How do you know if you have power over someone? There are times when it’s obvious, of course, like if you’re someone’s employer or teacher or caretaker. But if you don’t have any power over them in any official capacity, you can still have power over them in other ways that are less obvious. But sometimes I find it hard to tell if someone thinks of themselves as my equal or not, when I don’t have official power over them. Sorry, I know this is probably a stupid question.
This isn’t a stupid question. It’s complicated. There’s no simple way to be sure. Power is something you have to always be noticing.
Some situations in which you have power (not exhaustive; but some things I know about):
- Someone is financially dependent on you
- (Including situations in which you’re letting a friend stay with you because they have no other place to go)
- Someone has been socialized to never say no, and wants to please you
- Someone you know damaging secrets about, especially if they don’t know any of yours
- When you’re a senior member of a profession and they’re new
- You’re interacting with someone who has been socialized not to be able to say no to you
- You’re much older than the other person, but still young enough to have social power
- The person you are interacting with lives in a nursing home
- You are a mental health professional who is likely to be believed if you say someone is suicidal or otherwise in need of coerced treatment (especially if you are that person’s doctor or therapist, but even if you’re not)
- You’re clergy or have a related kind of religious status
- You’re bigger and stronger than the other person
This needs intersectionality and I’m too tired to run it down right now
it’s very complex
Yes, it absolutely does need intersectionality. All of those things I mentioned always matter as kinds of power, but they’re not always the most significant kinds of power in a given relationships. It gets really, really complicated when there are competing ways in which people have power on one axis and not another.
Every single example I used gets much, much more complicated when it is an interaction between a white person and a person of color. (For instance, this can get *really* complicated when a white disabled person hires a person of color as support staff, particularly if the person they hire is in the country on a work visa they will lose if they are fired).
There are also instances in which something can be simultaneously a source of power and a source of lack of power. For instance, big strong men with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to be institutionalized than smaller and weaker women with the same cognitive abilities. But the power that comes from strength doesn’t completely stop mattering, either.
I’d like to make a more exhaustive list but I don’t have the energy right now, so this will be incomplete.
-If you have a skill that the other person admires and lacks (or hasn’t developed), there’s a good chance they feel like you’re above them. This is especially true when said skill is something your culture at large values you for.
-If there’s a well-known stereotype promoting the idea that your demographic is especially savvy or knowledgeable about something. For instance, it’s common that salesmen and IT people will address me and give more weight to what I say when I accompany my parents to do something tech related.
-If people consider you more sensible, trustworthy, or normal than the other person. The quick and dirty test for this is “if our accounts contradicted each other, which would people more readily believe?”
-If the other person feels significantly indebted to you.
Obviously, there are many other subtle power dynamics. The more you look, the more you see.