There’s a video that did the rounds on TikTok last year.
In the video, a woman looks directly at the camera and chants with a rightful level of conviction and confidence:
"I am not intimidating, you are intimidated."
Her proof points touch on a sort of he-said, she-said exchange which reframes criticism of muchness into not enoughness. Someone can not make you uncomfortable, it is your fault for not being comfortable enough, someone is not aggressive, you just can’t handle assertion; and so on. Conclusion: no one should dim their light to make you shine brighter.
There’s no denying that this is a valid and empowering message.
Around the same time, another trend took TikTok by storm, one where people would stop smiling in sync with the beat drop to test ‘how intimidating they looked’.
If we trust that TikTok reflects the zeitgeist then “being intimidating” seems like a pretty covetable trait right now.
Is being intimidating a vice or a virtue?
Not too long ago, I had a conversation with my sister, who many find intimidating. She’s one of those book smart and innately creative hybrids; platinum blonde hair shaped into a mullet, her model-esque statue walking the earth in an avant-garde sartorial experimentation that just works.
She said it was low-key flattering to be called intimidating. I contributed a similar story in agreement, and we bonded over the mutual pride that came with knowing at least one person was intimidated by us.
We’re not alone in this reaction. In a personal essay titled ‘Why Being Called ‘Intimidating’ Is The Greatest Compliment You’ll Ever Receive’, Rosey Baker writes:
"Being called intimidating feels like a sneaky diss that somehow makes you swell with pride."
It’s true. Being called intimidating can result in the same level of guilty pride as when your ex dates someone less hot or when your boss has it out for everyone but you. It’s a watered down version of schadenfreude, the German word for when we feel warped joy over someone’s misfortune.
Today intimidation is also used often as a scapegoat for a complicated social or love life; complicated by a mentality that the “intimidator” is apparently more remarkable than the “intimidated”.
Many reality dating shows are fronted by at least one contestant who blames their chronic singledom on people who can’t handle them and are intimidated by their high-flying profession, drop-dead beauty or socialite status. Similarly, we’ve all come across someone who justifies their sparse group of friends on the assumption that others are just too intimidated by them.
The textbook definition of intimidation is “to induce fear or awe”. So if we take someone’s claims of intimidation at face value, then we must trust that they have succeeded in either scaring or impressing others. Considering claims of intimidation are often said with equal parts smugness and coyness, the latter is more likely.
When people insist on being – or being perceived as – intimidating, they claim the “superior” tag and in doing so, assume others either feel inferior, or, more speculatively, are inferior. Is this really such a cause for celebration?
Is being intimidated a sign of insecurity?
A variety of factors can lead to one feeling intimidated.
We may feel intimidated in the presence of personality traits we yearn for but inevitably lack. We may feel intimidated when someone’s conduct reminds us of a bad experience, triggering our social survival instincts to kick into gear. Many of us are also intimidated by universally domineering characteristics: towering height, a booming voice or an intense stare. Often our strongest feelings of intimidation result from our own insecurities, writes clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly in Joy From Fear.
What all these intimidation factors have in common is that intimidation is more about the intimidated than the intimidator.
Personally, when I reflect upon my own experiences feeling intimidated, all of these factors hit close to home.
There’s one personality type, in particular, that I find overwhelmingly intimidating. Appearance, profession and individual accolades are irrelevant. Instead, the intimidation is powered by self-presentation: the articulation (zero stutters, calculated speech) the tone (mono-tone, kind of bored sounding), the stare (slightly too long of a pause after I finish speaking) and humour (quite dry, with a lower tolerance for slapstick jokes).
These types present as refined and self-assured, yet I misconstrue their composure for disinterest and judgement.
I now recognise that, when it comes to intimidation, my own insecurities and past experiences are the engine, and the intimidator is just the accelerator. I’ve always been an awkward conversationalist and embarrassed by an inability to clearly articulate my thoughts. This is coupled with teenage years spent feeling inferior to the cool kids, who found differences irritating not endearing and who used “weird” in place of “quirky”. If intimidation is so relative, then being intimidating doesn’t feel like something to write home about.
The current self-empowering rhetoric around intimidation suggests coming out on top in social interactions is a personal achievement.
When I sheepishly put my hand up and admit that I’ve been flattered by an “I was intimidated by you” comment, I question why my self-worth is so influenced by someone’s unfounded verdict. Why am I not as proud of myself for who I am, and who people eventually know me to be, but more so about how I present to those who don’t know me?
After all, one can only truly succeed at being intimidating if other people are intimidated by them. So to win at being intimidating, we must turn people into our competition. And to win the competition depends on whether we are up against slower or disadvantaged competitors. Would we still be as victorious if competing against those who had been dealt a different deck of cards?
Accepting that you give off effortless intimidating vibes is one thing, but intimidation as a point of pride, even an intentional act, is a whole new ballgame.
When we feel proud to be intimidating, we forget that intimidation is relative and determines greatly on the experiences and insecurities of those in the interaction. This has a nasty aftertaste. Social comparison is a beast and gaining value from perceived superiority feels like something to interrogate rather than relish in. As Adler’s theory suggests, striving for superiority can actually conceal real feelings of inferiority.
In my opinion, the whole ‘I Am Intimidating And Proud’ can also strip us of modesty and empathy. As seen with the reality TV contestant, when someone defaults to expecting others to feel lesser, perhaps a holier-than-thou mentality can result in other off-putting displays of character. One may come across dismissive, even disapproving, which can be more powerful at alienating people than the so-called intimidating beauty, profession or social status.
Is anyone immune from being intimidated?
Those in possession of socially intimidating traits – power, character, status, wealth and looks – aren’t necessarily immune from intimidation.
Someone who has climbed high on the social hierarchy, by proxy or individual effort, may feel insecure about their position and internalise tall poppy-esque judgements. Those who cook on marble counter islands and swipe with a black card may feel intimidated by the good samaritan who shines a disapproving spotlight on them for receiving too much and giving too little.
It’s a complex game: intimidation is aspirational and connected to self-worth but intimidation is also relative, and reliant on assumptions – an end result ultimately determined by relational imbalance, presumed or otherwise.
At the end of the day, people are intimidating because we perceive them that way. Their intimidation lies in the story we have told ourselves about them. And the good news is, if the story becomes too disempowering, it can always be rewritten.