We Are All Just Squabbling Ducks
Previously, I have remarked on an area of interpersonal dynamics called the Status Transaction. This concept comes from one of the fathers of improv theatre. It says that humans, just like other pack animals, communicate in subtle behaviors that convey where they stand with regard to each other. We establish an unconscious structure of deference and social value to keep our relations mostly harmonious. As Johnstone remarks, “In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.”
This principle is the subtext of human life. It represents the unvarnished, true meaning of people’s communication. It is, either consciously or unconsciously, a crucial factor in honest and authentic acting portrayals, because it factors into a character’s key attitudes.
It also factors into how we feel attraction to one another. Also, it has repercussions in group psychology, and therefore also in marketing messaging. People arrange their little worlds in ways that cultivate and communicate status. Status, recognition, and validation play a central role in most people’s secret dreams and ideals.
We tend to associate high status with certain favorable traits, like wealth or physical attractiveness. People speculate that correlation came from evolution; to survive, we will tend to associate ourselves with those who have means, and signs of healthy DNA. Our conspicuous consumption is an example of a status-driven tendency.
Mind The Gap
What people may not know is that most status communications are conveyed through ordinary, everyday behavior. Johnstone discovered this through improv exercises. He started with large-gap status differences, like king and butler. He then reversed behaviors so that the butler behaved in a high-status manner, and the king deferring to the butler. And, improv comedy was born.
In real life, most status-communicating behaviors are hard to fake. That’s why we get the creeps when someone who has the appearance of status (e.g. wealth) behaves in a way that seems incongruent. Most people who try and put on a short-term game persona usually fail at it. Their insecurities “peek out” through the cracks.
Based on the search keywords that lead to this blog, there are a lot of people searching for a discussion on which behaviors communicate high status, and which communicate low status. Johnstone talks at length about this in his book, Impro, and there are many other status discussions around the blogosphere. One blog that shows a lot of insight into this subject is appropriately named, The Statustician, and I would recommend checking it out for a more in-depth discussion.
So, for your experiments in interaction on stage and in life, here is my list of the top five behaviors that communicate interpersonal status.
1) Steady energy versus anxious energy
The most obvious observable status trait is the quality of the energy that people put out. Personal insecurities and neuroses (low status) tend to bubble to the surface in the form of anxious, uncomfortable, needy or loud behavior.
One of the most powerful observations I’ve heard is that confidence isn’t a thing in itself, it’s simply the absence of insecurity. It’s the silence that’s left over. As people gain more life experience and get a healthier frame for what truly is a big deal and what is not, they tend to outgrow insecurities and therefore show more confidence.
High-status players are not generally worriers. From experience, they’ve gained a relatively laid-back sensibility. Look for people who put out steady energy, who seem indifferent or unworried. People who seem to know that nothing important is going to happen without them, so they can take their time and let the world come to them.
2) Stillness and slowness versus quickness and fidgeting
This is the physical manifestation of the kind of laid-back energy we talked about above. High-status players keep more still than most people and move more slowly. It’s part of the attitude that the world will wait for them.
This is particularly true of head movement. If you’re speaking to someone, and you freeze your head in space, the conversation will feel much different. Power goes to those who are still (Hannibal Lecter is my favorite example). Quick movements, especially in the head and neck, are a signal of submission.
In movies and T.V., what kind of characters demonstrate quick, quirky or fidgety movements? Usually, characters who are disturbed or malicious. Physical quirks and fidgeting show anxiety and discomfort, and emphasize low status.
3) Trying very hard versus effortless execution
Status is a Chinese Finger Puzzle. Exerting effort is counterproductive.
High-status players have status, therefore they do not try to achieve it. Anyone who is perceived to be trying hard is viewed as a low-status player. That’s why cool characters are played with a certain degree of nonchalance (see my post on the term “Sprezzatura”). So those people who we see trying to impress, or putting effort into social climbing, are exhibiting low-status behavior by virtue of the fact that they’re trying at all (the sociological term is “douchebaggery”).
You never see high-status players trying hard to get things. They may exert effort, but it never seems that way on the outside and never any more effort than absolutely required. More often, they will push things away. Having an ample supply of options, they spend more time discriminating than grasping.
4) Expansive versus contractive
High-status players allow their body and their energy to expand into the universe, whereas low-status players shrink up.
This is most noticeable in body language and eye-contact. High-status players show a lot of comfortability and tend to stretch out and take up a lot of space. They crowd others out. When seated, many times they will lean back slightly, opening their sternum and shoulders as if sending energy out from their chest. They look ever so slightly more relaxed than what would be appropriate. It’s a matter of taking up space, which is analogous to marketing territory.
Most everybody has misconceptions about eye contact. They think a high-status player holds direct eye contact, whereas a low-status player looks away. Almost, but not quite. The difference is not looking-at versus looking-away; furtive verses non-reactive.
If someone looks at you, and that causes you to look away, that shows low-status behavior because you were made to disengage by someone else. But high-status players rarely stare at people. They are sending their energy slightly past the person they are engaging, like they are not fully acknowledging them.
The key is why are you using direct or indirect eye contact? If you are staring at someone because you really want to engage them, that’s a low-status trait. If you are looking past someone out of casual nonchalance, that’s much more desirable.
5) Compliant versus non-reactive
When people interact, watch for cues that tell you who is changing their behavior on account of whom. A king will order a servant around, and the servant must comply. But how does this work with a group of friends on nearly equal footing? Who gets up first from the dinner table, and who stands up only because someone else did? Who decides when it is time to go, and what we will do next?
When someone in the group contests the choice, who shuts them down and how? Or will the person who was leading give up a little status to placate someone else?
Whether we know it or not, we are all playing a game with each other trying to find out whose way is going to win out. Watch people next time you’re out. Watch how they negotiate relative deference. Once you can see it happen in front of you, it’s fascinating.
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