Blog > A deepening understanding of status

October 20, 2013

It was the end of a five-day workshop. What had been going well, suddenly wasn’t. I had to step in front of a group that felt there was still too much unfinished business, and time had run out. My thoughts were racing, jumping from conciliatory to rebellious. “Let’s not cave in,” said my co-facilitator. “We need to hold our line.” So I stood on the edges, and unseen by anyone, I changed my status from defeated (low) to confident (high). I raised my arms, turned my palms upwards, lowered my arms and stepped in front of the group. (It turned out well in the end, and that’s a story for another day).

Status has lots of meanings. Status updates are pervasive on social media. Status is often considered the same as our position in society.

At this year’s Applied Improvisation Network Conference in Berlin, Simo Routarinne and Barb Tint, shared their deepening understanding of status. I first learnt about status from an improv perspective from Simo and other improvisers. Keith Johnstone wrote extensively about status in his book Impro. He called it submission and dominance, and suggested we were too polite to refer to it that way.

In particular, status is how you behave towards others. Tim Minchin, in his recent speech at the University of Western Australia, said he will judge you by how you treat the wait staff in a restaurant. Fair enough too.

So what is status? It’s dynamic, constantly changing depending on our circumstances, and it’s relational – depends on who you are with. It’s how you behave towards others, and it’s always your choice. You can choose to be higher or lower status, or try and match the status of the person you’re with.

Higher status is characterised by bigger gestures, standing tall, taking up more space, making eye contact and deliberate movement. Lower status is characterised by trying to take up less space, avoiding eye contact, or looking away quickly, fidgeting and hesitant movements. There are innumerable choices to make in status, shifting a little or a lot, changing your own status in relation to others, or raising or lowering the status of others by your actions. Mostly it’s unconscious. There is much value in understanding status and knowing when and how to shift it to enhance relationships. It’s also useful to understand status and know when someone is trying to manipulate you!

My example at the beginning of this post was about me raising my own status by changing my body posture. By doing this I could step into a potentially hostile environment in a high status manner, and to boldly acknowledge the uncertainties in the group without being overwhelmed by them. This gave them, and me, confidence to move on.

Back to Simo and Barb’s work. They have identified other aspects of our relationship to others and our situation that is relevant to status.

Rank is our position in a hierarchy, it’s your designated role and describes what you are e.g. CEO (high rank), intern (low rank).

Power is something you have. It can be cultural. Power can be money, knowledge, influence, connections, fluency in a language…

Esteem is what you feel. It’s an external experience and can be changed by social feedback.

Status is what you do, how you behave. It’s relational, and it’s the easiest to change.

You can see this played out in any arrivals hall in any international airport. The immigration officer’s rank might be relevant within the organisation they work for, but for the everyday traveller, what’s important is that they hold all the power. Doesn’t matter who you are, what connections you have, they are in charge. You can’t use your rank, and any power you have is meaningless. What you can do though is use your status – something you can change and have control over – to ¬†make the exchange as amiable and quick as possible.

What’s really interesting is the intersection between rank, power, status and esteem. And well worth further exploration in all human interactions.


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