Hierarchy and Dominance Challenges

I just finished a very good book which I recommend to you.  It’s called Meditations on Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller, an American law enforcement officer.  A popular book with high on-line ratings, you can read the many positive comments about it from French and American readers on Amazon.  The bonus is that you can read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited.

Miller’s purpose in writing this book is to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy when it comes to violence and self-defense. If you practice a martial art, you’ll find his comments on their usefulness for self-defense very interesting.  If, like me, you are interested in human behavior such as migration, you will find his remarks illuminating.  Some of what he says, it seems to me, is useful in better understanding the migrant/expat experience.

Hierarchy and dominance challenges are two words we do not usually associate in our minds with our lives abroad.  And yet, in moving from one country to another we are taking ourselves out of one social hierarchy and trying to insert ourselves into another with the goal of being accepted. In other words, we’ve changed packs.

Human are animals with very real animal needs plugged in to a living, primal animal world,” Miller says.  If we forget this and treat our migration experience as just another self-driven intellectual exercise, we miss not only an opportunity to understand our experience but we ignore our intuition, the signals our animal self is sending us.  Signals that can tell us that we are in a safe place or, more importantly, that we are in danger and need to take measures to protect ourselves.

The very act of identifying these feelings can make us very uncomfortable.  We think of ourselves as open, tolerant, cosmopolitan people.  Surely a “good migrant” has nothing to fear and if we just spur ourselves to ever more heroic efforts at integration, we will be rewarded, or, in other words, we will be safe. More and more I’ve come to view it is as our trying desperately to feel safe in a strange, new world and not so much about our being virtuous people who want to make the natives feel better about our kind of migrant.

For let us make no mistake about it, our new world has an existing hierarchy and unless we are very special and famous, we as migrants are not high in the ranks.  Let me give you the most obvious example.  Citizens whose families have been in the territory for generations are at the top, second or third-generation citizens are one level down, and new citizens are yet another level down. That’s three ranks above you when you arrive and the only level you can ever aspire to as a migrant is the third one – the one where citizenship is the most tenuous because it is the one that can be most easily taken away.

Citizens are the aristocrats of the nation-state. Not only do they have more rights than non-citizens, the social hierarchy places some citizens above others based on things no one can do anything about like where you or your parents were born.

Now I am not arguing that we should all be paranoid about this but I would suggest that we accept that this inequality exists for all migrants and can punch us in the face when we least expect it.   A good example of this is a story I was very recently by a French friend who has an American friend who just married a French.  This person has not received a residency card yet because the authorities are investigating whether or not this is a mariage blanc (fake marriage).  Somehow it did not surprise me to learn that the French citizen this American married is himself a naturalized French citizen and is not of European origin.

Welcome to the real world consequences of inequality.

Hierarchy is the structure within which human beings as animals+++ seek status and fight each other for a better place in the ranks.  One way of looking at migrant integration is to think of it as a series of dominance challenges on the part of the natives in defense of territory/identity (Miller thinks that the two are essentially the same), a reinforcement of their own place as being above yours, and a pressure on the migrant to acknowledge the hierarchy and submit.

When I look at integration though this lens, I see a lot of things I’ve missed.  These challenges happen all the time.  It can be something as silly as ridiculing someone’s accent or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the foreign-born as a fellow citizen.  It’s any situation where the native uses his position in the hierarchy and his self-appointed role as representative of the local culture to put you in your place. And it works.  Time and time again, it works.  It is really something to see a mature, independent adult lower his or her eyes and mumble an apology for a foreign accent.  Confrontation, in my experience, is extremely rare.  Evasion and submission are the norm.

Because while dominance challenges in the human or animal world are, Miller says, usually “non-lethal”  that doesn’t mean they don’t do harm or can’t escalate into something dangerous.  People make mistakes.  They can be unpredictable.  Within a culture people misunderstand each other all the time with tragic consequences.  When cultures collide, it’s even worse.

Someone who is heavily invested (often unconsciously) in his or her social rank based  on “I was born here” and “I’m a citizen,” and who truly believes that these things make him a superior human being, and who expects deference from those he perceives as lower-ranking because of their foreignness is someone any migrant should be very wary of.  Even if that person is a friend, because the day you decide not to submit or let something go might be the day that friendship ends.

None of the above should be taken as an argument not to integrate.  There is some measure of safety that you can achieve though learning the language and knowing the culture.  There is joy, too, in these things and a feeling of accomplishment.

What I am suggesting is that we as migrants cultivate our “situational awareness.”  Be a little more conscious of the hierarchy in your adopted country and your place in it as a migrant/expat.  Beware, this is almost always a blow to the ego.  But I wouldn’t dwell on it too much.  The human world is rife with inequality and neither you nor I is named “Gates” or “Macron.”

That’s the easy part.  The harder one is how to deal with dominance challenges.  As a general principle I don’t think it’s right to treat anyone as “less than.”  But it happens all the time.  Being foreign just means that you’re set up for the easy shot, and on the native side anyone in the top three citizenship ranks can make that move and get a quick “hierarchy fix.”

And then what do you do?  Be a good girl and submit?  Push back and escalate the conflict?  If possible, I would go for “evade” but I’m not sure what that would look like.

So if anyone has any ideas for how to gracefully extract oneself from a native versus foreigner dominance challenge without submitting or confronting, I would love to hear it.  Miller’s first rule for avoiding conflict in any form is “not to be there in the first place” and I just don’t see how that would work in this context.

Published by


Born in Seattle, USA. Generation Xer. Lived on 3 continents (North America, Asia and Europe). Country agnostic. Mother of two Frenchlings. MA in International Migration

2 thoughts on “Hierarchy and Dominance Challenges”

  1. I understand that you have studied this Integration, Migration, and Immigration extensively. This is not my experience.

    During my time in France I have gotten into one argument with someone besides my husband and we have only argued 4 or 5 times during our 18 going on 19 years of marriage. Two of those 5 times was in American Airports, Houston & Chicago, and both because I angry enough at the service we were not getting in customs that I threw a huge tantrum to the agent when we finally got to him. The other times we have argued have been over a game’s rules. Go figure.

    The person I got into an yelling screaming argument with was with another immigrant from Portugal. Oh, I’m wrong. At one point I told my sister-in-law off for correcting my English. I expect a French person to correct my French, and I appreciate it. But having a French person who constantly corrects my French decide she also speaks better English than I do is not going to fly with me. We didn’t talk to each other for 2-3 years after that escapade.

    For the most part I think I am much more different than most people on this planet. Part of it is that I don’t need other people around me constantly. I’m seldom lonely and when I am all I need do it go to the grocery store during rush hour to realize I am not that lonely after all. The circle of people I allow into my life is very small. Another part, and I am sure this is the greater part, is I have never realized anyone is any better than me. I’m blind to skin color and have always been. I know that personality is formed during the first 3 years of life with minor alterations through different periods in our lifetime. Education can be bought, wealth can be achieved, athletic prowess, beautiful and handsome are always temporary, wealth can be achieved. It takes a great deal to impress me so I never feel as if I’m a second, third, fourth, or a lower class citizen. Also, I always thought that the only reason to draw a bunch lines all over a map was for languages differences and commerce. And isn’t that was wars are actually fought over, envy and greed? I don’t really see the purpose of Countries any longer so nationality does not interest me. Cultures, yes, but nations are a nope.

    Some people are very insecure about their standing and I think it is those people who want to be the primary first class citizen. Some people have never given their class much thought and just live it until something quakes their habitual day-to-day living.

    It is not that I haven’t had a person here give every indication that they think I’m less worthy than them, but that has also happened to me in America. What happens more frequently in my life is males seem to think they are better than me. But that is the problem with their culture. It is that culture, which always seems to plant itself into religions and religiosity, so it is not my problem. Here is where I will say I am grateful that my Great Grandmother and Grandmother were a suffragists because having the right to vote and voting is to have a way to change the world.

    Overall, when I think about it, I’m no longer align with American values which makes me no longer American. I definitely never plan to return to America, not even to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you very much, Sauve, for sharing your experience. I ALWAYS enjoy reading your comments because they are thoughtful and interesting.

    While sometimes I try to bring in research I’ve done, this blog is more me “thinking out loud.” And I welcome criticism of my thinking cause I could be very very wrong. I do note a trend though which is me more and more trying to push the boundaries of my own comfort. I find it very uncomfortable to talk about migrants/expat in the context of privilege, race, gender or to discuss some of the too close for comfort controversies within the migrant community I belong to and surrounding all migrants everywhere. But if I persevere I actually feel better once I’ve put it out there. Doesn’t make me right but I’ve conquered the monster that’s whispering “don’t go there because people won’t like it and it might cause trouble and you could be wrong.”

    Sounds like you have been very successful in avoiding conflict which, according to Miller, is the better way. And, yet, you did stand up to your sister-in-law which says that you will under some circumstances do so when it matters. I had a similar conflict with a family member here which was the culmination of years of me sitting at the dinner table listening to comments about migrants that come straight from the Front National. It wasn’t the first time I had said something about it, and how I felt as a migrant having to listen to it, but this time I expressed myself in no uncertain terms about how ugly and ignorant that rhetoric was and how I was taking it very personally. It was not pretty. There are repercussions.

    I suppose that Miller’s “don’t be there” could apply to that. I am not forced at gunpoint to have dinner with these people. In retrospect I could have always just stood up and walked away. But I’m not convinced that this is the right approach. Deference and silence can become habits of subservience and I am acutely aware that these things are expected of women in an awful lot of places.

    Miller talks about an important mental barrier to self-defense and it is the indecision we have about whether or not we have the right to act in our own defense. He strongly suggests having a conversation with yourself. Do you believe you have the right to defend yourself? That is a very serious question with life or death consequences. There are people who actually walk off with people who hurt or kill them. Talking to survivors who reveal their thinking astounds me. “I didn’t want to be rude.” “I didn’t want to have a public fight about it and thought I could reason with the person in private” For migrants we could add, “I didn’t want them to think I was one of those bad, ignorant or unassimilated foreigners.” That thinking is terrifying. No sane person would prefer to be rude to being harassed, assaulted or killed.

    So it’s worth asking yourself where you draw lines. “I don’t want to be perceived as an ugly American. To avoid that will I allow myself to be harassed, disrespected or treated as “less than”? Go places where my intuition says are dangerous? Do things I don’t want to do or find ethically questionable?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s