How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
A critical part of any relationship is the relative status between the two people, whereby one person is considered to be at a higher social status than the other.
Watch two dogs meet. Or cats, or many other species. One of the first things they do is work out the status relationship. Beyond the identity sniffing, there will be eye contact, baring teeth, expanding of body, tail-wagging, lying down and other body language that signifies 'I am superior' or 'I am inferior'.
The underlying premise of status is that if an animal challenges a higher status animal, the lower status animal will be punished. Knowing this is enough to prevent the challenge and so the social order is sustained and nobody is harmed.
Body language and status can be seen in the use of space. A higher status animal will casually invade the space of a lower status animal, whilst the lower status animal will always stay well back and never invade. People do this too.
Status is more in the giving than the demanding. Even if a dog wins a fight, if the other dog does not subsequently submit, no status has been awarded.
This setting of social order has many evolutionary purposes. If you are superior, this gives benefits such as:
In a tribal setting, the social hierarchy is a system of trust and contains degrees of status at each level. When everyone knows who gets first choice, there are no battles. Fight first to establish status, then harmony can follow.
Status is a relative thing. We have higher or lower status in comparison with others. Without others and their status, our own status is meaningless. Status gives power in the ability to achieve our ends through the acquiescence and collaboration of others.
High status people trust others more easily, often because they have the power to mete out justice if they are betrayed. People will likely be less trusting if failure of that trust results in a loss in status (for example by social embarrassment or from loss of status-gaining attributes, such as money and symbols).
Individuals tend to have a preferred status and will seek to achieve this level. This is based on self-image and a person with a lower opinion of their social value may well deliberately seek a 'safe' low status.
Much comedy is based on status. We laugh at the fall of the arrogant person because it lowers their status. Many comic situations also appear where a lower status person deliberately or accidentally adopts a higher status position (something we all would like to do), causing confusion in the process. Tragedy also involves status, as we grieve with people we admire who have been brought low.
Who is top dog and who is underdog is important for people too (note how these terms are used also in human relationships). Although we are more complex than animals, the same basic principles apply and established status contributes significantly social order.
Modern organizations are hotbeds of status and competition for position, both formal and social. Everyone wants hot jobs, respected roles and bigger desks.
Status also happens between teams and between organizations. Whether you work for a well-known company or a successful team, your status increases with that of your group. Groups and companies hence vie for status with one another.
Higher status companies can also attract higher quality candidate for jobs. Applicants perceive the brand in terms of it status and how saying 'I work for X' will improve their résumé and increase their status in social groups.
Status is evidenced by respect, which is why many people consider respect so important.
Major types of respect include:
You can be respected for many things. For animals, this is first about fighting ability. For people, respect can be for skill, ability and general likeability. One of the most useful social skills is the ability to gain the respect of others without resorting to fear-based aggressive tactics.
With this variation, we can each have status for many different things, from what we know to how we interact with others. This is plenty of scope for status-related activity.
In the way we construct our own self-image through the eyes of others, self-respect often needs the respect of others. If I am at the bottom of the pile for everything, I may find it difficult to respect myself.
We are constantly jostling for status and a surprising number of conversations are driven by this purpose. Just listen to people chatting and you will often hear status games.
Boasting is blowing your own trumpet, telling others of your achievements, intellect, wealth and so on. If you are faster, cleverer or wealthier than others, then this demonstrates your ability and power.
Boasting may include inflation of your actual abilities and achievements. If you can make a small thing seem big, then you may get an disproportionate status boost.
What is often sought in boasting is admiration, which is showing respect and acknowledging your status in this area. When people admire me, they stroke my sense of identity.
Admiration may be directly stated or implied through listening and general attention. When people show they like us, we feel they also admire us and give us status.
We also may offer admiration of other people without apparent prompting. This may seem magnanimous but what is often happening is that we are prompting an exchange whereby the other person admires us in return.
Friendship is often based on status games with a fair degree of mutual admiration. We prop each other up and affirm each other's status.
A powerful way of indirect boasting is in getting others to apparently admire you without prompting.
Status is relative to others, particularly peers. So just as we can push ourselves up, we can gain status by pulling others down.
Criticizing tends to be of people who either already have higher status than us or those who have similar or lower status. If we can pull down a higher status person, we increase our position on the ladder. If we kick down juniors, we prevent them from challenging our hard-won status.
Our main rivals are our peers, which includes those we call friends. This can cause conflict and status games and battles are a key reason for friends to fall out.
We hence tend to criticize based on the dimensions by which we gain status. If we think ourselves smart, we challenge the intellect of others. If we are managers, we criticize our subordinates and gossip about other manager's lack of business sense.
Insults are a particularly direct form of criticism. If an insulted person does not respond, they immediately take a lower status. To fight back is to invite status-lowering defeat, yet this may well be preferred as the status is not lowered as far as if the person accepts the insult.
This can be very damaging for businesses, where blame and fear become primary motivators and people spend much energy defending and attacking rather than doing their jobs and creating value.
When others make a move that seems to be aimed at increasing their status at the expense of yours, for example by ignoring or attacking you, then it is common to defend your status position.
A typical way of defending a status attack is to attack back, for example by criticizing the other person or their ideas, as above. Another approach is to take the high ground, showing you are higher status by ignoring them or looking down on them in some subtle way.
A part of the status game is not to try and grab too much admiration, lest it turn to envy and criticism. In consequence, we often act modestly, even though we want to boast. This can lead to self-effacing that is boasting in disguise.
The use of pronouns differs between higher and lower status people, with those who have higher status tending to use 'I' far less than people with lower status.
The reason for this is probably because the lower status person feels more that their sense of identity is under threat and so indulges more in ego-boosting. On the other hand, the status of higher status people is likely to be boost their sense of identity, reducing their need for self-affirmation.
This effect is likely to be exaggerated when these status differences are brought to attention, for example where lower and higher status people meet.
Watch the status games around you. They are everywhere. Understanding these will give you much useful information about the people involved.
To influence people, you can:
Much can be gained by the subtle use of flattery and other status-raising of others. If you show admiration and boost the self-perceived status of others, they will often reciprocate by helping and agreeing to your requests.
Johnstone, K. (1981). Impro: Improvisations and the Theatre, London: Methuen