out of the room or tell you to go far, far away.

You’ll often see this cue paired with rolled eyes or turning the head away.

The Finger


This cue is NOT the middle finger but the index finger. Some people who are condescending might hold up their index finger as if to quiet you down. This is a way of putting their finger up to your mouth, without having to actually touch it.

Baby Talk

“Who’s a good girl? Why, you are! Yes, you are.”

Condescending people might also baby talk. In one study, caregivers used either a baby-talk voice or a neutral voice to address elderly residents in a nursing home.

Not surprisingly, the caregivers that used a baby voice were rated significantly less respectful and competent than the caregivers who were neutral. The baby talkers were also perceived to be less satisfied during the interaction—or, perhaps, perceived to be more condescending.

The Interruptor

“It’s leviOHsa. Not LevioSA.”

The Interruptor is someone who keeps on interrupting. And not in the polite way, either. When the Interruptor, err, interrupts, they do it out of anger or frustration. They’re basically saying your ideas and words are less important than theirs.

When you come across an Interruptor, try “playing the chicken.” Futurist and podcaster Rose Eveleth uses this term, which basically means to keep on talking, even when they’ve interrupted. This shows them that you’re not finished yet and discourages future interrupting.

But if that doesn’t work, perhaps it’s time to just cut your losses and move on.

The Deadpanner

“Oh, you’re So. Hilariously. Funny.”

The Deadpanner is known for their sense of humor (or lack thereof). They’re the type of person to be sarcastic all the time, but in the end, it just comes off as rude. In fact, science shows that sarcasm is just thinly veiled aggression or contempt.

Sarcastic people might not mean to be hurtful, but people on the receiving end might take it harder than they think.

Patting Someone on The Head

Believe it or not, some people actually pat people on the head. And I’m not talking about doing it to kids, either.

When you pat someone on the head, they’ll be forced to look up at you if you’re in a standing position. They might even have a confused look if you do this. Head pats sometimes might remind us of when we were kids—kind of like, “Good boy/girl!” We also pat our dogs and cats on the head, so you should avoid this gesture at all costs to avoid insulting someone.

The Nonverbal Approach

How do you deal with a condescending person? First, you might want to close your body language if it’s open. This is a nonverbal way to say, “Hey! You’re pushing my buttons” (or in a less nice way, if you’d like). Try one of the following:

  • turning your torso to the side
  • taking a step back
  • crossing your arms
  • breaking eye contact

This might cue them to start being nicer or risk breaking rapport. If they continue to be condescending, you might want to walk away or try the verbal approach.

The Verbal Approach

If nonverbals don’t work, I like to follow the 3-step approach of A-R-C:

  • Ask. Perhaps they didn’t mean to be condescending, and you misinterpreted it. Ask for clarification of what they said.
  • Repeat. Repeat back what they said or did to you. Going over this aloud might reinforce how silly or nonsensical this situation is.
  • Call out. Finally, if they keep being condescending, either walk away or call them out on it. Note: be careful of provoking a fight. Watch for subtle anger cues like a furrowed brow or nostril flaring if someone is about to engage in a fight.

Condescending vs. Contempt

When someone is being condescending, they are showing superiority in a passive way. They might appear helpful or nice but have an inner feeling of being superior. Others might feel condescending people are looking down on them.

People who show contempt, on the other hand, might show it more blatantly. Malcolm Gladwell says in his best-selling book, Blink:

“If Gottman observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt toward the other, he considers it the most important sign that a marriage is in trouble.”

Illustration showing condescending behaviour towards a person on the right and contemptuous behavior on the left

Either way, both condescending and contemptuous behaviors are downright mean and can even lead to bullying, especially in the workplace or romantic situations.

Are High-Status People Condescending?

There’s a myth floating around that people with higher socioeconomic status are more likely to be condescending. Is this true?

Recent scientific research shows that people with higher socioeconomic status have less empathy. This means they might be more likely to be condescending than other groups of people.

This dates back all the way to various groups in past history—from soldiers (Sparta, 400 BC), bishops (Rome, 1500), poets (Weimar, 1815), and farmers (China, 1967). So if you’re a victim of snobbery, don’t worry!

You might be better off brushing up on your confident body language to deflect condescending people rather than trying to avoid them.

How to Stop Being Condescending

Do people say you sound condescending? Looking down on people may lead to you being instantly disliked.

Excuse me—do you REALLY think you know what you’re doing? Not until you read this ultimate guide on condescending body language! Read more to find out...

If your condescending behavior is causing you social problems, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Listen more, talk less. I find that a lot of condescending behavior comes from wanting to talk way too much. Listen and bounce comments off what the other person said—don’t prioritize your ideas over theirs.
  • Don’t give advice. I know sooo many people who give out advice like free candy. But some people don’t want free candy. If you’re going to give advice, avoid being condescending by first making sure the other person actually wants advice.
  • Let be, don’t fix. Another common problem people have is trying to fix everything. There’s an old saying that goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But if people don’t want to be fixed, you can’t fix them anyway!

Crack The Code on Facial Expressions

The human face is constantly sending signals, and we use it to understand the person’s intentions when we speak to them.

In Decode, we dive deep into these microexpressions to teach you how to instantly pick up on them and understand the meaning behind what is said to you.

Don’t spend another day living in the dark.

I hope this ultimate guide on condescending body language has you cued in on all the right cues.

To your success,


Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!


1 Driver, J. & van Aalst, M (2011): You Say More Than You Think: The 7-day Plan for Using the New Body Language to Get what You Want. New York

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