Episode 2: Principles of the Status Game

Episode 2: Principles of the Status Game

Once you start looking out for status levers, you see them everywhere. They pervade every aspect of daily life and work and pop culture. It’s not a question of whether or not you want to play them — it’s whether you will play them consciously or subconsciously.

We can discover the principles on which status games operate by looking at real-life examples. Here are some of the more interesting ones I’ve noticed.

1. Combining status markers has a synergistic effect

Since status is all about being unusual, and therefore “special,” the combination of two forms of status rarely found together has a multiplying effect.

Two examples: the Hot Dudes Reading Instagram account. It shows attractive men reading books, which is titillating because those are two qualities that we don’t normally perceive as being linked: physical attractiveness and intelligence. A corresponding example is the Internet’s obsession with Gamer Girls (NSFW). They unusually combine physical attractiveness with enjoyment of video games (attractiveness pretty much always wins).

2. The rules change drastically depending on the social context

Every group has its own markers of high and low status. Hedge fund managers compete on luxury cars, but in a Buddhist monastery the poorest and humblest individuals will receive the most praise, and therefore status.

I’ve noticed this in Northern versus Southern California. In SoCal, you flaunt your purchases and never apologize for any form of consumption. In NorCal, you gain status by driving a Prius, wearing secondhand clothing, conserving water, and shopping at farmer’s markets.

Kevin Simler discusses this phenomenon in activist circles. It may seem traitorous for a man to be a militant feminist, because he seems to be opposing the interests of his own group. But actually it makes complete sense from a status perspective— his feminist beliefs (and even more so, actions) signal that he is an enlightened, evolved male, thereby increasing his status among men and women who value that. So-called Macktivists have been known to use their social consciousness as a tool of seduction on women who find that form of status attractive.

3. Bragging is the biggest status killer

This is a principle that has surprisingly wide-ranging implications. Any time you openly try to increase your status, or recognize that your status is being changed, or even let it be known that you possess a particular status marker, your status is lowered.

The reasoning is simple: high status people don’t care about their status level. They have so much of it, they have status to spare. They don’t respond to slights, nor take every opportunity to (casually) mention offhand that they have a cabin in the mountains, or went to Harvard, or have been vegan for 7 years. We are programmed to assume that anyone who doesn’t give a s*#% about how others perceive their status, probably has lots of it.

The reverse is also true: have you ever discovered an impressive fact about someone you’ve known for a while? The fact that they didn’t immediately let this fact be known greatly magnifies how impressed you are when you do find out.

4. Status changes have an irresistible, visceral effect on us

This discussion may give the impression that status games are a purely intellectual exercise. But our responses to status challenges touch so deeply on our fears, insecurities, and deep-seated feelings of self-worth that you cannot help but feel them as irresistible physical sensations.

I once sat across the negotiating table from a senior lawyer representing a top Silicon Valley law firm. I was a Junior Project Manager at the time, in my first real job after college.

The difference in status was instantly palpable. I remember being unnerved at the man’s presence — he was like a Buddha sitting in his chair, uncannily impassive, in utter control without any evidence of effort exerted.

Even back then I understood some of these status levers, but it didn’t help. The harder I tried to control my actions and reactions, the more evident my effort became, thus lowering my status in a powerful feedback loop. Everything about him — his posture, his tone of voice, his facial expressions, his choice of words — exuded such a lack of reactivity to anything I did or said it was as if he was an android, with the real human at the controls back at the office.

Contrast this with a more recent, opposite experience. I was delivering the keynote at a conference, and entered backstage to get wired up. I felt a strange sensation of confidence and calm, before I even realized what was causing it: the social context was boosting my status. The audiovisual team was hovering around me, placing the microphone and syncing up my slides. People all around the room were stealing glances at me, reorienting themselves around me, deferring to me in ways large and small.

This, I suspect, is the mechanism behind “fake it till you make it” —fake high status behaviors can actually change the behavior of those around you, who then mirror that status back to you, creating authentic self-confidence. High status feeds on itself.

5. The voice is the most visible and important status marker

This is my own personal theory, but I believe we humans are exquisitely attuned to the tiniest variations in each others’ voices, partly as a way to evaluate status level.

It starts with breathing. Any perceived status challenge triggers the flight-or-fight response. In preparation for combat, the arms and shoulders are fixed to the thoracic cage, the vocal folds are adducted (contracted toward the midline of the body), the throat muscles expand to increase the flow of oxygen to the lungs, and breathing rate is increased. This results in breathiness, vocal hyperfunction (too much effort exerted for speaking), and running out of air mid-sentence, all strong indications of low status.

The voice itself also exhibits many qualities that can be read for status markers. Speaking quickly, high-pitched tone, and verbal artifacts like stutters and various kinds of paraphasias are all influenced by one’s thoughts and subconscious emotions, which makes them reliable status indicators.

You may have experienced some of these effects when meeting a celebrity. Even if you don’t consciously feel intimidated, your body starts reacting to the huge status differential in surprising and unpredictable ways. A friend of mine once met Al Gore at an event at her university years ago, and still remembers being almost overwhelmed with the magnitude of his presence as he entered the room and shook her hand.

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