I spent four years at an engineering college. My tribe likes to rely on facts, data and rationality to understand the world and make decisions in it. We have internalized the motto of the Royal society — Nullius in verba or “take nobody’s word for it”. For me, this meant ignoring all that which cannot be quantified. I now think that is a mistake. There are many things in the world that cannot be easily defined, let alone quantified. Yet, they have critical influence on our behavior as well as that of the world around us. One of these things is status — possibly the least appreciated important concept by people like me.
What do I mean by status? Look at the image below. Who according to you has the higher status?
It is very likely that you chose Mahindra Singh Dhoni (in Yellow) and not Hardik Pandya. We cannot see them move or hear them speak and yet, all of us can read their body language. Google Pandya Dhoni and then click on Images. Every picture tells the same story.
Or does it? Is it possible that we know that Dhoni is older and more accomplished and hence we know that he has higher status? In other words, are we seeing what we already know?
Try this the next time you are in a restaurant with a friend. Each of you should rank people on other tables in terms of status. Don’t define what status is. Don’t discuss it. Just look at each table and rank every person there. When you are done, compare your rankings. I would bet that they are very close. Is it not astonishing that you are able to come to very similar rankings about people you don’t know, just by observing their body language?
I teach Improv theater and status is a key part of what I teach. To do this, I use exercises from the great book, Impro by Keith Jhonstone. The most foundational of these exercises is the Emperor game. One participant sits in the middle and is the emperor. The other participants are his (or her) servants and subjects. They approach the emperor and interact with him. Any time the emperor feels disrespected, irritated or displeased in any way, he snaps his fingers and the offending participants ‘dies.’ The ‘subjects’ can make multiple attempts.
Almost always, the exercise follows a pattern. The emperors need a little bit of initial encouragement but soon start snapping their fingers quickly in their interactions. Sometimes even before their servant has said a word! Many times the emperor’s servants do not understand why they are getting killed. They get annoyed that their fellow participant is ‘killing them off for no reason.’ This irritation lasts till they become emperor and then they merrily snap away. Most importantly, once the participants get the game — and everyone gets it pretty quickly — there is a lot of laughter. The session has a lot of energy and afterwards people have a lot to say about it. They intuitively understand the difference between a very high and a very low status even though in real life we rarely encounter such large differences.
I have been careful not to define status. This is because an analytical definition would only distort the intuitive understanding you would have when you try or even imagine trying the exercises that I have described above (you could look at some of the clips here to see Status in popular culture). That said, it will be useful to clarify what status is not.
Is what I am calling status simply confidence? Confidence is certainly a part of high status. It is impossible to lack confidence and have a high status. However, someone can be very confident and still be low status relative to another person. For an easy to understand example, let us go back to Dhoni and Pandya. Pandya, a young superstar is supremely confident but still lower status to the venerable captain with two World Cups and many many IPL titles. Here is another image.
Let us look at another concept that could be confused with status — ego. How is ego related to status? When in an interaction, we feel that we are not given our due status, our ego is hurt. Think of how you would feel if you believe that the waiter in a restaurant is rude to you. I carry such episodes in my mind for years! But why would I feel that the other person owed me respect? It is because I believed that in that interaction, I had a higher status or at least did not have a lower status. Both confidence and ego are internal to an individual. Status is what happens in an interaction between two or more people.
Note that status in the sense I am talking about could sometimes be different from social status. A timid low status boss with a dominating subordinate is a great comedic situation.
One reaction I get in my Improv classes is that status is purely a human social construct. This is a good time to take a detour into the animal world.
The complex and ruthless politics of Chimpanzees
I cannot recommend the book Chimpanzee Politics by Franz De Waal enough. The author and his group observed the chimpanzee colony in the Arnhem zoo for many years. The book is a gripping account of what they saw.
I have read the book twice and each time I was struck by how much the description of chimpanzee life reminded me of us humans. The author describes chimpanzee children role playing as adults, chimpanzees throwing a tantrum when they don’t get what they wish for and how they hold out their hands when begging for help. The biggest similarity, given the topic of the book, is in status. How ritual greetings, including deep bows and kissing of feet, formalize status. How status is as much given as it is earned. Above all, how much the chimpanzees risk for status — sometimes even their lives. Clearly, the desire for status in humans does not come solely from social conditioning.
I must note that the above is a description of what is a chimpanzee society in a zoo and not what I am prescribing should be in human society. In any case, status works differently in different species. In rhesus monkeys for example, the status hierarchies are much more rigid and much more brutally enforced. Human societies are much more complex and as can be expected, status roles are complex too.
Of course, humans are different…
The way status works in humans and chimpanzees is different in at least two ways. First, status in humans can be about competence and not only about power.
Competence based hierarchy and status changes
Look at this video on mute for a minute or two. This is a discussion between two academics and as far as I know neither has any power over the other. Who do you think has the higher status? While both of them are very accomplished, David Deutsch is much more famous. In academic circles, his reputation would dwarf that of Hanson and in my opinion it shows in the video.
Humans can have higher or relative lower status based on specific competencies in specific situations. Imagine this scenario. The CEO of a large corporation has gone to the Himalayas for a vacation. He gets trapped because landslides have closed off roads. An army truck pulls up to his hotel to rescue him. We can bet that in an interaction between the CEO and the army jawan, the jawan would have a higher status. This is because, in the situation they are in, the CEO is scared and the jawan’s competency is much higher. The situation would probably reverse if the jawan goes to work in the CEO’s company after his retirement from the army.
Another big difference between humans and animals is that we move across many groups. And our status may be different in different ones.
Status shifting across group
Imagine a professor in an engineering institute. She has a high status in her class when she is teaching. Without that she is unlikely to be effective. When she meets parents of her children’s classmates, her status may not be as high. This could be because, given her responsibilities, she is unable to devote as much time to school activities as the other parents.
Different status in different groups is very normal for us humans. Most social animals — and the concept of status makes sense only for social animals — don’t have too much interaction outside their own tribe so they don’t have this issue.
Perhaps, I have convinced you that status exists and it is not entirely a social construct. Why should we care?
Why should you care?
Seth Godin is a marketing guru. Seth believes that status is a very important concept. So much so that Seth devoted the second episode of his podcast to status roles. This episode, Seth writes in his blog, is ‘the result of perhaps fifty blog posts I wrote but didn’t post’.
Seth makes some very interesting assertions about status.
‘Status Roles inform every decision we make’.
‘Just about everything you see in theater or movie theater or read in a novel is about status’
Status is infused in human life. The first practical application of status that I want to talk about is in the art of persuasion.
When you persuade people
My first job was as a consultant. Our organization grew very rapidly and in my first year itself I found myself leading assignments where we were advising very senior government officers. Convincing them of the correctness of what we were saying was very difficult but I think it would have been easier if I were as aware of status as I am now.
In a particularly indicative episode, a client of ours pulled us aside and asked us to come to their office in a car rather than in an autorickshaw. Our client was convinced that our arrival in an autorickshaw reduced our status in the eyes of their employees and hence our effectiveness. Of course, status is not just about such external markers. Behavior and body language may be much more important. If the consultant is too deferential towards a client, she will not be too convincing. Unfortunately, this happens way too often.
Many young people get intimidated by the status of the person listening to them. Meetings are in the office of the client where he is very comfortable. The client’s subordinates are deferential to him. All these factors create a sense of low status in the presenter and they are not even aware of it. Their chest narrows, they cross their arms, they stoop a little and they talk faster. Unfortunately, their words have stopped mattering.
The opposite behavior, that is cockiness or extra aggressiveness may be better than timid behavior but that has limitations too. A consulting company I worked with as a trainer, encouraged their consultants to be ultra aggressive because they felt that this was the fastest way of removing their timidity. This is better than being meek but is not the optimal solution. If you trample all over the status of a senior person, it is unlikely they would be persuaded even if what you’re saying is logical. Especially, if this interaction is in front of that person’s subordinates. It would take a lot of maturity for them to overcome this public lowering of status. A skillful persuader would take his status just below or just above that of their client.
I have dived deep into the consulting world but persuasion is part of almost every job. Sales is about persuasion. A lawyer persuades a judge. A startup founder is persuading potential clients, potential investors, potential employees and in India even potential employees’ parents!
Being aware of status is useful in personal situations too. For example, when offering advice to friends. People may not accept much needed good advice. This is how Scott Adams explains the challenge in his book ‘Reframe your Brain’.
“Given my flawed character, if you were to offer me advice, I might respond in a defensive way…it will make me feel dumb for not solving the problem on my own. I might feel as if I moved down a rung on the social ranking.” (Emphasis mine).
I am sure I act the same if offered advice. When I have offered what I have felt is much needed advice, I have seen people become defensive. Especially if those people are my contemporaries. So what do we do when we feel that we have something really helpful to say to someone else? Here is Scott with a possible solution,
“Instead of advice, suppose you asked me if I’m aware of a new study that could change my decision…. I would see your mention of the study as helpful…Later I will feel as if I made my own decision, perhaps influenced by what you told me”.
Note that Scott’s advice helps preserve the status between the advice giver and receiver. Other ways of achieving the same could be to use communication like, “What other people have done in situations like yours…”. Of course, in this communication it is not only the words but the way they are said that is important.
We should be aware of status when persuading people. We should also be aware that others are using status in persuading us.
When people persuade you
Seth asks us to be aware that our desire for status can be used against us by people selling us products or ideas. As a receiver of communication, you need to be aware of how others may be using status to change your mind. The extreme example of this is luxury goods.
In a blog post Seth decodes the psychology behind luxury goods.
‘A luxury good gets its value from its lack of utility and value. A typical consumer would look at what it costs and what it does and say, “that’s ridiculous” … .The value, ironically, comes from its lack of value.’
Almost the whole purpose of a luxury good is to raise the status of its owner. A Birkin bag may carry things, a Cartier watch may tell time and a Monet original may look nice, but that is not their point. If you are arguing about the worth of a Cy Twombly painting and not considering status as one of the main reasons that the painting fetched sellers tens of millions, then you are missing the point.
Of course, we can never be fully free from the lure of Status. It is possible or even likely that you are the kind of person who would never buy a Twombly and your car is not the most expensive one you could afford and your clothes are made in India and not in Italy. But it is likely that your sense of status comes from being ‘sensible and rational’. Programming by Millions of years of evolution can be beaten by very few. The rest of us are doomed to chasing status one way or another. But yes, without a Twombly, we can be slightly more financially secure while doing it.
Whether it is sellers of goods or services or political campaigns, people are using status to change our minds. In addition to being aware of this fact, we can accept another sound advice from Seth — to let go of perceived status violations, especially when nothing material has been taken from us.
In his book Impro, Keith Jhonstone talks about a small encounter he had a long time ago. He was exiting a cafe and another man was entering it. The two of them did the dance of stepping aside but in the same direction a few times till the other man caught Keith by his shoulders, fixed him in a place, and walked around him. Keith reported that the incident rankled even after many years. I can understand that.
I carry a big bag of slights from the past. Some of them were intended and others not. Some of them are real and others probably imaginary. Seth Godin has the very sane yet difficult to implement advice of ignoring all attacks on our status unless they are being used to get something material from us. This is especially useful advice in this age of social media.
A friend of mine makes funny Instagram reels. As his reels started getting popular, he noticed many negative and even abusive comments. Once, on a whim, he went to the profile of the abusers and found out that most of them were other creators of funny reels, only they were not as successful as him! Those creators were probably trying to enhance their status in their own minds by posting negative comments. Most insults are ways of increasing status. I confess that while intellectually understanding this, I am unable to shrug them off. The best I am able to do is to admit that I am being silly.
It is just not Instagram creators and Improv teachers with thin skins who could take status violations seriously. It is possible that world leaders and entire populations do that too with far more serious consequences.
Obama versus Putin
In his book The New Map, Daniel Yergin has this to say in the context of Russia US relationship.
‘…when Obama appeared to have been seated in a kiddie chair, while Putin lectured him about the “errors” the United States had made in its dealings with Russia. In August 2013, after Snowden’s defection, Obama had reciprocated, saying Putin’s “got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
Who is to say what kind of role these insults played in precipitating the current US Russia conflict in Ukraine? Sure, we can point to many logical reasons from each side. For example the Russian side may say that it is threatened by expansion of NATO and the US / European side may say that this is a conflict of values between democracies and dictatorships. However, there is no doubt that many ‘inevitable’ conflicts in history have been avoided because leaders could find a way of working together. When leaders insult each other, working together is difficult. If you remember your Mahabharat, you would recall that diplomacy just before the war could not work and part of the problem was the burden of insults on both sides.
Unlike wealth in a growing economy, status is a zero sum game. I buy something you sell and both of us win. If I have a higher status than you then by definition, you have a lower status. Like in the Chimpanzee world, many conflicts in the world are because of the fight over this zero sum resource — fights for status not just between individuals but between groups. Societies can carry grudges for decades and centuries.
There used to be a thinking prevalent that poverty is the cause of terrorism. However, it is very rare to see desperate fighters come from the most impoverished parts of the world. Most acts of terror are committed by people whose bellies are full and who feel they do not get their due respect. A much more healthy expression of this need is when you see people cheering for their sport teams with fervor. They do that because they expect a status boost when their side wins.
At this point, people from my tribe may ask ‘What proportion of such conflicts are caused by long term interests of nations and what proportion caused by status violations of leaders and people?’ Unfortunately for us, this is an unanswerable question. These kinds of unanswerable questions are everywhere in social sciences, especially Economics. This reality frustrates the efforts of practitioners who wish to make Economics like Physics.
Incentives = Money?
Incentives come up often in discussions on economics or public policy . Unfortunately, in most of the popular discourse, incentives almost always mean money. In this understanding, people do things because they get money for doing those things. However, non monetary incentives are very powerful and status is one of the biggest ones. Let us take some examples.
Why do some soldiers risk their lives for their country? Sure, they consider it their duty. Sure they love their country. Sure it is a matter of honor. However, if society does not give them status, all of the other incentives would become weaker.
Why do successful sports persons keep playing even when everyone else can see that their best days are behind them? Most people think it is because they are greedy for money. I posit that they can see that their status will drop rapidly when they retire and they dread it. Money is important but the bigger reward is status.
This is true for almost all professions. The most successful people in them work disproportionately hard. Almost always, status is their biggest reward. In fact, after a very early point, money is most important as a measure of status. The bonus of an Investment Banker is at least as much about status as it is about the money. This reminds me of a funny but not really funny episode of my life.
Many years ago, I co founded a software product company. In the initial years, we had the practice of a bi-yearly performance evaluation linked to a bonus for all employees. I cannot convey to you how much distress this practice caused. We have had young men and women sit in front of us with tears streaming down their face because their bonus was less than that of their colleague. A very capable young guy, five months out of college, cried in front of us for nearly twenty minutes, because he was paid a bonus of Rs. 17,000 and his classmate was paid Rs. 18,000! So much distress and all because we founders believed that Incentives = Money!
Unfortunately, status — and all emotion related rewards — are impossible to measure. Economists love money because it is measurable. If I have 100 Rupees and you have a thousand then who has more money and how much more? Very easy question to answer. Between Nandan Nilekeni and Mark Zuckerberg, who would have the higher status and by how much? Impossible to answer this question. This inability to measure is very unnerving for people. Once we add non quantifiable emotions to a ‘logical’ discussion, then what is the difference between economists and literature majors?
Is the desire for Status just another desire?
All right, money is not the only incentive. A desire for status also motivates many people. Conceptually, how is this different from other desires such as desire to survive or desire for love or sex? First of all, let me agree that some people can overemphasize status. To those people I would recommend another book from Franz De Wal — Good Natured. But since, this is an article on status, let me quickly examine how it is different from other desires. One big difference is that many people plain reject that this is real.
When I take my Improv students through status exercises, I get two types of reactions. Some people say, ‘Oh, an entirely new world has been revealed to me!’ Others say, ‘This is Bull Shit. Status is not real.’
Curiously enough, both reactions rest on a demonstrably false foundation. If status is not real OR if it is entirely new to us, how come the participants understand it so quickly? How come there is so much instinctive laughter even when nothing funny is being said? I think it is a case of fish finding out about water for the first time in their life. When I point this out to the skeptics, they are not necessarily convinced. I think it is because of an erroneous, although laudable, belief.
We have a deep seated desire for fairness. I believe that most of us are born with it. Add to it the constant exhortations of society and we believe that fairness is core to being a good person. (I believe that these societal exhortations have actually been useful in reducing many of the gross inequalities in the world). So, many of us reject hierarchies, or at least their importance, not because they are not there but because we wish they were not there.
Thus, you have romantic movies that speak to our desire for love and adventure movies that address our need for survival. There are no movies about our need for status. Except sports movies — afterall the winner with her hands aloft at the podium is the ultimate symbol of status. Or action movies in which the hero defeats villains of a much higher status. Or comedies in which status change is often what makes you laugh. Or a tragedy where a noble leader of a wolf pack bows to age or circumstances, but without whining.
Seth Godin is right, Status is baked into a ‘Just about everything you see in theater or movie theater or read in a novel’. It is the water we are swimming in and my tribe would do well to recognise that.
I have tried to simplify a very complex topic and hence have left out a lot! For a deeper dive, do read the books referenced in this post and more importantly, see the world with this lens.
Edit: Thanks Sunay and Sophie for spotting typo.
If you wish to stay in touch with my writing, follow me on medium and get your stories delivered to your Inbox.
You can follow AskHow India (@AskHowIndia) or me (@YogeshUpadh) on twitter or on LinkedIn
Telegram channel: t.me/YogeshUpadhyaya